A gut feeling for workplace risk

We all do it, we use language to both inform and at times mislead.  However, when the latter happens in the field of OHS it can be a very damaging to standards.  I’d like to draw attention to one such (class of) circumstance but I’m not sure that the very language I need to use as demonstration will be acceptable within this communication domain.

Some years back I tried to provide a means for linguistic interaction between some academic language and that of workers.  I hoped that parcels of theory and practice could interact to highlight strengths and weaknesses, as a kind of OHS reality check.  Once a word or a concept is understood communication has only started as an approximation.  I was trying to allude to other, subtler tools of language that must also be understood.  For example, it’s important to take note of tone, irony, sarcasm, analogy and metaphor.  These are all tools used in ordinary conversations, they not only deliver information, but may in fact provide pointers to essential meanings intended.  It’s hardly news to state that even a pause or a comma can make all the difference.  Try, “What is this thing called ‘Love’?” and “What is this thing called, Love?”

I asked a worker on a large demolition project (that within a year killed a man) how good was the local OHS system and how well was it supported by management.  The response was less than enthusiastic.  I then tried to get a sense for actual OHS practice, I needed a real example.  I asked this measured, neck-tattooed forklift operator of about 56 how he decided what size and type of forklift to use for which load.  Was there a policy?  Was there a standard operating procedure (SOP)?  Was there any written document…….. or what?  He was sitting at the time in one of the heavy forklifts on the site, a large machine about to lift and shift a huge load.

He looked at me soberly, considered the question for some time (as if he was ‘tasting’ it) and said – slowly demonstrating with his arms and body: “I sit here in this seat, brother, and drive the forklift towards, say, that pallet over there.  I then push the tines [forks] into the pallet and real gentle like try and lift the load”.  “Do you at any stage do some sort of risk assessment?” I asked.  “I’m just tellin’ you” he said patiently.  “I then give it a bit more power and try to lift it harder.  If it still don’t lift I give it a bit more power … and then a bit more.

Now, let’s say it still don’t want to lift, nothing.   I then give it a bit more power and if then instead of the load lifting at the front end the back end of the machine starts lifting under me [and he slowly raised himself off the seat looking ominously into my eyes], or even jerks up suddenly from the back….. and me arsehole starts twitching  [and he demonstrated with his thumb and forefinger],  I then know that it’s the wrong forklift for this job, too risky!”, and he sank thoughtfully back into the seat.

That was when I coined the terms Phenomenology of Twitching Arsholes (POTA) to try and capture that linguistic intersection between theory and practice, between workplace reality and the theoretical aspirations of some academic thought.  And sadly, to indicate the frequent incommensurability between the two languages.  Too often workers’ language, the tone of delivery and the words themselves are ignored, deliberately misunderstood or relegated to a ‘too coarse’ category thereby not only imposing a demeaning judgement on people, but also a silence on important communication channels.

Sure you could find other terms.  Sure you could use more refined language.  You could simply say, ‘Phenomenology of Twitches’, but in the process you’d lose the heart of the message, and that     would distort an important aspect that resides in the shadows of meanings between the referent of ‘phenomenology’ and  that of ‘the twitching arsehole’, and yet both are deeply reliant on vivid personal experience.  At work however, life and death could depend on learning to listen properly.

Yossi Berger
National OHS Co-Ordinator
Australian Workers’ Union

reservoir, victoria, australia
Categories communication, forklift, forklift trucks, OHS, risk, safety, Uncategorized, workplaceTags , , , ,

5 thoughts on “A gut feeling for workplace risk”

  1. Thanks for the response Yosi. I am sure there is activity, but unless these matters are kept in the public gaze all the time, those responsible can simply ignore the issue until, as you say, there is a catastrophic event. It really does remind me of the appalling tragedy of our fallen and injured soldiers and how we react as a nation. Maybe we should revere our injured and fallen workers in a similar fashion as they go forth in the daily grind.

