How safe can you really make it?

Guarding against complacency and an overreliance on past success is a new imperative for engineers looking to advance a culture of safety across all industries.

At a Minerva Safety Institute workshop in the summer of 2016, PEO Registrar Gerard McDonald, P.Eng., was invited to reflect on some safety lessons engineers could draw from the Lac-Mégantic train derailment and fire that claimed the lives of 47 Quebec residents in July 2013.

McDonald, who was assistant deputy minister of safety and security with Transport Canada at the time of the Lac-Mégantic incident, had more than passing interest in the chain of events leading to the disaster and, in turn, what professional engineers, ethically committed to public safety and protection, might bear in mind as a result of the incident.

Among McDonald’s key observations in the wake of Lac-Mégantic is that an overreliance on past success in any safety system is a sure blueprint for future failure. He also suggested that while regulatory frameworks are set up inherently to promote safety, they will never completely overcome the possibility of failure. “Failure to imagine the possibility of failure is the most profound mistake engineers can make,” McDonald told his audience of safety professionals.

As a profession synonymous with safety and risk reduction, engineering, ironically, is often targeted for censure when accidents, disasters and catastrophes occur.

The mining industry is often cited as the birthplace of Ontario’s modern occupational health and safety legislation—safety thinking developed by the late engineer James Ham, PhD, P.Eng. Ham is the former president of the University of Toronto and author of The Ham Commission on Mine Safety, the forward-looking provincial review of mine safety in Ontario. His work, on which Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) is largely based, marks a milestone in the advancement of health and safety legislation in the workplace.

Back in 2009, Engineering Dimensions reported on the influence of professional engineers in expanding the reach and effectiveness of Ontario’s occupational health and safety legislation. The occasion was the 30th anniversary of the passage of the OHSA and its institution of the internal responsibility system allowing workers greater involvement in workplace safety campaigns.

Given the near symbiotic relationship between engineering and safety, Engineering Dimensions thought it timely to re-examine the latest developments of safety work in various industries and manufacturing settings in Ontario today.


Rob Bianchin, P.Eng., holds the title of risk management integration leader at Sudbury Integrated Nickel Operations (Glencore Group), a company that has been mining nickel-copper ores in the Sudbury area since 1928. He previously worked in reliability, productivity and operational integrity at the company, but in 2010 he asked for and received the responsibility of overseeing risk management operations.

“In this role, my focus has been on integrating risk management in the health and safety program of our operations,” Bianchin says. “My team and I support operations and engineering projects by facilitating risk assessment exercises as required to support change management and identify and control risks at each phase of a project. Ideally, risk management and elements of process safety management could be further integrated into the project engineering process to assure catastrophic hazards and fatal hazards are addressed and managed using engineering controls at the onset of their introduction to the operation.”

Engineers are essential to safety and risk reduction activities, Bianchin says, because of their input into the evaluation and development of processes that avoid use of hazardous materials or processes by substituting other, less hazardous materials and approaches where possible.

“Where hazardous installations are implemented, engineers are key to designing and establishing controls and systems that prevent catastrophic, fatal or severe hazards from materializing,” Bianchin says, adding that input into development of sustainable hazard management plans to monitor effectiveness of controls is also an important part of their role: “These decisions rely heavily on the engineer’s knowledge of process, confidence in achieving and sustaining control effectiveness, requirement and openness to engage with affected stakeholders for input to define requirements, and strict adherence to their professional obligations.”

The influence of engineers on safety is also felt in the seemingly carefree world of amusement park rides. Kathryn Woodcock, PhD, P.Eng., a professor of human factors engineering at Ryerson University in Toronto and a world authority on amusement park ride safety, participates in advisory councils for the Technical Standards and Safety Authority (TSSA) and helps develop amusement ride standards for other safety organizations.

