Good OHS thinking and practice are being slowly asphyxiated. By far most suggestions by workers, unions or good consultants for Health & Safety improvements are ‘choked’ by management naysayers and bureaucrats more in touch with their current minister’s moods than workplace reality. Not choked immediately or blatantly. In fact, that person may be patted on the back and encouraged to raise more OHS matters, “Yes, mate, good! Tell us what else we’re doing wrong, very very helpful. You just keep on telling us”…….. And slowly any significant discussion about OHS problems is suppressed and killed.
The majority of workers in Australia work in small workplaces where (typically) practical OHS programs are regarded by managers as a nuisance, a bit of ‘over-the-top’ nonsense that slows down productivity. It’s regarded as an irritant of fashion that will pass, like the fashion-related, politically correct things to say.
Of course there are exceptions, both in large and small workplaces, and there are outstanding managers, but this is rare. Usually the current ‘OHS Speak’ with its heaps of bumptious documents is all there is. Even the very large workplaces (huge internationally-linked workplaces visited after fatalities), where people seemed, at face value, to sing the praises of the OHS system I found simmering unease and unexpressed cynicism. The wisdoms (the essence) found in writers like Hopkins, Gunningham, Quinlan, Weick and Reason is not actively transferred into the workplace (in practice). One line grabs like ‘mindfulness’ or ‘The Swiss cheese model’ become surrogates for actually doing something. I believe that such frivolous treatment is, in part, an element of the biography of some terrible tragedies at work.
Embrace the reality
When you consider various coroners’ findings (e.g. quad bikes, asbestos, explosions), or recommendations by various inquiries (Moura coal mines in Queensland, Beaconsfield Gold Mine, Tasmania), the many post-catastrophe parliamentary reports, or you torture yourself and read the kilos of reports about offshore or mining disasters, you’ll note that they appear to have been written by the same hand using the same script: more training, more education, increased awareness, more supervision, more rock dust (said after every coal mine explosion)……… in short, more and more repetitive talk.
We’re not likely to get increased numbers of inspectors who understand that they ought not to be objective and unbiased, but in fact be always biased towards those who bear the brunt of the risk. They must go beyond the silly notion of ‘objectivity’ (an illusion anyway) and seek to discover what really goes on at work – in any way possible. But this does not mean that they should be blinded by vested interests, of any kind or frivolous claims. Subjectivity, perceptions, egos and careers will make up what ends up being labelled as ‘the facts’. Fear of what happens in court rooms is no substitute for doing good OHS.
I have worked with inspectors who understood this and had great style in delivering improvements, but not many.
And the laws? They will be obeyed by a few, but most managers will take no note of them – harmonised, homogenised or scrambled. That’s the simple truth. Safework Australia and all, including the many changes in governments and the changing gallery of new ministers will not make any difference on their own. So what might help?
What can be done?
In my view involvement of the community, more transparency and active interaction with unions. Here’s an idea: since for some time communities have been encouraged to ‘adopt’ roads and streets, parks, and foreshores. And some towns and cities have been ‘linked’ to ‘sister’ towns and cities elsewhere in the world, could we not encourage communities to adopt a number of workplaces in their region? Borrowing from Neighbourhood Watch this program could be called Workplace Watch. The idea is already operating in some sense in circumstances related to disputed environmental problems and toxins.
This would meant that in your suburb or region the local newspaper would publish a list of workplaces willing to be so ‘adopted’ by an organised group of people. This group would meet, say, once every two months and discuss what’s going on in this industry and specifically in this workplace. It would conduct various inspections and hold continuous discussions with workers, union delegates (where there are any) and the unions. It would talk to the regulator (and thereby bring them closer to the workplace) and of course management. It would be a constructive partner in the improvement of H&S at that workplace. The community would be involved not because it’s the aftermath of devastating floods or terrifying cyclones, but because it’s a permanent, slow moving menace that’s killing and maiming. After all, these are all our families that work there.
The goal would be to encourage and nurture good OHS standards, attend more sharply to good practice and good use of H&S principles rather than just to misuse and abuse. This may help to create a living sense of decent community expectations.
Is there any hope this will happen?
No, I don’t think so. But I do think it’s worth a try. Even the try itself, if it only generates more original thinking and increases debate may generate some momentum in the right direction. The more good people think about all this, and think about it with both feet in the workplace the greater the likelihood that some practical ideas will emerge.
Governments provide various grants for Landcare projects (and lots of other projects). Why not for workplace issues through community participation in this WorkplaceWatch programs?
Dr Yossi Berger
National OHS Co-ordinator