    On reflection, those in power haven\’t looked after returning service personnel all that well from any conflict, so what chance do our nations workers have.

  2. In part, Tim, I tried to suggest in the article that formal approaches (e.g. specifications about loads etc.) miss the point of what matters at the actual task. Hard core OHS materialism, that is, numbers, documents, \’must do, must not do\’, a \’by the book\’ approach, strict risk assessments…… and often attendant disciplinary measures are the wrong way to handle workers and OHS programs.

    The fact that the worker said what he said was to let me know – just gently – that the OHS system on that site was not regarded to be in good hands, hence not trusted. Neither he nor I would really suggest that the Longford disaster in Victoria in 1998 or the Beaconsfield Gold Mine catastrophe in 2006 could\’ve been averted by a micro-assessment of the seismicity of someone\’s sphincter.

    But they may have been averted by a timely realization that formal risk assessments are too often – unfortunately – hiding poor OHS programs; something that Coroner Chandler implied in the Findings of the death of poor Larry Knight at Beaconsfield, Tasmania and his trenchant criticism of the company\’s risk assessment process.

    Do you really believe that formal bits of paper about loads, about risk assessments, about OHS policy etc. and a kind of \’by the book\’ approach are an important part of the answer? You must know that workplaces are rampant with short cuts and that just about everyone shuts their mouth about all that?

    Tony: you have no idea how we repeatedly try to bring it home to politicians (of all sides) that good OHS is not just fancy social embroidery – a nice thing to do. But is fundamental in a civilized society; all our children are at work some time or other! You have no idea what noises we try to generate after OHS failures (and well before they happen), e.g. the appalling BHP Billiton record not only in WA, Australia but around the world.

    They all listen with their ears but not their hearts, and not much changes until the next tragedy. Sadly, OHS improves best, for a while – anywhere around the world – just after explosions and catastrophes.

    I agree with you, the fines are shameful insults and generally without any understanding about restorative justice where the families are carefully supported in their needs, (after a deep and heart-felt apology). A fine alone that goes into Treasury coffers is a very poor result for people and for OHS.

  3. It would seem that POTA applied as part of the blow torch of accountability \”BTOA\” when we continue to see worker deaths on a too regular basis may be the answer, $20k as compensation for a work place death as reported in South Australia this week tells the story.

    I very much enjoy the creative and finely targeted musings of Yosi, however, I do have issues with what the Union movement is doing to change matters of safety. They need to be making a lot more noise in the public arena about prescriptive penalties and application, a fine of $75k for the same death in SA is an insult to the worker and his family and there needs to be a custodial sentence for who is responsible. This the BTOA principal in practice.

    Bloody great article Yosi more power to your PC.

    I would suggest the forklift driver certainly applied commonsense given that his employer displayed a disdain for OHS law by not having an SOP in place.

  4. I totally agree with the need to listen to language used carefully and to use language that people understand.


    In the example you gave their is a clear misunderstanding of what sorts of risk assessment can be trusted and the operator of the forklift should have been given both a load limit for the forklift and a load weight for the pallet to be lifted then he would have no need to use his \”pucker meter\” to check if it would lift the load.

    This sort of risk assessment is what leads to accidents happening in the first place.

    Tim Hackett CPMSIA
    (Construction Industry HSE Manager)

  5. This is brilliant and inspired use of language. I love it!

    Well I think it is anyway, because I sometimes use a comparable technique myself. I have a few shorthand phrases that I\’ll use to illustrate a concept, because when I use them, people say \”What??\” and I have to stop and explain them.

    I came up with my current favourite after reading about this incident on Safteng.net: http://tinyurl.com/29bgd4b. It concerned the asphyxiation deaths of 2 sewer workers in India, allegedly because they failed to follow standard procedure to \”watch out for cockroaches spilling out of a manhole.\”

    Henceforth whenever a company is trying to blame an incident on workers not following procedures, I\’m calling it \”the Cockroach Defence\”.

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