The “if you’re not sure, ask” campaign needs “if unsafe, fix”

WorkSafe Victoria has asked me in the past why I do not report on some of their successful activities and promotional campaigns.  Recently WorkSafe Victoria has been running what appears to be a very successful safety campaign focusing on young workers. The campaign is called “if you’re not sure, ask“.  The television and online advertisements again feature confronting workplace injuries but the significant difference in this case is that there is a social context about body image.  This element of the campaign is very effective however, from the perspective of an old fart of a safety professional, the advertisements miss the role of the supervisor and the importance of a safe working environment.

The pivotal point of the ads is meant to be when the young workers look to their supervisors for assistance but as the supervisors are busy, the young workers chose to take an action that is beyond their workplace knowledge and an amputation and chemical burns result.

What I see is a magazine collating machine that has inadequate guarding and a large container of caustic chemical which has no tap or other safer method of decanting.  The workers’ supervisors are running workplaces that do not provide a safe and healthy work environment.  The focus is on the actions and choices of the inexperienced workers.  This satisfies the ads’ purpose but a second phase of these ads is warranted.


I suggest that the same ads run a second time with a slight change.  As the supervisor turns away in the chemical ad, she turns back and says “Hang on.  Don’t do it that way.  Let me help”.  Or in the magazine ad, just as the boy goes to grab the jammed magazines, a supervisor’s hand comes on the boy’s shoulder saying “Stop.  Turn the machine of first.  Here, like this”.  The life-changing context of the incidents would remain a significant part of the ads but now active supervision, the “watchful eye” that all supervisors need to apply to new and young workers, is shown.

In this way, the core message of the advertising campaign remains – “if you not sure, ask” but this is reinforced with “if they’re not sure, supervise”.

Workplace redesign

It is also important that business owners and supervisors understand that the boy’s amputation would not have happened without suitable machine guarding or light sensors or some form of cut-off switch (no pun intended).  The girl’s chemical burns would not have happened if there was suitable PPE or, more importantly, the chemical container was either smaller and easier to handle, or had a tap to access the contents without touching the container.  All these design solutions are emphasised elsewhere in  WorkSafe Victoria guidances but are not part of this campaign.

The campaign’s website does include a link to advice for supervisors.  The advice is good and sensible but makes no mention of the actions one can take beyond supervision and consultation.  There is no mention of machine guarding or of the handling of hazardous substances.  The inclusion of such information would not have diluted the campaign’s message but could have provided an opportunity to piggyback on the campaign by deconstructing the incident and listing control measures and design changes that could have eliminated the risk; advice in line with OHS obligations and the hierarchy of controls.

I mentioned early in this article that it would be the perspective of an old fart of a safety professional.  I have felt old and out of touch when I have chatted with colleagues and others about my thoughts but I feel the perspective is valid.  Perhaps it is up to the safety professionals, young and old, to use these campaign materials  to add the workplace and safety perspective in our OHS discussions with our colleagues and our workforces.  But this would have been much easier if WorkSafe had considered a second and broader phase to this campaign.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

11 thoughts on “The “if you’re not sure, ask” campaign needs “if unsafe, fix””

  1. This campaign has been talked about, but maybe for the wrong reasons. Attendees at a recent WorkSafe Vic approved training course (6 day M & S) thought the ads a little too obvious and patronising; but then they came from organisations that are reasonably sophisticated and proactive on safety matters and way beyond relying upon reactive measures as a way of dealing with safety issues.

    I do agree with the general ambience of this discussion that if supervisors, managers and officers of the company actually understand their obligations and do what is required of them in terms of supervising, training and consulting, then all this discussion becomes largely redundant.


    Quite simply because managers doing so look at safety from a point of view of fixing or preventing issues before there is an opportunity for harm and do so systematically. In addition good safety leaders recognise the valuable insight and knowledge operators and industry experts bring to the table, also the value of management skilling, and making sure all affected have a say or are at least asked for their input.

    It worries me that these advertisements depict employers (albeit fictional) relying upon inexperienced and naive workers to \”do the right thing\” in order for their safety management systems to work; also that a significant portion of the working population can so readily accept that taking such risks is \”normal\”. Could we maybe have examples of employers doing things the right way?

    Maybe these campaigns could also promote the value that qualified safety professionals can have in saving client organisations time and money by being accurate, and being able to provide tracks to run on; as well as giving independent advice.

    Such promotions could be done in much the same way a campaign occurred several years ago, which changed the perception, image and face of accounting from being bean counters to business planners, and made the career choice much more desirable. No harm in that change of perception for our industry!

  2. Maybe a long look at the Coroners report into the deaths and injuries resulting from of the hastily implemented Insulation Batts Scheme may just give WHS professionals a clue where to start. It is without a doubt, a very clear statement on the state of WHS as it stands today and in my opinion, a damning commentary on how ineffective the safety industry as a whole has been in its declared intent to systemise and and through those systems improve safety in the work place.

