A recent BC Ferries town hall session. Photo courtesy of BC Ferries.

A recent BC Ferries town hall session. Photo courtesy of BC Ferries.

The number and severity of employee injuries has dropped dramatically since BC Ferries introduced an intensive safety initiative in 2007. There have been 60 per cent fewer injuries resulting in time off work, alone.

The outcomes are impressive in any scenario but much more so given the size and scope of BC Ferries. Scattered up and down British Columbia’s coast working on different sites, vessels and types of vessels, the 4,500 employees are responsible for 180,000 sailings annually. Keeping the whole system running smoothly let alone safely is a serious, tricky and complex business.

So what’s enabled BC Ferries’ safety success to date?

Adrienne McKenzie, a project manager for the company’s safety initiative, sums up the effort to boost employee safety over the last seven years.

Following some significant employee injuries, the company, under then- chief operating officer, now president and CEO Mike Corrigan’s leadership, decided to introduce a culture-change initiative dubbed SailSafe.

A key first step was hosting workshops with employees to bring in their perspectives on both what was working and what wasn’t working when it comes to ensuring safety. More than 500 BC Ferries employees participated in the workshops and generated more than 4,500 learning opportunities.

From those opportunities came phased plans that centred on four pillars. The pillars include safety of people; safety of BC Ferries’ assets; safety through procedures and safety through communication. These plans continue to be rolled out today, taking the form of a mix of events, communications and even some fun, on-line games. Everything is geared to providing some form of training, education or celebration related to safety.

At the heart of SailSafe’s success is the fact that it has been, and continues to be, employee-driven.

BC Ferries and the BC Ferry & Marine Workers’ Union have joined forces on this particular effort. It allows employees to be somewhat flexible with their roles so they can engage in creating a culture of safety.

“It’s a luxury on this project, that the management of the company and the executive of the union allow space to manoeuvre,” says Adrienne, who is the sole full-time SailSafe employee. The more than 100 other employees involved do so off the sides of their desks, as they are granted relief from their regular duties to commit to the initiative.

“It’s completely different from a standardized setup, but it couldn’t be any other way if you’re going to have your employees drive it,” Adrienne says, quickly adding that the typical challenging business relations of a company and union are kept to one side when it comes to the safety initiative.

The company and union presidents have even gone so far as to create a combined award, called the Presidents’ Safety Awards, to recognize outstanding safety efforts across BC Ferries.

The beauty of the entire SailSafe program is that it enables “all sorts of people to get all sorts of opinions and hands in the game.”

One way that employees’ voices are heard is through a series of annual town halls engaging about 450 employees from across the company. The town halls are deliberately focused on engaging employees in discussions around safety, which is very different from the safety training provided throughout the year. The town halls aim to hear from employees about safety issues, what’s working and what could be improved.

The town halls, now in their fifth year, have become a coveted event to attend.

“They’re very popular because they provide an opportunity for discussion that you just don’t have otherwise – for a deck hand and an engineer and a ticket agent, for example – to sit and talk for a day in a focused setting about safety,” Adrienne says.

For this year’s town hall series, business consultant and facilitator Charles Holmes was engaged to support their development.

The town halls become more complex every year, so it was hoped Charles could help ensure they are as effective and efficient as possible while still building on prior years’ successes.

A key contribution Charles made was to provide insight on the difference between facilitating versus training to the group of about 20 facilitators – something especially helpful for a group that is used to training, Adrienne says.

But if the intent is to truly hear from employees, it’s facilitation, not training, that’s required, she points out.

Looking ahead, BC Ferries plans to keep working towards its ultimate goal of world-class safety.

The focus for the coming year will be on how one’s personal health and well-being contributes to workplace safety.

Writer: Michelle Strutzenberger

Editor’s Note: Click here to read about Axiom News’ partnership with Charles Holmes Consulting and the intent of the stories in this series.