Safety leadership and culture require accountability

At the recent Safe Work Australia Awards, the Minister for Workplace Relations had a dig at “safety culture“, according to an article from the National Safety Council of Australia.   Bill Shorten said :

“It is not the systems or the fancy talk about culture that will save people’s lives.”

This has been interpreted by some as Shorten disparaging the advocates of safety culture.  I agree that safety culture can be used as a euphemism for “Act of God” and therefore take no preventative action but safety culture is not designed by Gods, it is designed and implemented by Chief Executive Officers and Boards of Directors, often under the rubric of “leadership”.

Leadership on workplace safety issues at the senior level is a very good idea but any discussion on leadership must also include “accountability”.  Leadership without accountability leads to corporate fraud, at the big end of town, and snake oil salesman at the other extreme.  Either way the victims are shareholders and workers.

Shorten’s suspicion of safety culture is understandable as the Minister has first hand experience with dysfunctional safety cultures, some would say he still does. But there are an increasing number of major disasters that reflect a poor safety culture. The most obvious recent incident would be the BP Deepwater oil rig collapse but Australia has had the Beaconsfield mine disaster, Esso Longford, Gretley and, the incident that is often overlooked outside the rail sector, the Waterfall train derailment.  If ever one want a clear indication of the failure of a “system of work”, Waterfall is it.

In fact, the legislative requirement to provide a “safe system of work” could be interpreted as meaning a “safe culture” before the safety culture term was devised.  If this is a valid interpretation, safety culture has existed as an OHS Legislative requirement in Australia for decades.

Shorten’s suspicion of “safety culture” should be noted as it is a common suspicion in the trade union movement. Safety culture is seen as a “get out of jail – free” card before one is even in jail.  It remains an amorphous concept that still allows everyone to point the finger of blame at everyone else (before paying Dupont thousands of dollars to “fix” it).  Whenever “safety culture” is mentioned, perhaps we should ask, “who owns the safety culture?”.  “If safety culture fails, who will stand up and accept responsibility?”  (It sure won’t be DuPont)  Perhaps true leadership is building a productive and safe culture and accepting responsibility if it fails.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

12 thoughts on “Safety leadership and culture require accountability”

  1. Yossi nails it for mine. This rooting around with sloppy use of “safety culture” has turned into one of those obsessive things with me, like havin’ ya blood boil when ya see apostrophes used in the wrong place (guilty your Honour).

    The Reason/Hopkins mob have been at pains to point out that safety culture is a “state of grace”, an aspirational thing, “rarely achieved”. It’s a place where all the safety stuff works perfectly, like in Disneyland.

    If we have a workplace where the bosses pay lip-service to OHS, spending on OHS is treated like paying for a monthly barbie and piss-up for the workers, and staff believe that anything safety oriented is mostly about covering the arse, well it needs to be called for what it is, a rooted workplace culture. (Guesstimate of frequency of that being the prevailing culture in workplaces? Maybe around 70%, and that’s probably conservative.)

    For reasons that probably warrant a thesis or 2, when “safety” gets attached to a phrase it seems to invite a disconnection with what is real and sensible. And I reckon all of us in OHS-World have to take some responsibility for that weirdness happening.

    Maybe one way to rectify things a bit is to insist, at every turn, that a spade gets called a spade? If the attitude to safety is screwed up, then it’s a workplace culture problem, and that makes it everyone’s problem, not just something the Safety Knob can be left to worry about.

    Col Finnie

  2. “… we need to “change the culture” which starts at the top and trickles its way down to the workers. To help this change I deciphered and took note of three key elements… We need to change the “behavior” by adjusting their attitudes, supporting their personalities and updating the environment. If we succeed in all three then I reckon it’s the right step towards making “safety” second nature (kind of like getting dressed everyday). Ultimately what we want is for a worker to automatically pick up that steel strapping on the footpath and throw it in the bin instead of stepping over it and keep on walking.”

