Professor Andrew Hopkins‘ frequent appearances at safety conferences are always fascinating as he does not simply trot out the same presentation each time. He is certainly not a priest with the same 52 sermons each year.
At the Building Safety conference Hopkins spoke briefly about mindfulness but grounded this in how executives and others should inspect a worksite and what questions to ask. He discussed audits also but there will be more on that in another article.
Hopkins insisted that executives should show leadership and begin to satisfy their positive OHS duty and their due diligence obligations by walking their worksites, talking with their workers and, most importantly, listening to the answers. There are no hard and fast rules or guidelines on the frequency of these visits but he said that the executives should NOT be accompanied. Having a phalanx of execs in pristine PPE approaching a work group puts the workers on guard and makes them self-conscious.
I have seen this on construction sites over the years when I have bumped into an executive on their site walk. They can blend into the workforce and receive more honest answers to their project and safety questions.
Hopkins says that execs should not talk to the same workers at each site. Select workers at random but especially contractors. Questions should remain focussed on safety and not imply any criticism because the walks are principally a fact-finding mission. One question or comment that I have used on my walks is “tell me what I can do to make your job safer”. This indicates that I have some ownership of the job and that I am not trying to find fault.
Hopkins suggests these type of questions, amongst others:
- Tell me about your job
- What do you think can go wrong?
- What are the greatest risks in this job?
- Have we controlled these issues?
- Are there any safety issues that we haven’t addressed?
- Are there times when workers feel the need to take shortcuts?
The importance of language is very high if one supports a just or no blame culture of safety. Elsewhere in the Building Safety conference, speakers reinforced the need to be careful in what one asks and how ones asks. This was not for the purpose of limiting legal exposure, as many lawyers advocate, but to illicit important information about worker safety and, by inference, the health of the project.
One of the questions from the conference floor to Hopkins was that some executives feel silly asking questions. I know from my OHS consultancy that questions may reveal an ignorance in the questioner but, if asked for the purpose of improving safety, the answers are usually detailed and highly informative, often to the client or supervisor as well. Hopkins stressed that humility is essential in asking these questions. I would add that there needs to be a genuineness in the executive’s interest in safety. A site walk should not be about meeting a key performance indicator but about a genuine desire to improve safety and save people’s lives. Workers can smell a fraud or a disinterested executive, particularly if the site walks are in the week before the Board meeting or the remuneration review.