Yossi Berger writes:
We’re all familiar with the notions of focus and attention, and selective attention. We’ve all experienced how difficult it can be to attend to target information when background noise is distracting. The issue can be referred to as the signal-to-noise ratio.
I often find its effects in discussions with managers and workers during workplace inspections. That is, I hear animated discussions of hazards, of risks, of risk assessments and risk management and various systems and theories. The conversations over flow with these concepts whilst most of workers’ daily problems aren’t even raised, they don’t reach the level of a signal.
Thankfully in most workplaces, most managers and most workers have not experienced any fatalities. By far most of them will not have experienced or witnessed a serious injury or serious disease. Nor have most experienced their local hazards actually seriously hurting anyone.
But most workers will have experienced some dangerous working conditions, mostly not mortally dangerous, but dangerous. Most workers will have experienced difficult working conditions, cutting corners and daily short cuts. They’ll have experienced the effects of corporate neglect and manager confusion about H&S. Yet the language and implicit talking contracts (what is a proper thing to talk about) exclude by far the most common experience of workers’ daily hardship.
Is it unsafe, unhealthy? Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t, and often unknown. So what? Why should the terms ‘unsafe, unhealthy’ be the decisive and only bench marks of what’s a decent and civilised way to work?
Na, I’m just buggered mate!
1. “I don’t know what to tell you” a worker at a mine in WA told me when I asked about the effect of his 12 hour night roster. “But I can tell you that I’m buggered much of the time, even when I go home”. He didn’t know if he should call it fatigue, exhaustion, workload or what. “But I can tell you I’m tired all the time, I mean tired tired all the bloody time. That’s how I work, tired and angry. Should see what it does to my family life!”
Is that a hazard with associated levels of risk? Will we call it stress, distress, anxiety… or what? He says, “It’s just hard mate, and there aint nothin’ I can do about it”
If he raises it at the usual tool box meetings or through the H&S committee he’ll be told (at best) about the local fatigue management policy and how to eat well.
2. At a very dusty workplace in very hot working conditions I spoke to workers who seemed to cough all the time. Not rattling, frightening coughs, but constant irritation coughs. “Yeah, sure” Linda said, “my throat’s irritated from all this constant dust, what would you expect? That’s how it is”. And then she showed me a small box of over the counter throat lozenges that the manager provides them at no charge to carry as ‘PPE’. They didn’t think this was something they could raise as a genuine H&S hazard. It wasn’t in the lexicon of that workplace. “It’s just hard mate”, Larry said in a rasping voice, “That’s all. You want to work here that’s how it is”
3. What about control room operators who have to sit at consoles for 12 hours, say, on night shift? Often in very dilapidated conditions, on broken chairs, surrounded by smelly cupboards, serious black dust coming through the vents for years and years (see image), that’s what they breathe working at this well to do international company, as they attend to thousands of various alarms per shift.
They were told that the risk associated with this dust is minimal, well below required standards, not really a risk at all, and certainly, therefore, not a hazard. And this even though some of it may be carcinogenic. Is that – at least – a hardship?
So what are all these?
They are the texture of how most workers in Australia work. That’s their daily experience. Yet the going talk is of hazards, risks, OHS management systems, risk assessments and risk management. Committed managers wring their hands trying to understand the ‘real psychology’ of what happens at work in relation to H&S, (“Why don’t they talk to us and tell us what the hazards are? My door is always open!”). Yet workers go on working through days peppered with parcels of small daily hardships.
It may be a helpful change to formally introduce some notion of workplace hardship into the lexicon of usual H&S talk, but not begin by diluting it with the standard terminology of ‘stressors, stress, fatigue, psychosocial hazards…. and so on. Call a spade a spade, ‘working in hardship’. Then, instead of attending to the allowed signals (hazards, risks…) nurture a different signal-to-noise environment where the complaints about workplace hardship are heard and respected as real issues.
“What’s bothering you at work?” may be a better question than “Can you assess the risks of this hazard on this 25 cell matrix?”
Dr Yossi Berger
National OHS Co-ordinator
Australian Workers’ Union