TSSA is responsible for safety in amusement park rides, fuels, elevating devices, boilers and pressure vessels and upholstered/stuffed articles and regulates approximately 2240 permitted amusement devices in Ontario by ensuring all rides conform to the act and applicable regulations, codes and standards. The TSSA reviews and registers rides, issues permits for each ride in the current operating season, licenses operators, conducts inspections and incident investigations, and delivers public awareness campaigns throughout the province.

As a human factors specialist, Woodcock is especially concerned with safety in ride design and professional engineers’ influence in the wider safety field.

“Many portable rides were designed in a different era, when mastering the correct use of technology was the hallmark of proficiency,” explains Woodcock. “One thing that interests me is considering how classic rides could be modified to cater to the contemporary audience and make it less tempting to deviate from the rules. Newly designed theme park rides often already incorporate these principles. As awareness of human engineering grows, the analysis step of ride design may be better able to anticipate human response to different ride experiences in the same way human engineering has benefited pilot performance, medical safety, driver behaviour and other safety-critical activities.”

One of Woodcock’s former students is Joelle Javier, P.Eng., an elevating and amusement devices safety engineer at TSSA. In her role, she and her colleagues meet with engineers and designers from manufacturers, along with contractors, owners and operators and other stakeholders, in Canada and the US, to discuss code and stay abreast of new developments. In these meetings, regulators often discuss improvements that can be made to the standards. Unsurprisingly, amusement ride safety standards evolve with technology. “Sometimes, when there are incidents that occur, we look back in the standards and see if there were enough guidelines that could have prevented the incident,” Javier says. “If there are none, we discuss and try to create new requirements. If there are, we try to find better ways of enforcing them.”

Like other professionals in her field, Javier has a special appreciation for the role of engineers in designing and developing safer technology.

“I find that engineers are trained to look at things more holistically,” Javier told Engineering Dimensions. “A good engineer who is also trained in human factors can go further and see how things interact and affect humans. This makes engineers best situated to attend to matters of safety. They understand how things can go wrong and how to safeguard against hazards that may not be 100 per cent eliminated. Above all, engineers also vow to hold paramount the health, safety and welfare of the public. Just like doctors, we have the responsibility to attend to the protection of the public, including the day-to-day things we enjoy like elevating and amusement devices.”

Another innovator with insights on the growing influence of practitioners in the safety area is engineer Marcello Oliverio, P.Eng., process safety program manager at Enbridge Gas Distribution. Oliverio got involved in process safety after his experience with the Canadian Society for Chemical Engineering’s process safety management division. He believes process safety engineering is poised for new inroads in promoting a stronger safety culture across all industries and work sites—operating in concert with the Ontario Ministry of Labour’s workplace health and safety initiatives.

“Process safety management is becoming better understood but it still needs to be promoted,” Oliverio says. “There is also, I think, a shortage right now of good safety engineers in Ontario.”

He believes safety engineers, whatever their situation, should be more proactive in recognizing potential risks and hazards rather than focussing on dealing with the consequences of failures and accidents.

“It’s all about preventing catastrophic failure and continually improving,” Oliverio says. “Facilities must be designed and operated with an acceptable level of risk but also be affordable and practical.”


Closing the gaps in existing risk assessment systems could be the next big challenge for safety engineers. Though present at its beginnings, over the last nearly 40 years engineers have retained key roles in the rollout of enhanced health and safety programs.

One example is the engineering presence on the Ontario Ministry of Labour’s (MOL) Prevention Council, established in December 2012 to advise the ministry and its chief prevention officer on a wide range of occupational health and safety issues, including: prevention of workplace injuries and illnesses, development of the provincial occupational health and safety strategy and any significant proposed changes to funding and delivery of services under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

Graeme Norval, PhD, P.Eng., one of two professional engineers now on the prevention council, is professor of chemical engineering at the University of Toronto and a leading advocate of process safety management. He maintains engineers have long taken a more proactive stand on workplace safety issues.

