Is the trickling down of safety information sufficient?

A recent article in the Journal of Health Safety Research & Practice (JHSRP) quoted the findings of some research into construction and safe design by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).  One of the NIOSH recommendations listed was that “… the trickle-down concept is appealing.”  The “trickle-down concept” may be appealing in many areas of policy, practice and the advocacy of leadership but its effectiveness is questionable.

It has become a mantra of some areas of the safety professional that safety can only be improved when introduced from the top.  A whole sector of safety leadership sellers has been created on this belief and an important element of the salesmanship is that good safety practices will trickle-down.  This sounds logical but it is necessary to analyse this concept, a concept that originated well outside of safety management.

Trickle-down has been described as a marketing concept, which seems based, partly, on envy.  Wikipedia says that, when applied to fashion,

“…this theory states that when the lowest social class, or simply a perceived lower social class, adopts the fashion, it is no longer desirable to the leaders in the highest social class.”

If this can be applied to safety leadership, it may be that by the time the leadership values reach the shopfloor workers, the leadership advocates, the executives, may be no longer interested.  The transience of trickle-down should be considered when leadership is applied.  How can safety change be sustained through leadership?  What can keep leadership fresh and relevant?

Many safety management concepts have emerged from mainstream management and it is likely that the application of trickle-down to safety has come from economics.  Former US President Ronald Reagan was a strong advocate of trickle-down economics but in 2009 the theory was found to be less effective than originally thought.  A 2009 article in the Wall Street Journal quoting Harvard’s Dan Andrews and Christopher Jencks, and Australia National University‘s Andrew Leigh, said that

“…trickle-down economics is [not] without merit. It’s just that it doesn’t appear to generate enough bang for the buck.”


““Increases in inequality lead to more growth,” the paper’s authors wrote. “There appears to be some trickle-down effect in the long run, but since the impact of a change in inequality on economic growth is quite small, it is difficult to be sure from our estimates whether the bottom 90% will really be better off or not.””

It may be that safety leadership from executives is not as sustainable as safety leadership from lower management and worker peers.  As a concept trickles down, its influence may weaken and the recipient may be affected by a number of “trickles” that require juggling in order to be manageable.  Rather than having an executive concept trickle-down to workers, it would seem more sensible to apply the concept directly to the intended audience, the workers.

SafeWork SA broke from the norm in 2007 by encouraging workers to look after their mates.  The OHS regulator applied the safety leadership and duty of care concepts to the lowest management levels and encouraged “mateship”.  Safety leadership states that employers must look after their employees and be seen to doing so.  SafeWork applied the values in a concept that they believed was more palatable to workers who, it must be remembered, are usually those who are at most risk of injury and illness.  It did not support the trickle-down effect for communication of values and an active duty-of-care, it translated the values into a more acceptable concept that reflects an established value in Australian culture and history but also a core element of global trade unionism.

It could be argued that instead of having a new concept of safety leadership trickle down to the workers, the duty of care values have been trickling up to executives since the modern OHS laws of Robens in the 1970s, and that the safety leadership (and even the safety culture) movement is simply applying the trade union mateship values to a new management level.

In 2007 the Health & Safety Executive produced a guidance on “leading health and safety at work” targeting executive management (and building on a 2001 guidance).  It included a check-list for board and executive members but by taking out the direct references to corporate boards, the check-list can be universally applied to all levels of a company:

  • “How do you demonstrate … commitment to health and safety?
  • What do you do to ensure appropriate … review of health and safety?
  • What have you done to ensure your organisation … receives competent health and safety advice?
  • How are you ensuring all staff … are sufficiently trained and competent in their health and safety responsibilities?
  • How confident are you that your workforce, particularly safety representatives, are consulted properly on health and safety matters, and that their concerns are reaching the appropriate level … ?
  • What systems are in place to ensure your organisation’s risks are assessed, and that sensible control measures are established and maintained?
  • How well do you know what is happening on the ground, and what audits or assessments are undertaken to inform you about what your organisation and contractors actually do?
  • What information does the board receive regularly about health and safety, eg performance data and reports on injuries and work-related ill health?
  • What targets have you set to improve health and safety and do you benchmark your performance against others in your sector or beyond?
  • Where changes in working arrangements have significant implications for health and safety, how are these brought to the attention of the board?”

Basing the communication of safety information on the “trickle-down” effect is not an effective method of consultation.  Nor is it possible to assume that the values of safety leadership will permeate the company in this way.  The current legislative approach to safety management (at least in Australia) is that executives, managers and workers must be actively engaged in safety in the workplace.  Some executives may wonder why their new safety leadership initiative is not gaining traction within the company but it is possible that the lower levels of their company already operate within a safety culture and that this culture may only need slight changes to be compatible with the new executive accountabilities.

Before considering any new safety management initiatives executives must begin talking directly with the workforce.  This communication should have no agenda other than the pursuit of safety improvements.  Executives need to understand their company’s safety culture (no matter how “bad” or under-developed it is) before committing to any new approach to safety management.  Jump past the trickle-down concept to face-to-face talking (and don’t think that a fake beard or bad wig is required.  This indicates a fractured management culture).  In some elements of business management this type of direct communication could alienate the middle-management but on the issue of safety and with the legislative obligation to consult, this avoidance of organisational strata is almost a requirement.  It may also indicate any safety information blockages in the current organisational structure.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

5 thoughts on “Is the trickling down of safety information sufficient?”

