Joël Richer: A rising star elevating workplace safety at Emco
Health & Safety Emco OHS Honours OHS Rising Star
OHS Rising Star
Gold: Joël Richer, Emco
Silver: Julia Kulas, Stanley Black & Decker
Silver: Shannon Montgomery, Senate of Canada
Joël Richer took an unconventional path into the world of occupational health and safety. Back in 2006, he kicked off his career in the financial sector — taking roles in the collection and compliance departments at Citi Financial while completing a master’s degree in history.
After about seven years, he shifted paths and took on a role at Emco in internal audit, focusing on operational assessments including health and safety.
“I carved my own path to the national health and safety role. And for the past five years, that’s been my number one priority,” Richer said.
This year, he was won the OHS Rising Star Award at OHS Honours, underlining the value of his innovative contributions to workplace safety.
His unique blend of financial acumen and historical insight equipped him to view health and safety from an unorthodox perspective, he said.
“If you approach health and safety with a check-the-box type of mindset, compliance does not lead to culture,” he noted.
One of the biggest accomplishments to date for Richer has been the implementation of an annual strategic planning session focused on health, safety, and wellness. He didn’t let the sheer number of locations — about 300 across Canada — stop him, using virtual meetings to spread the word.
“It’s a heavy lift, but the impact on our culture has been substantial,” he said. “I’m joined by regional managers and regional health and safety champions on these calls, forming a three-person panel that reviews business unit action planning and provides guidance on each presentation.”
The result of these sessions is a 300% increase in near miss and safety opportunity reporting over the last two years.
“We actually see near miss reporting as a positive thing,” he said, noting it is indicative of a culture where workers are not afraid to report issues and incidents.
He described these virtual meetings as the “biggest driver of culture” within Emco, with senior leadership’s full support.
Richer’s approach to wellness is multi-faceted. Rather than merely enforcing rules as a safety cop, he sees his role as a business consultant.
“We’re really not there to catch you, so to speak. We’re there to be business consultants,” he said. “We always try to put health, safety, and wellness through the lens of investing in your people as opposed to accepting the expense when someone gets injured.”
One of his standout achievements is a 98% completion rate for health and safety training across the company. This he attributes to strong relationships with regional and senior leadership, a competitive scorecard system among regions, and a performance pay structure tied to health and safety KPIs.
“I tapped into Emco’s competitive culture. It’s a sales organization — nobody wants to be last in anything,” he said. “What started happening is that, year over year, certain regional managers said, ‘Hey, I want to be number one.’ They were driving that accountability deeper and deeper into the organization.”
It has created a culture where accountability is driven all the way down to the employee level, which creates grassroots engagement, he said.
He is proud of the significant decrease in lost time incident rates at Emco, primarily due to a shift in understanding the value of offering modified duties following an injury.
“The financial impact is tremendous,” Richer pointed out, referring to the reduced insurance premiums and the human element of hastening an employee’s return to work.
Mental health commitment
He’s especially proud of Emco’s award from St. John’s Ambulance for its commitment to mental health in Alberta, emphasizing that mental health is “probably the biggest threat to the organization” in a post-COVID world.
Richer also spearheaded the overhaul of Emco’s internal health and safety website, making it more dynamic and user-friendly. “It’s driving people to go to the site, and then from there, as we keep it updated, we know that those updates are being looked at,” he said.
Receiving the OHS Rising Star Award is a feather in his cap, but Richer insists that his primary motivator remains preventing life-changing injuries.
“If I can prevent one person at Emco from having a life-changing injury, it’s worth all the profit-sharing dollars in the world,” he said.
For those aspiring to make a difference in health and safety, Richer’s advice is to be creative, to “fail fast,” and to consider taking marketing and sales courses to better sell their ideas. “We are really in marketing and sales…We’re trying to sell our ideas, and you have to do it well,” he said.