His engineer colleague on the council, Dawn Tattle, P.Eng., concurred with that assessment, adding: “The abilities to analyze data and identify trends are engineering skills I believe help lay the groundwork for the development of prevention strategies in health and safety. I have found my engineering background combined with my construction experience to be important in my work as a member of the [labour ministry’s] vulnerable workers task group and, more recently, the prevention council.”

Norval and Tattle are not alone in their encouragement of the changing perception of safety in the workplace: Sujoy Dey, corporate risk officer with the MOL, leads a team of experts in the assessment, monitoring and mitigation of risk across the occupational health and safety system in the province.

Dey sees the creation of a corporate risk officer position and other recent initiatives as an indication the ministry is moving towards a risk-based organization. He cites an evolving “Swiss cheese” risk assessment model currently in use by safety professionals.

As the name implies, the Swiss cheese model of risk assessment highlights holes or gaps in any of the existing layers of process safety. If the holes align in a certain way, an incident, accident—or even catastrophic event—could get through.

Safety layers in most risk prevention programs usually involve the original design, regulatory controls and training of users and operators. These layers could still allow “latent failures” to result in an accident or injury. At the end of the model, an unsafe act by an operator or user by itself can undermine existing safety features and lead to similar negative consequences. Although unsafe acts on the part of individuals would be considered “active failure,” they still must be considered by safety engineers looking to improve any risk management process.

Dey believes professional engineers can help improve the risk assessment system by identifying and overcoming latent failures.

“The Ontario labour ministry has initiated the risk management journey to inform enforcement and prevention strategies,” Dey says. “This was based on the principles of risk management and operations science and influenced by the work of Professor Malcolm Sparrow of Harvard University, who visited the ministry in 2013 to talk about how regulators can use information about particular risks to ‘sabotage the risk’ and thereby prevent harm to workers. The Mining Health and Safety Review embraced the risk approach and a demonstration project to conduct a risk assessment of the underground mining industry was launched.”

Dey adds the results were well received by stakeholders in the mining industry and inside the labour ministry. The success of the first risk assessment provided a foundation for continuing efforts to assess the risks to health and safety in a diverse set of sectors: construction (low-rise residential, roofing), health care (hospitals), agriculture (greenhouses), mining (underground and surface) and, most recently, forestry (sawmills and logging).

“More significantly,” Dey adds, “the underground mining risk assessment and its aftermath offered glimpses of the exciting potential of risk-based approaches to improve the ministry’s results in measurable ways. Improved results mean fewer workplace injuries and illnesses. And strong stakeholder buy-in means a stronger internal responsibility system for workplaces actively involved in managing their risks to worker health and safety.”

Dey says the occupational health system leadership is now committed to shifting the system to a more comprehensive risk-based approach to regulation and prevention, consistent with the move to integrated risk management across the Ontario government.

In 2013, the deputy ministers of all the regulatory ministries agreed to an overarching risk-management framework within which each ministry was required to develop a business-specific model. The Treasury Board recently released a new Ontario Public Service enterprise risk management framework that provides guidance to ministries on the risk journey.

The MOL further signaled its intent to be a risk-based ministry by appointing Dey as its first corporate risk officer dedicated to the application, implementation and execution of risk thinking across the health and safety system in Ontario.

Dey suggests this transformation includes safety and process engineering ideation for the management of occupational health and safety risk. “The intent is to integrate risk thinking within the health and safety system in Ontario, and the labour ministry has started on this path with its system partners and industry stakeholders. An important aspect of this journey will also be to identify and recognize any gaps in risk maturity across the entire system and not just MOL,” he says.

Dey also suggests the engineering profession should take note of this innovative approach in the interest of public safety and protection. “In this age of lightening-speed technological advances, engineers are looking to reduce waste and enhance quality and sustainability while continuously seeking ways to improve safety,” he says. “I would say that any engineer can easily appreciate the risk-based approach to safety and it is important there be a greater emphasis on the risk-based approach in any engineering curriculum.”


