Safe Workplace Ontario Certification Program turns 20

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Third-party health and safety certification program for Ontario businesses

by Bernie Stockermans, HBScF CRSP

Bernie Stockermans, Health and Safety Specialist at Workplace Safety North

In honour of Small Business Week and Healthy Workplace Month, it’s time to celebrate the 20th anniversary of very successful third-party health and safety certification program for Ontario businesses: Safe Workplace Ontario, and the 11th anniversary of its sister program Small Company Health and Safety Program.

The Safe Workplace Ontario (SWO) certification program is a voluntary program designed to help Ontario businesses meet the requirements of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, and provides all the essentials for setting up and implementing an effective health and safety program.

The Small Company Health and Safety Program (SCHSP) endorsement program is also a voluntary program, based on SWO, and developed for smaller companies with up to five employees. It covers the same 23 health and safety standards but simplifies the expectations by providing a sample Health and Safety Program Manual for companies to customize.  

Through a voluntary annual audit process overseen by Workplace Safety North (WSN), businesses continuously monitor and improve their health and safety programs and procedures. 

Currently, many larger employers require contractors to have their health and safety programs verified by a competent third party within six months of starting work at their operations, and SWO certification or SCHSP endorsement meets this need.

Changes to legislation prompt industry demand

Cover of Safe Workplace Ontario Certification Program Resource Manual

Throughout the 1970s and into the early 1990s, in response to requests from industry for help in complying with new health and safety laws, and in dealing with high injury and compensation rates at the time, Workplace Safety North developed sample health and safety policies for forestry industry and freely distributed them

During those years, WSN was known as Forest Products Accident Prevention Association, Ontario Natural Resources Safety Association, and Ontario Forestry Safe Workplace Association. 

WSN health and safety specialists would assist employers to customize and implement these health and safety policies and procedures into their workplaces.  

In the mid-1990s discussion started to update and formalize this basic health and safety program into an annual ‘safety certification’ that forestry companies could use to meet due diligence requirements and ensure compliance with health and safety requirements. 

Called “Safe Workplace Ontario” or “SWO,” companies would be recognized with a wall plaque declaring them to be a safe company, and be promoted in the WSN magazine of the day.  

Evolution of Safe Workplace Ontario Certification Program

In 1998, the first company to gain SWO certification was Trent Timber Treating in Peterborough, with the EACOM Sawmill in Nairn Center (formerly E.B. Eddie) becoming SWO certified a week later. The SWO program became a hit, and most forestry wood products companies signed up for it.

Over the years, various versions were developed and updated. In 2000, a unique logging version of the SWO program was developed.

In 2007 the Small Company Health and Safety Program (SCHSP) was launched to address the needs of businesses with up to five employees.

In 2014-15, the SWO program was overhauled to make it a more generic health and safety program for any company in any industry to use. Legal and resource references were updated and two new standards were added: violence and harassment prevention and motor vehicle incident prevention, for a total of 23 health and safety standards. 

SWO and WSIB Safety Groups

With the success of the SWO program in the late 1990s, WSN began discussions with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) to offer SWO-certified companies a financial incentive. At the time, WSIB was looking to expand on the success of its Safe Community Incentive Program (SCIP).  

In 2000, discussions contributed to the formation of the WSIB Safety Group Incentive Program.  The SWO Safety Group was one of the first in Ontario.

Since then, WSIB Safety Groups has grown into an incentive program for all companies in Ontario with more than 40 different Safety Groups in place across the province.

Small Company Health and Safety Program

Smaller companies had difficulty developing and implementing a health and safety program that met SWO requirements, so in 2006, WSN developed a simpler version for small logging companies.

The Small Company Health and Safety Program  (SCHSP) consisted of sample health and safety policies and procedures for a small logging company that could be adopted and customized to their workplace.  

Within a few years the SCHSP became more widely known and by 2012 the SCHSP was expanded to include a general company version for any small company. 

SWO and SCHSP today: Health and safety certification a success with Ontario businesses

To date, more than 100 companies have been certified or endorsed via SWO and SCHSP, and the programs are well known in northern Ontario. They are now finding acceptance in southern Ontario where the need for good health and safety programs is also in high demand.

Bernie Stockermans, WSN Health and Safety Specialist, is a Canadian Registered Safety Professional and former Registered Professional Forester. He has worked at the Ministry of Natural Resources, and as a supervisor and forester with industrial and First Nations logging operations. For more information, contact


Safe Workplace Ontario Certification Program

Small Company Health and Safety Program

Health and Safety Resources for Small Business