Innovative thinking needed if Australia is to save lives and improve the economy

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) advocates for workers’ rights and entitlements with occupational safety being one of those entitlements but sometimes the safety message from ACTU is a little narrow.

On 14 March 2012, the ACTU issued a media release responding to the release of important workplace safety data by Safe Work Australia.  The release quotes ACTU President Ged Kearney emphasising very important data:

“This report has found that the cost of each workplace incident is around $99,100 and of this workers pay $73,300, the community $20,800 and employers $5100…”


“We think we are a clever country but it isn’t so smart to forgo almost 5% of our nation’s GDP on the cost of preventable workplace injury and illness…”

But what does the ACTU propose to address this economic cost of poor safety management? The ACTU calls for

  • “..all governments … to look closely at these figures when they consider the adequacy of workers’ compensation payments”
  • “…encourag[ing] workers to become involved in making their workplace safer by electing health and safety representatives joining their workplace health and safety committee”
  • “and by seeking advice from their union.”

All of these suggestions have existed for decades before Safe Work Australia released it 2009-10 economic costs data.  It can be argued that new proposals are required.

This is not to say that the existing ACTU strategies have failed.  They have not.  There is considerable evidence in Australia, Europe and the UK, that people in unionised workforces have less injuries than in non-unionised workplaces.  One example of that evidence can be found in the submission 55 to Australia’s national review of OHS laws by Johnstone, Bluff and Quinlan.  These researchers undertook a detailed study of research reports into  workplace consultation, participation and representation and found

“…joint arrangements and trade union representation at the workplace are associated with better health and safety outcomes than when employers manage OHS without representative worker participation.” (page 27)

Consultation and union representation have generated workplace safety benefits but as the number of unionised workplaces declines and membership declines, or at least plateaus, so does the effectiveness of the ACTU’s recommended actions.  New ways of reducing the economic costs of workplace injuries and deaths need to developed at the same time as finding new ways to reduce the number of injuries and deaths.

There is a slim chance that the soon-to-be-released National OHS Strategy being developed by Safe Work Australia will include some innovative mechanisms but the previous strategy had dubious success as the aims of the original strategy became increasingly “aspirational”.  (“Aspirational” is similar to “awareness” in that the term does not require any tangible achievement)

Significantly the economic data has been publicly available for several days however, at the time of writing, there has been little or no comment from the usual business and industry associations, and yet there will be no improvement in safety until Australian business acknowledges the reality of data from Safe Work Australia.

The trade union movement may have a three-part strategy as listed above but what strategy will Australian businesses choose?  They could say that the cost to business is not worth their attention as a 5% injury cost can be covered as simply a cost of “doing business”.  Safe Work Australia’s data showed that most of the cost burden is carried by workers and community so what’s the issue?

Employer groups love big numbers and references to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) so the 5% of GDP should gain some attention particularly as the argument about improving productivity continues.  It could be argued that if all businesses understood and complied with OHS laws, as they are already required to, the injury rate would be greatly reduced and the 5% of GDP burden would be much less.  Such compliance should not generate additional business costs as OHS compliance has always existed.  The only companies that may have additional costs are those that have not already been complying and those “new” costs are simply the reallocation of what they should already have been paying.

Australian business groups could begin developing safety innovations that can be explained to their membership as saving worker lives, increasing productivity and improving the economic health of the nation.

Action on OHS changes may be slight whilst the OHS harmonisation process putters on but the delayed completion of this process is no reason to procrastinate on actions to improve workplace health and safety, particularly if the cost of poor safety management and workplace injuries continues to account for 5% of  GDP and around 300 people die each year.  But new and innovative thinking is required on workplace safety.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia
Categories business, evidence, guidance, innovation, law, Leadership, OHS, politics, research, safetyTags , , , , ,

4 thoughts on “Innovative thinking needed if Australia is to save lives and improve the economy”

