Understanding people is understanding safety

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.

Ken Malcolm

reservoir, victoria, australia

25 thoughts on “Understanding people is understanding safety”

  1. Thanks Kevin, although I must say that someone at some stage determined we needed such a system and law was enacted, the rest is miserable history in terms of injured worker treatment.

    The luck equation is, that there is a good chance you will be injured at work at some point because compliance is really not a priority. So you would be lucky to escape that over the longer term.

  2. More power to your arm Andrea! the issue of accountability screams from the top of the pile of concerns. There is plenty of legislation, some good, some OK, some just plain inadequate, but enough to make a difference if applied diligently.

    It all seems to revolve around money, cost to the employer,cost to the workers compensation system and lastly in all matters cost to the injured worker and those who rely upon him/her for sustenance.

    Not many know that the minute a workers compensation claim is accepted, the worker loses his/her mandatory 9% superannuation and at 13 weeks, a further 10% of income and at 26 weeks a further 10% of income for a total of 29% so the question goes begging WHY?

    In the horrible circumstance of death in the workplace as Andrea has experienced, only she and others who have suffered similarly can try to describe the reality of the consequences of other peoples clear failure to comply with legislated responsibilities with virtual impunity. Access to criminal and civil law is now a must to ensure those who will not comply can be pursued corporately and personally.

    1. Tony, we undoubtedly live in a capitalist society so money is going to be a major consideration for the policy makers of this country as it is for every business person and, as of necessity, each worker. We cannot change the economic core of the society but many of us are trying to balance some of the capitalism with heart, fairness and justice.
      Your third paragraph is an excellent example of the type of reality that needs to be communicated to the decision makers and, I think, the upcoming review of workers\’ compensation in Australia will provide an excellent opportunity.
      Several years ago I attended an international social security conference held in Melbourne and I was amazed at the number of countries that have no workers\’ compensation system, where injured workers must join the social security queues or, more likely, be an economic burden on other family members. Australia is lucky to have a compensation system even though it needs considerable improvement.

  3. I know I\’ve come in late but if I may – here is my 2 cents worth – coming from the front line … having been there and listened to the evidence and having several other briefs in front of me right now ….

    The Coroner is absolutely on the money and while there\’s some work to be done in just how this needs to be implemented, his suggestions on law reform are heading in the right direction.

    I don\’t believe our OHS legislation is the problem anymore. There\’s certainly room for tinkering and by all means let\’s clarify the areas that are confusing but the guts of the legislation is pretty good – leave it alone.

    The penalties are not the problem either. We have decent penalties now. The problem is that as these hike up, more corporate money will be spent on expensive, drawn out legal arguments because common sense tells us the more they have to lose, the more they may invest in fighting the charges.

    Unfortunately our criminal justice system is where this all falls apart. Rightly the Coroner picked up on this.

    SELF REGULATION – *EPIC FAIL* – this is the philosophy in how OHS legilsation is mandated – at the will and the desire of those responsible for the plant and equipment. Unless of course, some one gets hurt – or killed, then the regulator moves in.

    Please do read the comments made by Bryan Russell (SWSA) in response to the Coroner\’s letter. I think it\’s quite clear – the department believes that those who own the machines are responsible to ensure they are operated safely. Tell me what you read into that?

    I recently presented evidence at the Select Committee and Parliament House looking into the safety of the Adelaide Desalination Plant. A man is placed on life support and 10 weeks later he dies from his injuries. The department takes 3 months to attend the site after the incident was notified. By this time the area is wiped clean with (ie the site was dismantled) and all evidence along with it. This actually happened within a short time of the incident occurring – but no charges were laid.

    Please spare me the lack of resources argument. SafeWork SA gave evidence that they had attended the Adelaide Desalination Plant many, many times during the construction process. There simply was no excuse for them not to attend this area when the incident happened and investigate it properly. 3 months later is a appauling and can not be justifed.

    Another matter I am looking into on behalf of another family is the death of Jack Salvemini. A 37 hear old crewman is pulled into a large shark reel and crushed to death on a commercial fishing vessel. This crewman had raised concerns – safety concerns prior to leaving on this last trip. The concerns he raised were specific and directly relate to what caused his death on the 1st November 2005.

    Baker V Jean Bryant Fisheries & Arthur Markellos

    This matter went to trial and the company was found guilty and fined some $70K. In the mean time the trial transcript and brief contains no less than 5 different times and locations in terms of where this traguc incident happened. These range anywhere from some time in the morning until 4.30pm late afternoon and the spread of distance covers about 70 km!