  3. We can see a safe work place, when shopfloor supervisors and managers are given free hand to manage the affairs for a safe production.
    If a CEO says safety is important in meetings and public forums, he should mean it by reviewing the status everyday. After saying safety is important, if he talks about production in daily meetings with his line managers without bothering about safety and admonishes them for slow/less production, then message is clear to the shopfloor manager. Everybody should be held responsible for both production and safety. They should go hand in glove. If treated separately, then it becomes like a staff function i.e production manager will be patted for good production and safety manager will be blamed for the incidents. Generally, this is what happening in many facilities and thus little thought is given by production supervisors and managers for ensuring safety of their employees.
    Unions too should play an active role in implementing safety. If they become baits for some comforts offered by managements, then the talk of safety is only an eyewash.
    Safety culture will become a holy word in true sense only when all incidents along with production, breakdown, etc are reported to the top man, failing which concerned should be punished. If required work should be suspended to review safety systems and frame better procedures and implement the same. Otherwise, safety culture will be ridiculed as it happened in Safety Work Australia Awards and other places.

  4. If culture is defined as “the way we do things around here” then every workplace has a culture. If guards are regularly left off dangerous machinery then that’s the culture. If workers are sent into dangerous atmospheres with no protection then that’s the culture. The same with the inverse. One type of culture is obviously preferable to the other but culture is not fixed, it can be changed, it can be improved.

    To blame the culture for the existence of obvious workplace hazards is ludicrous. Workplace cultures do not just emerge out of some primeval swamp and are then fixed forever. Workplace cultures are created by those who exercise control over the workplace and those who actually work within it.

    Bill Shorten may have raised a valid concern, but I have to wonder at the culture he and his colleagues are creating within the department’s they administer?

  5. Here’s an opinion, Kevin:

    If you accept the truth of the following two points then you’ll easily see why the notion of ‘safety culture’ is so dubious as representing anything meaningful or useful in most workplaces.

    First, some 90% of workers work in small to medium workplaces where the vast majority of people are too busy, or tired, or stressed, or bored, or bullied (including managers), and too suspicious to consider anything but the task in front of them. ‘Trust’ will be deeply understood, ‘culture’ will be laughed at. Anyone who spends a lot of time observing various workplaces will know just how much H&S nonsense flourishes at work, and is known for what it is. This is protected by the great silence.

    Secondly, ‘safety culture’ denotes a hypothetical construct, not a natural kind (like ’tiger’ does). It’s meant to denote/allude to something practical that really exists at work, and exists with some duration. It doesn’t follow that everything that exists must be able to be kicked and be seen (e.g. mother’s love). But similarly it doesn’t follow that just because there is a name for something that something exists in an occupationally relevant sense.

    Such constructs are useful, as are models, but only as vehicles on the road to practicality. They are, generally, interim steps to help thinking.

    But when I point to a missing machine guard on a dangerous machine and the manager thoughtfully says to me, “Oh, it’s a safety culture issue” and “We have a challenge with our H&S system here” I despair.

    This is perhaps a subject for a longer article, but various hypothetical constructs (concepts) and the fancy language of OHS (e.g. mindfulness) have been acting like computer viruses in thinking about H&S for many years. They mutate honest, practical thinking and stop quick effective action, e.g. Don’t talk about it. First fit a proper machine guard on that conveyor, and then we’ll talk fancy. Maybe that initial action (repeated) will do something for the perception of ‘how we do things here’ and maybe, just maybe a practical intolerance of small daily risks will emerge.

  6. An interesting point, or concept, is your interpretation that a legislated safe system of work could be read as a safety culture.

    What is more defining is your call for accountability. This is just, proper and actually makes good sense, which is probably why it is lost in the tumult of noise created to avoid just these ethics.
    Across the board accountability is the one single factor that has the most time wasted, energy expended and money thrown at avoiding this simple action. Much like the slavish following of reality TV, the Australian national psyche automatically goes into shut-down mode when the dreaded “accountability” word is mentioned.

    Minister Shorten is no different. Has he accepted responsibility for his comments or actions (or the lack thereof) on the subject of OHS? Of course not, that would be very un-Australian.

    Any culture, workplace or otherwise, is the recognised behaviour of the masses involved. This includes those at the head and those at the working end. Those at the head confirm or allow a certain behaviour to prevail, the rest follow or feed this behaviour, until it becomes a recognised “culture”. Nowhere in this equation does accountability rule.

    In the aspect of OHS, being safety in the workplace, we have had legislation here in Australia for decades that has been written solely for the wellbeing and safety of the workers. Do not confuse accountability and punitive actions against companies (or the lack thereof) with the true intent of OHS legislation.

