Phenomenology and the safety professional

In Australia, safety management is being progressed most obviously through sociology and the work of  Andrew Hopkins.  But perhaps it is possible to cut through some of the commercial  “safety culture” twaddle by looking at the work of philosophers and the concept of phenomenology.  As any modern student seems to do instead of reading the original, look to the movie.

On 20 April 2010, Australian lawyer, Andrew Douglas, channeled The Matrix in trying to challenge the thinking of the audience of OHS professionals at the Safety In Action conference.

In his conference paper, Douglas compared the positive and negative safety cultures to the blue and red pill choice that Morpheus offers Neo.  The blue pill workplace culture has some of these characteristics:

  1. “Bureaucratic methodology
  2. Policies and procedures driven from the OHS department not operations
  3. Technical impenetrable language
  4. Hypercritical of operations as cavalier and uninterested in worker safety
  5. Oddly, given the expressed goal of worker safety – engagement is focused more up the chain of command than down.
  6. Further, workers are treated like “Safety heretics” – living organisms of anti-safety
  7. Complaining, embittered, resentful and isolated from production
  8. Office dwelling
  9. The bunker mentality ………….”

The red pill culture characteristics include:

  1. “Observant, listening and committed to the floor
  2. Develops process and its documentation (policies and procedures), reduces cycle time, promotes safety and ensures it is drawn from the language, experience and skills of the floor
  3. Shares safety knowledge and skills with the floor and respects the input of workers and supervisors
  4. Provides feedback to the floor about the progress of their efforts
  5. Celebrates success with the floor when parts of the process are complete
  6. Develops key lead indicators that are measurable, understandable and open to the floor and at a higher level to management
  7. Openly engages production with a focus on business performance that opens the door for information sharing and assessments for capital expenditure and changes in production process
  8. Assists line and operations managers to understand safety issues……….”

Andrew Douglas is a lawyer who purposely challenges safety professionals to think about what they do, why they do it and the way they do it.  This type of speaker is all too rare at OHS conferences.

At today’s conference there were many nodding heads in the audience for Douglas’s presentation, which used his paper as a catalyst rather than a reiteration of the paper.  I could not help thinking that it would be those safety professionals who did not nod, those who stared at Douglas and focussed on his words who would be the professionals that I would approach for a conversation or opinion.  I am not overly interested in “nodders”.

Douglas also did several things that are increasingly rare at safety conferences.  He provided a paper and not just a copy of his PowerPoint slides.  Those who only provide slides do not understand why people attend conferences.  Many of us want to learn new concepts and techniques, not to have our professional egos collectively stroked.

The other decision of Douglas was to draw upon information sources that did not use icebergs or pyramids or Swiss cheese but still illustrated his points.

Douglas lost the audience a little at the three-quarter mark.  His presentation was leading in a controversial and challenging direction but ended with the empowerment of workers, the importance of consultation and the need for trust – concepts already familiar to the audience.

Douglas knew the constitution of his audience.  Too many OHS conference speakers talk as if the audience know nothing about safety, and come across as condescending and insulting.  It is a very reasonable assumption that those attending an OHS conference know the basic concepts of safety so one should take this as a given and talk to one’s peers and not treat the professionals as children.

In summary, the most benefit comes from a combination of Andrew Douglas’ paper and many of the thought processes mentioned in his presentation.  His opinions were fresh, grounded and valuable.

Kevin Jones

Kevin Jones has recently completed several chapters in an OHS book of which Andrew Douglas is the chief editor.

Categories conference, innovation, lawyers, media, OHS, Professional standards, risk, safety, UncategorizedTags ,

1 thought on “Phenomenology and the safety professional”

  1. Having resolutely ignored the \’\’\’safety culture\’ twaddle\” for the last decade plus, I come to the issue of \’safety culture\’ from the viewpoint of a naive anthropologist venturing into the contemporary workplace, studying the attitudes, perceptions, and judgements (and resultant actions) of their denizens in, well, a phenomenological way.

    I wasn\’t at the Conference – too far away and in a foreign jurisdiction! But reflection on the lovely \’red pill\’ requirements, sounds like the \’industrial democracy\’ wish list. I\’ve been led to believe, through my studies and training, that these \’red pill\’ characteristics would lead to safer workplaces, but my problem is, I\’ve never actuallly seen this work safety utopia.

    Nor have I ever seen the workplace with only \’blue pill\’ characteristics (though I\’m sure they exist, I\’ve heard too many rumours of monsters not to believe in them).

    Actually, I\’m wondering if its both more complex, and simpler than this prescription. I\’ve been to hundreds of workplaces, had many conversations with employers, supervisors and workers about safety issues, recognising risks, consequences, how to control, consulting with workers, disseminating information, advising, assisting, etc, etc.

    Often what I find is that there\’s a \”missing link\”.
    – Well meaning people with lots of human warmth and regard for their workers, proud of what they do, in close two-way communication asking/expecting them to work in obviously and demonstrably dangerous ways.
    – Workers only too happy to take shortcuts, override, work around, and just plain work unsafely.
    – Reluctance to look at safer ways of doing things. Attitudes that relegate \”OHS\” to a do-later pile. At the same time they\’ll show you the magnificent improvements they\’ve made in production and quality.

    Why? It\’s not a money or time resource problem – it seems like a pervasive \’cultural\’ attitude about safety or the lack of it not being real, not likely to affect, not being worthy of attention. Too much emphasis on safety aspects of the job is dismissed as \’red tape\’ and is resented. \’Blokey\’ workplaces especially seem set up this way.

    Maybe we do need to engage in analysing and influencing workplace culture, attitude formation, the rites and ceremonies of the workplace. I\’ll let that thought hang there…

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