Can OHS achieve “practical wisdom”?

Continuing SafetyAtWorkBlog’s belief that the best advice on workplace safety often comes from people outside the OHS discipline, Professor Barry Schwartz of Swarthmore College was interviewed in the Australian Financial Review on 30 March 2010 (only available by subscription).  Schwartz was talking about the social and regulatory impact of the global financial crisis but his take on the obeying of, and dominance of, rules seems equally applicable in OHS.

“Schwartz says the common response to crises… to reach for more regulation.  But the problem is that these people who run these banks are smarter than any set of rules we can come up with.  So what will happen is that [the rule] will work for a while, and then people will find a way to subvert them.”

He goes on:

“I think a lot of the trouble that we have is that you’ve got these people who run institutions, the CEOs, make speeches about how ethical they are and they may even mean it, but the people who are actually making the day-to-day decisions know that unless they make their targets, they are going to lose their jobs.

So the people at the top can spout all these wonderful tenets about being socially responsible in complete confidence that nobody in their organisation is going to take them seriously.”

There are echoes here of “Zero Harm” and leadership.

Schwartz’s next book will be one dealing with what he calls “practical wisdom” which he describes as

“…the ability to do the right thing, in the right way, at the right time, and for the right reasons…”

This sounds appealing but what is “right” for an individual may not be right for a society.  See Bernie Madoff for an example of this.  Though probably Madoff is probably not a good example of anything other than being a crook.

Schwartz saw that in the banking sector incentives and rewards undermined the global system.  Incentive schemes for safety improvements remain popular but perhaps we can take Schwartz’s thoughts on banking incentives and apply them to safety.

“Rules undermine the skill it takes to be wise and incentives undermine the will it takes to be wise…  The whole ides of relying on incentives is wrong to start with, but it is exacerbated when you end up incentivising the wrong things ….

No matter how clever are the incentives you set up, eventually people will find ways to subvert their aims.  People are smarter than incentive systems and they will extract the pay-off without doing the thing that the pay-off is designed to encourage…”

Encouraging safety through monetary rewards fundamentally undermines the cultural change that many companies are trying to achieve – cultural change that will establish long-term safety benefits without a crass “pay-off”.

Bernie Schwartz is in Australia to speak at a human resources conference.  With several OHS conferences happening shortly, it can only be hoped that iconoclasts and challenging speakers have been organised.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

5 thoughts on “Can OHS achieve “practical wisdom”?”

  1. This brings into question the whole Bonus/Penalty system Workcover SA has. Why should an employer be rewarded for complying with the law when it is the Employers absolute duty to provide a safe working environment. Does the worker get a bonus for not injuring him/herself at the end of each year, I think not.

    The biggest incentive of all is to comply or pay and to make that work, authorities have to enforce without fear or favour. If industry or worker organisations have a problem with the law then they have the facility to effect change via representation to government on a number of levels.

    Nothing beats the pain of significant financial consequence for failure to comply with law than best practice compliance with that law, simple but true.

    There are no competing interests in OHSW, the law is the law, comply and everyone is happy, our unfunded liability reduces dramatically and best of all, we have a significant reduction in worker injury and the consequent ongoing costs to the community, let alone the misery for the worker and families.

    Enforcement is cash positive for the regulating and policing authority and when it becomes cash negative then either the inspectors are not doing their job or the job has been done well and compliance is looking very good indeed.

    1. Incentives are part of the capitalist economic and social system in which we operate but this does not mean proposals should not be questioned. I think your ruminations have merit and could be expanded.

  2. I agree that the people that the OHSW system need to talk and work with are not within the OHSW industry. However the OHSW system is so entrenched in its own importance that even a comment from a person such as myself goes past without any creedence given to it.

    All the OHSW people want to hear is how good they are at doing their job, any one who dares to stand and question is painted as a heretic and a naysayer.

    People who have an interest in the industrial industry do have a great deal of information on many aspects but we are never asked for information nor when we speak up are we welcomed.

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