Devastating accidents prompts workplace revolution at Waiward Steel

In a concerted effort to become more competitive, Edmonton's Waiward Steel has revamped its training programs to cut costs and improve workplace safety. Waiward Steel president Terry Degner, right, and COO Jim Kanerva speak about the initiative in Edmonton on Oct. 5, 2016.

Gary Lamphier, Edmonton Journal

Published on: October 14, 2016

Waiward Steel, one of Edmonton’s leading steel fabrication and industrial construction firms, has been in business since the early 1970s.

Along the way it has survived the wild swings that plague Alberta’s oil-fired economy, completing dozens of major projects for Canada’s biggest energy, petrochemical and mining companies.

Despite the painful downturn in the oilpatch over the past two years, Waiward’s 216,000-square-foot plant in southeast Edmonton is busy, says company president Terry Degner.

“We’re having a strong year. We’re fortunate that we had a good backlog and some of that work didn’t fall off the books like some other projects did. So we’re going to have a good year,” he says.

With annual revenues of about $200 million and roughly 1,000 employees, Waiward is an anchor of the local manufacturing sector. It is also regarded as a responsible contractor that cares about worker health and safety, and it has the awards to prove it.

But between 2010 and 2012, Waiward suffered a string of devastating workplace accidents that forced it to do some serious soul-searching. “It was painful. And when I say pain I mean senior managers in tears, crying,” says Jim Kanerva, Waiward’s chief operations officer. “We experienced a set of incidents that really rocked our world.”

One of the ugliest occurred in 2012 at a Syncrude site north of Fort McMurray. A Waiward employee was struck in the back of the head by a metal ball swinging from a crane, driving him face-first into a metal bar. “It filleted his face, basically,” says Kanerva. “It was just a godawful injury.”

Amazingly, the worker survived, and has since returned to work. But aside from the trauma the accident caused, the ensuing investigation delayed the project and cost Waiward roughly $1 million. More importantly, it made the company realize it was failing to equip workers to safely perform their jobs.

The thick binders the company had long used to lay out workplace procedures and worker competency standards just weren’t enough, and the painful results were there for all to see.

“When we finally looked in the mirror, we realized we had set that worker up to fail,” says Kanerva. “He didn’t come to work that day to do that. Our systems, how we applied our systems, how we trained him and how we compiled evidence of what he could or couldn’t do, had gaps everywhere. We realized we had to change that.”

So Waiward launched a campaign to completely revamp the way it measures the competencies of its workers. “Our big fat dusty binders — our safety binder, our quality binder, our environment binder — were written for the outside auditors. They weren’t written for our employees,” says Kanerva.

“So we destroyed them, and we started to come up with a list of competencies for each job, starting with a journeyman ironworker, and it scared the hell out of us. In 12-point font, it listed 30 pages of competencies — or observable behaviours — including reading blueprints, working at heights, using a grinder or sorting hooks. We listed them all.”

Four years and thousands of hours later, Waiward has created 140 detailed “competency profiles” for various job classifications. Now, before a worker can perform a particular job, he (or she) has to be assessed and certified by a trainer on a job site.

“For almost every company in Fort McMurray, how do they train a person to use a piece of equipment? They’re sent to a parking lot in Nisku or wherever, and some person who isn’t working in industry teaches them,” says Kanerva. “Then you do a little test so you can show up at a heavily industrialized work site with a ticket. You’ve got just enough information to kill yourself — and people do.”

As part of its new approach to training, Waiward has hired a dedicated learning and development co-ordinator who is developing curriculum for its in-house programs. It’s also working with union leaders and other contractors such as Edmonton’s Supreme Group in a bid to standardize worker certification standards.

The payoff? Besides its full order books, Waiward’s construction and fabrication operations have now racked up four million hours of lost-time, injury-free work hours. “We’ve never previously approached one million hours that I can remember, and I’ve been with Waiward since 1994,” says Kanerva.

“We’re not all geniuses over here. What’s driving us the whole time is to not experience that pain again,” he says. “If you are addressing training gaps in a very focused and methodical manner, delivering training the right way, getting objective evidence of it, and eliminating the gaps, it’s amazing how safe and productive your workforce becomes.”

It’s also a path to increased efficiency and profitability, he says, at a time when Alberta’s energy industry and the manufacturers that supply it need to find ways to become more competitive.

“If you look at our costs in Alberta we’re one of the highest in the world. Even in Canada, if you go to places like Quebec, their wages are two-thirds what ours are,” says Kanerva. “Investment in Alberta will dry up if we don’t get more productive and competitive.”

It’s a message Alberta’s union leaders have embraced too, and they’re working closely with industry to find ways to boost efficiency.

“With the challenges in our economic climate, we have to find ways to work together with our contractors so they are successful and profitable,” says Jeff Norris, a representative of the Ironworkers Union. “These kinds of initiatives are really about maximizing the efficiency of our people. So we are definitely in support of this and we’re going to involve other contractors and unions outside of Alberta now. We’re very excited about it.”