How an Ontario industry/education partnership gives students an edge in workplace safety

Photo of a blue gloved hand holding a chemical testube
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18.12.2019 - 5 min. Read

In technical industries where handling hazardous or explosive materials is a day-to-day occurrence, workplace safety takes on a whole new meaning.

While certain industries or organizations have safety standards to meet and mandatory training to complement them, making that training available to students before they enter the industry is an ongoing challenge.

It’s a challenge that has long preoccupied Graeme Norval, a professor in the University of Toronto’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry and Chair of the CAN/CSA Z-767 Process Safety Management committee, which created the newest process safety management (PSM) standards in 2017, enforced by the Canadian Standards Association.

According to Graeme, there is no standardized course for teaching PSM in Ontario engineering programs and instructors are often unsure how to approach it.

New standards, new course content

Serendipitously, when the 2017 standards were rolled out, Energy Safety Canada (ESC), the national safety association for the oil and gas industry, wanted to update their existing training modules to reflect these. These modules were originally designed for those working in the oil and gas industry, but ESC wanted to make them available to a wider audience, including students.

The solution? Graeme and ESC partnered – and approached eCampusOntario for support – to update ESC’s modules. Ideally, the new material would comply with current standards, be available in French and be palatable for students. The result is a fully online course that can be completed on one’s own time and fills in important safety gaps for students and industry workers alike.

“Our goal is the same as industry’s — zero injuries, zero incidents,” says Robert Waterhouse, Senior Staff Advisor at ESC. “By partnering on the update and delivery to this course we enable a deeper understanding of this important topic in academic, industrial and community settings across Canada.”

PSM is a system often associated with the oil and gas industry, but a crucial process in any activity that involves storage, manufacturing or handling of hazardous chemicals. In these fields, failure to adhere to safety standards could result in anything from a mild chemical burn to a fatal gas leak. According to Graeme, the steps to PSM are taught on the job, but not to students. “It becomes a question of, ‘how do you get that knowledge into students before they graduate?’ Digital learning gives the tools to students to learn those base principles.”

Digital learning as an equalizer

The process, according to Jeffrey Castrucci, a U of T sessional lecturer and curriculum developer who worked on this project, involved editing the existing ESC files using Articulate 360, a software program designed for creating interactive programs. Jeffrey and Graeme revised the content to reflect the new national standards, meet the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disability Act (AODA) regulations and to feature what Jeffrey calls “application-based questions,” instead of true-and-false. According to Jeffrey, engineering students often find these types of questions more relevant to their learning. The team also created a French-language version of the module, so Francophone colleges and universities have access to the material too.

“I think it’s a great alternative to the traditional lecture-based environment, which doesn’t always work for students,” says Jeffrey of the online modules. “It gives them the flexibility to go at their own pace, on their own time, and when they’re in the right state of mind to absorb the information.”

Industry workers can complete the modules through ESC’s website, but they can easily be incorporated into an existing college or university course for students to complete at their own pace. The modules include readings, video and customizable comprehension check-ins, such as quizzes. The use of video in particular, says Graeme, can be very impactful for this field. In fact, he requires his students to watch a BBC documentary about the Bhopal Disaster of 1984, which saw more than 500,000 people in India exposed to toxic methyl isocyanate gas after an industrial leak. For something as crucial as loss of containment, video is often the best way to show what failure to follow process safety management actually looks like. “Students will get it if you say, ‘this is what bad really looks like,’” he says, “but how do you imagine bad if you’ve never seen it?”

Setting learners up for industry success

The project also helps with what Graeme calls “reducing the size of the step” from campus to industry. “It makes it a little easier for them to step in, so they’re contributing a little bit earlier, which is good for the economy,” he says. “They’re also building self-worth because they know what they’re getting into before they get into it. Even in job interviews, they’re able to talk about these things, which gives them a leg up on everybody else.”

According to Graeme, the updated modules are being used in U of T’s chemical engineering department, where approximately 100 students a year complete them. They are also being adopted by other colleges and universities, including Sherbrooke University in Quebec. The fact that they can be used on multiple levels is a bonus, according to Graeme. “We really wanted to get it into the universities, get into the colleges, but also get it to employers or even to workers who immigrate from another country. This way, everybody wins.”

This project is just one example of eCampusOntario’s commitment to leveraging technology-enabled learning, which has the power to provide increased options for workforce training.

Do you have an eCampusOntario-supported project you would like featured? Contact Lana at lhall@ecampusontario.ca