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Rae Ann Aldridge wins 2018 Safety Leader of the Year award

Thanks to her hard work, the University of Calgary is the only post-secondary institution with COR for its entire operation
By Amanda Silliker
| Canadian Occupational Safety
Rae Ann Aldridge
Aldridge's credibility, creativity and compassion made her the clear winner of the coveted award. Ramesh Puradchithasan

After receiving her undergraduate degree in chemical engineering, Rae Ann Aldridge’s first job was writing material safety data sheets at a consulting firm. About one month in, her manager asked her to help out in the firm’s industrial hygiene (IH) group and that sealed the deal — she fell in love with occupational health and safety and has never looked back.

“I really loved the IH work. Every day was something new and different and interesting. I got to go into all kinds of work environments, everything from huge GM plants in the (United) States to little dry cleaning plants,” says Aldridge. “And when I monitor and I find elevated levels, I can make a difference to their life and their health.” 

Aldridge is now the associate vice-president of risk at the University of Calgary and the winner of the 2018 Safety Leader of the Year award, presented by Canadian Occupational Safety. One of the reasons she is deserving of this award is for leading the organization in achieving its Certificate of Recognition (COR). The university is the first post-secondary institution to achieve this certification for the entire university and it’s among one of the largest employers with the certification in Alberta. The nature of the activities that take place at the university further proves why achieving this high standard is such an accomplishment. The university has 115 buildings, 14 faculties, four campuses in the Calgary area and 900 research labs using animals, radioisotopes, pathogens and all kinds of chemicals. It has 30,000 students and 5,000 employees. Plus, it contributes nearly $8 billion annually to Alberta’s economy.

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But achieving COR was a journey and it didn’t happen overnight, says Aldridge. It began with a baseline audit in which the university scored very low. Aldridge and her team got to work on developing policies and procedures and standardizing documentation — then the real heavy lifting began. One of the out-of-the-box ideas Aldridge had was to engage a consultant to deliver 165 workshops on hazard assessment and control. Participation was mandatory for each of the 420 departments. By the end of the project, more than 1,000 hazard assessment documents were completed for every role within the university.

“Honestly, it’s what got the program off the ground,” says Aldridge. “The hazard assessment and control component drives everything else inside the management system; they’re really the fundamentals.”

The university achieved COR in 2014 and successfully renewed it in 2017. 

According to Aldridge’s boss, Linda Dalgetty, vice-president of finance and services, the university would not have been able to achieve COR without Aldridge’s passion, leadership and desire to shift the paradigm. 

“She’s not willing to just sit back and say, ‘I’ve done a good job, my team’s done a good job.’ She wants to validate it, she wants to use the findings to make us better and move the needle even further.”

It was important for Aldridge to pursue COR for the University of Calgary because the environment, health, safety and sustainability committee of the board of governors was asking about benchmarking. It’s very difficult to benchmark your health and safety management systems if you’re not auditing to a standard, she says. 

“Even looking at things like WCB (Workers’ Compensation Board) claim rates, lost-time claim rates, we look at those but those are not really telling you about how deep the roots are for your management system,” Aldridge says. “The best tool that we could find was COR.”

To pique the interest of the board of governors, Aldridge takes them on tours of the university, so they can better understand the type of work that goes on. She recently made the business case for updating the university’s emergency eyewash and shower systems, and she showed the board the new models during a recent tour. 

“There’s this trust in Rae Ann and this focus — right up to the top of the house — on environmental health, safety and security,” says Dalgetty.

Another one of Aldridge’s initiatives is to have the executive leadership team participate in health and safety inspections during Safety and Wellness Week every September. She also walks through at least three tabletop exercises with them for the university’s crisis management system. All the meetings of the board, board committees and General Faculties Council start with a safety moment. 

Aldridge says her success with senior leadership stems from getting in front of them. If she’s working on a large-scale project, she meets with the executives to explain what’s coming, why it’s happening and what groups may be impacted. Plus, she always follows through with her commitments. 

“You need face time with them and you need to deliver. When you’re pushing initiatives or projects, you need to have credibility at the table, so you need to be delivering those scope, schedule and budget all on time,” Aldridge says. “When you have that kind of credibility, then you’ll be invited back to the table.”

Aldridge can be quite persuasive when advocating for the requirements of health and safety at the university. The hazard assessment process was a great example of this.

“She went to each individual faculty and said, ‘Here’s what you need to do and here’s why you need to do it,’” says Denise Howitt, manager, EHS systems and compliance. “It was a lot of work that was required by a lot of people and she convinced them it was the right thing to do. It’s now a normal thing — almost everyone you talk to would know what a hazard assessment control form is.” 

Aldridge has the ability to “meet people where they are” when discussing health and safety initiatives, says Dalgetty. 

“She has a very soft way in bringing people along and getting them on board and, in her role, that is absolutely critical,” she says. “It’s a skill. It’s not something a lot of people can do.” 

Aldridge and her team are regularly out on campus talking to the different faculties and researchers. 

“It’s not the health and safety department coming and hammering them. It’s the advocacy and helping them understand why this is important to their staff, to their safety to their processes, to what they’re trying to accomplish,” Dalgetty says.

