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Helping employers navigate to thriving workplaces

For Mary Morris, sharing her expertise in improving workplace health and safety, understanding legislation and managing human resources is all in a day’s work

Sep 01, 2017, By: Denise Deby
Mary Morris showing her rug hooking
Teckles Photography Inc.

As a nursing student at Dalhousie University in the early 1980s, Mary Morris completed an eight-month occupational health placement at MT&T (Maritime Telegraph and Telephone Company), not realizing that the experience would influence the direction of her career. After graduating, she headed to Europe for the summer, where she received the news that the company was going to create a permanent job for her. She returned home to a position as the occupational health and safety nurse and spent the next five years at MT&T.

“I had no idea when I graduated that I would end up working in this field,” she reflects, “but I have been fortunate because of that early opportunity.”

Today, Morris is executive director and an employer advisor for the Office of Employer Advisor Nova Scotia Society. OEA NS is an independent not-for-profit society that helps employers create safe and healthy workplaces, and understand and comply with legislation and policies related to workplace health and safety, workers’ compensation and employment standards.

An employer will call Morris to help develop a human resources policy, provide guidance with a disability case, participate in case management meetings or support an employee’s return to work after injury. She draws on her communication and negotiation skills to help all parties come together to resolve workplace issues. She also assists employers with appeals under the provincial Occupational Health and Safety Act or Workers’ Compensation Act, by reviewing files, preparing submissions, gathering evidence or identifying expert witnesses.

Morris was the first of two nurses in Canada to be hired as an employer advisor — and she hired the second to work for OEA NS. Generally, people in these positions have legal backgrounds. “When they went out to hire in this role in Nova Scotia, they didn’t specifically ask for a nurse,” she says. “But the skill set, the knowledge set that I brought as an occupational health nurse was a good fit.”

Morris adds that occupational health nurses excel in this role because they look at the person and situation holistically. “I think we bring an incredible understanding that individuals don’t operate in isolation; they have many interactions with their environment and the people around them. We try to look at the whole picture.”

Her work with private- and public-sector employers takes her across the province, and the demand for OEA NS’s programs and services is high. “I see my role as really one of promoting Nova Scotia business,” she says. “Employers want to understand what is required. They want their business to succeed, and that success means all Nova Scotians benefit.” Her workday might begin with a visit to a college or university in the morning and end at a farm or manufacturing company in the afternoon.

After leaving MT&T, Morris became health and safety manager for a company with interests in manufacturing, construction and trucking. She soon saw the need to pursue further training and qualifications. During her 10 years with the Shaw Group Ltd., she earned designations as a Canadian Registered Safety Professional and as a certified occupational health nurse from CNA and the American Board for Occupational Health Nurses. She went on to manage health and safety divisions for Casino Nova Scotia, Air Canada Jazz and Labatt Breweries before joining OEA NS in 2008.

Morris relishes the scope of her current position. “The difference is that I have an opportunity to make far bigger changes in Nova Scotia companies, to influence far more employers.” She adds, “Our office has been active in policy consultation and legislation development, and we’ve provided feedback that has actually ended up being reflected in the policies or in the legislation.” In 2014, OEA NS consultations on amendments to Nova Scotia’s workplace health and safety regulations, involving thousands of employers, prompted the government to rework the draft.

She mentions proudly that she was one of 30 RNs selected by CNA’s jurisdictional members to receive a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee medal, recognizing her contributions to nursing and health care.

In addition to her long-time interest in rug hooking, Morris is an avid reader and usually has three or four books on the go. When she was 10, she discovered a series of books about Cherry Ames, a nurse whose practice included military service during the Second World War and work on a farm and a cruise ship. “She could do everything,” Morris says. “I knew from then that I was going to be a nurse, because, of course, I did not see nursing as having any limitations at all.”

10 questions with Mary Morris

What is one word you would use to describe yourself?

If you could change anything about yourself, what would it be?
I’d sleep better than I do now

What are you most proud of having accomplished?
Raising my three amazing daughters

What is one thing about you that people would be surprised to learn?
I love barns, horses and horseback riding

“If I had more free time, I would...”
Spend all day dyeing wool for rug hooking

Where did you go on your last vacation?

Name one place in the world you’d most like to visit.
Sable Island, about 300 kilometres southeast of Halifax

What was the last good book you read?
A Good Enough Life: The Dying Speak by Susan Gabori

What was the best piece of career advice you’ve received?
My mother encouraged me to take the nursing degree program at Dalhousie University

Name one change you would like to make to the health system.
I would like everyone to be accountable for their personal health choices and practices

Denise Deby is a freelance journalist in Ottawa.