    This very same legislation empowers the workers to create their own safe workplace, by their own input. All the workers have to do is accept individual accountability for their actions, and they have a safe workplace of their own making. The problem of course is that the “accountability” word applies equally to workers as it does to Ministers and Bosses.

    The sooner everyone stops playing the class warfare card, the sooner we rid ourselves of industrial socialism, the sooner everyone accepts responsibility for their individual and collective actions, the sooner the workplaces will become safer, and as a consequence more productive.

    A productive workplace is a healthy workplace. People that are healthy are usually positive and happy. Happy people have time and make the effort to share their happiness with others, so a culture of community develops naturally and spreads throughout. This is the optimum end game.

    Perhaps it is time to refocus our individual values away from flat screen TVs and the ;latest iToys and concentrate on what is good, and just, and right for Australia.

    I apologise if my comment morphed into a blog.

  7. As a former ohs rep who had the misfortune to be under the comcare system ,I would think maybe a government minister should take responsibility for how comcare operates,we it to found to be averse to complying employers to address serious safety concerns even to the extent of ignoring pins issues by the ohs reps ,and for a rep to be told by an investigator he was under pressure to drop without reason by his own manager an investigation .
    This has allowed a national company to not be accountable for safety breaches .
    It is very frustrating to be able to prove to a government body that the employer has lied to comcare about the cause of a serious injury and see it be ignored

    1. I think there are many examples of Ministers “taking the rap” for public servant decisions. There are also many examples of this not occuring. However, in relation to Comcare, I think the Minister is the wrong target. More appropriate would be Comcare’s CEO, Paul O’Connor a former CEO of Victoria’s Transport Accident Commission.

      It may also be useful to look closely at the Comcare website in which its corproate governance framework is detailed. There may also be CEO statements in the Annual Reports that illustrate a “non-compliance” with the organisation’s own policies and procedures.

  8. I think Bill Shorten has enough experience at the coal face to warrant his comments. The only culture that seems to prevail is one of avoidance.

    I can’t remember an incarceration of a senior manager in the life of current OHSW legislation, yet I can certainly remember the many deaths, mutilations and hundreds of thousands of injuries that were supposed to have been prevented, where possible, by a culture of compliance with legislated safety law.

    It would seem direct action at the coal face is missing from the equation and that includes legal compliance by authorities charged with enforcing the legislation, and the limp wrist-ed approach of those that cry “foul” at the many “gabfests” and hand wringing meetings and conferences which produce new acronyms and divergent views that deliver little.

    The many parties to the evolution of the OHSW industry that has added extraordinary cost to the community in many ways without any real progress, except to say, that we now have a plethora of ways to describe how it has all gone so badly wrong and provide more calls for research and data gathering so it can continue to go wrong.

    Talk of accountability is trite, given that no one is effectively prepared to be called to account and the main game is to avoid responsibility.

    My comments are based on some 40 years of experience on both sides of the safety fence and the last 20 years of dealing with Small Business and representing injured workers. So you might say I have a strong body of experience and there is not much I am seeing out there in Safety land that encourages me to think that things will improve any time soon.

    I live in hope but will remain the cynic based on OHSW history.

  9. “Perhaps true leadership is building a productive and safe culture and accepting responsibility if it fails.”

    The above sentence strikes at the heart of the issue, who are you asking to take responsibility if it fails?

    The employee, the leading hand, the junior manager, the senior manager, the OH&S manager, the executive or even the board?

    Perhaps given the amount of people who are available to point the finger at, we can understand why Bill Shorten is nervous about dysfunctional safety cultures.

    The bottom line is each year more people are killed and seriously injured at their place of work then in any warzone the ADF maybe be operating in. But we don’t hear anywhere near the outcry by the media or politicians about these deaths.

    Instead all we see is political point scoring by people who should know better about how to make our industries safer across the nation. For the sake of our children I hope this happens sooner rather than later…

  10. It’s not just that safety culture is used to wash the hands. It’s also used as a tool to blame the worker, and to enforce often onerous “safe-worker” safety management systems (read DuPont and others).

    I agree, we should look to the safe systems of work – so does that define “culture” as “systems of work”? Which big brother management system called it “the way we do things around here?”

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