    Now the Crown argued to the family that these inconsistencies don\’t specifically relate to the OHS breaches. I say, how the heck do you know unless you determine why so many times and locations have been recorded? How can it be irrelevant when there\’s no indication as to why these inconsistencies in evidence even exist?

    I have a very strong hunch as to why … we will ensure this information is not buried in the limitations of criminal law. I believe many of you would feel your toes curl as you see just how much evidence is buried in inadmissabilities … compliments as I say of the limitations of criminal law.

    Oh, and how unsurprising it was to see this same group of directors being responsible for yet another employee being pulled into the shark reel on one of their other boats – and this happened just 14 months after Jack was killed on the Jean Bryant. Fortunately for the crewman on the FigTree Bay, he survived – although left with injuries that have ensured he can not work.

    FYI – google \’Hillman v Fig Tree Fisheries Pty Ltd and Anor [2011] SAIRC 16\’

    In this case there was of course a guilty plea (no surprise there, they knew the risks by now given one of their employees was already dead) – a penalty handed down in that matter? $22,500 with a nice 25% discount!

    The legislation is there – this is not a first offence and yet because the directors register each vessel under its own company name, there\’s no way to align them. That\’s the issue with the Criminal justice system – not with OHS legislation.

    I\’m sorry but right now I will hedge all bets with the Coroner\’s Court. The current system is just not working and the laws that are in place are not being enforced and not able to withstand the rigors of the criminal law guidelines.

  4. This has been a very interesting read on a subject that is dear to my heart. It\’s great to see debate like this among good and open thinkers.

    Prescription and its ills are well covered and agree with my thoughts. In my industry we often talk about prescription verses performance based requirements and I reckon a lot of us struggle to know the difference. What is held up as performance legislation is often actually prescription-lite or sometimes it is all puff and fluff principles.

    I\’ve been mulling over a simple, Ocam\’s-razor like separator. In the case of plant and OHS, it would go something like this:

    Prescription is what you must do, or not do to an object in order to reduce the risk to people of hazards, sometimes ill defined or imagined.
    Performance is what you must do and not do to people when they may be influenced by the object. Then objects are designed and made to achieve that performance.

    Your thoughts?

  5. I just went through a complete safety protocol overhaul at the small business I own, and it was nitemare trying to get members of the senior management team to agree on what was sufficient. We ended up calling in a safety protocol consultant, at considerable extra expense relative to our available resources, but he was able to bring consensus. Thanks for the public resource.


  6. I think that Management attitude is key. Also “…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.”
    Showing their attitudes by their actions would be critical

  7. I return to the observation Ken made in his article, the obs about the most successful safety places where \”…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.\”

    Of course, at first blush this is about ownership, commitment etc. But I get the impression that it\’s something even more fundamental and that\’s about pragmatism.

    I\’m not sure OHS-World is so good at How, How likely and How much: the things that I\’d suggest cut-to-the-chase on defining pragmatism.

    [The rest of Col Finnie\’s comment is available as a full blog article at http://wp.me/pbZy8-2bK%5D

  8. Having had a family member on the receiving end of a workplace death, I can add to this interesting thread that Management attitude is key. It starts at the top and filters down. Staff that complain are denigrated or dismissed if they suggest better work practices unless Management take their obligations seriously.

  9. Yossi\’s last contribution is getting close to a realistic and achievable methodology of approach to the problem, however this still does not provide a fix in an acceptable time frame of finding the SME places of employment who are not complying.

    Ken has provided an illuminating example, but the caveat is, that he had to knock on their door and if he had not done so what would have changed, I suspect nothing.

    The outcome of Ken\’s contribution to this small powder coating business, and there are hundreds of them in Australia, is commendable and what we are looking to achieve with SME\’s in general.

    Education has been tried and found seriously wanting along with advertising, threatening and cajoling. So how do we identify the problem employers who have their heads firmly stuck in the sand and have them mirror Ken\’s Powder Coater? Who is going to pay for the seriously large job of knocking on every small business door to assist them to comply and develop a safety enthusiasm because it is good for business? (For goodness sake do not tell me a new and wonderful multi colour brochure will do the job, that has already been a miserable failure at every level).

