Safety Comes Swiftly

Don Procter

August 2009

This summer an updated Occupational Health & Safety code came into effect in Alberta to mixed reviews. But while the Alberta Construction Association has expressed concern about the short time period given to the industry to meet the new safety standards, the Alberta Wall & Ceiling Association has no bones to pick with the new rules.

"The codes are changing faster and faster as they become more performance-based and people are customizing them to certain situations with new materials, equipment and technology,” says Ralph Christoffersen, president of the AWCA. "It’s a fact of doing business in the time we are in.”

The new rules require labeling on equipment and processes on site. Scaffolding used in the wall and ceiling industry, however, has long had to be labeled.

Another update is to training manuals and courses. To meet the requirements in such a short time frame is a problem for the ACA, but not so for the wall and ceiling association’s members who use the Alberta Construction Safety Association for training.

What Christoffersen says is the key to the success of the code updates is enforcement. In some construction sectors such as single-family residential, enforcement has been too lax. That sector has had more safety violations than the multifamily sector. A case in point is hard hats. While wearing the protective headwear has been mandatory for years, it is only recently that it has become an accepted practice in the residential sector.

"It’s just like the oil business: Nobody paid heed to safety until they enforced it, and as a result they have slashed accident rates over the last 10 years,” Christoffersen says.

Sometimes it is the simple things that prevent accidents, he notes, pointing out that if every contractor provided a written hazard assessment for each site, accidents would drop substantially. "In four years, my company (Prophit Management Ltd.) has only seen one person injured on a site with a WHA,” Christoffersen says.

Safety isn’t so much of problem on multifamily building sites. The sites are fenced in to control what and who enters and to make sure the appropriate safety gear is being worn and used properly, he points out.

The OHS update has been under fire in some circles for the way it has been implemented. Workplace safety rules in Alberta are updated through public consultation, rather than legislation. That’s a unique approach in Canada. Alberta’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs, the department responsible for the revisions, essentially took recommendations from various members of the public to its technical specialists to determine what changes could be made.

Christoffersen says the AWCA was not consulted on the changes but the association has been a voice in other OHS code changes in recent years, including construction waste demolition changes that favor a deposit system similar to cans, bottles tires.

The AWCA also had a say in the High Intensity Residential Fire amendment to the building code in Alberta last year. The amendments were made swiftly as a result of devastating fires that destroyed many townhouse units in 2007 and because of some high-profile, single-family house fires. The new rules have had a significant impact on the residential construction industry.

For drywall contractors, those changes offer them more work—a requirement to finish home garage interiors in drywall is an example. The big adjustment was confusing language in the code, says Christoffersen, noting that the language has since been put into plain English. "There’s still a lot of controversy about what some things mean in the code,” he says, "but in general the language is understandable.”

While the new fire code requires more standard gypsum products in some residential applications, it also gives wall and ceiling contractors an opportunity to install some of the new products that framers aren’t familiar with, he says. Those include exterior/interior type X gypsum wallboard, fiberglass and mineral wool insulation as well as stucco and EIFS-based exterior coatings.

Don Procter is a free-lance writer in Ontario, Canada.