  1. I was interested to note the ‘cost to community’ of workplace injury but was disappointed to note that there are no details as to what these costs are or how this cost is allocated. I’d like to understand this more.
    Sure, I understand that there is a subjective cost associated with pain & suffering and there is a productivity cost to families where a person is injured an unable to undertake their normal home duties but how do we arrive at the $73,000 (worker) and $28,000 (community) costs????
    I am constantly encouraging our employees to make sure they obtain a WorkCover medical certificate from their doctor if they are injured at work – even if they don’t want to make a claim. This way our employer pays the medical costs and not Medicare (read taxpayer/community).
    As to the ‘strategic thinking’ stuff, I tend to think that this is pretty much wasted effort, as the majority of injuries are suffered by persons ‘at the coalface’ and, generally speaking, these persons have no intellectual connection to anything ‘strategic’.
    I tried reading some of the documents that are linked in the article above and I was quickly de-motivated even to try to decipher what it means to me as I try to advise front line and middle managers on risk management, whilst also attempting to get Executive Managers to take a realistic view of prevention of incidents and injuries.
    In my experience, there is a significant disconnect between how Executives think and how middle managers think and how front line workers think.
    Unless executives try to think like a worker, they will never communicate ‘strategy’ effectively and they will not manage middle and front line managers with a view to preventing incidents and injuries.
    Putting it in simplistic terms, workers just want to do their job and go home – hopefully in the same condition as they came to work. However, this desire to ‘do their job’ is often the catalyst that leads to injuries – doing the ‘wrong thing’ for the ‘right reason’ either without recognising or not correctly assessing the risks associated with their action.
    Until we can ‘sell’ the concept that ‘not finishing a job is preferable getting injured by rushing or taking shortcuts’ I believe we will continue to experience injuries.
    And while ever the ‘bottom line’ is the motivating force for getting the job done we’ll never sell that concept to front line workers.
    And while ever performance management places a heavier focus on ‘production’ and ‘profit’ with little or no regard to the cost impact of incidents, injuries and workers compensation costs then middle and front line managers will continue to fail to manage safety as they manage profit.
    For example I am currently in a not-for-profit providing services to clients with disabilities. Can you believe that some managers expect that workers in this industry will be exposed to aggressive and violent behaviour from clients and hence it is expected that those workers will suffer injuries and still be expected to continue working with those same clients. Whilst ‘profit’ is not pushed as the motivating factor, ‘service to clients’ is paramount – and, in the minds of workers, this equates with ‘not adversely affecting funding and income streams’. And there are some workers who believe this same concept – they, like nurses, place the interests of their client above their own well being. little realsiing that if they are seriously injjured they won;t be able to provide services to those clients.
    I have also worked in heavy and transport industries where it is ‘expected’ that maintenance personnel will suffer minor injuries when using tools in awkward positions – eg: spanners slip off bolts and knuckles get skinned on sharp edges.
    While ever executive, senior and middle managers ‘expect’ or ‘accept’ that some injuries will occur in their industry there is no motivation to prevent them.
    And we all know the incident ratio triangle don’t we? 600 near misses : 30 property damage : 10 minor injuries : 1 serious injury/fatality.
    So for very 10 minor injuries we expected to experience we can expect at least one serious injury.
    So for me ‘strategic WHS’ is about convincing senoir and middle managers that safety is good for profit and NO injury should be ‘expected’.

  2. With all the safety legislation currently in place, with all the safety guidelines in place, with all the focus and intent in regard to workplace health and safety, the truth is that the number of workers who are injured made ill or contract a disease or die remains static.

    Innovative thinking has been engaged for as long as I can remember, computer modelling has been used, research into best practices world wide has been under taken and endless reports written that now gather dust on shelves forgotten 5 minutes after the cocktail party launch of the report.

    I have spoken with people within the safety industry about truly innovative thinking and true research.
    Sadly what I had to offer was put into the “too hard” basket.
    Hence sadly nothing will change.

  3. Prevention is better than Cure. but the way the system works here is very strange. The managers and the OHS inspectors should change their attitude towards the poor injured workers. But they all gang up and cover up the true story. If everybody takes the issues as their own then the outcome will be much better than what we experience today.There are lots of policies and procedures in place but who is following them ? No one. Is anyone checking wheter these procedures are followed by the managers and inspectors? I doubt..

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