The following are some of the processes supposedly used in workplaces to control/eliminate hazards: hazard identification, risk assessment and risk management. These should address the implicit questions of: ‘What?’, ‘How bad?’ and ‘What to do?’
The language then turns to words and concepts like ‘OHS culture’, ‘behaviour-based safety’… and all within some over-arching package referred to as an ‘OHS management system’. These are shown in the diagram below.
But that’s one representation, there are many others. Now ask some simple questions: Given that some 80% of workers work in small to medium workplaces, just how much interest will there be from managers in these approaches?
The single most obvious change I’ve seen in OHS in the last 20 years has been the dramatic increase in the amount and volume of talking about it. It’s clearly not the only change, but the most wide-spread and obvious one. The simple introduction of workload-reducing implements like patient lifting and shifting devices for nursing is one that did make a difference – after years and years of struggling to get that improvement. There are others, but it’s not the general picture.
Mostly there’s lots of talk and little action. Most managers are too removed (not helplessly ‘disconnected’ – a lame concept) from what really happens. What do I mean? Have a look at the image below –
As a manager (or OHS specialist) test yourself: what is the H&S standard like at this workplace? Well, fair go, you might say! How can you tell at this distance?! The viewer is too far away to observe important detail. OK. So what if he/she was closer, perhaps at the workplace itself? What would he/she want to know that would get them truly closer to the real H&S problems at that workplace? Would it be something about the local OHS ‘culture’? Shared beliefs about OHS? Safety attitude? The system? The gossip? (The bullshit metre)? OHS mindfulness?
What would you want as good evidence of H&S weaknesses (or strengths), and exactly how would you get it? What about looking for: OHS success or failure? Workers’ expressed scepticism? Compliance with rules? Short cuts? Is this really being closer?
How do you get the manager effectively being closer? Exactly what does that mean in practical terms? And how would it help? Would knowing how workers really feel make a significant difference?
Many important instruments are designed to somehow – in some sense – bring the user closer. Think of a microscope, a telescope, a stethoscope, think of radars, radio, TV, phones, think of brain EEGs, blood tests…… All are designed to help the user observe, correctly formulate and describe some facts, those that really matter. What’s the equivalent at work?
But that in itself isn’t enough. The three steps of the process of being closer – as I see it – can be described as (also see diagram):
- Demonstrable Interest (DIN). The manager must effectively show persistent and intelligent interest in workers’ H&S conditions, and especially daily hazards they work with;
- Demonstrable Understanding (DUN). This stage must show the manager is aware of the detail of the hazards and risks, and likely outcome, (“16 hours night work must be hell on the family, mate! Do you feel heavy and tired a lot of the time? ”)
- Demonstrable Improvement (DIM). There must be obvious improvements as a direct result of the above. And the best (progressive) improvement is in relation to evident small daily risks, not the giant canvass nonsense like ‘OHS culture’. This visible improvement must lead to intolerance of small daily risks.
Walking in workers’ shoes is a start. But it must result in actual improvements, not more talk.
Dr Yossi Berger
National OHS Co-ordinator
Australian Workers’ Union