    Maybe this is an opportunity for government to really get on the front foot and provide funding for the use of business consultants with proven business operations experience to deliver not only direct practical advice for safety compliance but also advise businesses on how they may truly take advantage of their new safety culture to benefit the business with a better return on investment. Everyone wins.

    I would suggest a 10 hour no cost consultancy (government sponsored) which can then be converted to a client based payment for service contract. It would be interesting to see what the uptake by SME\’s would be. First thing would be to develop a register of appropriately skilled consultants, provide them with minimum outcome requirement and maybe training in how delivery is to be undertaken and reported.

    I have really enjoyed the comments to date and I sincerely hope there are policy initiators keeping a watching brief.

  10. In response to Yossi\’s query about my thoughts on prescriptive measures particularly for mine ventilation, here are some discussion points.
    There is definitely a place for prescriptive measures but we should not trust them to provide safety. The safety process should be a mix of guidance material and people open to alternative viewpoints and who inspire open discussion – (ps -this atmoshere is generated by a positive safety culture). Experts should be consulted but not followed blindly.

    While not having studied this in detail, my understanding is that the NZ coal mine where 27 miners died apparently had effective ventilation systems, but had no effective back up plan should the ventilation systems fail. Methane explosion is a hazard that has previously taken many lives in this geographical area in several previous incidents. When the ventilation system failed, gases accumulated and ignited. I am pretty sure the company was following a prescriptive standard or law in how they ventilated the mine. What they possibly did not do, in all likelihood, was ask enough \”what ifs\” prior to the accident. If they did, then they may have followed the motives of BHP, where it is alleged they put profit before safety in taking shortcuts in the Gulf of Mexico prior to the explosion, deaths and pollution that followed.

    I seem to remember mention that there were no refuge areas inside this mine or emergency air etc, but I might be wrong. Anyway, if they had considered providing these and the costs involved, they might have made this open cut or not mined at all.

    Prescriptive mindedness is a cancer in the mining industry. They value mine experience over everything else. Fresh ideas are often suppressed because of Groupthink. (Read Irving Janis or Paul \’t hart (ANU)).

    For example a Cert IV in Safety and five years in a blasting crew is seen as more useful than a fully academically qualified outsider with non-mine experience regardless of success in increasing safe behaviours, reducing injuries and sustainably changing safety climate or culture elsewhere.

    Maybe experience is more valuable than fresh eyes but what if it isn\’t? What if all it is doing is entrenching poor safety thinking and further embedding poor culture and complacency? After all the safety officer has most likely only seen, with this type of background is how the mining industry handles a problem and most of their mining experience may not be within a safety management context.

    The problem with the predominant thought process is the expectation upon the mine safety officer to anticipate or be the expert in mine safety problems and even to manage them. One school of thought is that a safety manager should be a coach first and to not play the game but to facilitate communication and to work to improve trust and cooperation between employer and employee, based on actions, and not words. He or she may not necessarily need to know about the hazards in an expert sense, because that is the job of the foremen, supervisors, managers, superintendents.

    Following this line of thought it follows that the safety person is therefore needed to provide the impetus for full implementation of safety systems developed by consultation with those affected, and to ensure the systems are being followed through training, audits, observations, reports to senior officers and incident investigation.

    The old saying applies. \”If you do what you have always done you get what you always got\”. Mining still kills many workers a year in Australia and there has been no safety circuit breaker yet that I can see.

    I also do not agree that SME find safety laws a real problem. In most cases getting to safety mindedness is attitudinal and big companies can be as poor attitudinally as small companies. I once went to a small powder coating company in Sydney. I just walked in the door, trying to sell my services and the owner made time for me. It was clear safety had not been a matter of priority as they were struggling to keep the doors open. Housekeeping was poor and the place desperately needed some TLC.

    The owner however was interested and asked me to come back later in the week. When I got back the place was transformed. Without any real knowledge of system, the whole group of employees had done a massive clean-up job. In order to show me exactly what they had done they had created a pro forma hazard log on a piece of A4 paper and ticked off items as they were done. They had actually held a two hour meeting to discuss some of the problems, and how they would fix them and how they would manage them until they were fixed. The whole place was spotless and every one was keen to ask me questions. The owner had a smile and a proud look on his face and I could see that for once he was just a part of the team and was loving it, because for the first time his people were supplying the answers and the commitment.

