A safe new normal

From the August 2021 print edition

It has been an ever-evolving year and a half of increased focus on health and safety. The pandemic has severely impacted nearly all industries, leaving many companies scrambling not only to secure much needed personal protective equipment (PPE) but also to update internal policies and procedures regarding how to operate safely in the “new normal.” At the core of any business is the procurement team, and no greater attention has been paid to this group than in the recent past.

Procurement’s role in any organization is two-fold: ensuring a favourable and fair cost position for any raw materials, services or equipment it purchases while also mitigating the organization’s risk during  operations, including meeting health and safety standards for its employees. Procurement as a key contributing factor in employee health and safety has become front and centre during the pandemic. Hopefully, with this increased attention, that greater emphasis on procurement will remain in place going forward.

Prioritizing health and safety as a key objective in procurement practices is critical to any business. The focus enables greater cost savings and improved productivity. When implemented correctly, putting health and safety first can also be a competitive advantage for any organization. A safety focused organization demonstrates to its employees its commitment to them and their communities, which in turn can result in greater employee retention; employees prefer to work in safe environments. A high retention rate can save organizations a great deal of money from not having to recruit and onboard employees constantly. In addition, providing employees with regulated and approved tools eliminates the risk of penalties or fines for non-compliance. Operating in a health and safety focused procurement group aids in improving an organization’s productivity through reduced illness or injury claims when combined with an ergonomics program.

When investigating opportunities to incorporate health and safety practices into procurement, there are many considerations, including product compliance and after sales support. The need for product compliance was evident during the pandemic when countless counterfeit N95 respirators and non-Health Canada approved hand sanitizers flooded the market, potentially putting countless people at risk of being exposed to not only contracting COVID-19 but also being exposed to hazardous materials. This includes the more recent findings of graphene in masks, which allegedly caused lung impairment,
as well as methanol in hand sanitizers allegedly causing eye and respiratory issues.

After sales service
After sales service support is often a forgotten element of health and safety, as it can be seen
as an additional cost which does not add value. There is tremendous value in including a robust after sales service support component as a risk mitigation strategy. A strong supplier offers industry relevant or business-tailored product training to ensure products are used correctly and safely. This is especially important when onboarding new employees and when there are new tools or equipment being implemented.

In addition, the right supplier should be knowledgeable about industry requirements and assist with ensuring an organization is updated on changes. This can include partnering with a supplier that offers auditing, regular testing or certification of equipment. For example, in Ontario, the Ministry of Labour requires fall protection equipment to be safety inspected annually and replaced when it no longer meets the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) requirements for self-retracting devices (CAN/CSA Z259.2.2). Failure to abide by safety regulations could result in penalties, a fine or even employee injuries or deaths.

Best practices to consider when starting to incorporate health and safety objectives in procurement vary by industry. However, here are some commonalities across industries.

For starters, have a plan. Outlining roles and responsibilities of suppliers and the organization, including the standard of care, will go a long way to ensuring that employees and employer rights are protected. Start any procurement activity with a health and safety focus from the beginning stages. Early on in any process, including procurement, there is the greatest influence possible in the initial concept stages as business needs and objectives are being developed.

Once these objectives have been set or formally approved by senior management – such as during later stages of the process and during the design or implementation phase of the procurement process – it can be too costly. The cost can be too high both from a time and financial perspective for the organization to re-consider its position or to change essentially the direction of the process to become health and safety focused.

Evaluate health and safety risks from different perspectives, environments or working conditions and the activities employees perform. This ensures role-specific risks are not missed. For example, hand protection in the warehouse of a facility is vastly different than the hand protection needed by employees working in the food processing operation in the same facility. Both require cut-resistant gloves, but quite different levels of protection are needed due to different work tasks and heightened safety risk from one role to another.

Monitor and assess the performance throughout the procurement process and after the implementation of changes. This will help to illustrate the benefits and the value that the new health and safety focus contributes to the organization. Instead of being seen as merely another expense, it is now viewed as a business investment with an ROI.

Eye on the industry
Lastly, benchmark and learn from other organizations or industry associations. Are there industry specific criteria that need to be considered, such as the supplier’s liability insurance? For example, how much protection should they have? This is especially critical in chemical processing or manufacturing industries or those that operate in remote locations such as in the energy sector. Are there industry relevant licences or certifications which are required to be able to operate in compliance in a jurisdiction? For example, it’s necessary to consider a Medical Device Establishment Licence for medical device manufacturing in Canada or ISO 9001 quality standards across many manufacturing segments globally.

Applying a health and safety lens to procurement can provide a great deal of benefit and further drive procurement outcomes. These outcomes include short- and long-term financial gain in addition to improved productivity.

When starting on this journey, leveraging best practices can accelerate organizational adoption or enhancement, as well as overall productivity. Incorporating health and safety as an objective in procurement practices offers a holistic view of an organization’s operations and highlights room for improvement in addition to areas to reduce business risk.

Procurement specialists should educate themselves on local and federal product, industry and operation standards to avoid non-compliance fines and penalties, but also to avoid putting their employees in harm’s way.