Sticking to the big picture

I had cause to give some students an idea of how well OH&S is doing in Oz.  The aim was to give these people some big picture numbers that might help them counter the general view that OH&S is over-done, crippled with nanny state perspectives etc etc.

Initially I slipped into the mode we tend to use in OH&S-World of fiddling about with comparisons: looking at innumerable qualifiers to get a tight comparison, massaging the numbers endlessly.  Eventually I realised it just didn’t cut it.  Statistics over-worked just end up producing a mushy result. And if there is one thing people don’t need from OH&S it’s mushy results.

So faced with this I decided to step back and think of a Big big Picture bunch of numbers. The numbers I thought could resonate with the audience was how well Australia was doing with OH&S compared to Britain (comparable laws, comparable culture – sort of).  Here is the result that readers might find useful.

After quite a few hours spent trawling through the endless numbers to get a base reference that meant something, I eventually decided full-time workers totals was a pretty straightforward one for most people to relate to.

And then it was on to the biggest Big Picture OH&S performance number – at least in terms of what is likely to have the ordinary punter paying attention. I used Work Safe Australia’s numbers for workplace “traumatic fatalities”. I had to exclude road related fatalities ‘cause the HSE don’t count ‘em.

When the last slide came up the result was as good as I could have possibly expected.  The audience were a group of students, average age about 20.  Right at the start I’d got them to be fair dinkum about their thoughts about having to go to a lesson on OH&S. “OK, how many of ya dreaded the thought of this lesson coming up?”  Clear majority put their hand up. The point being, the audience were mostly youngins who were obviously going to glaze-over quickly.

The last slide caused a collective sucking in of breath.  Naturally, I was looking closely for any evidence of cynicism: the collective gulp didn’t seem to have any evidence of that.

I offered the sources to anyone who was interested to check them: no-one was. (For this article I’ve listed sources below.)

What this exercise proved was that it is possible to make OH&S matter.  But it has to be done thinking like a punter instead of having our heads buried in OH&S-World, where there is a bit of a tendency to over-complicate the number crunching. For mine, the numbers in the graphs confirms what I reckon we all know, OH&S in Oz is in bad shape.  Complaints about how much effort is being put into OH&S can be dismissed, if we focus on the big picture.

As a closing aside, the graphs were produced using the exceptionally fabulous Apple presentation tool, Keynote.  Each of the columns were animated and grew progressively higher on a click.  It’s presentation tool I found to be easy to build with and don’t have much patience for that sort of thing.  Well worth trying out.

Col Finnie

Sources for the above graphs:

  1. Source for # of full-time employed in Britain: Office for National Statistics
  2. Source for Australian full-time employees as at July 2010: Australian Bureau of Statistics
  3. Source for number of workplace fatalities in Britain: HSE
  4. Source for number of fatalities in Oz (2006/2007): Safe Work Australia
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Categories communication, death, education, evidence, OHS, research, safety, statistics, Uncategorized, youngTags , , ,

15 thoughts on “Sticking to the big picture”

  1. Brett, from my experience there is a pretty tight correlation between the apparent attitude of workers to OH&S and the effort their employer puts into safety. It often is as simple (and complex) as that.

  2. I have been playing around with safety for many years and have never seen it enforced well by the inspectorate in Australia, too many workplaces, not enough inspectors, often inspectorate is slow in reacting and pussy foots around.In some places you will never see an inspector unless you stuff up badly.
    Discussion on the Canadian Centre for OHS forum last year came to the conclusion you would be lucky to prevent 20% of your serious injuries if you relied on compliance with legislation.
    Sure we should comply with legislation but that is only part of the solution.
    Many companies in Australia beat their chest proudly and say they are 4801 compliant, so what I reckon, I believe 4801 is a particularly wishy-washy standard and one has to go much further to have a good safety management system.The 9000 &14000 series of standards have some lessons for 4801 in how to develop a good standard.
    My paper What Makes a Safety Management System Fly on is my attempt to put good S.M.S. in focus.
    All being equal human beings will do things in the least time, least effort way, safety people need to be aware of this
    George Robotham

  3. Brett, I agree with your sentiments in relation to employee accountability for their own and others safety. The issue of employer responsibility has always been the main focus and we all know there are far too many injuries caused by employees failing to work in a safe manner, for whatever reason.