    After providing them with a little bit of technical support (NOHSC compliance) and some better forms to complete, they gained a significant contract. A big part of that was being able to show the client they had a good safety system and that there was good buy in from the employees. Dumb luck? Karma more like it!
    I have also recently seen a nameless and massive company trumpeting a commitment to zero harm and a true commitment to safety; also with a hugely resourced safety department, and boasting apparent conformance to AS 4801. Safety means so much to the CEO and the safety department that his OHS Policy Statement on their website is dated 2008, and with no mention of RTW and rehabilitation within it????? (Who was the auditor?). Obviously no one has told him to update it.

    Anyway my opinion is this. If there is a genuine interest in safety it will be because that is the attitude of the company and its people. Size has no bearing on attitude and often, because there is no remoteness from employees, small businesses have far more genuine commitment to getting safety right. Small companies often expend tremendous amounts of energy looking after their people and treat them like jewellery. They are rewarded by employees who go hard out for their employers. Others do very little and their employees do the exact opposite of what they would do for a good employer i.e. the bare minimum, and these companies are not pleasant places to work in. As my wife says \”A positive safety culture leads to good safety systems\”. Conversely a good prescriptive safety system does not always lead to a good safety culture because it does not take into account individual circumstances in most cases.

    I have plenty of examples of how following a standard has actually heightened risk. One is where ladders are built at angles greater than 70 degrees, (from memory) where it is easy to descend forwards than backwards, but with horrible consequences for slips. Workers often put their elbows on the rails and slide down these ladders despite any signage saying they must descend facing the ladder. AS 1657 says these ladders are ok and design engineers defend their work to the death because they are designing to a standard and not for safety. They rationalise by saying workers have to follow the rules. What they don\’t asy is that it sometimes a little harder to design or slightly more costly to install and that this is their main focus.

    Finally, large companies, with apparent safety mindedness, can also be cosmetic in their approach to safety. If backed by aggressive and smart legal defence teams that have more resources than the regulator, they have very little to fear, even if they are getting it wrong, and that is why prescriptive laws are still ineffective.

  11. Here\’s a practical suggestion rather than just problems and resistance:

    A group of OHS-experienced and knowledgeable people offer their services on a pro bono basis to hand picked small/medium enterprises (SMEs). A one off visit is offered to try and get an insight into the H&S standard at that workplace.

    No reports are written, other than if the service provider wants to do that. Otherwise he/she simply sit down with the managers, workers and union representatives at that workplace and openly and honestly discuss their impressions.

    They must also offer practical (practical!) and immediate solutions. The idea would be to create a few model SMEs within all regions as exemplars to demonstrate how things can be improved without complexity and huge amounts of paperwork.

    Yes I know this bears some resemblance to something Worksafe tried years ago… but only a resemblance.

    Since such providers are also workers who need to earn a living they can\’t do this too often. But if this is done with good heart I\’d suggest that managers consider some payment to such people after they have provided the service.
    How much? That will depend on the manager or business owner.
    All expenses for travel, any accommodation etc. would need to be paid. The only thing that would be free would be the expert\’s time.

    No regulator would be involved, though I\’ve got to say that there are many people within regulators who have a great deal of experience and knowledge and would love to help in such a genuinely well-meant scheme. But business owners are often very shy of regulators, particularly in SMEs.

    Why would this be better than the earlier Worksafe model or the current advisory model? Because it should be based on the notion that what will work in workplaces is not the \’hardware\’ of OHS (haz id, risk assessment, risk management, behaviour based nonsense or mumblings about workplace culture), but evident characteristics of mutual respect, a practical awareness of what workplace dignity is all about…. in short, an overall sense that the H&S program is in good hands.

    Any work after this first time would need to be on more traditional basis. Can this work?

  12. Peter I appreciate your comments about the 5 key drivers and do agree with you there. I am fully of the opinion that the regulations have gotten so incredibly complex, that they defy common sense. As the owner of 4 different businesses and now the General Manager of a larger firm, I have seen it from all sides. Sincerely appreciate the intelligent discussion here.

  13. I prefer Yossi\’s take on matters, maybe because it mirrors my own views to a large extent. We both see the issues at the coal face on a regular basis and despair of how things can be as they are, particularly with SME\’s, who are by far the largest employers in the country and therefore exposing the largest number of employees to inadequate safety at work.

    If we are not identifying the workplaces with safety issues then how do we fix the problem ??? Unfortunately, I am not reading anything that proposes a clear and uncomplicated way of achieving this. If we can\’t do this one basic thing how on earth are we to succeed in reducing workplace injuries.