One reason why this is a successful approach is because Aldridge is an excellent communicator. She is warm, enthusiastic and personable, and she comes across as a credible resource in everything she does, says Howitt.

“A lot of people will go directly to her and ask for her advice on issues or challenges they are having,” she says. “In a large institution, it might seem strange to go straight to the associate vice-president and say, ‘I’m having this issue,’ but they do and she helps them.”

Creativity is one of Aldridge’s greatest leadership qualities. The university is a dynamic, ever-changing, diverse and complex environment, but Aldridge can always see the big picture and come up with innovative solutions.

“When you have ideas, especially in post-secondary, the path to get there is not always linear and it might not be the path that you thought you would accomplish things by, but what Rae Ann does is she listens and responds and she thinks it through and she comes up with ways to do things to get to that end goal,” says Dalgetty.

When snow unexpectedly hit Calgary in early September 2014 — ultimately known as “Snowtember” — there wasn’t an effective way to communicate with the staff and students on campus. So, under Aldridge’s leadership, the university got a new emergency mobile app that everyone on campus can download, and it has been very effective.

Another one of Aldridge’s innovative ideas was to dramatically increase the number of cameras in the university’s security operations centre. A few years ago, the system was very antiquated with just a smattering of cameras, says Dalgetty. Now, it’s state-of-the-art with about 1,500 cameras (and counting) across campus, and security professionals from other universities are coming to take a look. 

When Aldridge realized she was having difficulty engaging some of the lower-risk faculties in occupational health and safety (OHS), she knew she had to get creative. Aldridge and her team developed health and safety binders designed to assist departments in understanding their responsibilities, communicating about health and safety and collecting relevant documentation for regulatory compliance and audit purposes.

Each department identified an OHS management system co-ordinator, who received coaching on the requirements for keeping the binders up to date. Hundreds of binders were pushed out and Aldridge and her team are working with IT to try and put all the information online. 

“It has prompted a bit more activity in the administrative areas around health and safety,” says Aldridge. “Those teams are now doing inspections; they sent people in for first-aid training. It’s continuing to shift the culture.”

Another way workers are engaged  is through the Risk Shining Stars recognition program. Individuals in the university community are nominated by those within the risk portfolio for their outstanding contribution to safety.

“We have shining stars all across our campus,” says Aldridge. 

The University of Calgary’s enterprise risk management (ERM) system used to fall under the finance department, so it was largely focused on financial risks. Then, the ERM was put under the risk portfolio — under Aldridge — and it was re-built from the ground up, says Howitt. It now looks at all the institutional risks, such as health and safety, disability management and security. The risk matrix is regularly used in decision-making at all levels of the organization. 

“It’s part of our living and breathing institution as opposed to a paper checklist that lives in someone’s drawer,” says Dalgetty. 

Aldridge is lauded for her ability to remain calm during crisis situations, such as the Calgary floods in 2013 and the Fort McMurray, Alta. fires in 2016, when the university housed evacuees on campus. She takes in all necessary information and comes up with the best strategy. 

“That’s when leadership really shows. It’s easy to lead day-to-day when nothing is going wrong, but when there’s a major event and you have a leader who is still able to be effective and is calm and compassionate and caring and responding to the people — not just the event — that’s Rae Ann in a crisis,” says Dalgetty.

Aldridge joined the University of Calgary in 2006 as director of EHS. After working there for two years, she left to go work in Nova Scotia, but came back to the university in her same position in April 2011. Since then, she has climbed the ranks to associate vice-president of risk, a position she has held for 4.5 years. When asked how she got to this high level, she humbly says there was some “luck and timing” in her journey and credits “phenomenal teams and extremely strong support” from leadership. 

She encourages safety professionals to be innovative and think outside the box when faced with “weird and wonderful” health and safety problems.

“I think there is always a solution,” she says. “It’s sometimes not the same solution for every kind of circumstance but I think when you bring the right people to the table, we can always find a solution.”

For example, after the university’s poor baseline audit, Aldridge approached the deans of the higher-risk faculties to ask if they would each cost-share a position with the safety department. This resulted in health and safety professionals that report to the director of health and safety sitting within the high-risk faculties. They were able to meet regularly with their respective deans to help move the health and safety management system along.

Aldridge is passionate about her OHS work and that extends beyond the walls of the University of Calgary. She sits on the board for the Alberta Association for Safety Partnerships and is the co-chair of the Campus Alberta Risk and Assurance Committee, which includes representatives from all the public sector institutions in the province. Recently, the group developed business continuity templates and produced a video to educate students and staff on how to respond in an active shooter situation. Aldridge welcomes the opportunity the committee provides to help some of the smaller post-secondary institutions in Alberta.

“I have lots of time to answer calls and entertain other post secondaries who come and ask me about our ERM program or our management systems,” she says. 

What interested Aldridge in the industrial hygiene work nearly 30 years ago still rings true in her job today and is the reason why all the positions she has held throughout her career have been in occupational health and safety — that ability to make a difference. 

“It’s the reasons I stay,” Aldridge says. “Every day is something new here and I think with the right team I have in place we are able to be leading edge in terms of safety, security and risk management in general, and we have been able to do a lot of leading-edge changes to make sure our campus is a safe and healthy environment.”

This article originally appeared in the December/January 2019 issue of COS.

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