Co-operation Over Competition

It came down to two men. Twenty-three years ago, Dave Hagen and Darrel McDaniel were electricians working for Chemco Electrical Contractors in Edmonton and they were both asked if they wanted to be the “safety guy” for a project in northern Alberta.

“I said ‘Um, no, not really.’ I wanted to push, I wanted to be the supervisor,” recalls McDaniel.

“I said ‘Does it pay the same?’ They said yes, so I said OK,” laughs Hagen.

The company then supported Hagen to complete a few safety courses through the Alberta Construction Safety Association (ACSA), and when it needed a safety person again for another project, Hagen accepted. Eventually, he took on the safety role full time and is now the vice-president of environmental health and safety at Chemco.

“Dave took it and we never looked back. And it’s the best thing Chemco has ever done setting him up, because Chemco has been recognized as a leader in the safety industry,” says McDaniel, now vice-president of support services at the company.


Hagen’s hard work has earned him the 2014 Safety Leader of the Year Award, presented by Canadian Occupational Safety and sponsored by Miller by Honeywell.

One of Hagen’s finest attributes is his ability to understand a worker’s perspective, says Cheryl Solesbury, wellness manager and EHS advisor at Chemco.

“He has the ability to communicate with the workers at the same level because he came from wearing boots himself,” she says. “You’ve got to get respect from the workers if you want to initiate anything new — you need to get workers to buy in.”

One way Hagen gets buy-in from workers is by involving them in decision-making. For example, several years ago, a client of Chemco’s told Hagen that his workers could no longer use knives on the job site because too many of them were getting hurt.

Hagen found different types of knives and test drove them with the workforce. The feedback from the workers, such as preferring a curved end rather than a pointy one, was integral to Hagen making a decision on what knife to buy. He also found situations where knives could be replaced with cable strippers.

“So this is the best (knife) for it, but more importantly, these are the alternatives. Where we can reduce the use of the knives, it will also reduce our exposures,” he says.

The knife safety program has earned the company a couple of awards, including the Construction Owners Association of Alberta’s Safety Leadership and Innovation Award. Since the program was implemented in 2005, Chemco has gone 20 million man hours without a recordable injury associated with knives. Hagen not only ordered more than 10,000 knives for his employees, he also ordered more than 10,000 to sell to competitors at cost. In addition, the company developed a video on how to train workers on the new processes, which Hagen shared with competitors.

“Safety is not necessarily a competitive edge,” says Hagen. “In construction, we have a limited labour pool to draw from; all employers are using the same workers from time to time. If we work collectively to have standardized processes, we are not having to retrain the workers every time they go from one company to the other, so we can collectively raise the safety bar.”

Hagen’s willingness to share information with competitors is something that stands out as part of his commitment to safety.

“People from all over the industry call him for advice, and that could be regarding modified work, our alcohol and drug program, regarding crisis situations,” says Solesbury. “That shows how much he cares about the health and safety of all Albertans, all Canadians, not just the health and safety of our group at Chemco.”

Hagen is the chairperson for the ACSA board of directors and he sits on the board for the Saskatchewan Construction Safety Association. Through these associations, he works with professionals from other companies to collaborate and share ideas that benefit the industry as a whole.

Disability management

Hagen always strives to treat others the way he would want to be treated, says Solesbury, and this is evident through his disability management program.

“Dave is very compassionate about fellow workers; not only the worker, but also the family as well,” she says. “Even if you talk about non-occupational injuries… Dave is the first to go out of his way to go to the hospital, he offers assistance to the family — and this is all stuff he doesn’t have to do.”

Hagen feels very strongly about making sure incidents that occur outside the workplace are treated in a similar manner as those that happen on the job.

“If a worker says he hurt himself at home and the first thing you do is throw him to the curb and automatically say ‘It’s not my problem,’ then you may create a culture where workers say ‘Well, I know how to make this your problem, I’m going to say yesterday at work I did this.’”

Chemco has a robust disability management program that includes modified work. When workers are hurt and cannot do their regular jobs, the safety team works hard to make sure they can do meaningful, productive work, says Solesbury.

“Sometimes we have to be quite creative on what tasks we can give this guy… And that’s what Dave is really good at — thinking about that innovative modified work for that worker.”

Hagen’s passion for this program ensures nobody gets left behind, which is excellent for the company morale and overall culture, says McDaniel.

