Australian IR Minister calls for dignity, respect and trust in workplace safety

Workers Memorial 2006 00328 April is the annual day of remembrance for those people who have died at work.  It has various names depending on local politics but the World Day for Safety and Health at Work, established by the International Labour Organization.  This year ceremonies are being held on many days around April 28.  On Wednesday 24 April, Australia’s Workplace Relations Minister, Bill Shorten, spoke at the remembrance ceremony in Brisbane.  The official speech is illustrative.

Shorten states an occupational health and safety principle:

“…we know [workplace deaths] are preventable. They are not accidents.

Let me repeat this: by far most deaths and serious injuries are predictable safety failures.

It’s not a systems’ failure or risk assessment failure, or hazard identification failure…and all those other handsome words without tears.

It is the failure that springs as a readymade monster from the knowing tolerance of small daily hazards at the daily tasks.” (emphasis added)

Even given the qualifications in the highlighted statement above Shorten believes workplace incidents are safety failures that occur due to a “knowing tolerance” of hazards.  The risk is not in the hazards themselves but in our tolerance of these hazards.  He is referring to workplace culture without mentioning it.  He may also be referring to our lack of attention to near misses, fortuitous lessons that are mostly ignored.

Shorten provides advice on how to improve workplace safety:

“Begin by not tolerating small daily hazards, that’s how this long journey starts, by everyone knowing that even small safety failures will not be tolerated at any workplace.

Foster and nurture a demonstrable intolerance to small daily hazards.

This is doable, this is not expensive, there is no excuse for not doing it.

You don’t need any extra training or extra paper work.

You need to understand what it is to have a sense of dignity at work. To understand what workers mean when they say, “The safety program here is in good hands.  Remember this:  IN GOOD HANDS.  Where trust and respect live.”

In this text he targets safety culture, the “common sense” of safety, the business costs of training and the nonsensical threat of “red tape”.  Shorten also comes to the humanity required to improve OHS – dignity at work, trust and respect.

Audiences at work memorials are dominated by trade union members and officials who often introduce topical political statements that have no place in such a ceremony.  These statements would be like raising party political matters while speaking at an ANZAC ceremony, however it occurs.  Shorten carefully acknowledges the significant safety contribution of the union movement but curiously prefers the term “labor movement”.

His ideology is, particularly, displayed in his advice to business:

“I take the opportunity on this memorial day to say to management teams:  forget the big canvasses and the fancy words and the fancy theories.

Begin by not tolerating small daily hazards, that’s how this long journey starts, by everyone knowing that even small safety failures will not be tolerated at any workplace.

Foster and nurture a demonstrable intolerance to small daily hazards. “

He invokes Lao-Tzu who said “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”  However, Australia is already a long way into that journey and even the government has developed big canvasses, fancy words and fancy theories through its National Work Health and Safety Strategy.

Shorten’s speech hits the morality of workplace safety very well and its juxtaposition of this international day of mourning with ANZAC Day celebrations is very well handled.  It is a cleverly crafted speech that allows Shorten to speak with passion, which he does well, but also to make critical and constructive points about workplace safety.  The speech is a useful reference point for the Australia Labor Party’s thoughts on workplace safety and an important comparison to some of the speeches that will be presented at various memorial ceremonies over the coming days.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

9 thoughts on “Australian IR Minister calls for dignity, respect and trust in workplace safety”

  1. My point is this.

    If we listen to some of the issues being raised in the court rooms of Australia where a worker has been killed, there may well be – in fact I would estimate there almost always is a defence that will argue something along the lines of this:

    \”My client\’s company has an excellent safety culture and it is one they are very proud of.\”

    They\’ve got the safety glasses and the yellow lines down pat but common sense got lost in the Frey when the young lad operating the machine (he\’s wearing his safety glasses by the way) as he begins the operation on an old piece of dangerous equipment that is completely void of ANY safety features whatsoever has just pulled him in and torn his body to pieces / crushed / dismembered etc.

    Did you say, \”there is no such thing as common sense in safety\”?

    Maybe that\’s the damned problem? The forest is hiding the trees!

    1. Andrea, there is no such thing as common sense in safety or elsewhere. In the safety profession where large consultancies target large corporations with complex theories about leadership and behavioural safety, Shorten\’s words are original to some.

      Shorten said “I take the opportunity on this memorial day to say to management teams: forget the big canvasses and the fancy words and the fancy theories.\”

      I think following his time at the Beaconsfield mine disaster and the inquiries Shorten is well aware of safety management crap. He just needs to do more to counter it.

  2. Regardless of our opinions about the author of the statement, Bill Shorten is correct.

    The toleration of small daily hazards leads inevitably to the total undermining of safety systems at the workplace. Workers become cynical about the gap between theory and practice which leads to a culture of \’turning a blind eye\’ to safety infringements – which is perpetuated by management based on short term expediency.

    The differential consequences between minor and major non compliance becomes obscured and serious incidents thus occur.

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