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LCBO’s Lilian Riad-Allen blends neuroscience with workplace safety in innovative approach

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February 8, 2024
By Todd Humber

Lilian Riad-Allen took home silver as OHS Professional of the Year in 2023. Photo: Submitted

Lilian Riad-Allen took an unconventional path into the realm of occupational health and safety. When asked what drew her to the profession, she paused.

“Safety found me,” she said. “I didn’t really think of it as a profession I was pursuing.”

Riad-Allen began her career in the world of neuroscience, with a focus on mental health and addictions, taking on roles at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto. After that, she moved to Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), eventually taking on the role of director of mental health care.

In March 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic started locking down the world, she moved to her current position of senior director, workplace health, safety and wellness, at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO).


Her transition from neuroscience to workplace safety wasn’t just a career change, it was the merging of two similar worlds where psychological and physical health interplay. While at first she didn’t see a direct connection between the two — “the world of safety still felt like it was primarily physically focused” — the release of the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace changed everything.

“When the data started to meaningfully point out that workplace injuries and disability risks were tied to psychological risk factors, it was clear to me that the importance of addressing the issue was part of my DNA,” she said. “It was then that I started to see myself as part of a system supporting the whole person health and safety — neck up and neck down.”

Riad-Allen was honoured with the Silver Award for OHS Professional of the Year at OHS Honours, the annual awards celebration from the editors of OHS Canada, a sister publication to Talent Canada, in Toronto last fall. (Editor’s note: Nominations are now open for 2024 OHS Honours. See https://www.ohscanada.com/ohs-canada-honours/ for more information.)

The pandemic

She joined the LCBO at a challenging time, as COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic and the world started shutting down. While many businesses closed shop and sent staff home, Ontario declared the LCBO an essential service — meaning its workers had to report to work at a time when there was a lot of fear about being around other people.

“Our people are such a source of inspiration, the way they operated and banded together,” she said. “What it all told me is how seriously this organization values safety.”

The Silver Award for OHS Professional of the Year. Photo: Submitted

With such a wide range of roles and locations across the province, it was complex getting the right message out to the right teams at the right times, she said. The risks varied greatly from office staff to warehousing to retail locations.

“The risk factors or experiences may not be apples to apples when you’re talking about such a dispersed workforce and the types of work,” said Riad-Allen. “In many ways, I think the pandemic provided a unique moment-in-time to reinforce and reiterate safety-related messaging.”

COVID completely upended a level of safety that people just assumed in day-to-day interactions, she said.

“It reminded us that when safety isn’t present, it’s suddenly like being without air,” she said.

The LCBO’s approach focused on combining messages about physical safety and infection prevention, but it also opened a line of communication about mental health.

“We know that remaining open to the public that entire time wasn’t easy,” she said. “And not everybody had the same experience. We really tried to anchor our messaging to supporting the whole person — health, safety, and wellness.”

The communication efforts also opened the door to conversations about the tools available to support employees, and what the LCBO could do to support the teams, she said.

“While we did implement a number of new initiatives at that time, it really was also about looking at what we already had, connecting it and really explicitly supporting the whole person,” said Riad-Allen.

Evidence-based approach

Riad-Allen’s work was described in her nomination for OHS Professional of the Year as evidence-based and purposeful, which is something she takes to heart.

“When we operate on gut alone, that’s when the risk of missed opportunities arise,” she said. “My background as a scientist has taught me that data is power.”

While your own experiences, instincts, and literature about what has worked in other places can be helpful, there’s “always a benefit in testing your hypothesis using data and seeing what the story tells you. The fun of science is that it is always changing since different variables can change your results, which allows for a certain humility and joy in not having all the answers. Instead, we remain on a journey of exploration and learning in the pursuit of safety for all”.

Safety professionals can’t be everywhere all at once, even if they have large teams, so using data can help inform things like what pilot projects to try or where to start.

But that doesn’t mean you should ignore human anecdotal data, she said.

“It’s all about keeping us agile, relevant and also humble,” she said.

Leadership style

Riad-Allen’s nomination lauded her leadership style, which highlighted her empathy and compassion.

“That’s such a generous characterization, and I feel truly honoured to be described in that way,” she said. “I firmly believe that seeing and treating people as humans first creates a safe space for them psychologically and allows them to be authentic.” Part of that Riad-Allen believes, is also leading by example as it relates to being authentic and allowing ones humanity to shine through.

Riad-Allen is the host of the Lil on Life podcast.

She bristles at the notion that an empathetic leadership style is a weakness.

“It’s courageous leadership, because when people feel safe and believe you care for them, they will ask questions and perhaps flag things that could be risks that we weren’t aware of as leadership,” said Riad-Allen. “I’ve also benefitted personally from having empathetic and compassionate leaders in my life who have given me the opportunities to try new things, including being so welcomed by the safety profession.”

Riad-Allen is also a lifelong learner, most recently getting her Associate Coaching Certificate (ACC) from the International Coaching Federation (ICF) and is embarking on a personal stretch goal, having just launched her personal journey podcast called “Lil on Life” – available anywhere podcasts are played.

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