Rae Ann Aldridge-2018

Thanks to her hard work, the University of Calgary is the only post-secondary institution with COR for its entire operation

After receiving her undergraduate degree in chemical engineering, Rae Ann Aldridge’s first job was writing material safety data sheets at a consulting firm. About one month in, her manager asked her to help out in the firm’s industrial hygiene (IH) group and that sealed the deal — she fell in love with occupational health and safety and has never looked back.

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“I really loved the IH work. Every day was something new and different and interesting. I got to go into all kinds of work environments, everything from huge GM plants in the (United) States to little dry cleaning plants,” says Aldridge. “And when I monitor and I find elevated levels, I can make a difference to their life and their health.” 

Aldridge is now the associate vice-president of risk at the University of Calgary and the winner of the 2018 Safety Leader of the Year award, presented by Canadian Occupational Safety. One of the reasons she is deserving of this award is for leading the organization in achieving its Certificate of Recognition (COR). The university is the first post-secondary institution to achieve this certification for the entire university and it’s among one of the largest employers with the certification in Alberta. The nature of the activities that take place at the university further proves why achieving this high standard is such an accomplishment. The university has 115 buildings, 14 faculties, four campuses in the Calgary area and 900 research labs using animals, radioisotopes, pathogens and all kinds of chemicals. It has 30,000 students and 5,000 employees. Plus, it contributes nearly $8 billion annually to Alberta’s economy.

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But achieving COR was a journey and it didn’t happen overnight, says Aldridge. It began with a baseline audit in which the university scored very low. Aldridge and her team got to work on developing policies and procedures and standardizing documentation — then the real heavy lifting began. One of the out-of-the-box ideas Aldridge had was to engage a consultant to deliver 165 workshops on hazard assessment and control. Participation was mandatory for each of the 420 departments. By the end of the project, more than 1,000 hazard assessment documents were completed for every role within the university.

“Honestly, it’s what got the program off the ground,” says Aldridge. “The hazard assessment and control component drives everything else inside the management system; they’re really the fundamentals.”

The university achieved COR in 2014 and successfully renewed it in 2017. 

“She’s not willing to just sit back and say, ‘I’ve done a good job, my team’s done a good job.’ She wants to validate it, she wants to use the findings to make us better and move the needle even further.”

“There’s this trust in Rae Ann and this focus — right up to the top of the house — on environmental health, safety and security,” says Dalgetty.

Another one of Aldridge’s initiatives is to have the executive leadership team participate in health and safety inspections during Safety and Wellness Week every September. She also walks through at least three tabletop exercises with them for the university’s crisis management system. All the meetings of the board, board committees and General Faculties Council start with a safety moment. 

“I have lots of time to answer calls and entertain other post secondaries who come and ask me about our ERM program or our management systems,” she says. 

What interested Aldridge in the industrial hygiene work nearly 30 years ago still rings true in her job today and is the reason why all the positions she has held throughout her career have been in occupational health and safety — that ability to make a difference. 

“It’s the reasons I stay,” Aldridge says. “Every day is something new here and I think with the right team I have in place we are able to be leading edge in terms of safety, security and risk management in general, and we have been able to do a lot of leading-edge changes to make sure our campus is a safe and healthy environment.”

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This article originally appeared in the December/January 2019 issue of COS.