    Far too much waffle and not enough delivery at the coal face.

  3. Hi Kevin,

    Great article which covers many oversights of the advertisement.

    However, I think it will hit home with the young audience it is made for. If we were to take a step back it would be realistic to suggest that many young people will be exposed to these hazards due to less than diligent Managers and Supervisors.

    Whilst having a behaviorally based safety flavour, and not addressing many oversights as you mentioned I feel like it has some real merit.

    Especially in regards to body image, a critical factor in the target audiences core beliefs and attitudes.

  4. I would add that if all this have been cover thoroughly during the induction, then many of this accidents would not happen in the first place. I do also agree with other comments that lack of supervision also play a part, however I think that the add highlights risks with every job that are life changing for a lot of people.

  5. Kevin, yes it\’s a cruel limitation of just 30 seconds or a minute to get the message across (and probably even less in real time).

    The young worker audience is really really hard to reach. This ad uses the lever of vanity to at least grab the young person\’s attention. My understanding is that this is one of the few levers that works with this audience.

    Having got that fractionary moment of attention, there\’s not much time to deliver the message. So are you going to deliver one, two or three messages?

    WorkSafe\’s gone for \”if in doubt, ask\”. Clear, simple, and it empowers the targeted audience.

    Behind it is the implication that when they are asked, supervisors will respond. Also, that supervisors will see it as their role to respond positively when asked, as compared to putting down the young worker. So there is some attempt to drive supervisor behaviour and yes it\’s by implication only.

    Your messages are good ones but in this very difficult area really it needs to be as simple as possible. I agree, a follow-up to the supervisor audience would be sensible, taking this from just the single-message \”if in doubt, ask\” to a wider \”always take time to be sure your team is safe\”.

  6. Yes Kevin your perspective is valid, I agree that there should be another follow on ad highlighting the importance of active supervision. There are very few Supervisors supervising, rather I tend to find them hiding in offices behind computer screens. Well done on bringing your thoughts to our attention.

  7. Terrific post Kevin, but it is a sad commentary on us using \”children\” to get the message across to all and sundry. I do recognise that young people are over represented in workplace injury statistics.

    The safety canvas, like art, is made up of big and small and it does seem to me that the small, as in the size of business, continues to slip past our notice. With well over a million small business across the nation and a large proportion employing less than 20 workers, with the owner working 60-80 hours a week to survive, there are just too many balls in the air for the \”Jack\’s and Jill\’s of all trades\” to supervise effectively, much less have adequate funds to redesign the work place let alone supervise effectively.

    The reality is, many of these businesses are not capitalised sufficiently to comply with legislated requirements across all aspects of their business.

    If it costs $100.00 dollars to fit a very simple and basic guard to a machine and there is a BAS bill to pay, it does not take too much intelligence to work out where the $100.00 will go and this is the hand to mouth existence that typifies a very large number of small businesses who employ hundreds of thousands of Australians being hammered by red and green tape and what is being experienced in the current market with reducing demand in many sectors.

    The ambiguity in our WHS legislation typified by \”reasonably practicable\” which does not give anyone a clue about minimum standards required is a recipe for continuing confusion in small business. The legislators might as well have placed \”lack of understanding\” in there as well, as a reasonable defence.

    The \”hobby horse\” is now back in the stable and once again, a terrific article Kevin

    Tony H

  8. Kevin, I think you have identified something really important. There is something missing from this campaign that is critical to workplace safety. It focuses on one side too much. There is an underlined message that young workers are inexperienced and inexperience leads to incidents.
    Whilst we want our workers to take ownership of their duties and assess that what they are about to do is safe, your example of the supervisor coming in and assisting would greatly improve this message to all ages.
    Without focusing on the issue of supervision at the same time this campaign will need to be repeated in years to come to address the high youth incident rates yet again. If the regulator invested in the root cause of incidents, perhaps we won\’t see youth incidents in the workplace rise again.
    I’m not an old fart, and I fully agree with your assessment.

  9. Hi Kevin,
    I agree with everything you\’ve written and would like to add that these graphics further illustrate the concept I have been exploring of late that I call \’conflicting risks\’.
    In both cases it\’s difficult to recognise the specific thoughts – eg: \’I don\’t want to appear stupid/weak/…\’, or \’I don\’t want to disturb the supervisor whos is busy and might get upset\’.
    But these thoughts relate to intenally perceived risks which directly conflict with the external and real risks of physical and permanent injuries.
    In young people these internally perceived risks appear stronger/higher due to their lack of experience with the real and physical risks they expose themselves to.
    When supervising young or inexperienced workers Supervisors need to stress the approach \’if you haven\’t done it before – ask before acting\’.
    Besides, busy supervisors get even busier when serious incidents like these occur.

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