“How can this be allowed to happen nowadays?” the distressed wife of a seriously injured worker asked me recently. Her husband was sitting next to her, his eyes still victims of the recent terror that nearly killed him. She saw that and struggled to join him in his very dark and personal space. This now would become a life time job for her.
This meeting captured for me one of the most fundamental factors at most workplaces. That workers’ most common feeling at work is that of vulnerability. Of course many workers find comfort and pride in their job. Of course it feeds them and their families. Of course it can provide personal identity and purpose. And of course there are many managers who understand all this.
But it’s also true that much too often this is not the case. That’s one reason why when suddenly factories or mines close, or car manufacturers ‘shed’ 200 workers, or car part factories go bust workers are not only shocked, but it substantiates their sense of vulnerability, “What a shock, I thought they loved us!”
Not only is this painfully evident when a negligently poor H&S standard results in crippling a worker for life, but is typically present on a daily basis. Permanent fear of job loss results. The fact that a worker can be disciplined or sacked for a number of events that can be defined and redefined by creative managers feeds that feeling. That’s another reason why so much bullying and humiliation occur and so much stress is experienced.
How do such managers think workers feel to be threatened with random drug testing when they know that by far most H&S fallout and the hazards and risks present have nothing to do with drug taking? How do they think workers feel when hopeful managers bark about teams, (“We’re a team, Team, aren’t we Team?!”) in the boys’ own hairy chest beating manner?
Will this small amount of asbestos fibres I’ve just inhaled here – because no one told me that this material had asbestos in it – kill me? Na, probably not. ‘Probably not’ is what I’ll tell my wife, ‘probably not’. Will this small amount of benzene fumes I’ve just inhaled give me leukaemia? Na, probably not. What about my mate who was seriously injured (broken neck) in a quad bike incident when the prone to roll over machine did just that? What’s that all about?
Ask the manufacturers and their preferred research consultancy and they’ll tell you (in their most recent report just out) that that rider was ‘a misuser’. And so must have been (by implication) those dead people who were killed by quad bikes, misusers, despite comments to the contrary from a coroner. You can perhaps understand such crudeness from manufacturers over-excited with their ‘near perfect’ creations, but why would researchers who pride themselves on independence and objectivity resort to such terminology? Not nice, folk, let alone unprofessional.
Quad bike manufacturers and so many in industry behave as if their machines or work processes or factory designs or OHS systems are near perfect. So the H&S fallout associated with the use of their creations by human beings must be the result of misuse. Tell me that’s not harmful arrogance.
Every week I see workers who are confused by all the good and important OHS improvements that are supposed to be happening at their workplace, yet they still work in the same shit they were in yesterday, or 20 years ago, whilst their managers talk theory of H&S.
Somewhere between people’s sense of vulnerability and industry’s hurtful arrogance people try to live a busy and rewarding life. But this fact remains…. it’s people, not permanently rule obeying robots.
Dr Yossi Berger
National OHS Co-ordinator
Australian Workers’ Union