CEOs go undercover over workplace safety

The new initiative of Worksafe Victoria, placing CEOs undercover in their own workplaces, is a major change of direction and should produce a considerable amount of attention.

The online campaign, called The Skeleton Project, ostensibly applies the “Undercover Boss” concept to musculoskeletal injuries (MSIs) and workplace safety more generally. Elsewhere SafetyAtWorkBlog has mentioned that the “undercover Boss” concept is a realisation that CEOs and other senior executives have allowed themselves to become out of touch with the real world working environment of their companies or that the corporate management structure pushes executives into isolation however there are many positives in getting “out and about” as the CEOs in the new campaign do.

Phil Smith, CEO of clothing retailer Fletcher Jones (below in disguise), visited a major Melbourne retail store and saw tripping hazards, poor housekeeping, inadequate storage, awkward manual handling of mannequins and unnecessarily hazardous tasks associated with store maintenance and shopfittings. Smith seems particularly concerned by finding that at least one worker needs to evacuate the building when it floods, as it regularly does, through a window and over the rooftops.

There are several unacceptable (and non-compliant) issues in the store but the one that should have the most impact is the pledge to increase consultation. One worker stated that the most pressing issue was for the “need [for management] to listen to us and ask”. Smith says later, in tears, that

“I learnt a lot from this that I wouldn’t have found out any other way.”

It seems that the working conditions and approach to safety that he saw in one store has illustrated to him major management deficiencies, not only in safety but also in communication.

The health care sector is the focus of the episode featuring Greg Pullen, CEO of Northern Health (below in disguise). One worker recommends that equipment maintenance needs improving and the inclusion of this comment fits with the themes of the The Skeleton Project but of broader application are some of the comments about fatigue.

One worker said that she has fallen asleep whilst walking the wards but when asked about shift structures her response was

“… short cut, short cut, short cut – just to survive.”

That same worker, when asked about whether they have been injured, claimed good luck was the answer to being free of injury and, most worryingly, she saw that some sort of back injury was inevitable in her profession.

Pullen admits to embarrassment about not interacting with hospital workers more often and has allocated a day a month to keep grounded.

This second episode is weaker than the first, primarily, because the workplace is in a good condition. The hazards are less visible. The solution for shift fatigue is very short-term but probably as much as can be described in an 8 minute video. It would have been good to see Pullen take the initiative and become more involved in solving some of the shift problems across the profession.

Neil Coulson is the CEO of Jayco caravans but many Australians would recognise the name from his many years as the CEO of the Victorian Employers Chamber of Commerce and Industry.  Coulson has had a longstanding interest in workplace health and safety.  Of all three CEOs involved in The Skeleton Project it seems that Coulson had the shortest OHS journey.  The Jayco episode was the least interesting if one expects to view hazards and an attitudinal transformation in the CEO.  However it is also the most successful in illustrating the high workforce awareness and commitment that can be achieved  in an organisation that has already demonstrated its own commitment to safety through workplace improvements.

The campaign could achieve more sustainable improvement in workplace safety if in a year’s time the workplaces involved in the campaign are revisited to identify whether any of the changes that result from this first stage of awareness are still in place. This campaign illustrates the start of a potential change management process but the progress of the change could be even more telling.

These sorts of campaigns are expensive to produce (but more expense on wigs and moustaches may be required) and WorkSafe Victoria should be commended for investing in the concept.  It is unlikely that this will generate a spate of disguised CEOs visiting worksites but what should be stressed is that a disguise should not be necessary.  CEOs and other senior managers should already be regular sights on the factory floor or the ward or the shop, and not to criticise workers but to understand how their own business operates.

WorkSafe is saying that to understand one’s business, one must be involved and engaged.  Safety is one of the few issues in any workplace that everyone agrees is important.  Action on safety may be harder to achieve but few, if any, would argue against safety.  Because of this shared value, workplace safety can often be the ideological skeleton on which change and improvement can be placed.

The Skeleton Project is not preachy and is sufficiently similar to the well-known concept of the “undercover boss” for it to attract people’s interest.  The project is not intended to be anything more than an online campaign at the moment and it is unlikely to be able to be carried to a 30 minute or 60 minute television program, Undercover Boss has the market in this area.  However safety is often a subtext to many Undercover Boss episodes – fix safety and morale improves, provide recognition for effort and worker loyalty is established, get out of the comfy office to experience the reality of the business and a better workplace culture is developed.

Watch all the episodes yourself and share the video links with your colleagues and senior executives.  Use these resources to gain that foothold for safety with your company’s CEO.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

8 thoughts on “CEOs go undercover over workplace safety”

  1. I absolutely loved this initiative, and I\’ve recently recommended a similiar \’secret evaluation\’ at an industry committee meeting I attended here in Canada. Thanks for the public resource.

  2. In the past I have been engaged by medium to large businesses on the eastern seaboard to just spend time walking around and talking with the workers, the employers were interested in hearing and seeing what it was that I found on my own and what I was being told.
    As one employer told me it was cheaper to have me fly over and spend a few days just working my way through the 24 hour shift and learn about concerns first hand than to pay the ever increasing workers compensation costs.
    As an advocate for injured workers I was able to talk with the injured workers to find out if they had sustained an injury that was preventable and find out just what the injured workers thought was the solution.
    I was able to see where 5 second short cuts had the potential to turn into dangerous (and in one instance) incidents that could take a life.

    For me it was easy to be able to put a report together knowing that I had no official status, but the employer knew I would be following up to see what improvements had been made.

  3. CEOs taking the reality test. My observation is that smaller workplaces (small to micro businesses), though they have less resources, often have the full engagement and watchful eye of the \’boss\’. Relationships within the workplace are often strong and trust is given to and accepted by those who have control of the workplace or work activity. All this can be completely lost in the hierarchical complexes of larger businesses, particularly those that have a command and control ethos.
    Middle managers are likely to translate safety concerns and safety policies and protocols according to their own perspectives and vested interests, unless there is an informed someone with a watchful eye and the appropriate degree of autonomy and authority, reporting directly to top manager – the CEO.
    If big businesses are serious about safety they need to have their safety personnel in the C-Suite. (Unless the boss is going to go undercover permanently)

  4. Mayhaps what would be a good scheme to undertake would be similar to the secret shopper system. OHSW trained people could go into various workplace for a week at a time to really find out what is wrong and what needs to be fixed. The number of workplace injuries -physical and mental and emotional- could be drastically cut if employers became actively involved in learning just what it is that is going on under their noses.

  5. A valid and valuable exercise, can we visit these places without the presence of the CEO and virtually no notice in say 6 months time and see what has changed?

    Maybe the OHSW inspectorate should be making these visits and forwarding their thoughts to CEO\’s for action?????

  6. Anything that can be done to prevent injuries is good, but to see CEOs getting involved with understanding just what their employees face on a minute to minute basis in what can be a very unsafe place to be.
    I can only hope that the lessons that these 3 CEOs learn will echo throughout all industry, not just in Victoria but right over Australia.

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