OHS research into why the small business sector does not “get” safety has been occurring in Australia for over ten years with some of the most useful being undertaken by Dr Claire Mayhew. But the challenge, or problem, persists.
On 4 October 2010, WorkSafe Victoria released some information about an OHS blitz by inspectors on small businesses in Mildura, a rural town in the extreme northwest of Victoria. In some ways, the tone of the media statement is a little defeatist or, at least, exasperated.
“Although we wrote to the businesses and told them we would be visiting, we still had to pull them up on a high number of health and safety issues,” Manufacturing and Logistics Director Ross Pilkington said. “In many cases, the safety solutions were straightforward.”
98 small businesses were visited and 160 OHS breaches were identified resulting in improvement notices for the following issues:
- Incorrect storage of dangerous goods
- Damaged or faulty electrical tools and wiring
- Forklift maintenance
- Guarding on machinery, including lathes
- Poor housekeeping
- Manual handling (lifting, pushing and pulling)
- Lack of perimeter guarding on mezzanine floors
- Failing to display safe working load on shelving.
All of these are very familiar to OHS regulators and safety professionals. In fact many of these hazards have solutions listed on the WorkSafe website.
So why are small businesses not complying with OHS obligations? Big question and not one that one blog article can answer.
OHS regulators are well versed in the research literature on the issue and the advertising strategies employed have exploited some of the motivators of workers, employers and the community.
Should WorkSafe have a higher community profile in rural areas? It already sponsors country football and other rural activities and it is not as if WorkSafe hasn’t blitzed the city before. In May 2007, WorkSafe reported:
“WorkSafe inspectors issued 97 improvement and 12 prohibition notices in a week-long workplace safety campaign in Mildura.”
That release also provided some regional costings on non-compliance:
“Apart from the impact of workplace deaths and injuries on individuals and local families, the cost of treatment, rehabilitation and compensation costs of 1277 reported work-related in Mildura over the past five financial years exceeds $22.4 million. These costs are covered by employers’ WorkCover premiums.”
That’s a lot of money but the quote may answer the question of why small business does not embrace OHS:
“These costs are covered by employers’ WorkCover premiums.”
Insurance premiums do not get close to reflecting the actual cost of workplace injuries and deaths. Businesses are not accountable for the cost of their own indifference or ignorance or laziness. And, as a result of not being accountable, they are able to feel that the worker’s medical costs and return-to-work program is and SEP (Someone Else’s Problem).
The costs are outsourced to insurance companies so that businesses only have to pay the premium costs which, admittedly, can remain a heavy burden on a small business but are well below the true social and personal cost of injuries and rehabilitation. It is worth asking how workplace safety would be managed in small business if workers’ compensation was not available? We know from the experience of other countries that the cost of workplace injuries are absorbed by the community and perhaps social services but what of the management of safety, the prevention of injury?
It is worth revisiting some of the older research reports into small business safety like the work of Dr Felicity Lamm and Professor David Walters. In 2003 they looked at the broader policy context and, amongst many other fascinating findings, wrote:
“…the key factors affecting OHS in the small business sector can be grouped under the following headings:
- Low management and training skills;
- Lack of resources;
- Burden of compliance;
- Relationship with regulatory agencies and the use of consultants;
- Dependent relationship with large businesses; and
- Employment and OHS practices.”
In 1997, Lamm stated a finding that, I believe, remains true to this day:
“The paper also demonstrates that small business employers are becoming increasingly reliant on their accountant to provide a range of compliance advisory services, including OH&S.” [link added to abstract only]
Others suggest that in some industries OHS change may be best achieved through targeting spouses and other family members of particular significance in business decision-making. Curiously, WorkSafe Victoria tried this in the farming sector in the early 1990s, if memory serves.
A WorkSafe small business initiative that I believes deserves analysis is its small business consulting service. This strategy has operated for many years providing free consultancy services by private OHS providers for, usually, 3 hours. In this period a consultant needs to identify, in practice, major OHS deficiencies, identify control measures and, most important, provide employers with the tools to manage their own OHS needs. It is a tall order and is likely to lead to continuing services from the private providers in order to assist small business to comply with the law.
Publicly-available on the performance of this program is scarce with WorkSafe usually only releasing data on the number of businesses participating, as it has in the 2010 Annual Report (page 12) with over 2,500 businesses visited. Page 23 of the 2009 Annual Report provides similar figures:
“Over 2400 businesses sought assistance from the program, up by 8% compared to the previous year and 33% compared to 2006/07.”
There certainly are no obvious solutions to improving safety in this economic sector but safety seems to have stalled. There needs to be a innovative approach to small business safety and I accept that these are being sought by regulators but it is also valid to question the value of long-standing business support programs, particularly if the results have plateau-ed.