  14. The company I\’m currently working with has operations in NSW, SA and Victoria and I have to differ from Ken Malcolm\’s praising of the Victorian WorkCover Authority while putting down the SA Regulators. To be honest I see little difference between the workplace inspectors in any of those three states although, to be honest, the business has not found itself in the position of a significant legislative breach.

    However, no regulator has the resources to adequately and effectively police the legislation passed by any government and nor will they. They then face the torturous processes of the legal system that they have to maneuver. The case that started this thread is a case in point. The prosecution and Coroner\’s hearings where significantly delayed because the employer dragged the case through the courts for more than 5 years arguing legal niceties and technicalities only stopping when the Supreme Court threw the case out. In the mean time the kids family knew nothing of the circumstances of his death because telling them may have compromised the prosecution. The first they heard of it was when they attended the Coroner\’s hearing where it was spelt out in vivid detail. I can\’t imagine how they must have felt. I can only express my sympathy and say I\’m glad it wasn\’t me.

    Kevin appears to think that larger penalties indicate a more vigorous approach to enforcement which is clearly not the case. Maximum penalties for breaches of safety legislation are detailed in that very legislation – you can\’t impose multi-million dollar penalties when the maximum prescribed by the legislation is in the thousands no matter how vigorous the enforcement effort of the regulator is. But the effectiveness of financial penalties clearly fails to achieve significant improvements in workplace safety. BP was fined millions of dollars for safety breaches but they failed to prevent the Deepwater Horizon debacle. Financial penalties have been imposed since the beginning of safety legislation and they have consistently failed as Yossi continues to point out – despite all of those penalties over the years he almost daily comes across workplaces that are putting their workers at serious risk of injury.

    More regulation is not the answer. Why are governments constantly introducing new regulations and codes of practice and other legal instruments when what they\’ve already got in place is not effective, not being complied with, not enforced and failing to improve workplace safety?

    The facts are that regulators are forced to be reactive, responding after the event. If the outcomes are sufficiently dire they may get the approval of the government prosecution agencies to proceed with a prosecution provided they have sufficient and convincing evidence to support their case. This of course takes time and then they have to navigate the legal system – further delays and by the time the case gets to the courts everyone\’s forgotten what it was about in the first place.

    If we are dependent on regulators to provide the necessary impetus to bring about the changes necessary to make our workplaces safer then we\’d better not be holding our breath waiting.

    Peter is concerned that regulatory frameworks are making safety to complicated for business to understand. One word … codswallop. Safety is not a difficult process it is a remarkably simple three step process. Look at what\’s being done. Figure out if and how someone can get hurt doing it. Fix it so that people don\’t get hurt.

    It\’s not hard to recognise that someone may become entangled in an exposed rotating shaft so guard it and interlock the guard so the damn shaft can\’t turn without the guard in place. It\’s not hard to figure out that a chemical that cleans corrosion off metal is probably dangerous to people – either get a safer chemical or provide the necessary protections to prevent human contact with the stuff. Its not hard to work out that lifting 10 kg\’s of product 20 times an hour, 8 hours a day is not that good for those having to do it – reduce the size of the packaging or mechanise the process. It\’s not hard to figure out that eventually someone will fall from a roof if there\’s no fall prevention installed. It\’s not hard to spot the hazard but its easier and cheaper to ignore it and, when the inevitable happens, blame the victim or the confusing regulations or something else. It\’s a cop out. Regulations are confusing to those who who at best see basic compliance as something to aim for and at worst see it as something to avoid.

    Hazard ID is easy … sure but life\’s not that easy. Knowing there\’s a hazard and getting something done about it are totally different, particularly from the safety officer\’s position. Safety people seldom have the authority to bring about the changes they know are necessary. They work damn hard arguing, cajoling, pleading, persuading and other such things to try and make their worksites safer. And it\’s working. Despite what Yossi and other nay sayers would have us believe, Australian workplaces, overall, are probably the safest they have ever been. The human toll of misery as a result going to work is declining. There are less workers being maimed and killed, there is a substantially reduced community tolerance for companies that fail to look after their employees and there is certainly reduced acceptance among workers that injures and deaths are a normal consequence of going to work. That doesn\’t mean that there isn\’t room for improvement – of course there is and there will always be but let\’s not ignore what has been achieved.

