Joe Slavin

Long-time health and safety instructor retires

‘The dance with students is intoxicating and I’ll miss it.’

Sep 11, 2020 in News

Joe Slavin reflects on his experience with the Occupational Health and Safety program, sharing timely advice for students and graduates.


Joe Slavin started out the same way as many others looking to build a career in occupational health and safety (OHS).

“I started seeking knowledge to understand this industry, OHS. I wanted to save lives, stop pain and suffering and help my employer,” explained Slavin.

“I also wanted to one day be a Canadian Registered Safety Professional (CRSP) and the OHS Certificate at the U of A seemed like a practical route to all that.”

He completed the OHS Certificate in 2001, and became an instructor with the OHS program in 2005.

“I started teaching because I wanted to help others in my position, new to OHS, but who had few credible resources to speak to about it.”

Slavin has since then brought a wealth of experience to teaching over the years—now having 13 years in safety management within the rail transportation industry and over 12 years as an OHS consultant across different industries.

Spring 2020 may have been his last teaching term, but Slavin has left a lasting impact on the OHS program and profession, including students, instructors and other professionals.

Nimmi Dua, the OHS program team lead has worked alongside Slavin for 15 years. “It didn’t take long for me to recognize Joe was going to be a handful to manage—he set high standards for himself, his students and for the program; he demanded excellence…it is his kind of passion that influences change and gently moves us towards creating safer and healthier workplaces and communities.”

“Being a safety professional is more than a nine-to-five job, it is a calling and passion that require the professional to move outside of the ‘work’ and coach and mentor upcoming OHS practitioners. Joe met that calling and strived to move health and safety, not just his career,” said Sandra Coventry, a fellow OHS instructor.

OHS instructor Ryan Davis recalls being a student in Slavin’s class. “While I enjoyed all the classes in the OHS program at the U of A, Joe’s class was something special. His passion for both health and safety, and his students, created an incredible learning environment. I’ve spoken with at least a dozen of Joe’s former students who all shared stories of how transformative his classes and coaching were in their respective health and safety careers.”

One of the ways Slavin has supported networking and mentorship beyond the OHS program has been through a LinkedIn group he created.

“I wanted a way to know when students evolved in OHS and I wanted them to be able to talk to one another without ‘the world’ listening in,” Slavin explained.

Even after being diagnosed with Spinocerebellar Ataxia, a degenerative disease, in 2010, Slavin has continued to teach and dedicate time to mentoring numerous graduates and health and safety professionals.

“When Joe became ill, he recognized that his gift to the OHS Certificate students did not need to stop when he could no longer facilitate in the classroom,” said Coventry. “He turned to online course delivery and moved this passion, knowledge and skill to this format.”

Although continuing to teach has been challenging, Slavin credits his illness with having pushed him in some ways to become a better learner and instructor.

“I’m more direct and have less time for beating around the bush. Frankly, I think this sharpened me (as an instructor) and students (if they were willing to be sharpened).”

Advice for students to ‘lean into learning’

Slavin, who is truly a lifelong learner and teacher, shared some tips for students as they launch into their studies this year—an unprecedented year with all of Extension’s OHS courses online due to the pandemic.

When it comes to coursework, assignments are not just about getting a grade. “They have a purpose and they will help you learn,” said Slavin. “Oh, and get the textbook before the first day of class…we hit the ground running.”

Online learning can be both more demanding and rewarding than students might think. “It is good because you get what effort you put in,” said Slavin. “I remember face-to-face classes with disengaged students. They sought little sometimes and thought they’d learn just by being there. With online learning, it is harder to fake it.”

“It is effort—all learning is—but it is effort with purpose. Remember why you sought this knowledge and these skills, then, lean into them.”

To those beginning their career in health and safety, Slavin leaves this piece of advice: “OHS management is in growing pains right now. Get used to and comfortable with change (expect it). Traditional OHS management told people what to do and how to do it. There is an underlying belief (an assumption) here that OHS management is about protecting people from themselves. We have plateaued with this view and will need new beliefs to move forward.”

An inspiration in the face of adversity

“Until recently, my online students did not know of my condition. But my sense is this illness too is a part of who I am,” said Slavin. “Of course, face-to-face students saw the crutches then the wheelchair, so they knew something was up.”

“As odd as it might seem, I never feel like giving up. I guess, deep down, I know that’s not an option.”

“I still teach because I don’t want others to go through what I went through—the loneliness of not knowing. I know so much more now, in many cross-fields: economics, psychology and human behaviour, OHS, life, learning, leadership, culture, structure, design, complexity and so on; and I think all that learning gives me a better way to make meaning of what we are trying to teach in the program at the U of A.”

Gradually, Slavin’s illness began to present increasing challenges to his career and personal life, ultimately becoming his reason for retiring from teaching and his coaching business.

“Losing my ability to walk was challenging but they have very good wheelchairs now. So, an annoyance, but not a real problem. Though steps, holes and narrow doors became an issue.”

“I lost something of who I felt I’d become, when I lost my speech. Now, typing/writing is hard. It’s like I have all this knowledge and no one to communicate it to.”

“Yet, I keep reading and searching for the best/right path to OHS management. I toy with writing a book. But probably won’t. Maybe an advanced blog.”

“I give up only when it’s impossible. And, aside from stairs, I have met impossible very few times.”

Acknowledgements

Slavin has found most people to be helpful, appreciating the support of his family, colleagues and students along the way.

“Nimmi has been great and very supportive of my condition and my abilities, and my wife is a Godsend! She really goes an extra mile and a half for me.”

Slavin also thanks his mentor and friend Alan Quilley (and his wife Marie), who began bringing him breakfast after he stopped driving.

Thank you and farewell

“On behalf of the University of Alberta’s OHS program staff and all the students who have had the privilege to learn from you over the years, thank you, Joe. It’s been a pleasure working with and learning from you.”

– Nimmi Dua, OHS program team lead

“As a fellow instructor, I am grateful for the years that he dedicated to the OHS Certificate Program and the style that he showed every day in the classroom and coaching new health and safety professionals. Thank you Joe for who you are and your contribution to the safety and health of the workplace.”

– Sandra Coventry, OHS instructor

“I now teach courses at the U of A’s OHS program at the Faculty of Extension and am extraordinarily grateful to have Joe as both a mentor and as an exemplar for how to bring health and safety content to life. His teaching legacy lives on in the hundreds of health and safety professionals he’s inspired, and in the courses he built and helped develop.”

– Ryan Davis, OHS instructor

More about Joe Slavin

In addition to the OHS Certificate and his industry experience, Slavin has a Certificate in Adult and Continuing Education from the U of A Faculty of Extension, a Certificate in the Social Psychology of Risk from the Centre for Leadership and Learning, a Certificate in Modern Safety Management from the International Loss Control Institute, and professional training in coaching from Erickson College.