December 2008, Vol. 20, No.12

Safety Corner

The Operations Challenge Ripple Effect

Ian Smith

Each year the Operations Challenge at WEFTEC gives teams from around the world the chance to compete to see who has the right balance of precision, speed, and safety. The competition is huge in every way. There are more than 40 teams in two divisions with coaches, judges, organizers, and support staff; more than $100,000 of equipment is used; and the arena covers almost 2 ac (0.8 ha) of floor space. Now expand those numbers to include all of the qualifying competitions held at Member Associations (MAs), and the competition’s reach starts to come into view.

Now think about how participating in such an event gives us a sense of pride in our industry. It’s a source of pride in what we can accomplish working together and pride in the skills and professionalism we bring to the communities we serve.

Consider for a moment what the Safety Event is designed to accomplish. It showcases what operations staff must do to rescue a colleague rendered unconscious at a work site. Atmospheric testing is conducted, safety equipment is assembled and positioned, a response team is lowered, the casualty is retrieved, the worksite is secured, and the equipment properly stored for the next use. During the competition those tasks happen in about 5 minutes.

Now, it’s true that competition only mimics reality — but the Safety Event has some serious lessons for those who take part; lessons that are vital in our day-to-day workplaces. While jurisdictions may have slightly differing practices governing confined space entry, here’s the underlying logic to our competition: Safety training delivers lessons that could save a life one day.

Training is something that all teams do to prepare for the Challenge, and the results of proper training are dramatic. Most teams have watched their event times drop from 15 minutes to between 5 and 6 minutes. That represents a 300% improvement — something to think about, especially from the viewpoint of a person waiting to be rescued. Calling 911 has its place in a rescue plan, but there is nothing better than knowing that your coworkers have your back covered.

Teamwork is often talked about, but often it’s just that: talk. Competing reinforces the idea that workplace safety depends on all of us. Each worker has a vital part to play. Safety is not merely going through the motions. Competition success depends on all team members remaining focused and committed to a goal.

The Safety Event stresses doing it right the first time. Penalties are put into place to ensure that teams don’t take shortcuts; the safe way is often just as fast as the easy way. Safety has to become a workplace habit, and by stressing and rewarding correct procedures in the competition, we hope that some of the knowledge gained is reflected in our day-to-day performance at work.

After all, if documentation and atmospheric testing can be done in 35 seconds during the competition, why not ensure you and your coworkers are safe by taking the time to properly complete all the required steps in the real world?

The skills learned at Operations Challenge have far-reaching effects. For example, when back on the job in my plant after competing in the finals at our MA level, operations staff improved safety procedures, retired obsolete and ineffective safety equipment, and improved knowledge of workplace hazards throughout the facility. Those changes affected 120 people directly.


In May 2008, the Water Environment Association of Ontario, my MA, had six teams compete in its Operations Challenge. The teams represented five employers. To host the event required several committees, sponsors, and suppliers. No fewer than 10 municipalities were directly involved in the event, with the promise of more to come. Have a look at the photo; all the people pictured are directly involved in the competition at one MA. I think we’re on to something!

In addition to competitors, Operations Challenge involves many wastewater professionals. Here, some of the volunteers from the Water Environment Association of Ontario competition pause for a photo. (Photo by Ian Smith)


Ian Smith is a team coordinator at the Ashbridges Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant in Toronto.