Safety is missing from productivity debates

A March 2012 report from Safe Work Australia reminds us that the issue of productivity and safety is not a new ideological battle. The report states that

“In 1995, an Industry Commission study estimated that only 25 per cent of the total cost of work–related injury and disease was due to the direct costs of work-related incidents. The remaining 75 per cent was accounted for by indirect costs such as lost productivity, loss of income and quality of life.” [link and emphasis added]

The significance of this quote is that the Industry Commission (now the Productivity Commission) established a direct link between work-related injuries and lost productivity. The link was not established by an organisation focusing on safety but one that is all about productivity. But none of the safety advocates or lobbyists have entered the political debate on productivity, even though the relationship between safety management and productivity has been established for almost 20 years, at least.

The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work stated in 2007 that:

“…well-performing enterprises can realise productivity benefits such as:

  • safer working methods that also allow work to be done quicker and with fewer people,
  • reduced rates of accidents, incidents and ill health — with examples of sickness absence being halved, and
  • maximising levels of recruitment, motivation and retention of skilled staff.”

In a new report, Leadership and Occupational Safety and Health (OSH): An Expert Analysis, EU-OSHA undertook “16 case studies from 12 European countries, to obtain practical lessons for the improvement of leadership in OSH”. It found

“At least 30 separate positive outcomes were reported to have resulted. Most prominent was a reduction in the number of accidents (reported in 11 of the 16 cases, while another company reported a reduction to no accidents at all). A reduction in sick leave and an improvement in working conditions were each reported in five cases, while higher productivity and increased awareness of the importance of OSH to business success were claimed in four cases each.” (page 6)

In a SafetyAtWork magazine article in 2000, the then Director of EU-OSHA, Hans Horst Konkolewsky said about musculoskeletal disorders

“The toll of aches, pains and injuries is a heavy load borne by workers and their families. It is also a heavy load for enterprises costing Europe billions of Euros in lost productivity and increasing health and social costs every year.” (page 4)

In a 2000 media release in the context of a new Manual Handling Code of Practice, WorkCover Victoria’s Publicity Officer Amanda Bolch said

“…these [manual handling] injuries also resulted in considerable pain and suffering for those affected, as well as a decrease in workplace productivity.”

A WorkCover media release is not necessarily evidence compared to that of the Productivity Commission or EU-OSHA but it, and many other mentions, shows that there is a dominant perspective in the safety profession that poor safety management has a negative effect on productivity. It is valid to ask why safety is absent from, or even acknowledged in, the productivity debate.

This debate has certainly been reinvigorated in New Zealand where the Royal Commission into the Pike River Mining Disaster identified, amongst many problems, that productivity was provided a higher priority than safety. The relevance of the Royal Commission’s findings to the mining sector and other large high-risk industries should not be dismissed.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

One thought on “Safety is missing from productivity debates”

  1. So Kevin which countries set the benchmark that we should look at and how do they achieve their comparitive success is it legislation ,application consultation or training .
    As for Victoria is it because the risk of hazardous manual handling is not properly addressed in the manual handling risk assessments and is addressed by manual handling training which you have not been able to do since 1985

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