    To me, it all becomes part of the responsibility – accountability set piece and people and organisations can only be held accountable if they are very clear on the rules which must be set forth in a clear, understandable (to all) manner that is deliverable in practical terms. This is patently not the case from a legislative standpoint, however, formal employee induction documentation in clear understandable language should be the ideal opportunity to exercise some oversight on employee behavior if it becomes part of terms and conditions of employment. Transgress and be shown the door because your induction document clearly shows your responsibilities. The message will soon get across to all concerned.

  4. We read the same comments about more money being plugged into inspectors and the applications of penalties for non-compliance in a lot of posts on this blog, but the stats that Colin presented raise an interesting question;

    How are the ratio\’s of fatalities to full-time employees so disparate between Australia and the UK??

    I have no idea whether the HSE is employing more inspectors, therefore finding more non-compliance\’s and subsequently applying heavy penalties….but if this is the case it would appear on the surface that Tony\’s views contain real merit. If this isn\’t the case, then what is the HSE doing which is more effective than our own regulators??

    Prevention is always the best form of defense, and as someone who is relatively new to the safety profession (2 years), and working in a full-time safety officer role I have to say that one of the biggest hurdles I have found is getting the message of \”Slow down and think about what you are doing\” with the average worker. It is one thing to have a robust safety management system in place, and yet it is sometimes a very difficult task to have workers, who have a very limited understanding or interest in safety, believe fully in the implementation of safe work practices that have been developed. To do this, we need to use effective language and examples otherwise it will more than likely fall on deaf ears. You can\’t keep an eagle eye on employees every minute of every day, so educating supervisors and employees about the hazards and subsequent risks associated with specific tasks is in my view an important part of keeping employees \”safe\”.

    Which leads me to my point I suppose; Is the Australian cultural bent of \”She\’ll be right mate\” a contributing factor to both injury and fatality rates??

    1. Brett

      I don\’t believe that taking a shortcut on safety is solely an Australian cultural characteristic. I think more influence on decisions comes from a combination of tight deadlines, the lack of available resources and a continuing underestimation of hazards.

      OHS regulators have been trying to address cultural change for many years through campaigns, particularly the \”Homecoming\” one originating from WorkSafe Victoria. Interestingly, and relevant to your question, is the South Australian campaign ( that used another Australian cultural bent of \”looking after your mates\”. It may be that we are willing to take on personal risk but Australian\’s supposedly try to prevent harm to others – ANZAC spirit, mateship etc – only not, apparently, in the workplace.

  5. I think Col has hit the issue on the head. The OHS profession needs to adopt different communication styles for different types of \”audiences\”.

    For young people and the general public, I\’d also suggest a time-related statistic. A great example is: \”An Aussie gets seriously injured at work about once every minute. One dies because of their work every day.\”

    Everyone cares about how the problem relates to them, so collective figures are often best broken down. An employer might find it more compelling to hear that they\’re likely to have to shell out $X,000 for each injury than to hear the total cost to Australia of $80 billion.

    The profession also needs to be careful about its jargon. You\’ve got a reputation as \”red tape tyrants\” that must be continually chipped away at rather than consolidated with gobbledygook. Reserve discussion of the minutiae of regulations for professional communications.

    Small business finds OHS overwhelming for good reason. We need to do what we can to make it more accessible.

  6. 32 Notices! Sh…. ! Yep, a different spin on the safety issues is one thing. But from my experience I reckon Tony is on it. There\’s cultural shifts and then there is frightening the hell out of \’em to get action. The latter works for mine. Proper funding for vigorous enforcement is nothing the fair dinkum punter has to worry about.

