A wicked OHS problem in more ways than one

A new survey on CEO attitudes to safety has been released by Peter Wagner & Associates entitled “Safety – A Wicked Problem, Leading CEOs discuss their views on OHS transformation“.

There is some interesting information in report but Wagner is being generous in the report’s title.  There are some CEOs who seem knowledgeable on safety management who may be “leading”, but there is at least one participant who would not know safety from clay.

To some extent Wagner’s report is a “mirror” report – one whose content reflects the intended readership.  The report is not intended to be independent or representative, although it follows the tripartite consultation model, but to foster debate.  Some cynics may claim it is intended position Wagner & Associates as a market leader in business culture services.

In 2005, Wagner wrote the following text that should be remembered when looking not only at CEO safety pledges but at a company’s method of communicating safety.

“…Organisations that decide to pursue safety objectives purely in the pursuit of greater profit or to force through changed work practices need to consider their approach carefully.

Employees are adept at distinguishing the real motives of leaders and respond accordingly.  If they can be convinced that the motivation is genuine and values based, then there will be few boundaries that they will not cross to achieve the objective.  After all, Safety is one of the top three things most important to them.

However, if there is even the slightest hint that Managers are simply profiteering from the process without real concern for employee safety, employees will turn off and disengage.  More than likely, the business will severely harm culture and organisational cohesiveness and runs the risk of permanent damage to workplace relations.  Authenticity is critical.”

A weakness in this cautionary note is in the second paragraph where it could be argued that “convincing” the workforce equals spin and rhetoric.

Much of the discussion in the Wicked report should be familiar to safety professionals but the method of interviewing is worth noting.  Wagner says:

“Each conversation was conducted under a synthesis of four high-level themes:

  1. What is each interviewee doing to deliver OHS excellence?
  2. What do they believe are the strengths and weaknesses of Australia’s present approach to managing OHS?
  3. How do they see the role and effectiveness of key stakeholders outside their own organisations?
  4. What key strategies would they employ to transform safety performance in Australia today?”

The summary to the survey at the end adds a different element to the discussion.  Wagner says

“This research presented CEOs with the hypothesis that OHS performance in Australia had plateaued and asked whether what we were doing today was likely to lead to excellence in OHS.”

There is no source mentioned for the “hypothesis of plateau-ing” and one has to seriously ask whether such a hypothesis could have skewed any results.

Peter Wagner should be applauded for undertaking such a task and getting such high-level participants but the report comes across as a book about CEO OHS attitudes for CEOs and, as such, is unlikely to progress safety levels in the workplace.  Read the Wicked report bearing in mind the caveats above and you may some some nuggets of helpful information

It would have been more useful to have had specific quotes from each of the participants, or even transcripts.  Then we would have raw evidence of CEO attitudes rather than packaged thoughts.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

5 thoughts on “A wicked OHS problem in more ways than one”

  1. Some interesting reactions to the research.

    The key message emanating from the work is whether current approaches to OHS are effective. Available data, as unreliable as it is, suggests despite significant changes to due diligence, legislation, fines etc, that performance is at best levelling off and in reality is probably getting worse. The \”old tricks\” are diminishing in their effect.

    Simply blaming CEOs or workers or anyone else for that matter takes the debate nowhere.

    The research does have some limitations, but it is privately funded and totally independent. The idea was to establish a genesis for further and broader intellectual conversation on what needs to be done to transform OHS.

    5-8000 fatalities and 700,000 claims per annum are not good enough. More legislation and fines will not deliver transformation.

    The key issues are:

    1. What problem are we trying to solve? Zero Harm? Safety in Society? Something else?

    2. Current and past strategies have not delivered the results we would expect. So we have to acknowledge that we need to do things differently. But what should be that strategy and how will we know if it works or not.

    3. Current data on OHS is poor. We need better and more insightful information that will lead to more effective strategies.

    It is time to step away from the blame rhetoric and opinions based on limited experiences. We need to shift the focus of conversation up several levels and work out how best to solve the wicked problem.

    So what would you do if you had the magic wand?

    1. Peter

      I appreciate your input.

      I am not sure that \”due diligence\” as it relates to OHS has changed very much at all, if it ever got the attention it warrants. Due Diligence requirements in the new Work Health & Safety Act will be much more significant and relevant than any changes that may have occurred in the past.

      Pecuniary fines are too harsh a tool to apply IF safety improvements are intended from the prosecution. There are some signs that the judiciary and the OHS regulators are seeking alternative penalties but old habits die hard and monetary penalties remain the default.

      The use of workers compensation claims data to identify OHS issues is thankfully losing its credibility at the policy making level, as is LTIFR. Data collection remains deficient but the efforts at emergency rooms, surgeries and other medical centres are positive and I am hopeful about some OHS flow-on from the Federal Government\’s E-Health program.

      \”Zero Harm\” is considered as little more than a marketing slogan by most employees, and senior managers who parrot the slogans mostly indicate a lack of understanding of safety management, as opposed to risk management.

      There are many trendy management words at the moment that I have heard applied by CEOs such as \”engagement\”, \”emotional Intelligence\”, and \”safety culture\”. Actions speak louder than words and engagement is more about pressing the flesh of employees, contractors and the community than talking about it.

      CEOs lose the common touch as they travel up the corporate ladder and start to absorb the latest Harvard Business School management words, and yet they wonder why there remains a disconnection between their senior managers and the workforce. The workforce faces the risk of injury and death, where CEOs face, principally, reputational embarrassment and many of the comments in the SafetyAtWorkBlog discuss the need to redress this imbalance in penalties.

      I agree that there needs to be a move towards independent and relevant research into OHS management and, perhaps, into why CEO\’s have been so late to realise the importance of their workers\’ safety. OHS legislation has only existed in Australia for close to 40 years, after all.

  2. It is quite facsinating that the \’key challenges\’ are all directed to the wortkforce; \”getting people to be aware of and understand risks relevant to their work activities\”.

    What I would be more interested in knowing is what are these CEO\’s going to do differently? How are they going to understand the risks in their business and get personal assurance that they are being managed and effectively controlled?

    1. As far as I can see that was not the aim of the survey.

      I think the due diligence obligations under the Australian OHS laws will provide some clout in this sector when they are operational, but this could be handballed to the Risk Manager so the changes will be a good test of just how respected and influential the OHS profession is.

      One of the traps for CEOs is that they may regurgitate what they remember from their most recent DuPont seminar without thin king independently. OHS rarely gets the attention AND the understanding of the CEOs. I see several knowledge gaps in the CEO report from Wagner.

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