OHS Canada Magazine

University of Calgary’s safety team manages diverse risks from labs to ranches

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November 9, 2023
By Todd Humber

Health & Safety alberta OHS Honours University of Calgary

The safety team at the University of Calgary. Photo: Submitted.

The health and safety team at the University of Calgary (UCalgary) has a very large umbrella — it covers the obvious areas one thinks of for a post-secondary institution such as students, faculty, and staff.

But it also extends into less obvious areas, ones that surprised Mark Davies, the director of Environment, Health and Safety (EHS).

“What I can’t believe is the diversity of safety when it comes to what we, on the team, are responsible for,” he said, including  biocontainment labs and a cattle ranch run by the university. “The laboratory safety team does an outstanding job in managing over 1000 labs and chemicals, radiation and biological hazards.”

Davies rhymed off the numbers — approximately 35,000 students, 7,000 employees and a safety team of less than two dozen professionals to oversee it all. This team which represents UCalgary’s commitment to a comprehensive and evolving approach to safety has earned the prestigious silver accolade for OHS Team of the Year at the 2023 OHS Honours.

EHS overhaul

Denise Howitt, senior manager of EHS systems and compliance, said one of the big projects the team tackled recently was an overhaul of its EHS policy.


It took a different tact than many policy updates at the university, which are often driven by the legal services group.

Consultation included a diverse range of groups such as the Joint Worksite Health Safety Committee, Board of Governors, various union and faculty associations, and specialized groups focused on indigenous engagement, equity, diversity, and inclusion, and staff wellness.

“For example, we made some changes within our policy to make sure it clearly gave space for the psychological safety components to align with our campus mental health strategy,” said Howitt.

Field safety standard

Adding to the university’s safety credentials was the introduction of a new field safety program.

“We developed a three-hour field safety course that’s mandatory for people going into  the field,” said Howitt. The course is also available to every student and staff member at the university at no charge, and even covers things like wildlife safety.

The program has garnered positive feedback, including right from the top.

“The president of the university, Ed McCauley, came up and said he’d had to use the field safety program because he was getting in and out of helicopters when he was doing some research up north,” said Davies.

Health and safety resources at post-secondary institutions have to be “dynamic,” he said, because they are constantly doing research and pushing the envelope.

“We’re doing things that are cutting edge, and safety may not have even been developed in those areas before,” said Davies. “Having safety professionals work with researchers to develop programs that are future-proof is really tricky.”

Safety app

Adding to the tapestry of the university’s safety measures is the newly introduced UCSafety app.

“Its designed to heighten the safety of individuals, especially those working alone. ,The app features guidelines for safety checks, decision-making templates, check-in reminders, and has a wealth of resources pertaining to health, safety, and wellness on and off campus” said Howitt.

Since its late-July introduction, the app has been downloaded over 3,000 times, a figure anticipated to rise as campus repopulation continues, she said.

The app’s utility has expanded beyond its initial purpose. It now includes campus maps, maintenance issue reporting, and alerts about potential campus dangers, such as wild animals. There’s also a push for including a cybersecurity section, with outreach from UCalgary’s IT professionals suggesting its addition.

“It’s nice to see that others are also recognizing how we can leverage the tool for things that aren’t traditional health and safety,” said Howitt.

The University of Calgary’s recognition at the 2023 OHS Honours is not only a testament to their commitment to safety but also showcases their dedication to evolving and improving their processes in the face of contemporary challenges.

Winning the award

Howitt said she’s “proud of the entire team” and its commitment and dedication to providing a safe environment.

“The fact we have such a breadth of activities and people at UCalgary means that our team has to know about a lot of stuff, and we have to rely on each other to share our knowledge and best practices,” she said. “I am very proud of the work that they do, and that we do, and what’s to come.”


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