OHS Canaries and Apathy

Guest author, Yossi Berger writes:

“What’s the point of tellin’ them the same thing over and over when nothin’ changes?  I open my mouth about safety again I could lose me job” he said, “Why would I bother?”[a]


Words and names can be used as sneaky accomplices to construct popular or inaccurate narratives.  When such constructions are used as explanations of workers’ behaviour and presumed attitudes they can misdirect occupational health and safety (OHS) programs.  An example is the frequently heard ‘workers’ apathy’ explanation of poor OHS standards.  The important UK 1972 Robens Report on OHS noted:

”….our deliberations over the course of two years have left us in no doubt that the most important single reason for accidents at work is apathy”.[1]

It’s 2009 and some of this in various guises[b] still obscures simple facts at work.

I believe that choosing the banner of ‘apathy’[c] as an explanation of poor OHS standards was and continues to be inaccurate.   It’s true that there are many workers who are seriously disinterested in OHS programs, just as there are many who are seriously disinterested in rugby, bocce, netball, football or the queen of England (for example).   But disinterest is neither an immediate sign of personal pathology nor necessarily an inappropriate sentiment requiring remedial changes to ‘workplace culture’, ‘safety behaviour’ or ‘safety attitudes’.  And certainly such disinterest is not a rejection of a safe workplace and safe work.

By far most examples I have seen of such disinterest were largely reactions by workers to their perception that the local OHS program was in bad hands and they observed bullying treatment of those workers who were especially interested in H&S matters but were regularly ‘squashed’ by managers, as one worker bitterly put it.

Some implications

Genuine apathy is generally experienced as a detached sense of ‘couldn’t care less, don’t even want to think about it’.   It’s marked by a lack of passion and feeling.  It results in unresponsiveness to a range of emotional, social and physical stimuli.  Direction, motivation and persistence are lost and intensity is lowered.   It has been described as indifference to suffering, including one’s own.  Occasionally some form of laziness is said to be associated with it.  So called ‘Shell shocked’ soldiers were at times diagnosed as suffering from debilitating apathy.

What then is specifically implied with the ‘worker apathy’ explanation?  The sub-text is that when offered some means to make or be part of OHS improvements these workers will be mysteriously unresponsive and not change their method of work.  For example –

  • “If you keep operating this giant forklift at this speed with damaged tyres on this pot holed concrete floor in the factory you’re likely to lose control and roll the machine.  Would you like to get off for a couple of hours so we can replace the tyres?”

It’s implied that the usual OHS apathetic’s response is likely to be something like: “Na, forget it.  I’ve been doing it for years like this.  I wouldn’t bother mate, leave it as is, I’m used to it.”

  • “Look, there are very toxic fumes released where you work.  We can’t extract all of them until the new budget comes through to buy the new exhaust system.  In the meantime you better wear this new respirator.”

The usual response expected from the apathetic worker is, “That’s OK, I wouldn’t worry about it.  How much can benzene really hurt me?  Has anyone here ever developed leukaemia?  How many?”

  • “As you know there’s a fair bit of asbestos in this building.   If you see any damaged material I want you to immediately stop what you’re doing and get out of the area.”

The apathetic worker is likely to say (it’s said), “Asbestos doesn’t worry me, I’ll just keep working thanks.  They tell me you can eat it”.

Presumed worker responses like these are implicit in the typical diagnosis of this ‘apathy’.[d] The implication is that in these cases managers are actively and effectively concerned about OHS; the OHS system is practical, well targeted and fair, but the problem is the worker who somehow couldn’t care less.  Immediately some form of behaviour-change programs are implied.  The three brief scenarios above suggest, almost as a reductio ad absurdum, that the truth is not that simple.  Even if these workers responded like that (and some come close!), what is demonstrated is neither apathy nor poor ‘attitude’.

Apathy at work?

Here are five descriptions of actual circumstances where workers were said to display apathy to health and safety:

Mushroom farm: Angela has been picking mushrooms for 22 years now.  Paid by the box.  She’s up at 5 a.m. five days a week (sometimes six) to be at work at 6.45 a.m.  She needs 30 minutes to do the lunches for her family, 20 minutes to finish some chores and 30 minutes for herself to get ready, and a quick cup of tea; she calls it ‘My 7 minutes of peace’.  About 20 minutes to drive to work.

The temperature in the long growing sheds is kept at 17-180C, she and most of the women always feel cold and damp.  ‘This atmosphere is good for the mushrooms’ they’ve been told.  She knows they can allow the temperature to get a bit warmer.  They could also allow 5 minutes extra on breaks and 10 minutes longer on lunches so the women can absorb some warmth in winter.  She has asked the foreman ten times and he is now totally sick of her and says so; it took the union to get the four large portable gas heaters in the outside lunch area.  She has now been discouraged and loses interest in H&S, why bother?  She tries to ignore discussions of ‘culture change’ and ‘safety behaviour’.  Talk.  She is now described as displaying apathy to safety issues.

Mining:  This hard rock mine has killed workers.  The international market for the metal is not the best just now, management frequently complains; they say they are going broke, may need to shut the mine.  A very wet mine, it may never re-open again.  A lot of pressure for tonnage.  Machinery is poor and keeps breaking down.  ‘Dusty’ has raised the issue of poor road maintenance, the amount of water, quality of air and the electric cables everywhere.  He has tried all the OHS systems, the yellow form, JSAs, tool box meetings…….very slow improvements, if any.  The tool box meetings between shifts have just become, ‘where did you leave the truck?’ information exchange meetings.  Lots of arguments with the foreman.  Dusty now (angrily) does it his way with plenty of short cuts and does not want to know about the OHS system and the bullshit talk. The detailed ‘OHS conversations’ (that’s what they call them) about ‘acceptable risk’ in the ‘Future Committee’ just annoy him.  He is now said to display OHS apathy.

