OHS is not all about covering one’s arse 5

iStock_000005779267_SmallIt is very common to hear people say that the core motivation for introducing or improving workplace safety management is to cover one’s arse (to protect oneself from various legislative and reputational exposures), be that the collective arse of management, the board and executives or the arse of the individual worker.  This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the intention occupational health and safety (OHS) laws and principles yet the fear of reputational damage is a strong motivator of change with which safety professionals should learn to work and, perhaps, exploit, particularly as the traditional methods for corporate embarrassment, the media, are declining.

The most pertinent research on reputation risk as a motivator for OHS change seems to come from the UK’s Health and Safety Executive in 2005. In a summary report on research into compliance, HSE looked at the motivations of employers for change.  It found that reputational damage was one of many motivators and that each was given around the same weight in deliberations but that

“Respondents cite newspaper reports covering serious incidents and requirement to advise customers of incidents as the best way of increasing risk of reputational damage, followed by a requirement to report health and safety in company reports. ” ( page 10)

This change catalyst relies on two increasingly fragile criteria – the media and annual reports.  The media has rarely reported on OHS issues unless the incident

  • has caused major disruption
  • involves a high profile individual or company
  • involves children
  • can be given a party political context.

More…

Zero Accident Vision and its OHS potential 3

In 2013 the  Safety Science journal allowed open access to an article that discusses “The case for research into the zero accident vision” (ZAV). The terminology is slightly different but seems compatible with the “zero harm” trend occurring in Australia. The authors acknowledge that

“…. many companies with a good safety reputation have adopted a zero accident vision, yet there is very little scientific research in this field.” (link added)

Although the discussion revolves around experience in Finland and Finland has a unique culture, the concepts discussed are indicative of the ZAV:

  • “accounting for complex contexts;
  • setting up norms, rules and performance indicators;
  • identifying the role of safety climate and safety culture;
  • studying human behavior.”

The authors’ short discussion of context is important as it acknowledges the state of knowledge of hazards and advocates systemic analysis.  It also mentions dealing with ‘normal accidents” in complex settings that leads to either looking for safer substitutes or ‘high reliability theory’ and ‘resilience engineering’. Context is vital but there is also the trap of paying too much attention to context and not enough to the hazard, a situation that can often happen with wellbeing programs. More…

How can an OHS regulator get the management of its own staff so wrong? 3

How can an OHS regulator get the management of its own staff so wrong?

In June 2014, a NSW Parliamentary inquiry released its final report into Allegations of bullying in WorkCover NSW, that State’s occupational health and safety (OHS) regulator. The report found that

“…Workcover has a significant organisational problem with bullying.  This problem is a longstanding one and operates at a cultural level.” (page x)

The Committee Chairman Hon Fred Nile MLC, wrote that

“more effective leadership and governance is essential.” (page x)

Longstanding bullying problems?  Problems with leadership and governance?  Many companies and public sector organisations have had similar issues ambulances, police, fire services, research organisations, to name a few, and are working them through. What happened in New South Wales?

More…

Important safety perspectives from outside the OHS establishment 2

Real Risk - CoverWhen people mention safety, they are often really talking about risk.  In a similar way, people talk about the absurdity of ‘elf ‘n’ safety when they actually mean public liability or food safety or HACCP.  And when some professionals talk about risk management they mean minimising the cost to the employer or controlling reputational damage.

Recently two books were released that illustrate the limitations of the current Western/patriarchal society’s approach to workplace safety. Dr Dean Laplonge has written about gender and its role in making decisions and Dr Rob Long has written his third book on risk “Real Risk – Human Discerning and Risk“.  Both deserve close reading and that reading should be used to analyse how safety professionals conduct their work, the organisational environment in which they work and the cultural restrictions imposed in their technical education.

Laplonge has written a book out of the extensive research and training on gender issues in the mining industry.  “So you think you’re tough? – Getting serious about gender in mining” provokes thoughts and self-analysis about gender in the workplace and safety management systems.  This perspective may be part of the reason that attempts at changing safety cultures, particularly in industries where there is a strong gender imbalance – construction, mining, emergency services, nursing, teaching, struggle. (For those who cannot purchase the book, check out this free publication on the topic from the WA Department of Mines and Petroleum) More…

Mind Set – Mental Health in Australian Workplaces Reply

[This article was written by Helen Borger and was first published in the May-June 2014 edition of National Safety - a magazine of the National Safety Council of Australia.  Reproduced with permission. (Links added by SafetyAtWorkBlog editor) ]

rsz_ns__mayjun_2014A quick online search reveals a plethora of advice and information about choosing the right mood-altering paint colours for office walls and selecting the best beanbags for worksite chill-out spaces. Not to mention the availability of on-site massages to ease employee tension and anxiety.

