People die every day.  Some die in their sleep in bed, some collapse in the street, some suicide at a place of their choosing, others die at work.  But for those who die at work there is an important differentiation between dying at work and dying from work.

The differentiation can be fairly simple to determine but can be muddied by workplace politics.  For instance, the South Australian desalination project (video report available) has had one work-related fatality but there have been at least three deaths on-site.  Determining what is work-related is important for safety managers as this affects the way an incident is investigated, the resources allocated to the investigation and the level of emphasis placed on prevention.

All deaths at work need to be reported to the OHS regulators because, although the person may not have been an employee, the work environment may have contributed to the death.  This may relate to security measures at the site.  It may relate to how a customer has been managed in a retail or social service facility.  It may relate to the presence of physical hazards in a workplace that good housekeeping would usually control.

What a death at work should not do is generate a response like “He died of a heart attack, so it’s not our concern”.  At the very least there will be secondary impacts from the death for the workers who witnessed the incident or who may have applied first aid, perhaps for the first time for real.

A shooting range in Adelaide had two suicides on site in October 2008,  neither person worked at the shooting range but media reports of the coronial inquest have indicated that at least one of the victims was “having trouble at work”.  It is a fair assumption that the shooting range personnel will be emotionally affected by these incidents in their workplace.  The challenge of managing this type of hazard is high indeed.

Many worksites have incidents because there are insufficient safety resources available from the commencement (some would say from the design stage) of a project.  Others because the level of enforcement of safety laws and corporate OHS policies is insufficient.  Few worksites know nothing about safety but many are unsure of how to apply safe work practices in their own circumstances.

Workplaces and business people do not need leadership to achieve an appropriate level of safety.  Commercial leadership advice rarely results in safety improvements.  What is needed is guidance and guidance that relates to the site specifically, or the type of business activity.  We need to talk.  We need to ask.  We need to listen and we need to learn.

But we also should not panic.

People die every day.  Some die in their sleep in bed, some collapse in the street, some suicide at a place of their choosing, others die at work.  The safety professionals’ job is to prevent what can be prevented and to provide assistance in those circumstances that are beyond the direct control of the work site.  But above all,  the professional’s job is to learn and to share that knowledge so that injuries and harm can be prevented.

Kevin Jones