    Federal funding to double inspectorates in every jurisdiction. Marked OH&S enforcement agency cars – like most enforcement agencies – free frighteners. \”Did ya see the WorkSafe car around here yesterday!\”

    It\’s not like agencies haven\’t done a fair job of handing over the assistance. Could be better, but let\’s face it, millions have been sunk in providing free help. It ain\’t working or it\’s certainly not delivering the safety performance that amount of money warrants.

    I\’m stupid enough to keep batting away with small businesses. And the 5% threshold seems to be the sticking point. As a rule of thumb only about 5% of small business make a serious effort. Only 5% of businesses can sustain and maintain good OH&S effort. That\’s hopeless.

    More inspectors, knocking on more doors seems to be the only thing that can snap us out of this chronically slow uptake of 21st century OH&S performance.

    I wouldn\’t go overboard on linking accident comp premiums with injury prevention enforcement. Things could get ugly. It\’s a national issue. It needs a major Federal injection of cash for \”no more Mr Nice Guy\” enforcement.

  7. Double chuckle. Nah, icebergs were not mentioned. No need. One sentence about these fatalities just one part of the problem. The only point I wanted to make is to dissuade the students from any views that OH&S is doing fine in Oz.

  8. Got a short term contract to review the Safety Management System of an organisation, was there about 2 weeks and they said, by the way we have these, about 32,that\’s right, 32 Improvement Notices from the regulator, mainly about confined space work and hazardous substances, all overdue for a response to the regulator.
    Got on talking to the workers about confined space work and got storeys of people being overcome by fume and having to be dragged out of the confined space, clearly in breach of legislation and Australian Standard,did a quick audit & management did not want to react,got an outside agency to do an audit which slammed practices, still a lot of resistance to change, similiar storey with hazardous substances.
    I have never came across such a slack outfit on safety, was sorted out eventually but it was bloody hard work.
    Clear evidence was in breach of guidelines, notices from regulator to act and still very resistant to change.One health & safety rep told me he had been trying to get confined space work improved for at least 3 years.
    Regulator seemed hesitant to intervene.
    Same outfit was subject to regulator action about an injury that happened before my time about a year and a half after it happened, was amazed at how long it took.
    There are some practical gaps in relying on legislation to fix your problems, discussion on a Canadian safety discussion forum came to the conclusion you will be lucky to stop 20% of your accidents if all you do is apply legislation
    My paper What Makes a Safety Management System Fly, under articles on is my attempt at giving some advice on stopping safety problems.
    George Robotham

  9. Brilliant! now translate that across the entire workplace injury spectrum and we all know where we are. The brown stuff has been hitting the fan for decades and methinks we have all grown used to the smell.

    I have been banging on about accountability in many of my posts, we can only expect to see improvements if authorities hold people accountable for non compliance and for that to happen, there needs to be an inspectorial army on the ground.

    The laws are in place, the penalties for noncompliance are in place, the only thing missing in this picture is the will to prosecute and more to the point, the funding to provide the necessary manpower and infrastructure to manage an effective delivery. It should all be self funding via fine revenue.

    Prevention is the key as we all know, so how come we keep focusing on the aftermath of workplace injury, as important as it is, If education was the panacea then we would not see the disastrous situation we have today.

    Meanwhile injured workers bear the brunt of work injury consequences from two perspectives. The first being the injury itself and the second being the gradual dilution of compensation rights as compensating authorities seek to minimise unfunded liability, which has grown dramatically as a result of the abject failure of all to stem workplace injuries.

    The 80 billion dollar figure has been around for over a decade so I would suggest it is now considerably more.

  10. Be assured George that I made it clear to these students that the fatality numbers were just the tip of the iceberg. In fact I did do a comparison with the total value of their industry and total estimated cost of injuries (not just the compo costs). Interestingly, that last comparison didn\’t seem to have as much impact as the one illustrated.

    I think we need to keep to big picture, simple lessons to make an impact. It involves a tiny change of perspective (and more effort digging up big impact comparative data). The number of people dying from work-related causes gets bounced around a lot. We in OH&S-World dig it. It means much more if that number is equated to 4 or 5 fully laden holiday cruise ships going down off the Oz coast each year, all hands lost.