“They recognize Chemco as a caring, family place to work. It has become a large organization but people still know what our values are, people do matter, and it’s shown through (the fact that) people want to come work for us because of our safety program,” he says.

Fall protection

Over the nearly 25 years that Hagen has been in the industry, fall protection requirements have changed significantly. A few years ago, as more and more regulations were coming into effect, Hagen noticed his workers were getting piled on with more and more equipment and it was becoming quite cumbersome for them.

He decided to work with a fall protection manufacturer to find a way to meet the same needs of the workers without increasing the amount and weight of equipment. They were able to come up with a design that separated the shock absorber from the lanyard.

Not only did this new design benefit the workers, it also resulted in cost savings for the company. If a lanyard or shock absorber needed to be replaced, the manufacturer was now able to replace just one component, rather than replacing both.

Hagen worked with the manufacturer for more than one year and was successful in receiving CSA approval for the design.

The karabiners used on the fall protection equipment were also causing issues. While the workers were fumbling with attaching the karabiners to the anchor slings, the company was losing a lot of money from missing karabiners.

“One of the superintendents said it was costing them a fortune because karabiners are small and very useful off the job,” says Hagen. “We were going through five karabiners for every anchor sling we have, so I went to the manufacturer and said ‘There’s got to be something we can do about this.’”

Hagen worked with the manufacturer to develop an anchor sling with a ring and snaphook. This was not only more user-friendly, but it resulted in significant cost savings for the company and increased productivity.

“Safety’s tied hand in hand with productivity in the industry,” says McDaniel. “If you’re not injuring workers, you’re not wasting time on needless things, you’re being more productive and with this, it was producing a piece of safety gear that allowed the worker to not even think about being safe because it’s just part of their task, but (it’s) more productive as well. There’s a win-win for everybody in that situation.”

Continuous learning

Hagen is very passionate about continuous learning. One particularly popular offering among the workforce is a first-aid course for employees and their family members.

“A lot of the jobs are maybe out of town projects, so we have the worker out of town for 10 days at a time and when they come back we want to say ‘Come take a course and be away from family again’? It’s not really work-life balance, so by offering it to their spouse, they can bring them with them and they get to take that first-aid training home. And this way, we’re getting health and safety awareness at home, so you increase the culture that way,” says Hagen.

Hagen has been a strong supporter of the Leadership for Safety Excellence course. The two-day training course offered by ACSA covers several topics, including safety responsibilities of managers, supervisors and workers; company culture; inspections, reporting and followup; and training and orientation.

More than 60 per cent of the supervisors at Chemco have completed the training to date.

“Safety starts at the top level of the organization and it trickles down. From many, many years ago, Dave was continuously pushing at the executive level on how many people do we have trained on this?” says McDaniel. “And right from the senior leadership attended this (session), the project managers, the senior superintendents and at the time, this was a change. Now it’s kind of normalized, but he normalized it.”

Hagen supports the course for journeymen as well since it helps build “bench strength” by training workers who might one day want to be supervisors, he says.

He feels strongly about supporting workers with any continuing education they wish to receive. When the Industrial Construction Crew Supervisor (ICCS) designation was introduced in the province through Alberta Apprenticeship and Training, Hagen worked with the government to organize special dates for Chemco workers to write the exam. The first year the designation was launched, about 80 per cent of the recipients were Chemco workers, says Solesbury.

Hagen holds the ICCS designation himself, as well as the National Construction Officer designation, because he believes in leading by example.

“There are not too many people in the industry, not too many workers who don’t know Dave. He doesn’t sit in the corporate office and is invisible. This is a guy who goes to all the work sites and talks to the supervision, talks to the workers — he is in the field and engaged,” says McDaniel.

And McDaniel knows this first hand. In 1999, eight years after Hagen accepted the safety job, Hagen was doing a site visit on a job where McDaniel was the foreman. McDaniel was so proud to show off his workers who were all properly tied-off, wearing their safety harnesses and had their earplugs in. But Hagen was not so impressed.

“He looked at me and said ‘Where’s your safety harness?’” recalls McDaniel.

Annoyed he wasn’t praised for his accomplishments with his workers, McDaniel stomped away and muttered some choice words under his breath, but he returned to Hagen a few minutes later to apologize — with his safety harness on.

“From that day forward, I had to walk the talk. It was great that I was able to talk the talk, but he forced me to walk the talk as well, and it’s something that really changed me personally in the industry.”