The office: This is an open plan office with 16 people working at computers with low lilac separating divisions per four people.  Relationships are tribal and superficial.  The supervisor has a glass office to herself (the ‘Herquarrium’), a big round table and an elegant TV screen on the wall.  She has told Suzy three times now that she’ll have to be retrained, given her recent KPI score and her “vocal misunderstanding of the difference between bullying and a ‘personalised active progression plan’ “.  For three years Suzy has tried to make OHS improvements on everyone’s behalf.  She can’t go on anymore, she’s about to lose her health completely, she can’t sleep, has stomach aches much of the time.  She has decided to shut up about OHS, she almost can’t even be in the room when they talk about it.  Suzy is now said to display apathy to OHS programs.

Chicken farm:  “All I’m asking is that you have this dust checked out properly.  I mean, it could even hurt the chickens, couldn’t it?”  She said it because she and her 17 year old son are now both suffering from asthma, and he only started when he came to work on this chicken farm with her.  His is real bad.  She thinks it could be the dust on the ground of this free-range shed, or the formaldehyde or both.  “You never really liked working here, have you Beris?” the owner/manager said pointedly to her.  For a while now he has been saying to her (in front of everyone) that, “I’ve got layers here, boilers and broilers squawking all day long, and now I’ve also got Beris blabbering about bullshit safety issues, blabber blabber blabber”.  And that’s when she stopped talking about dust, formaldehyde and asthma.  Not another word or she’s gone.  Where’s she going to get a job around Yallock Yallock after the abattoir closed its gates years ago?  Just keep your head down.  Any talk about safety and she drops her eyes and stares at the white gum boots she wears, she doesn’t even want to listen.  She is now said to display OHS apathy.

Foundry:  “To add carbon to the 90 tons of molten steel (19 melts in 24 hours) they chuck in all sorts of mixtures.  You wouldn’t believe the black, acrid smoke that fills the whole area, everyone breathes it.  I told them this is a serious OHS issue.  What the hell is this doing to our lungs and what will it do to us in the future?  You’ve no idea how many times I’ve been told to stop being negative, to stop whinging and be more of a team player.  But it’s not going to make any difference to how they do it.  None.  Even my mates are tired of it all, but they don’t like it.  I’ve just shut me mouth now, nothing else I can do”.  Drago is now said to display apathy but he is quietly angry.

Different workers

Most workplaces are not hotbeds of excitement and enthusiasm, though there are exceptions, and exceptions from time to time.  Some jobs can be satisfying, provide a sense of responsibility with opportunities for regular interaction with workmates, and self respect.  The persistent underlying organisational/business goals however, are always about job productivity.

But people are different.  Some work strictly to collect a wage with not much interest in OHS programs.  Others work largely to sustain their social life.  There are those who ‘work’ at other things in their lives (e.g. restoring vintage cars) and don’t really care much about their paying job.  Others regard themselves as a tough breed and believe that work is always inherently risky and OHS programs are a secondary matter.

Then there are those who regard the workplace as a community and begin by taking a close interest in OHS standards and programs but get ‘squashed’ by inexperienced managers and the OHS Management System.  As a result they are discouraged and withdraw from OHS program-related activity, develop a studied disinterest and therefore appear apathetic.  These workers are an important, potentially OHS-active proportion of workers, they are the OHS canaries.[e] They try to make a difference and because of this are frequently bullied and mistreated by all levels of management.  Importantly, this is noted by other workers and it becomes a sentinel event.

Such events provide workers with a ‘barometer’ to gauge if the OHS program is in good hands.  If it’s riddled with hypocrisy, bullying and impracticality (e.g. a blind ‘by the book’ approach – ‘We have legal obligations, you know!’) most will lose interest.  This is not apathy, workers do care about safe work in contrast to paper programs and convoluted systems.

Some Conclusions

The examples above suggest that simple sentiment attribution to workers or managers is problematic.  To simply demonise workers or managers is naïve, just as it is to believe that human intent, emotions and motives can be encapsulated by a simple label such as ‘apathy’.

The work environment is not always simple and the pressures not all that obvious (on paper), but very well known by all workers.  Any actions and reactions must be interpreted in the context of what really happens and the related perceptions.

There are many reasons why a worker may be disengaged from and disinterested in the local OHS programs.  In rare cases it can be caused by genuine apathy, but mostly it is disinterest based on observations of what really matters to management (including their understanding of ‘acceptable risk’) and how it responds to the OHS ‘canaries’.  At times fear, anger and resentment precede this disinterest.  But none of this shows that workers prefer to work in unsafe and unhealthy workplaces.

Yossi Berger, PhD  
National OHS Co-Coordinator
Australian Workers’ Union


[a] A hard rock miner.

[b] For example, the more elaborate versions, ‘Worker behaviour’, ‘Safety behaviour’, ‘Safety climate’, ‘Safety attitudes’, ‘Safety culture’.

[c] Presumably as a name and description of a psychological state.

[d] I regularly hear managers sincerely quoting to me comments like these by some workers.

[e] Canaries were used in coal mines as early warnings of increased levels of the deadly gasses of methane and carbon monoxide to which they were especially sensitive.  When the bird stopped ‘singing’ the danger of the gasses was immediately noticed.

[1] Robens, Safety and health at work.   Report of the Committee.  London: HMSO, 1972.

reservoir, victoria, australia

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