“I’m not afraid of risks. I manage them.”
By Neale McDevitt
Toward the end of his interview with the McGill Reporter, Wayne Wood stops in mid-sentence, leans acutely to his right and peers out the window of his office at 3610 McTavish. “Is that a kestrel?” he asked, pointing to a tiny dot perched atop a spire 300-metres away on the McTavish Reservoir pump house. Grabbing a pair of binoculars, Wood confirms that the raptor in question is indeed a kestrel, “an American kestrel.” Those eagle eyes and that remarkable attention to detail have been serving Wood well in his capacity as Associate Director, Environmental Health and Safety for coming on to 25 years. In the following interview, Wood, who also Chairs McGill’s Pandemic Contingency Planning Committee talks about everything from H1N1 and Hazmat situations to cross-country cycling and working in East Coast mines.
How would you rate the University’s response to the H1N1 pandemic?
The response has been as good as it gets. One of the thrills for me in working on the Pandemic Contingency Planning Committee is the opportunity to work with some pretty talented people that I don’t normally get to work with and see how they function in a crisis. I think we’ve actually exceeded our objectives.
Exceeded them in what way?
The decision to go ahead with self-reporting of flu-like symptoms on the part of faculty and students is a good example. We realized it would be difficult to do and, in fact, a few weeks ago we still weren’t sure if we could do it. But we forged ahead and we put this in place. The results have been very successful. Last week, even though the number of flu cases in the community was going up, the number of visits to medical clinics was going up and the number of people checking into hospitals was going up, the number of visits to the student health services actually went down. That’s what we were trying to achieve. We didn’t want a situation where students were forced out of their room or homes just to get medical note so they could miss class and risk infecting other people.
What are we doing in residences?
Michael Porritt [Executive Director, Residence Administration] got involved in this right from the get-go and his people have put in place some really good systems to prevent and mitigate the spread of H1N1.
For example, any students who have the flu get their food delivered right to their room instead of making them go to the cafeteria. If they have a shared bathroom, they are given masks and extra cleaning products and given the ways and means to manage their infection. We have a number of cases of students who have had H1N1 but their roommates didn’t get it thanks to those measures.
How important is communication during the pandemic?
Extremely important. There is so much information and misinformation about H1N1. We’ve been trying to keep a steady flow of reliable messages on the situation, on McGill’s policies and, most importantly, on the medical end of things. Dr. Pierre-Paul Tellier [Director, Student Health Services] has been a stalwart member of our committee.
But can we be oversaturated with H1N1 information?
I don’t think so. There’s a formula I’ve often used in Health and Safety and that is in order to offset one negative piece of information, you might need two or three positive pieces information. With all the negative information and the anti-vaccinationists, as I call them, we need to.
Above and beyond H1N1, what is your mandate?
I think I’ve got one of the most unusual jobs a person could have. I’m not just responsible for overseeing health and safety, its overseeing health and safety in the university environment where we deal with all sorts of situations, all branches of science and engineering and research.
Do you have a favorite project?
I was the project manager of the decommissioning of the physics department’s cyclotron. Basically it was a huge nuclear reactor that bombarded targets with a beam of electrons that produced isotopes. McGill was a leader in nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry from the 1940s right until the early 1980s. But the cyclotron became more and more expensive to operate and the physics department decided to move to new areas.
The cyclotron consisted of 500 tons of mostly steel. There was a bunker built around it where the Wong Building now stands.
My job was to dismantle the cyclotron from within; separate everything that was hot from everything that was not; send everything that was hot to proper disposal facilities and leave a proper paper trail from here all the way to Ottawa so we could document that we did it correctly and that the site was completely clean and could be released for other purposes, which we did successfully.
Which brings us to Hazmat situations…
Actually, when I came to McGill one of my first mandates was to develop an improved ability to deal with spills or hazardous material situations.
Now we have in place a world-class hazardous material transfer centre, a Hazmat trailer and trained staff to go onsite and deal with any spill you could imagine.
How difficult is it to ensure safety in our labs?
There are a number of challenges. Number one, you’re dealing with a moving target – they are inventing new hazards as fast as I can keep up with the old ones. We’re now doing research in areas and on types of particles and chemical products that didn’t exist and weren’t mentioned in the textbooks when I studied health and safety.
For example, there are nanoparticles. I think we now have more nano-researchers per capita than any university in Canada. I’ve had to learn about nanoparticles and what the different types are, what the various hazards that are associated with them are, and what the environmental impacts are, so that I can give advice to our clients on safe handling practices, protective equipment and how to dispose of them. Sometimes I’m learning on the fly.
The other challenge is the nature of the organization and the whole notion of academic freedom. I like to tell researchers “I’m not here to take away your dangerous work. I’m not here to take away your fun toys. I’m here to help you reach your destination without hurting anyone or damaging the environment along the way.”
McGill doesn’t have a single safety culture. I see different cultures, I see different values, I see a lot of diversity and different attitudes. To me that is one of the University’s strengths – but from a health and safety perspective that’s one of our weaknesses because in safety you’re trying to adopt standards and uniform practices. Very hard to do that when you don’t have uniform culture.
