The synchronicity of safety and environment

There has always been a moral similarity between the occupational health and safety (OHS) profession and the environmental advocates.  One focusses on the immediate safety of humans and the other on the long term safety of humans.  This similarity can create challenges for organisations and industries that have workers in both environmental settings such as forestry and mining.  This type of challenge is currently being faced by Dr Nikki Williams of the Australian Coal Association.

In an article in the Weekend Australian on 10 March 2012 Dr Williams expressed concerns over a Greenpeace campaign against coal mining.  (Significantly the newspaper included no quotes from either Bob Brown of the Australian Greens or from Greenpeace.  ABC News did on on March 6 2012)  She inadvertently compliments the campaigners by saying the campaign shows a “a very high level of planning”, is “sophisticated” and “very detailed”.

Dr Williams is quoted as saying:

‘‘We are concerned because (the plans are) based on manipulating genuine and legitimate concerns about the impact of mining and manipulating those concerns for a broad political agenda,….. It is one thing to have a debate about the responsible development of the industry, which should be an open and transparent public debate, but it should not be one based on covert action.’’

OHS advocates could also have built a campaign against coal mining based on workplace injuries and incidents but this has been left to the unions who, regularly, mash-up OHS with pay disputes.  The CFMEU/BHP Billiton dispute has spread to Dr Williams’ patch of responsibility and her response will be interesting to hear.

OHS advocates could be talking with the environmental strategists to develop their own arguments in favour of better safety performance in all industry sectors, not just mining.  Any safety campaign obviously needs to be sophisticated, well-planned and detailed to get the attention of industry and it would help if a sitting politician would make a public speech deploring the campaign as this will give the campaign extended topicality.

The campaign should not be too difficult to develop as a pathway, or at least a rationale, was outlined by the Ecos Corporation in 2002.  Paul Gilding, Murray Hogarth and Rick Humphries, of Ecos, published an article in 2002 “Safe Companies: An Alternative Approach to Operationalizing Sustainability” in which the synchronicity between safety and sustainability was outlined:

  • The concepts are synonymous
  • Safety is familiar and understandable
  • Safety has a track record
  • Safety is “top of mind” and “people-centred”, and
  • Safety has shareholder value.

Even with the renewed attention to safety from executives that, some say, is resulting from  the new Work Health and Safety legislation and due diligence obligations, the safety profession and the safety message is still not as persuasive as it may have been ten years ago.  The linkages of safety to contemporary and topical issues, such as corporate social responsibility, sustainability, productivity, and executive accountability, have been missing or, at least, have not been strengthened.

The coal industry in Australia will face considerable criticism where, once coal was a cheap energy source, it is now a climatic poison.  Dr Williams needs to develop strong counter arguments to the environmental pressures based on morality rather than economic benefit. She will also need to develop similar counters in relation to increasing union pressure over OHS in the lucrative Bowen Basin. The form of those OHS counter arguments could establish a template that industry associations could apply across Australia.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

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