Implementing safety management systems: Preparing for new rules to win Ottawa municipal work

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Ontario Construction News staff writer

How should contractors prepare for impending safety certification requirements to bid on City of Ottawa municipal projects?

Health and safety representatives from four contractors addressed this question at a March 31 webinar – and in the process, provided insights relevant for other municipalities that have either introduced or plan to set out similar requirements.

Caroline Ducolos, Ottawa’s acting infrastructure service director, told the online gathering co-ordinated by the National Capital Heavy Construction Association (NCHCA), that the new rules requiring contractors to implement an approved Occupational Health and Safety Management System will be phased in starting on Jan. 1, 2023, for construction contracts valued at greater than $10 million. This will be followed with lower thresholds in successive years – with the lowest at $100,000 expected to be introduced by 2026.

Other associations supporting the webinar included the Ottawa Construction Association and the Commercial Landscaping Association of Eastern Ontario.

The city says it will recognize three systems: COR 2020, CSA Z45001:19, and ISO 45001:2018.

Ottawa plans to lower the threshold to contracts valued at more than $1 million on Jan. 1, 2025 and – in the change that will affect virtually everyone in the industry — “construction contacts and subcontracts valued over $100,000” effective on Jan. 1, 2026.

In response to a question, Ducolos made it clear that the $100,000 subcontractor level will apply to individual contracts/projects, and is not a cumulative total. As well, the overall implementation of the program for lower-cost projects will be reviewed with industry associations before the scheduled implementation date and could be revised.

“The details of how we are going to work between the main contractor and the subs” still need to be resolved,” Ducolos said. “We will be developing a lot of additional information and details that we care going to share with the industry as we get closer to 2026.”

“We had a number of meetings (with industry representatives) and a number of discussions about what reasonable timelines might be for what value of contract,” she said. “And this is where we landed on, but with the understanding that if it needs to be revisited, it will be revisited.”

Another issue relates to newer contractors, who might be shut out of opportunities during the certification/review process that can take more upwards of 18 months to complete. “I honestly don’t have a direct answer to that,” Ducolos said. “I think there are special case we need to look at. I appreciate your feedback and will take it away with me, to explore how do we deal with situations where we have a new contractor that doesn’t have the time in the business to be able to achieve” certification.

Neil Falls, Aecon Construction Ontario’s safety manager, Eastern Ontario, acknowledged that the timelines for mandatory safety program implementation were set before COVID-19 caused significant industry disruptions.

He said the timelines set out by the city are still achievable, “but it’s a working document; its not written in stone.”

“So if the associations received feedback from the companies that there are difficulties, then the associations are there to try and support and get everyone on the same page” so the deadlines and thresholds can be reviewed.

Falls also noted that smaller companies can pivot more quickly as they have have fewer components they need to review in implementing their systems.

“All of these programs are simply a template for how you’re going to lay things out in your systems, and what the expectation would be is that you’re going to audit your system,” he said. “That’s the whole secret to it all. So a smaller company, with less policies and procedures and less staff than a larger bulkier company, it’s easier for (these businesses) to change policies and for getting a better working relationship on the focus of your program.”

He said resources are improving for implementing the systems. Companies that don’t have in-house resources can contract with external consultants who will help them navigate through the processes, and in some cases access public funding support.

A webinar participant asked the panelists about how much the system-set up and certification would cost. None of the panelists would be specific.

“It’s hard to put a price on safety,” said Maurice Gravel, Ottawa district HSE manager for PCL Constructors Canada. “It’s very difficult (to answer) but I think it just depends on the company (and) where you’re at already; that makes a big difference.” In other words, if there are already solid safety management systems and programs, then the process of completing the paperwork and auditing for the safety management program certification will be relatively easy.

One speaker said: “It could cost up upwards of $10 million a year,” referring to the city-mandated contract value that could be lost if the process isn’t completed by 2023.

Several panelists and speakers indicated that, while the three alternative safety management systems all have merits, they found that the COR program is most useful, because it is designed specifically for the construction industry, and local auditors are available who really understand the business.

On the other hand, the ISO or CSA certification process may be completed in a shorter time period – which could be important if the contractor hasn’t started the process and the deadline for the city’s new contracting rules is more imminent.

One thing is important regardless of the system: there must be a buy-in by upper management into the program. “We were lucky,” said Chris Keeping, director of health and safety at the Tomlinson Group of Companies. “We had buy in.”

“Once everyone realized the value of the program, it doesn’t matter whether it is COR, ISO or CSO. Once you’ve got the commitment that you are going to go that way, it goes a lot easier,” he said.

Support and encouragement from senior management, coupled with effective consultation and communication with front-line workers, should result in a relatively easy and effective implementation process, the panelists said.

Michelle Richer, health and safety manager, Marathon Underground Constructors Corporation, and chair of the NCHCA’s health and safety committee, said the company where she worked implemented COR several years ago out of province – it has been widely used “out west for probably just over a decade now.” The auditing process for Ontario has been changed by COVID-19 – instead of flying out from the western provinces, this year, the auditor will review things online, she said.


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