What has been the biggest change in terms of safety over the past 25 years?
The realization that health and safety is not optional. It is the law and the law is not something that just exists on paper. It is something we have to respect and that, if we don’t respect it, there will be enforcement.
By and large we’re not a hazardous operation but we’re subject to the same rules and regulations that the rest of commerce and industry.
And we’re seeing more and more imposition of regulatory requirements, and more and more imposition of bureaucratic requirements to get proper accreditation.
Most recently the Federal government passed legislation where we have to have a permit to possess and work with microorganisms, they call them pathogens – which are dangerous microorganisms. This is what we call post-911 legislation that has been designed to tighten up our institutions and reduce our exposure to potential terrorism.
But with more stringent requirements we’re also seeing more ‘push back’ from the people who have to endure the bureaucracy, namely the researchers who have more and more steps to follow to get the permission to just get to the research. That’s frustrating for them.
Our mission is to help them comply with the health and safety requirements without blowing them out of the water with bureaucracy. Try to make it as easy as possible for people to get their permits and to register up front.
Does the new generation of researchers have a different mindset?
As we rejuvenate our faculty, we’re finding that they are more open-minded about health and safety and definitely more attuned to environmental issues. They are a lot more concerned about the effects on the environment than the professors I had when I was doing my undergraduate studies in chemistry. I remember very clearly what one of my professors said to do with some chemicals. He said to just flush it because ‘dilution is the solution.’
These days, researchers are very anxious to know what are the proper ways to dispose of waste. We receive a very high demand for information about services related to hazardous waste disposal.
So is McGill is a risky place to work for researchers?
By and large, McGill isn’t a hazardous environment. It may sound like it is when I talk about biohazards and radiation and chemicals, but the magnitude and quantity of what we work with is minimal when compared to industry.
But I’m not afraid of risks, I manage them. Life is full of risks and you have to manage them effectively to reach your goals, whether it is climbing Everest or doing a research project.
How did you get involved in the field?
I had a chemistry degree and was working in Concordia University’s chemistry department as the person in charge of the technical operations so I ended up inheriting messes of various types. Dead professors, departed professors – at one point I inherited a chemical storeroom that had been stocked with chemicals for 75. So I had to go to the books and look up each chemical, look up its properties and figure out what I could do with it. That was back in the days when we didn’t have lab waste disposal services. I had to figure out one-by-one, step-by-step what I had to do. Then I had to redesign the storeroom to make it safe. In so doing, I developed a certain degree of expertise, but I still didn’t feel like I had the right credentials so I decided to come to McGill and do my Masters in Occupational Hygiene.
Wayne Wood’s first job
It wasn’t my first job, but I had a couple of summer jobs as a student that offered a study in contrast. I began one summer working on top of a bridge painting but the wages weren’t very good. I got hired for the rest of the summer working in a base metal mine in northern New Brunswick; copper, zinc, lead. I went from a couple of hundred feet up to 4,000 feet down, which is almost a mile underground. Certainly while working in the mines I got my first prompt that safety is important.
Tell me about your cross-Canada bike tour
I’ve been doing it stage-by-stage over the past 30 years. I started it in 1979, when I packed up 10-speed with camping gear, sleeping bag, stove, spare tires, spare chains… the thing weighed a ton. I rode it all the way to PEI.
After taking 15 years off to raise a family I decided to complete the remaing stages. Four years ago I started finishing up the Maritimes; last year I rode from Calgary to Regina and this year Regina to Ottawa – my last stage. I call it my Tour de Procrastination.
The hardest stage was last year running into Prairie headwinds. Very little place to hide. I had spent three days in a small town in Saskatchewan waiting for the headwinds to switch, but they didn’t. Finally I got out there and I froze.
I got lucky. I came across an abandoned car on the side of the road that I could use for a bit of shelter. Lo and behold, the car was unlocked. A 1986 Pontiac Bonneville, nice and clean – left there by a senior citizen named Nick from Lethbridge who left a note saying his car had broken down and he was coming back in a few days to pick it up. I wrapped myself up in two nice warm blankets that were left in the car and slept for two hours.
After I ate, I hit the road and soon started to get cold again. Then a miracle happened. Along came a group of riders I had met a few days before in Alberta. They called themselves Typically Canadian Group and were doing a cross-Canada cancer fundraising tour to raise funds for cancer research. I drafted all the way behind them all the way to Moose Jaw.
What do you think about when you’re riding?
I have too much excess energy to sit still and meditate so biking takes care of that excess physical energy and I’m able to find peace. Sometimes I think about work, creative thinking. I particularly like the wilderness and I take inventory of the animals as I’m riding along.
I can bird by ear so I can tell all the bird species I pass as I am riding along. On this last trip I went through the western region, the central flyway and the eastern flyway – I didn’t list them but I’m sure there were 200 species.
Bixi, yay or nay?
I’m a huge fan of the Bixi – I’m up over 500 trips. You can live without cars in the city.