Wayne Wood calls it a career

After 35 years of looking out for people's wellbeing, McGill's health and safety guru retires

When Wayne Wood arrived at McGill in 1984, as the University’s first Safety Officer, he was sporting a brand-new pair of shoes. They didn’t last long.

Wayne Wood and the automated external defibrillators that he says has saved the lives of three members of the McGill communityAdam Scotti

“My boss said ‘Wayne, you’re going to get really busy, real fast – so, get out there and visit all the buildings while you still have a chance,’” remembers Wood, the newly retired (as of December 2) Director, Environmental Health and Safety. “He assigned the head of cleaning services to show me around at first and then I wandered around by myself. I literally wore out the soles of my new shoes within three months.”

Those early wanderings set the tone for Wood’s work style, which was, get out and meet people.

At first, it was out of necessity. A large part of his mandate was to acquaint himself with the University’s many labs, assess their safety levels and address any problems he found.

All fine and dandy – except Wood had to find the labs first. “When I started I didn’t even know where the labs were,” he says. “It took me two years to figure that out – just to get a list of lab locations, which professors were using them, and what materials they were working with was a significant undertaking. Information was very hard to come by.”

Wood calls those early days “the Age of Secrecy,” a time when researchers around the world operated under their own rules and adhered to safety standards that were moving targets. “It was a bit like the Wild West,” says Wood. “People weren’t comfortable with disclosing information and many felt as though safety laws applied to industry but not necessarily to their lab.”

Fast forward 35 years and it’s a completely different scenario.

“Not only do we know every lab, we have a full inventory with over 132,000 entries,” he says. “I can tell you every lab that works with radiation. I can tell you who works with infectious materials, what they work with and what their classification is. I can tell you where all the lasers are. I can tell you who works in the lab, what training they’ve taken, when they were last inspected and the status of the follow-ups.”

“I can say that we’ve have completed the transition from the Age of Secrecy to the Age of the Right to Know.”

The right to know

But how does one effectuate such a massive cultural shift among people who were naturally guarded about revealing details about their work?

“It didn’t happen overnight,” says Wood with a rueful smile.

Once again, he went out and met with people – workers, researchers, managers, administrators. “My job has always been to look after people and it’s always easier to do that if you really care about them,” he says. “I made it a point to get to know everyone.”

Wood gained the respect of technicians working in labs by being their champion and advocate. Armed with Canada’s relatively new Occupational Health and Safety Act, he stressed that, by law, they had a right to know exactly what materials they were working with and the potential hazards they presented.

“I believe that by respecting the right to know, you gain people’s confidence. Secrecy build suspicion. Transparency builds trust,” he says. “One of the inherently unfair aspects of health and safety is that the decisions made around risk are usually made by people who don’t have to deal with that risk on a daily basis. By respecting people’s right to know, you empower them to help determine what are the best ways for them to work safely.”

While enforcing the right-to-know laws, Wood also had to assuage the suspicions of researchers. “We worked really hard to demonstrate to academics that we were not there to put up obstacles or shut them down,” he says. “We were there to keep them in business – as long as that business was done safely. There are no safe chemicals, but there are safe ways to work with them. Everything has a risk and our job is to manage that risk.”

Nanoparticle newbie

Most importantly, Wood gained people’s trust and respect through knowledge and impeccable professionalism. “You need to keep yourself up-to-date to stay on top of the new hazards,” he says. “Because researchers invent new hazards faster than you can learn about the old ones.”

He points to nanoparticles as an example. “They didn’t even exist when I was a student – they weren’t even in my textbook,” he says. “But there we were, at a point when McGill had more nano researchers per capita than any university in Canada. I made it my job to become a bit of an expert on nanoparticles in health and safety, to the point where I was giving presentations elsewhere.”

Having earned his Master’s in Occupational Health at McGill, Wood taught a graduate course in occupational safety for almost 30 years and supervised more than 30 graduate projects during that time. “If you work at a university and are surrounded by experts, you’re able to turn to them for information and advice,” he says. “You end up picking up a few things along the way.”

Going outside to earn credibility inside

Wood earned American Board of Industrial Hygiene certification in 1985, and the Canadian Board of Occupational Hygienists certification in 1988. He served on the Board of the latter for 11 years and was president twice.

Co-authoring six editions of the Laboratory Safety Guidelines of the Canadian Society of Medical Lab Sciences, Wood became interested in fume hoods – “one of the most important safety devices in a lab, and one of my first loves,” he says. He was named to the Canadian Standards Association committee for fume hoods and chaired the committee that wrote the last standards.

“That opened all kinds of doors for me at McGill,” he says. “Suddenly, when I went to meetings to discuss projects, engineers would come over and say ‘Oh, you’re the guy who was on that Standards committee.’ It really helped me out internally. And we’ve ended up doing some fantastic fume hood projects. There is a new set of hoods in the Chemistry Building that are both the safest and most energy-efficient in the world.”

“There were times early in my career where I agonized over the fact that I felt I had the expertise but people weren’t buying in,” he says. “In order to get credibility inside, I had to go outside.”

Decommissioning Rutherford’s lab

Over the years, Wood has taken part in any number of projects that involved some of McGill’s most iconic names, including intervening when it was discovered that parts of Sir William Dawson’s mineral collection had elevated levels of radon.

Wood laughs about his connection to McGill’s most famous researcher, Ernest Rutherford, Nobel Prize Laureate and widely considered the father of nuclear physics.

“From the very first day that I arrived at McGill, there was a rumour floating around that because Rutherford had worked in the Macdonald Stewart Building, perhaps there was still radiation present,” he says. “So we checked it out.”

Because it was over 100 years ago, the exact location of the lab wasn’t known. Using old photographs and “a bit of sleuthing,” they located the lab and conducted a series of tests that concluded the area was free of contamination.

Later, Wood spoke to a retired colleague with whom he played softball about the Rutherford lab and found out that, in fact, it had been decontaminated and closed many years prior. “Finally, 111 years later, we were able to say that Ernest Rutherford’s desk had been officially decommissioned.”

Bucket list

When asked what projects he’s most proud of, Wood picks two. “I had the distinct pleasure of being the project manager to dismantle McGill’s Cyclotron in 1993 – saving the University some $4 million,” he says. “Even better, though, is that we’ve saved at least three lives by installing automated external defibrillators. Tough to beat that.”

Reflecting upon his career, Wood sounds proud, happy and satisfied.

“When I started, the majority of the job was reacting to something that had happened. Today, 95 per cent of our job is prevention, developing programs, strategic planning and trying to improve health and safety. That’s where you want to be,” he says. “It’s time for me to go. Mission accomplished. In terms of my career, I’ve completed my bucket list.”

“That doesn’t mean there isn’t more work to be done. Safety is a process of continuous improvement and the standards of today are not going to be up to the standards 20 years from now,” says Wood. “I leave that in the hands of my team and in the hands of the institution. But I can say that I’ve done my part and I’ve left McGill a safer place than when I came.”