Beware OHS statistics quoted in media releases

On 6 April 2011, at the Safety In Action conference in Melbourne, the Safety Institute of Australia and the Australian Institute of Management released the findings of their 2011 Business Survey.  The 2010 survey was discussed in an earlier blog article.

SafetyAtWorkBlog was allowed to see a version of the survey results prior to their public release next week but according to the media release of 6 April:

“More than 40 per cent (41%) of the occupational health and safety (OHS) personnel surveyed did not believe their organisation had a ‘well entrenched OHS culture.’ That view was shared by a quarter of human resources (HR) personnel and senior managers involved in the survey. In contrast, just 11 per cent of CEOs and Board members held that view.

Furthermore, almost half of OHS personnel (49%) who participated in the survey believed that efforts to minimise OHS risks were being impacted by concerns about reduced productivity. A quarter of CEOs/board members and senior managers also expressed that view.”

“The survey also revealed a worrying gap between the views of CEOs/Board members and OHS personnel when it came to answering the question: “Does top level management ‘walk the talk’ (action matches words) on OHS in your organisation?” Eighty-eight per cent of CEOs/Board members and 70 per cent of senior managers said ‘Yes’ compared to 47 per cent of OHS personnel and 55 per cent of HR personnel.”

These findings appear to be concerning but percentages are often misleading.  The survey had 3,000 responses from “Australian business people” (the exact figure is 3,141).  Therefore the 40 per cent mentioned in the first paragraph above represents around 1200 response.  But the 40 per cent is only of OHS personnel.  The demographics in the survey results list 19% of respondents as identifying themselves as OHS personnel.  So the 40 per cent in the first paragraph really represents 228 of total respondents, less than 10 per cent.

Similar calculations can be made about those respondents who categorised themselves as HR personnel (4% (120) of total respondents) and CEOs/Board Director (3% (90) of total respondents).  “11 per cent of CEOs and Board members” = 10 survey respondents.

The 2010 SafetyAtWorkBlog article includes this criticism which remains relevant:

“The survey is a good conversation starter but it is certainly not representative as the demographics included in the survey data seem to indicate.”

That the media release has been circulated widely but that the data is not similarly available for some days seems a little unfair.

It can also be contended that the attitudes to safety of Australian business people will vary considerably between businesses of different sizes.  WorkSafe Victoria identified this some years ago when it focussed a lot of resources into supporting the “juggler” level of management.  When reading the SIA/AIM media release it is important to realise that the survey demographics  identify

  • 50% (1500) of respondents were from organisations with over 500 employees
  • 38% (1140) had between 51 and 500 employees, and
  • 12% (360) had less than 50 employees.

This is a serious skew to larger organisations in the survey particularly given that, as one conference speaker from Safe Work Australia mentioned this afternoon, “80% of Australians work in small to medium enterprises”.  WorkSafe Victoria provides OHS support to small businesses which they categorise as companies with less than 20 employees.  Perhaps there needs to be a similarly-themed survey of the SME business people so that the results come from the sector that is most likely to be most beneficial to the largest number of Australians.

The results of the SIA/AIM business survey do not represent the OHS attitudes of Australian workers and it can be argued that they do not represent  “Australian business people”.  The impression of the survey in the media release exceeds the reality.  Where the media release claims

“A major survey of more than 3,000 Australian business people has revealed that urgent action is needed to improve the safety culture at many workplaces”

the methodology of the survey says the survey

“…provides an insight into how Australian organisations regard workplace health and safety as a driver of organisations performance and employee engagement”.

The methodology statement is more accurate in that the results provide an “insight” but not an authoritative one and certainly not one that is representative.  This would be of little concern in the safety profession as a whole except that there is a major push, reflected in the Safety In Action conference speakers, for the collation of reliable evidence on which policy decisions can be made.

The survey may be useful as indicative of attitudinal trends but this is only the second of the annual surveys and, although the organisations should be congratulated on providing comparative data, several more years of data are needed before any type of usable trend could be identified.

Lastly, survey data is all well and good but it is what is done in response to data that makes a difference.  It was disappointing to hear, at the report’s release this afternoon, that although a management course for OHS professionals is being developed, an OHS training program  for senior executives was not mentioned.  Given that another of the conference’s major themes was the need for leadership on safety from the top of the organisational tree, it was a noticeable omission.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

10 thoughts on “Beware OHS statistics quoted in media releases”

  1. Hello there,

    As an independant OH&S Practitioner – does anyone know the best places to advertise my OH&S services?

    Thanks in advance


  2. The issue in any survey is that the results can be determined by framing the question in a particular way. For example, framing a question that requires a yes/no response will get exactly that. A question that starts with \”How does … ?\” will get a different response to \”Does your…?\” Of course, there are times when you do need a yes/no response and as indicated in this article, the results can end up being a good \’conversation starter\’.

    I note with interest the comments made regarding progress with health and safety. It is a moot point when we have come so far and yet still hear stories about how people attempt suicide or self harm because of what they perceive to be social injustices committed on them e.g. bullying. Just when we seem to be getting some work health and safety issues \’under control\’, along comes something else.

    I often wonder whether or not we are asking the right question or looking in the right place to address the psychosocial hazards.