  1. I agree with the remark that many employers have poor understanding of the OHS requirements, legal in particular. Though in public meetings, they say OHS is on the top of their agenda, in practice this is not visible. As long as the production targets are met, OHS violations are not viewed seriously within the organization. I feel it is the responsibility of OHS professionals to make employers understand the requirements and penalties for violations. For this, regulators also should take lead in the dissemination of information and also take action on violators to demonstrate that they mean business.

  2. Kevin – I appreciate your reply.

    But if there was no accountability there would be no real need for leadership would there?

    If there was no detriment or no price to pay – who would care?

  3. Trickle down or dribble down? Hoping whatever is being dribbled gets where it should. But you dribble from the top, whatever\’s being dribbled finds the course of least resistance and drains away fast.

    We in OHS-World do seem to be keen on holding on like grim death to \”mantras\”. Feels a lot like a process of internalised justification. Trot out the mantra enough, get enough people to drone it and it doesn\’t really matter if it makes sense, it produces that warm inner glow.

    Was nutting through stuff about OHS-World on the way home from the Bendigo National Strategy session yesterday. It occurred to me that there was an ironical obstacle OHS-World has, and that is risk aversion. Manifested by things like talking about safety leadership as the solution. A bit of a no-brainer and a risk averse observation. But plonk \”respectful\” in front of \”safety leadership\” and a whole bunch of risk gets in the mix. We need hard thinkin\’, not more mantras, particular mantras that have been droned out for years and years.

    I\’m becoming more convinced that respect and boldness are the 2 things missing the most when it comes to getting safety right. And I think it\’s risk aversion that has us blanch at the thought of how to actualise respect and boldness.

    A big start would be assuring and showing the proof to managers that respecting the inputs of their staff (i.e. their middle managers, OHS managers or \”jugglers\” and most critically, the workers out on the shop floor) will produce good results. Another good start would be OHS regulators respecting the inputs from the same people about what they need to get safety right. And that categorically doesn\’t mean nodding dutifully when silly notions like \”individual accountability\” get in the conversation. But it does mean listening carefully to genuine concerns that are consistent with compliance obligations. (Self-evidently \”individual accountability\” can be too readily be interpreted as \”if only workers were more careful every thing would be peachy\”, i.e. \”can\’t we ignore what the law actually says?\”)

  4. Your wrote: \”SafeWork SA broke from the norm in 2007 by encouraging workers to look after their mates. The OHS regulator applied the safety leadership and duty of care concepts to the lowest management levels and encouraged “mateship”.\”

    Yes I recall the launch of that advertising campaign. At the time I couldn\’t quite put my finger on what was it about that advert that made me so uncomfortable.

    At roughly around that time, Workcover SA was also running its new ad campaign. This one was based on stick figure drawings – a child talking about his Dad\’s injury at work and how everyone had to help to make Dad better again so he could go back to work.

    I also recall at a VOID lunch, we discussed those adverts. The feedback was interesting. It became a lot clearer to me why I left the launch of that advertisement feeling so uneasy. Of course, I understand that VOID consists of families who have experienced a terrible loss and I accept that our views may be a little discoloured but they’re a long way from being irrational.

    In both of these campaigns the message appeared to be moving in a similar direction. Whether that was intentional or not or whether it was just how it was perceived, we felt a shift away from the corporate accountability toward the worker, his workmates and his family.

    Maybe that doesn’t seem unreasonable to many of you but in real life experience with an unsafe workplace that has claimed a life, it’s disturbing. That became even more evident during court proceedings. Workmates don’t control the workplace. Workmates are there to earn a living. Workmates will even mislead evidence – because dobbing isn’t the Australian thing to do (apparently).

    It’s pretty obvious that if you have lower hierarchy trying to implement better safety, that is a good thing and of course it makes sense that we want everyone to be accountable for safety. But I don’t care how you dice this up. If you have an employer that has little regard for OHS, getting the resources to implement better practise is near impossible.

    Take the Adelaide Desalination Plant and the amount of noise made about the safety issues there. Yes it was a massive project but there was funding to allow for OHS. Unrealistic time frames made them difficult to implement. Yet – workmates worked under these conditions side by side. Some did try to address safety concerns but as we saw, a simple threat of redundancy soon fixed that.

    I’m sorry but in the end, when push comes to shove, the burden of OHS responsibility has to be driven at management level. As many of the families of our deceased workers will attest, workmates don’t have enough control over their workplace. You can only rely on your workmates to look after you at work if the bloke paying your wages has the same agenda.

    1. Leadership is very different from accountability and I have not met an employer who dismisses the need for OHS (although I acknowledge they may exist). Many employers may have a poor or inadequate understanding of OHS law and safety management but few are dismissive. The new national OHS penalties coming in Australia in 2012 are specifically designed for those employers.

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