    A new dynamic is need in OH&S World methinks, and part of that is more big impact, relevant deliver of the facts in a way that the punter can relate to.

    1. \”….tip of the iceberg\”???? Tell me, Col, that you did not use a picture of an iceberg to illustrate this?

      I think the OHS analogy of one visible hazard hiding others has had its day and should be retired. The analogy is also due for a thorough revision. I would ask isn\’t it the job of OHS professionals and safety managers to uncover the hazards rather than just stating their existence? And I wonder, if the analogy was analysed, whether it would stand up?

      Lastly, does the image still have potency given that many insurance and risk management companies have used the same image and concept in their product advertising?

      (Tip for 2010 – every time the iceberg image is shown in a safety conference, the speaker should be shot with Nerf guns by the audience. There is no place for this image in a conference, supposedly, of peers.)

  11. Interesting discussion and I am not sure where the best anwser lies
    Zero Harm needs comment, some people say it is not the panacea it is made out to be, personally I believe it has to be applied with caution.
    Costs will always be important but when the brown stuff hits the fan this is a minor part of the picture
    My paper The Good, Bad & Ugly of George\’s 37 Year Safety Career under articles on www in Moura Disaster, page 7 I think, describes what I saw in an organisation after an incident where 11 men were killed,this is closer to the reality than any statistics and cost evaluations.
    George Robotham

  12. It\’s great to have contributions from OHS professionals I admire.

    It is important to note what Col says – \”it is possible to make OH&S matter\”. He has not done this with a dollar value. He has shown a valid comparison and appealed to our moral compass.

    George, I have seen financial estimates of workplace injuries and deaths all through my twenty years in this area. Cost is an important financial consideration for businesses, insurers and government but does it prevent people getting injured? No.

    Does it convince businesses to install safety management systems to improve safety? I don\’t think so. It may encourage companies to introduce cost reduction strategies but these are more likely to be financial risk management \”solutions\” such as insurance products.

    There is a disconnection between safety improvements and costs.

    Col\’s data shows that a higher number of Australians are dying at work that those workers in Britain. This should start the debate with a simple question: Why?

    Are Australians more careless?
    Does Australia have more high risk occupations than Britain?
    Is Australia under-regulated on OHS?
    Does our geographical location affect safety levels?

    There is a large range of questions that such data could generate. And the debate would be more robust if it occurred without the cost consideration.

    Corporations in Australia, and elsewhere, are using a marketing tool (in my opinion) of stating they apply \”zero harm\”. This is meant to translate as \”we aim not to hurt any of our people\”. There is no financial cost element in the statement, even though cost control may be the motivation behind the statement.

    What response would a CEO receive from workers if he or she were to say \”we aim not to hurt anyone because it costs too much\”? What response would the CEO receive with a slightly different statement with clear economic motivations -\”we cannot afford to have anyone hurt\”?

    In my dealings with corporations I am more convinced of the safety values of companies who say they will try their hardest to avoid having anyone hurt and will accept the criticism if anyone is hurt through the project. By accepting the reality of safety management, I have more faith that they are genuine.

    In some way, Col\’s presentation \”sells\” safety to a new generation. OHS professionals seem to have a reluctance to use marketing techniques in reinforcing the community values and expectations. Some OHS regulators have done this very well but we often fall back on the dollar cost of not doing something. We recommend positive performance indicators to our clients but we don\’t apply this to our profession.

    I want to see more selling of Safety rather than the selling of safety products and I think that Col\’s approach should be applied more frequently and more widely.

  13. The work of Brisbane OHS consultant Geoff McDonald indicates that non fatal permanantly life altering personal damage is a greater problem than fatal permanently life altering personal damage and the seriously maimed are largely ignored in \”accident \” statistics. One study I saw said the cost of workplace injury & disease in Australia was about $ 80 Billion a year.
    George Robotham

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