November 2008

Living it up and playing it safe

CIM Distinguished Lecturer Robin Sheremeta

By R. Pillo

For Robin Sheremeta safety is not just part of his job, it’s a part of his personal mission. As general manager at Teck Coal’s Elkview operations, Sheremeta wears many hats, but one that he wears most proudly is his safety hat. Given this, one might expect him to live a decidedly cautious life. Think again. In his spare time, Sheremeta can regularly be found scaling sheer cliffs, careening down dirt bike trails or navigating hair-raising ski slopes. However, despite appearances to the contrary, these pastimes and persuasions are not inconsistent. Sheremeta believes that safety lies not in avoiding risk, but in understanding, assessing and managing it courageously and intelligently.

As one of this year’s CIM Distinguished Lecturers, his presentation on Courageous Safety Leadership will explore a new safety philosophy that he feels can revolutionize the way we think about this crucial issue.

CIM: When did safety become such an important issue for you?

Sheremeta: Shortly after I became general manager at Elk Valley Coal’s Greenhills Operations, a fatality occurred at the mine site. It opened my eyes to the degree of responsibility that came with this level of management. Things needed to change at the mine and new programs were put into place. We saw good success but just one year later, there was another fatality. It was very clear that something more needed to be done, and the Greenhills workforce was ready for a change.

CIM: Was something different done?

Sheremeta: Yes. I had just attended a four-hour training program given by Vern Baker at Barrick called Courageous Safety Leadership. It was different from anything I had encountered before. It did not promote the implementation of new procedures or systems to ensure safety. Rather, the focus was that safety begins with behaviour, and the key driver of safe behaviour within the workplace is leadership. In other words, safety begins at the top and flows downward. We are all responsible for it and each individual in an organization has the potential to be a leader in this critical area. It is not enough for a company to write up a book of procedures and expect their workforce to follow them. Employees do as you do, not as you say. The corporate leadership needs to clearly define its values in order to ensure that they are properly projected.

CIM: Was the program implemented at Greenhills?

Sheremeta: Yes, and its impact on the workforce was tremendous. Then, when I came to Elkview in 2006, we implemented the same process with the employees at that site, and there has been significant improvement since. From January to September 2008, the total reportable injury frequency (medical aid and lost time incidence) at Elkview is 40 per cent lower than the year before.

CIM: What’s next on your safety quest?

Sheremeta: I have been working with a team from Teck, looking at what other organizations are doing in terms of safety. After hearing our recommendations, Teck is prepared to embark on a corporate leadership process, whereby all employees are put through this training program. My colleagues, Greg Brouwer and Mark Thompson, and I will be responsible to ensure the implementation of this program.

CIM: You’re such a busy man, why did you decide to become part of the Distinguished Lecturer Program?

Sheremeta: This process can have more impact on an organization than anything else one can do on safety. If I can get the people in the industry to understand that and spark interest in it, I can help continue that dissemination of knowledge that first inspired me. Many people before me, like Vern Baker and Don Ritz from Barrick, have put tremendous energy to this subject and I want to do justice to their efforts.

CIM: How is hanging from a rope 500 feet up in the air safe?

Sheremeta: I have never been hurt rock climbing. It is a sport where your survival depends on your ability to manage risk. You have to identify it, take measures to protect yourself against that risk, and manage your resources. This is exactly what you do in an industrial setting. I have never prescribed not living. You can take the most dangerous activity in the world and make it very safe.

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