“Rule #1 – No Poofters”

The Building Safety conference this weekend had one or two underwhelming speakers but these were overshadowed by some brilliant presentations, and by brilliant, I mean challenging. I had no indication of what was to come from the presentation by Dr Dean Laplonge on gender. His presentation has caused me to begin to reassess my own (male) perceptions and those of the safety profession.

The title of this article is a Monty Python reference where a professor from England joins the Philosophy Faculty of the University of Woolloomooloo. He is inducted into the faculty by being told the rules and he even has his name changed to Bruce. This sketch is a good example of humour through hyperbole but over the decades this sketch has become more disturbing as, amongst others, it shows a gender perspective of the early 1970s that, in some industries, still echoes.

I was reminded of this sketch as Laplonge talked about his experience with gender issues in the oil & gas, mining and construction industries in Australia and Canada but I could have easily considered the Lumberjack Song.

Dean Laplonge was critical of gender being misunderstood in male-dominated industries like construction. It has been misunderstood as an issue of simply increasing the number of women in a workplace. Yet, it could be argued, that more sustainable cultural change may come from a new perspective on gender being accepted and applied by the dominant gender demographic – men.

His presentation needs time to seep into our assumptions and attitudes and demands reflection. He stated that one cannot talk about OHS in a male-dominated workplace without including gender, yet in the construction industry incidents are investigated without even considering gender as a possible contributory factor. Laplonge identified the following traits in male-dominated industries:

  • strength
  • dominance
  • control
  • independence.

These may be admirable traits but to show these elements male workers often take excessive risks and perform unsafe acts. Safety is often seen as a threat as it contradicts this risk taking.

We have often thought of these workplace attitudes as a cultural element when what we really mean is it is a gender trait, but we do not have the words, or readily understand, the necessary concepts.

Laplonge mentioned several case studies in his presentation, several that are available as case studies on the Factive website. The following case studies are highly recommended. I am embarrassed to admit that I see elements of my own work and attitudes in them.

It has been a long time since gender was widely discussed across society and this had usually come from a feminist perspective originating in the 1970s and 1980s. I read a seminal sociological text in my university days, Gender At Work, but had not considered applying some of those findings into the safety context. I will be revisiting it.

Laplonge’s presentation was an eye-opener to the presence of gender in many of the attitudes and approaches we apply to safety management. SafetyAtWorkBlog articles have touched on gender issues in the past, particularly in relation to workplace bullying, but I hadn’t realised the significance of the gender theme. I don’t believe that gender issues are a major element of workplace safety but they certainly exist and need to be acknowledged in our forward planning and investigations. I look forward to the journey

reservoir, victoria, australia

13 thoughts on ““Rule #1 – No Poofters””

  1. To illustrate my understanding of the subject matter from a lay perspective – just a couple of examples I\’ve recognised, during my WHS working life, as gender based approaches to \’work\’ that may affect safety of individuals:

    1: In the broader biological word the male \’animal\’ is in competition with other males to \’win\’ rights to procreate – this leads to issues of power and strength being applied to assume domination. The male human often illustrates these traits (i\’m generalising) by \’competing\’ with one another in the workplace. These competitive traits may cause some to take unnecessary risks to show their \’machismo\’. Consider the male dominated construction and resource industry sectors which traditionaly show higher injury rates.

    2: Females, as carers, often place themselves at risk to protect their \’young\’ or those they are caring for. Consider the female dominated nursing and other caring professions. I have noticed that female workers in these industries will take risks to protect a \’client\’ or \’patient\’ without thought of the potential impact on themselves.

  2. Thanks Kevin, We undertake behavior profiling when running our safety excellence course and hadn\’t even thought of considering this. We now might include a small section in our acknowledgement module.

    Does anyone else carryout profiling using the Keirsey or Belbin systems to determine personality/behavior types when forming small cohesive autonomous groups do undertake problem solving etc?

  3. As a PS, I recommend \’Black Gold\’ as a case-study in appalling workplace and management attitude creating an unsafe workplace on every level – especially in regards to intimidation and bullying issues (on display in every episode).

    While I realise that the camera\’s presence probably exacerbates and encourages outrageous behaviours, it is worth noting in the context of the \’gender effect\’, that even the description that they apply to their industry (\”Wild-catting\”) and to themselves (\”Roughnecks\”) plays to the mystique of macho that is counter to creating an OHS-accepting environment.

  4. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. Unlike Tony, above, I appreciate considerations of the critical role of contribution and context. Whether looking at the role of gender or trying to inculcate a workplace safety culture that runs counter to prevailing societal attitudes to risk-taking (and \’manliness\’), a narrow focus on the event itself can ignore chains of causality.

    Many years ago I heard a line in a TV series that was a comment on the attitude of a military commander that created a whole series of problems through his \’bull in a china shop\’ approach. The throw-away comment made about him as we left the scene was: \”Worst case of testosterone poisoning I have ever seen.\” It gave me a great laugh, but it indelibly stuck with me, to the extent that I have used it as a lens to view and assess much behaviours and actions.

    On a couple of reports that I prepared for my fellow managers on serious, near-miss potentially fatal incidents, I added a \”Testosterone Poisoning Index\” (Low, Medium, Extreme) as a short-hand pointer to something that certainly needed to be in the mix as an aggravating factor for risk behaviours on the individual, and, even more so, in the group (or heard / mob) level.

  5. HUGE and rapid response to this article in the last few hours. Thank you to all those readers who have clicked through to the Factive case studies.

    I hope this is the start of a worthwhile debate into gender and safety.

  6. Kevin, I was at the conference and I too left rethinking my perspectives on these issues. I have previously been involved with Dr Rob Long on site with one of his programs that really changed the way we approach safety management and I believe that this way of thinking by Dean could be another game changer.

    In reply to Tony, Dean cited numerous examples of where \”gender\” or more importantly the way a group percieves what it is to be a man was the cause of workplace injuries. He did qualify, that this isnt the be all end all, but it is a factor that needs to be addressed by the safety profession to gain a maturity in our understanding of worker mentality and actions.

    I personally think that any view that challenges the way we think is brilliant, as we can all get trapped with our blinkers on from time to time.

    1. In many ways, Dane, he made me feel like an OHS dinosaur by pointing out a perspective that I should, at least, been aware of. I could blame my maleness for shortsightedness but as Dean Laplonge would say, gender is not a male thing or a female thing, it is an issue that we all need to be equally aware of.

      I have a lot of catching up to do and will seriously consider Laplonge\’s gender and safety course later this year.

  7. A bit wide of the mark for this blog I would have thought. More concentration on the prevention of workplace injuries rather than diluting the safety message is more to the point. I would leave discrimination on the basis of gender or race to the experts in that field and get on with selling the safety message. Just a thought.

    1. Thanks Tony, in the context of all the articles I write, think this provides variety and a fascinating perspective on safety management. Thanks for reading.

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