    Don\’t get me wrong I share much of Yossi\’s concerns and his distaste for the jargon ridden, meaningless drivel that is often trotted out to justify management inaction regarding genuine H&S issues. Zero Harm, BBS, safety culture, manipulated statistics and so on. However, it is easy to stand on the outside throwing stones. Being on the inside and having to work with a management team and persuade them that they should buy product X instead of product Y because it\’s safer but costs an extra million dollars isn\’t easy … but it is happening. What is interesting is that I have found that it is seldom regulatory requirements that turn the argument but self interest. I find many managers are becoming more risk averse, they are more aware of the costs involved in a major workplace incident. As staffing levels have been cut to the bone so the disruption of having a competent worker away from work increases. The public outcry and media embarresment impacts on share prices and capacity to win new work. Workplace safety is an issue in recruiting and retaining staff which again impacts on a business\’ bottom line. Only by integrating safety into an organisation\’s regular business practice will we get the improvements we seek and that is the real challenge and it is a challenge that is being met by safety people in workplaces around Australia every day.

  15. Yossi, I think you raise a very interesting point re SMEs.

    SMEs have been left behind in the maze of regulation and codification. The regulators admit that most SMEs are unaware of what legislation they need to comply with let alone having the resources to do it. Consider a small enterprise trying to understand all the codes and regulations that may apply to their business. Given low profit margins, it would send many to the wall to employ the resources to fully comply. This is not an excuse or defence for not making a work environment safe, but rather a challenge on how we can better focus on the right things to get the best results. Again, we ask, have we made OH&S too difficult, too complex? If we could start over again, is there another, simpler way to get safety right?

    The issues of culture, leadership, system, and environment are still very relevant. Perhaps we can find better ways for better education, coaching and role modelling for SMEs.

    Like you, I have interviewed thousands of executives and employees on the subject of OH&S. With a few exceptions, I have found that people are universally willing to get Safety right. But sometimes they don\’t know what they don\’t know. Maybe they should educate themselves more. Maybe we (society) should provide more resources to help them and create less red tape to worry about.

    Is our cookie cutter, formulaic approach to OH&S redundant? Is it time to step back from what we have done and ask ourselves critically, is there a better/smarter way? How can we engage real debate and transform OH&S performance in Australia?

    What do others think? Is there a voice from industry? From employees? from others? Or is this just a three way mind challenge?

  16. This is becoming a constructive and interesting discussion, but very very fancy methinks. Aside from my personal view that there is no such thing as \’workplace culture\’ (yes, I know about the shared values etc), that it\’s just another one of these OHS linguistic viruses to stop rather than encourage clear OHS thinking. Consider that the comments made refer to large, perhaps multi-national workplaces, though some would argue that they refer to the entire universe of workplaces.

    Tell me what you think I should do in the small to medium ones where – as I wrote earlier – there is little interest in OHS, let alone in \’safety climate\’, \’safety attitudes\’, \’safety behaviour\’ , \’safety leadership\’ and the like? These are the workplaces where most workers in Australia work. Pick one particular workplace, say the one where a worker working under Victoria\’s lauded approach to OHS and where OHS conditions were appalling, lost his arm in an unguarded machine incident. Now tell me what should be done here? It was inspected by the regulator and the recommendations and physical changes (which I photographed) as a result were a total sad joke. I had to ban the machine it was that dangerous.

    On the other hand I have inspected some very large, multi-national workplaces, one in particular where there was a fatality – and another a year later – and where they sang the praises of behaviour based programs. You have no idea the cynical comments I heard privately from supervisors and workers as I was walking through the place.

    Ken makes some powerful points, particularly about the focus and source of the behavioural change. But I wonder, Ken, would you not have prescription as to ventilation in mines? Would you not have prescription as to the transport, storage and usage of explosives in mines and quarries? Would you not have prescription as to forklifts? Or levels of benzene or asbestos fibres, or lead in people\’s breathing space? Would you not have any restrictions on rosters and durations of hours worked? You see my point. Would you really leave it up to benevolent employers to truly face up to their duty of care and the effort required in doing some decent due diligence?

    How would you address the cases of 3 fatalities as a result of missing guards or good guarding systems? Have you noted the trenchant criticism by coroners (Tas.) and Professor Quinlan of the usual risk assessments done in most workplaces nowadays?