Mary Cianchetti, P.Eng., president of standards for the CSA Group, believes adherence to professional ethics and industry standards are key bulwarks in enhancing safety across the board.

Cianchetti asserts the primary goal of developing a standard is public safety—something that is clearly aligned with the aims of a professional engineer—stating in Canadian Manufacturing magazine: “As an engineer, the number one goal is to ensure you are carrying out your work, not only to the best of your abilities but, more importantly, in a responsible way—always bearing in mind how your work affects the safety and well-being of others.”

Cianchetti and fellow engineers at the standards association are animated by the recent release of CAN/CSA-Z767-17, a new CSA standard on process safety management (PSM). This new standard describes PSM as the application of management principles and systems for the identification, understanding, avoidance and control of process hazards to prevent, mitigate, prepare for, respond to, and recover from process-related incidents.

These principles and techniques may be applied across industry sectors, with the standard written to be broadly applicable across industry sectors and organization sizes. Companies or organizations using these principles can be found in the chemical, food, mining, nuclear, petroleum, pulp and paper, transportation and utilities sectors—the standard applying to large, integrated manufacturing sites as well as small businesses or retail sites. However, the standard is not intended to define prescriptive solutions that will meet the needs of every organization. Each facility or worksite within an organization is unique and the user of this standard will find that a policy, practice or procedure effective at one site might need to be modified or rewritten for another site.

Amanda Sistilli, P.Eng., a process safety engineer at ERCO Worldwide, a company with a long history of producing chemicals, attended the process safety management division (PSMd) of the Canadian Society for Chemical Engineering to learn more about process safety and to study process safety developments in Canadian industry. She studied chemical engineering at the University of Toronto and graduated in 2011.

“My job entails acting as a process safety representative for three ERCO manufacturing sites (two in Canada, one in the US),” Sistilli said in a recent interview. “I facilitate process hazard analysis studies for these sites, and I also offer guidance and assistance in meeting the process safety requirements that ERCO has committed to. Recently, I have been involved in a project assessing major hazards at each manufacturing site and how to reduce offsite impact.”

Sistilli developed an interest in the safety side of engineering during her first rotation as an engineering intern at a manufacturing site. “I was able to see how safety culture and robust safety practices played an important role in ensuring that everyone went home safely at the end of the day,” she says. “As I learned more about the process safety systems that ERCO followed, I found myself becoming more engaged and soon became an advocate for these systems.”

Sistilli commented that some people view safety as an expensive investment that slows things down. “My job gives me the chance to challenge that perception,” she adds. “I enjoy the process of getting people on board with a strong safety culture and finding ways to implement process safety systems that are practical for the application.”

Sistilli says there is still misinformation circulating about the level of safety in various industries, “Unfortunately, mostly due to past events, the chemical industry has developed a reputation of having unsafe practices that put the public and environment at risk in favour of profits,” she says. “The process safety field within the chemical industry has made great strides since then along with legislative changes. As a result, the industry has become much more accountable and proactive in assessing and addressing hazards that affect people and the environment.”

Nonetheless, she and other safety engineers in general suggest there is a long way to go in improving accountability and gaining the public’s trust. For many, the challenge comes in explaining safety and risk reduction principles to those who lack a technical background. Since engineering projects inevitably affect society for better or worse, public engagement is still important.

“I am a big advocate for collaboration between multidisciplinary groups, including the public, to develop plans that reduce the potential impact on the community,” Sistilli says. “To better facilitate that discussion, I think the engineering profession could do more to educate and showcase the processes we go through to keep people safe.”

While engineering has been instrumental in the evolution of occupational or workplace health and safety—due largely to the profession’s early involvement with such foundational industries as mining, railway building, bridge construction and other high-profile civil projects—as new industries and manufacturing develop, the profession, as the traditional custodian of technology, must continue to assume greater responsibility and influence in developing more sophisticated health and safety frameworks.