It’s tempting to make these interventions the centrepiece of workplace mental health and wellbeing programs because they are feel-good, visible signs of management action that are relatively easy to implement.

Although these interventions have their place, when jobs, work processes and workers come under pressure, staff are more likely to be driven up the moodaltering walls than calmed down by them; cobwebs, not workers, are more likely to come to rest on the beanbags in the chill-out spaces; and on-site massages are unlikely to singlehandedly resolve employee tension and anxiety.

The cost of work-related stress in Australia is enormous. Employers are spending an estimated $8 billion per annum on sickness absence and presenteeism due to depression; of this, $693 million per annum is incurred due to job strain and bullying, says Safe Work Australia’s report on psychosocial safety climate and worker health in Australia.

“Regardless of cause, the estimated cost of productivity loss for the most psychologically unhealthy 25 per cent of the Australian workforce was $17.84 billion,” the report adds.

No excuses

CommuniCorp Group* managing director and principal psychologist David Burroughs says while many organisations understand the complexities of workplace mental health, and are willing to ask the hard questions and genuinely fix problems in their organisations, he still sees many other organisations that rely on employee assistance programs (EAPs) or tertiary interventions, and are looking for quick fixes to very complex problems.

“The reality is there are very few quick-fix solutions when it comes to psychological health in the workplace. You can’t just run [a product] off the shelf and expect it’s going to address the various needs across all the different job roles, job levels and workplaces that are out there,” says Burroughs.

Despite the complexities, he rejects the concern that workplace mental health problems are hard to fix. “We’re asking [employers] to acknowledge what’s actually going on in their workplace. We’re not uncovering problems that aren’t there. We’re not taking a lid off a can of worms,” he says. “The excuse that it’s too hard, or it’s hard to actually spot, or it’s too problematic, is no longer valid … an employer has a responsibility and an obligation to the business and to [their workforce].”

Beyond the quick fix

To avoid tokenistic solutions, Kevin Jones, a work health and safety (WHS) consultant and the publisher of www.safetyatworkblog.com, says it’s necessary to remind workplace leaders that the aim of occupational health and safety (OHS) and its laws is to remove harm at the source. He says often things that bring symptomatic relief, such as massages at desks, have no impact on the cause. More…

Safe Work Method Statements – their role, their use and their curse 6

Paul Breslin caused a stir in Australia’s OHS sector in 2013 with his costing of one element of managing high risk workplaces, the Safe Work Method Statement (SWMS).  In 2014, an update of Breslin’s research was published in The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Health, Safety and Environment (only available through subscription), in which he states that

“Industry stakeholders claim that the SWMS Process is no longer manageable and that this document process has failed the industry and has basically outlived its usefulness” and

Recent “criticism has centred on the fact that SWMSs, which were intended to be easy to use documents, have often become so large and complex that they are impractical to use”.

(The latter statement was supported by speakers at a recent (poorly attended) Safety In Construction Conference in Melbourne, Australia.)

Some general industry criticism has been aimed at occupational health and safety (OHS) regulators such as the various WorkSafes and the Office of the Federal Safety Commissioner for accepting bloated and super-generic SWMSs but an equal amount of criticism could be laid at the feet of clients who often request a SWMS when, in fact they are seeking a construction or work methodology.  This is lazy management but also indicative of ignoring the need to have OHS professionals in the contract assessment process from the conceptual stage of a tender process. More…

Can Broken Windows Theory help OHS? 11

There are very few innovations that originate from within the occupational health and safety (OHS) profession.  Most of the change seems to come from the application of external concepts to workplace activities and approaches.  Recently a colleague was discussing how some of the current OHS initiatives mirror the “broken windows” concept which originated in criminology in the United States.  In some ways Broken Windows Theory mirrors OHS positives but it may also reflect some of the negatives or OHS dead-ends.

