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.