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Inside the Vancouver Airport Authority's award-winning H&S culture

Vancouver International Airport (YVR) is a busy place. In 2015, the airport welcomed more than 20 million passengers, a new record for one of Canada's fastest growing airports. "It's like a small city," says Kevin Hong, manager of health and safety for Vancouver Airport Authority, which is responsible for developing and maintaining airport infrastructure and overseeing the day-to-day operations at YVR.

Preventing injuries in such a hectic and diverse environment is no simple task, but a conscious decision to create a vibrant health and safety culture means that all 24,000 YVR employees now take an active role in protecting themselves and their co-workers. So much so that the Vancouver Airport Authority and its 450 employees have earned Canada's first Health + Safety Culture Award. Created by WSPS and Canadian Occupational Safety Magazine, the award is the top prize under the prestigious Canada's Safest Employers award program.

Achieving the award is a process that began 10 years ago, says Hong. "We were fortunate back then to have leadership that said we need to change, to get a lot better."

The airport authority began by engaging all parts of the business in open conversations. "We let everyone know where we wanted to get to - essentially zero injuries, zero harm - and that everyone here could help us get there," says Hong. "We showed people where we were, and we prioritized the largest health and safety issues. Then we asked for input."

Encouraging input was essential. "We wanted people to have a voice, to be able to have an active role in creating, maintaining and sustaining programs. We also outlined how they could be a part of it." And people responded. "We had some really good qualitative talks," says Hong.

Here's a snapshot of what the airport authority's inclusive health and safety culture looks like today:

  • the health and safety department considers employees to be the experts on how to do their jobs safely, and acts a technical resource, providing guidance and support
  • every department sets its own annual health and safety goals. Each is responsible for risk assessments, inspections, training, and toolbox talks
  • every meeting starts with a discussion on safety
  • an annual awards program showcases departments with the best health and safety programs and celebrates their accomplishments at a gala event.

Hong believes that creating a strong health and safety culture is scalable to any size of organization. "Culture is a collective activity," says Hong. "You still have to have someone responsible for health and safety, but it's not over there on the periphery. Once everyone understands what their own responsibilities are, and are able to participate, health and safety becomes a part of what they're doing."

Going forward

The airport authority is now looking beyond core injury and illness reduction. "We make sure that baseline health and safety is being looked after," says Hong, "but we also keep our eyes on what else may be happening. For example, we have an aging workforce, so we're looking hard at soft tissue injuries, health promotion, and health conditions such as diabetes. Even elder care, for people who are looking after aging parents. It's a full-circle approach to health and safety."

With a health and safety culture firmly in place, the airport authority's commitment to employee engagement is expanding beyond health and safety. "Other corporate programs and initiatives are coming to us for information and insight," says Hong. "As an organization we have ambitious corporate goals, and understand that we need engaged employees and strong two-way communication to get there."

Where you can go from here

Canada's Best Health + Safety Culture Award was developed in part by WSPS through its CEO Health + Safety Leadership Network, a distinguished group of leaders committed to building sustainable businesses and communities.

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