Is Chief Safety Officer the Next Executive Title?

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All corporations have chief executive officers and chief financial officers. Some even have chief privacy officers. But, in the near future, some companies may have to add a new executive title—chief safety officer. At least, that’s what the federal government is proposing for the rail industry.

Changes Proposed to Railway Safety Act

On June 1, the Minister of Transport announced that the federal government is introducing legislation to improve railway safety in Canada. The proposed amendments to the Railway Safety Act will encourage rail companies to create and maintain a safety culture and penalize rule breakers. The changes will enable the government to:

  • Crack down on rule breakers with tough new monetary penalties and increased judicial penalties;
  • Strengthen safety requirements for railway companies;
  • Create whistleblower protection for workers who raise safety concerns; and
  • Require each railway to have an executive legally responsible for safety.

Motivation for Changes

The Railway Safety Act, which came into force in 1989, gives Transport Canada the responsibility for overseeing railway safety in Canada. Although the Act was amended in 1999, the Canadian rail industry has changed significantly since then. Rail operations have become increasingly complex and rail traffic is growing rapidly. As a result, there have been derailments and incidents that killed and injured people and caused extensive environmental damage. Examples:

  • A train derailed alongside a lake, dumping almost 200,000 litres of oil into the reservoir. A few days later, several rail cars loaded with sodium hydroxide spilled into a river, killing half a million fish.
  • Two rail workers rode an out-of-control train to their deaths in BC.
  • When a train derailed on an overpass in Ontario, rail cars fell onto the roadway below and killed two people in a vehicle.

So in February 2007, the Minister of Transport launched a full review of the Act through an independent advisory panel. The panel issued its final report in March 2008, which included 56 recommendations for improving rail safety, some of which require changes to the Act.

In addition, the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities studied rail safety and issued its own report in May 2008. That report includes 14 additional recommendations. The federal government says that it supports the findings of both reports and is proposing the discussed changes to the Act in response.

Implications of Changes

One of the most striking requirements in the proposed changes is that rail companies must have an executive legally responsible for safety. In general, members of senior management can be held personally responsible for their companies’ safety violations if they don’t take all reasonable care to ensure that the company complies with the OHS and other safety laws.

The proposed requirement takes this general duty one step farther by requiring companies to designate an executive to be on the hook for safety offences. It’s sort of the legal embodiment of the-buck-stops-here principle.

Does this new requirement mean that a rail executive could be fined or even jailed in the event of a safety incident? Possibly. But as the Minister of Transport explained, “What we’re really wanting to do is to make sure that they have a culture of safety within the company and if you are saying there’s one person deemed to have that responsibility there’s a lot more chance that’s actually going to happen.”

The proposed requirements are just that—proposals. They’re not the law of the land yet. But if the proposed amendments are adopted, it’ll be interesting to see if Canadian jurisdictions decide to incorporate the “chief safety officer” concept into their OHS laws.