SafetyAtWorkBlog reader Ken Malcolm submitted this comment in response to Yossi Berger’s article of 21 March 2011 but I think it warrants a post of its own:
It is often said two safety professionals never agree however I do agree SA law has been ineffective. However let me explain why I think this way.
I am in Victoria, in the business of making sustainable changes in the workplace. I am convinced that prescriptive legislation does not cut it when you want to improve safety, as Lord Robens recognised. All you get are thicker law books and people less willing to read them. In most businesses I consult to, they have a problem and the problem is quite simple. They have excellent systems but nobody is implementing or enforcing them; or the employees are just not following them. In many cases they have an eager OHS Manager with perfect sets of graphs and records; he or she is busily tracking failure. What they can’t do is drive a culture change. BTW, safety culture is what you get when the boss isn’t there.
The requirement to find hazards and manage them according to the unique circumstances of the work environment and of the persons within it, does affect culture if this process is supported by senior execs and fostered or encouraged properly. Laws that encourage that approach are desirable. With regards to getting tough, fear motivation does not achieve lasting change and with a normalisation of deviance, greater risks are tolerated by degree until people are climbing on safety rails to clean equipment 6 metres from the ground. The managers don’t see it because it happens on a weekend cleaning shift; they know it must be occurring because the plant is clean. They also know it shouldn’t be happening because they have a work instruction prohibiting it. They think they have plausible deniability.
That approach explains mothers allowing children to play soccer in war zones, surrounded by heavily armoured Hum Vees, and also explains why sometimes heavy-handed regimes, such as WorkCover NSW, do not seem to be impacting on business behaviour and safety statistics despite having what I believe are a very good set of laws. It also explains why many SA employers choose not to fix problems because they recognise that Safework SA prosecute very small numbers of employers. The actual risk to them is very small if nothing happens, and it is easy to rationalise and blame careless workers if it does. You want the changes made before there are accidents. You want the business owners being proactive, not just waiting for the accident or the raid from the Inspector, and not because of fear, but because there is a moral and societal imperative – just like attitudes to drunk driving have changed.
Therefore it is the application of the law that makes the difference and that is what I think WorkSafe Vic do well. Self reporting is a hallmark of a good system and in Victoria many businesses do that. They ring when they have a problem and ask for help and get it.
I must be either very lucky or on the right track because my clients often have exceptional results. All I have done is simply taken the theoretical knowledge from UNSW [University of New South Wales] and been gullible enough to try it. I have often ignored the advice of the old schoolers who wander around with checklists ticking boxes because it comes from people managing poor safety results. They often have 25 years experience, but I think, in many cases, they have one years experience 25 times repeated. I often hear them refer to their charges as idiots taking short cuts or ignoring safety. Yet when I talk to their workers, I quickly discover they know they are taking unacceptable risks. They are often told, or believe, if they won’t do something then the business will find someone who will. These workers are not idiots, and do understand the risks, because when I ask them if they would let their kids do what they are doing, they admit they wouldn’t.
Safety managers should talk to people on the shop floor and focus on what people can be expected to do and then work with that knowledge. Businesses that encourage the empowerment of those most affected by workplace hazards often get spectacular results. Workers properly involved in the decision making on corrective actions frequently come up with lower cost solutions than engineers or ergonomic consultants. They also subsequently buy in because it is their idea. This is simple human nature.
For this result to occur you do not need a regulator or a harsh set of laws.
In the most successful plants I have been in, safety is driven at the shop floor level and led by a committed team of senior executives who can be relied upon to show it by their actions and not just words. One company discussing safety for female night shift workers had the senior execs literally tear down the name plates on reserved and preferred parking spots near the security gates. They ensured the parks were available on a first come first served basis and available for the night shift workers. If you wanted a good park you got there early.
They could have hired security guards or installed brighter lighting or cameras and spent money to preserve a privilege. Instead the management came up with a simple, cost-effective approach that had a massive cultural impact and produced some good-natured ribbing for the CEO who now often walks 150 metres or more to the security gate. Did this negatively affect discipline? Far from it. It opened communication channels. He quite often talks to workers in the car park and he hears and sees more. People aren’t just numbers or faceless.
I also noticed that company law is now very rarely discussed in safety meetings. The discussion almost always focuses on what is safest – and isn’t that the result we all want?
Finally I can also assure you that WorkSafe Vic is no pushover. When things need to be done with recalcitrant employers, they come down very heavily. At no stage has a fine of 1.25 million dollars ever been imposed on a company in SA for an OHS breach; or an individual director fined $200,000 or more.
What does this all mean? I just don’t agree that the approach called for by the coroner is the best way to go.