    You have no idea the nonsense I hear from the mining industry and various multi-nationals whilst their workers are working in conditions that are shameful. You have no idea just how many short cuts are taken by all workers on a daily basis whilst their starry-eyed managers spout the wonders of behaviour based stuff and (give me strength!) safety culture.

    So far as the wonders of the Victorian approach goes. Do people really believe that a new approach by a regulator will reflect quickly in improved fatality/injury statistics? In any case, how is it that Victoria – the wonder state in OHS – is heading for an appalling couple years’ record in farming fatalities and injuries, and… who knows about the poisonings and pesticide-related cancers.

    Maybe Kevin and the Safetyatwork blog ought to ask for a very small grant from the wonder-regulator in victoria so we can all meet for dinner one night and talk about these issues in much more detail and in some leisure. I could then tell you about the decent and genuine manager in a very large company who did impress me once he dropped the nonsense talk about culture etc. He personally did some very good things jointly with us; a true leader. What do you reckon Kevin, will Ian Forsyth be in it, he can come to the dinner too?!

  17. There indeed could well be a range of metrics/indices beyond share price indicators and CSR may well be a good vehicle.

    The important question is, who is leading the discussion? Isn\’t the development of good quality metrics that demonstrate OH&S efficacy intrinsic to performance transformation.What should we be measuring? Culture, Leadership, Program Effectiveness, Claims Volume, Other, All of the above?

    If we don\’t know how we are going, however will we ever know if we have arrived?

  18. Thanks Kevin.

    I acknowledge that there has been some (and recently increasing) discussion by various regulators and others bodies on the subject of Safety Leadership and Culture. However these discussions are by way of guidance only, it is up to each business to ultimately determine its own values and standards.

    Regulators cannot (and should not) mandate business leadership and culture lest we head towards the much dreaded “big brother” state.

    Perhaps we need better market mechanisms that help stakeholders including investors and the community to better differentiate who is getting it right and who is not. Regulators or Safe Work Australia could play a stronger role in developing a suitable framework in collaboration with business and interested parties.

    1. Peter this thread could go off at tangents on this issue but market mechanisms have been attempted in the past in Australia, such as measuring safety performance to share price. They never took off even though prominent OHS personnel and organisations got behind it.

      I think a revised approach through Corporate Social Responsibility is the most likely pathway for market mechanisms at the moment.

  19. Are we now seeing Safety for what it is – a series of disconnected ideas and structures often working in competition with each other, and sometimes to the detriment of achieving positive outcomes?

    There seems to be a lot of discussion about how much legislation is out there and have we gone too far. Have we made it too complex? Regulators have the responsibility to provide the necessary tools and frameworks to support effective OH&S (or is that WH&S now) outcomes, however they are limited to the extent they can only legislate in relation to process and activity, not leadership and culture. Leadership and culture remains the domain of business.

    We know that Safety is an outcome, not a process unto itself. Though most regulators and consequently organisations continue to treat Safety as a process by focussing on a set of OH&S policies and procedures and then determining relative compliance. Achieving an audit pass becomes a goal in itself as though somehow compliance to a set of rules will achieve Safety excellence. Experience has told us repeatedly that systems are important but they are nowhere near enough to providing a complete solution.

    There are five key drivers (not in any particular order) for Safety excellence:
    • Business process and systems – the design of how work is achieved safely
    • Technology – solving risk through technology whilst also managing legacy issues ( the technology we inherit)
    • Leadership and Culture – how we do things and what is rewarded
    • Operating Environment – managing the competing interests of production, cost, quality and safety in a congruent manner, and
    • Competency – the business, technical and social skills and behaviours required to do the work successfully.

    Nowhere in Australia do we have a centralised body that brings together all of these elements into a unified way of thinking about OH&S. How else can we achieve the right level of focus and activity across all these areas?

    The harmonisation debate is perpetuating a narrow view of how to achieve Safety excellence. It will bring operational efficiency for National employers, but will do little to change the OH&S landscape in Australia. We can do better than this!!

    1. Peter, I agree that safety leadership cannot be legislated but I am not sure that your statement about is remaining \”the domain of business\” is wholly correct.

      Over many years the OHS regulators have produced, or coordinated, guidance and other documents on safety leadership, both for their own organisations and the broader public. Below are links to several of these publications:

      CRC – Construction Innovation (probably the most helpful)
      Workplace Health and Safety Queensland
      ACT Work Safe Commissioner

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