  3. Hi Tony, I think I agree in priciple with your perception that we are not really making any progress in improving workplace safety.
    However, I don\’t think our economy can financially support the scale of an inspectorate that would be required to monitor every workplace in NSW, just as there will never be enough \’policemen\’ to monitor the road users across the state to ensure safety on the roads.
    I strongly believe that laws only serve to show us how poorly we care for each other.
    Again from my multiple perspectives, and I dare say you would have similar experiences, there are many people (employees) who contribute significantly to their own injuries. No amount of law, or inspection, can prevent a person behaving in an unsafe manner if they choose to do so. Just as no law ever prevented anyone form speeding on the roads. Some get away with it, others don;t and that\’s when poeple get hurt.
    Yes, there is an onus on employers to provide safe workplace, plant, substances and procedures along with information, instruction, training and supervision. And I believe a vast majority are trying to meet these obligations within the constraints they have – money, knowledge, opportunity, etc.
    But again, unless a business can support a supervisory workforce to make micro-managing (one on one supervision) a reality, supervisors will never prevent people \’doing the wrong thing\’ even when they are doing it for \’right reasons\’.
    Just as the business balances OHS against profit, (like it or not we live in a commercial world), so do individuals balance their perception of risk aganist their perception of \’profit\’ eg: cutting corners to get the job done and go home at the end of a shift.
    One industry that I have observed from a distance \’doing it better\’ – the construction industry, specifically roofing – still has a proportion of small operators \’flying under the radar\’. WorkCover will never have the funds (there\’s the commercial reality again) to employ enough inspectors to cover every building site to ensure that scaffolding or other fall prevention devices are used all the time when people are working on rooves.
    I believe we will only truly see a reduction in injuries when each and every one of us is prepared to look out for ourselves and one another, not take unnecessary risks (such as doing things we\’re not trained to do) despite the fear of losing our job for not complying with the boss\’s wishes.
    I\’ll step off my soapbox now and leave it there.

  4. Thanks Les, my comments are aimed at \”how do we know that workplaces are safe\” until such time as we see for ourselves and \”ourselves\” means an appointed inspectorate visiting and reporting and definitely not self regulation which has proven to be an abject failure.

    We can\’t ride along continuing to experiment and pontificate without seeing a significant and sustainable reduction in work place injuries. Like you, I have seen matters such as work place safety from pretty much every angle and we are not showing any real improvement.

    If one steps outside of the contrived and tightly managed bureaucracy controlling what we hear and see in terms of injury statistics and so called unfunded liabilities and look at the pure numbers of injuries according to a standardised definition of each injury, with every workplace injury having to be reported. On this basis, we will get statistics with meat on the bone to clearly identify a whole range of issues that need urgent attention including where the injuries are occurring and rise or fall of incidences, persistent offenders, Industry performance etc. etc.

    The unsupported 80% challenge would be easy to determine if our current inspectorate undertook an open inspection based on those clearly defined requirements, such as machine guarding and other matters which are unequivocal in legislation. I suspect the 80% would be found to be light on.

    Les\’s comment in relation to OHS cost / profitability. There is no balancing act here, if a business cannot operate profitably without compromising workplace safety then the answers are clear. Increase margins, get more efficient, reduce input costs etc. If none of that works and competitors are still in business, maybe they are doing the business better, or maybe they need looking at by the safety inspectorate. Regardless of all that, there should be no compromise when it comes to injury prevention in the workplace and that includes worker responsibility as well. If everyone is made to comply with their legislated responsibility we have a level playing field in relation to business cost, so there is a real incentive for those currently complying, to ensure their competitors are doing likewise, or suffer the consequences of dilution of profit and possible loss of the business.

    Getting out of bed in the morning is an inherent risk however, that is not what I am banging on about. My concern is for the obvious and clearly identified safety requirements as spelled out in legislation and not being complied with in the 80% I have suggested are not complying.

  5. All this talk about surveys and statistics is just hot air until someone develops and conducts a survey that clearly defines the details of what each question is asking.
    Having been on three sides of the fence (as a fitter, middle manager and OHS Consultant & OHS practicitoner) I have a clear picture that when you use the term OHS with each of these groups of people they repsond based on their perspective of what OHS actually is. That\’s one reason for the significant gap between senior managers and OHS Professionals in the SIA/AIM surney results.
    As to Tony Harrison\’s challenge – he used anecdotes and an unsupported 80% value but wants definitive proof that he is wrong with regard to \’unsafe working environments\’ . What does that mean?
    Agreed every workplace inherently contains risks that may or may not be controlled. But the presence of a risk in a workplace does not perjoratively make the workplace unsafe. This brings me back to the difference in interpretation of what constitutes OHS.
    A CEO has a whole of business perspective and needs to balance profitability against costs of safety/workplace accidents. They will generally have a perspective that they are doing their best to make the workplace safe whilst ensuring the financial security of the business.
    On the other hand, an OHS professional has a specific focus on OHS matters without the broader view of how the business resources need to be allocated. There will always be a perspective that OHS standards are not met from their perspective.
    This then leads me to suspect that any survey conducted by a safety professionals\’ organisation (SIA) will always be skewed to support the position that more needs to be done in order to support and ensure the vibility of their membership.
    Please – I\’m NOT saying we don\’t need to do more. I\’m simply saying we each need to put ourselves in the other person\’s shoes before we critices their efforts. The American Indians have been attributed with the saying that you need to walk a mile in the other man\’s moccasins before you can understand what\’s motivating him.

  6. Anecdotal evidence over many years corroborates the basic findings of the research regardless of any skewing of respondents.

    The more attention that is focused on the gap between business management and on the floor perceptions of OHS action across all sized business the better for everyone concerned.

    The bottom line is, that over 80% of our Australian work force is exposed to an unsafe working environment every day and I challenge anyone to prove me wrong definitively.

  7. I have owned and operated my own small business in the manufacturing sector for four years, and I\’m consistently surprised how many small businesses do not take OHS seriously. They choose to instead \’fly under the radar\’ and be reactive as opposed to proactive. I recently spent the extra money to bring in an OHS consultant to bring my team and facility up to spec, and it was well worth it. Thanks for the great public resource.

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