Ostensibly Broken Windows Theory discusses how attention to small improvements may generate cultural change.  However the improvements introduced seem to have different levels of success depending on the context in which they are applied.  For instance in OHS, a construction site may mandate that protective gloves are worn for all manual activity but if there is a variable level of manual handling risk, the wearing of gloves will be an accepted practice in one area but haphazard in another.  The intention of a mandated safety requirement is to change the risk and safety culture of a workplace but the different levels of risk mean that the requirement can be seen as “common sense” in one area but unnecessary “red tape” in another.

The criminological application of the theory reached its peak in New York City in the 1980s and 1990s. More…

Royal Commission and risk registers Reply

Most of the Australian media is waiting for the former politicians to appear at the Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program later this month but the Commission has not been quiet in its many public hearings recently.  One of the hearings heard evidence that is particularly significant and relates to risk registers.

According to an April 8 2014 article in The Australian newspaper, one of the few national media covering the Commission, a consultant from Minter Ellison Consulting at the time, Margaret Coaldrake, failed to include workplace safety in a risk register being prepared for the home insulation program (HIP).  This article is not specifically about Coaldrake’s actions, and the fact that a Royal Commission has been established into the insulation scheme is testament to the broad variety of matters that have contributed to the failure of the HIP scheme and the deaths of workers.

It is common for risk registers to be written with occupational health and safety (OHS) as a late inclusion or, as in the case above, omitted.  This is often because risk management is focused on the very priorities Coaldrake mentioned – reputational and financial damage.  In plain English, a project should not be embarrassing to the client, in the case of HIP, the Australian Government, and it should be completed without exceeding the budget and, hopefully, well within the budget allocated.

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Australia’s Construction Code and the Home Insulation Royal Commission Reply

On 17 April 2014, Senator Eric Abetz, Australia’s Workplace Relations Minister, released the Building and Construction Industry (Fair and Lawful Building Sites) Code 2014 and supporting guidelines.  This Code is, fundamentally, an industrial relations Code however there is an occupational health and safety (OHS) element that needs to be noted, particularly when considered against the background of the Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program.

Section 6.2.1 of the Code’s Guidelines says:

“Improving the industry’s WHS&R [Work Health Safety and Rehabilitation] performance requires positive measures that aim for prevention rather than correcting things when they go wrong. This initiative is directed at making WHS&R management an integral part of the organisational culture of companies and enterprises.”

The aims of this section are laudable – “positive” actions, “integrated, pre-emptive instead of reactive – but there are also hints that role of safety in this Code has not been fully thought out.

Things

The use of the term “things” is of concern.  This term is vague and should never be used when a more accurate word is available, particularly in a government-issued guidance document. The use of “things” could be a mistake  but the drafting of this Construction Code, and the political prominence of the Code, should not allow such mistakes.  If it is not a mistake the lack of clarity is a worry, especially when a Royal Commission is being held (Home Insulation Program – HIP) that indicates a lack of understanding and attention to OHS in the planning phase of a building-related program.

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Anchor points could meet the Australian Standard but still be unsafe 5

Twice in early April 2014, 7.30, a current affairs program of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, ran two lead stories about occupational health and safety – home insulation-related fatalities and the risks of working at heights.  The latter of these provided only a glimpse of a complex OHS issue and only touched on the matter of the self-certification of anchor points where compliance does not necessarily equate to safety. This issue has been taken up by the Working at Heights Association (WAHA) on 11 April 2014. In a media release WAHA stated:

“In the wake of last night’s ABC 7.30 Report on falls from height, the Working At Heights Association has a warning: “If you’re counting on a harness attached to an anchor system to save your life when you fall from a roof, you need to know that many roof anchors don’t meet the most basic safety standards.”

WAHA has conducted some “drop tests” of common anchor points that are currently in use in Australia and that meet the relevant Australian Standard AS/NZS5532 – Manufacturing requirements for single-point anchor device used for harness-based work at height. They found that

“In the tests, 100kg loads dropped through 2 metres tear single-person anchors away from their mounts, while 150kg loads for two-person-use hit the ground, smashing the weights. Only one out of the five anchors tested pass.”

This is a matter of enormous concern as anchor points are an essential element of fall protection.  A lot of attention has been given to fall protection harnesses over the years with some new product types but all of these rely on the integrity of a firmly secured anchor point that can withstand the high forces involved in stopping someone falling to their deaths. More…