One is never too young to learn about safety but we may be too old to change

Recently a colleague of mine expressed regret that occupational health and safety in Australia is no longer occupational. Occupational health and safety (OHS) established its parameters in its title but now most of Australia is bound to Work Health and Safety laws. Work is more than a workplace and so the discipline, the OHS profession, became more complex. Some would say that it has always been complex and that many OHS professionals failed to see the bigger picture, the broad social context of workplace health and safety.

Children 6582I was reminded of my colleague’s regrets when someone on a construction site recently asked for my opinion on some pictures of her son, at a childcare centre, hitting some nails into a block of wood. The boy (pictured right, at home) was wearing safety glasses, albeit a little large; the “work area” was separated from the rest of the children and the boy was supervised at all times by a child care worker. I was told that some of the parents had expressed concern that such an activity should not be happening in a childcare centre due to the potential risk to other children.

I said that I saw very little risk compared to the benefits of having children emulate their parents and to improving their fine motor skills in a very difficult task. The “work area” was segregated, the “workers” were supervised at all times and some personal protective equipment had been provided. I advised that the supervision continue to focus on the children and that properly sized safety glasses be obtained.

It occurred to me later that I had advised about an activity that was not work, was not performed by a worker, but was in a workplace. Should I have expressed an opinion at all? I am on OHS professional but I was not advising on work and my advice was based on a photograph and not an inspection of the workplace. But if I was a Work Health and Safety (WHS) professional, would my opinion have carried more weight because I was advising about the emulation of work, in a workplace where a qualified childcare worker was supervising? Is there a functional difference? Should the approach to risk be different?

I think the answer is that I have never really advised about safety, only about risks and hazards. Such things can exist in workplaces, roads, back verandahs, up trees, in the air or anywhere. And therefore safety can be anywhere.

By looking at risks, hazards and safety in a structured manner, it may be possible to reduce harm and reducing harm is the core principle of OHS, WHS and all the other safety professions. But more importantly, reducing harm is a social value, a norm, an expectation, and an element that perhaps too many safety professionals forget.

The boy pictured above is learning about the hazards presented by hammers, nails and wood. He is learning about risks by having his parent supervise and advise him. He is learning about safety at the same time.

Performing these tasks at a childcare centre will teach him the same things but significantly, it will also teach others and teach them by example – a crucial element in the safety leadership we safety professionals advocate.

What I have not yet said in this article is that hammering at the childcare centre is available to all genders, not just boys, and the girls apparently enjoy the task just as much. I wonder if gender prejudice and outmoded stereotypes are behind some of the parents’ concerns. Should a princess not hit a nail? Should a fairy not use a hammer? Should a girl not emulate what she may see her father doing in the garden or the workshop? Should a young women not study engineering? Should a woman not be a plumber?

A young woman contributed to my political awareness in my early 20s in response to me saying that I was not interested in politics by stating that politics is in everything. Within a year I was a long haired, harem pant-wearing protester. In a parallel conversation, Amree may have said that safety is in everything. Safety is in everything we do, to varying degrees, and it is the job of the safety professionals to tell this fact to the world. But what we must do first is accept the fact ourselves. Without self-realisation, there will be no progress in harm reduction for ourselves or our society.

Kevin Jones

Categories culture, gender, hazards, health, OHS, PPE, risk, safety, training, Uncategorized, workplaceTags , ,

11 thoughts on “One is never too young to learn about safety but we may be too old to change”

  1. I liked the picture because children learn by imitation of adult activities, and the safety glasses and the segregation make this the normal things to do when hammering nails. First question I ask when facilitating PPE training is \’who uses this stuff at home?\’, and someone will always say, \’its only for work..\’.. which opens the conversation that hazards, risks and injuries are a 24/7 life impact.

    The more risk adverse amongst us would be aghast you put yourself in the situation of advising when it might backfire after an injury… \”But Mr Jones, a respected and published safety expert, looked at this and told us it was safe!!\”

    In this day and age it takes some guts to share knowledge and experience without indeminity insurance and a legally sanitised disclaimer (or three…) 🙂 But then I happily (recklessly??) initiate a safety conversation with tradies doing work at my home.

    Sometimes I get the \’piss off girlie\’ response, mostly it is positive (once they get over the surprise of a householder caring a fig about their welling..)

    Oh, and I hate the whole princess/fairy thing.. I think it has put gender expectations back 20 years..

  2. Hi Again,
    Just to pick up on the supervision issue Kevin raises in his response to Mark – we need to remember section 19(3)(f) of the harmonised act requires the PCBU to provide … supervision that is necessary to protect all persons from risks. This is the same language that was in the NSW Act of 2000 and implies that the \’employer\’ is repsonsible to determine what supervision may be required for each individual.

    As a father of 2 (now adult) children, I quickly recognised that my 2 required different levels of \’supervision\’ in different aspects of their lives, education, social interactions, community involvement, etc.

    As a supervisor (years ago now) I quickly realised that I could trust some employees to function with less supervision and that others needed more. And so it goes.

    All workers are individuals who come with a different set of character traits, attittudes (which fuel behaviours), education, life experiences, skills and etc. So supervision needs to be appropriate to their capacity to function within the workforce – whether that is from a safety perspective, a job function perspective, interpersonal communication perspective, etc.

    What concerns me more is that, after promoting employees from being good \’trades people\’, so often we fail to educate and train them with the skill they need as supervisors.

    Kevin, I\’ll get back to you shortly re the \’dignity of risk\’ paper.

  3. The references to nanny state indicate a presumption that the state actively promotes risk aversion. Whilst our legislation is leaning toward greater prescription, it still allows for an enormous amount of flexibility and acceptance of degrees of individual and corporate responsibility.

    My understanding is that \’nanny state\’ drivers are predominantly common law issues. Child care centers having greater fear of the parental lawyers than the WHS legislator.

    I agree that parents do place their children into child care in the expectation of a controlled environment and have no illusion that it should be otherwise.

    As a opportunity for debate, has the greater use of childcare since I was a child (say 40 odd years), removed children from uncontrolled environments. Do we see kids playing a casual game of cricket on the street (god forbid), climbing trees in the park, playing in the mud.

    Where is the environment in which kids develop an ability to recognise and manage risk, rather than rote \”put on the PPE\”?

    I\’m not promoting a ethic of \”I told you not to climb that tree. That will teach you\”. But rather how do kids learn to analyse their environment and their interaction with it.

    I believe risk management is a learned skill. When are our kids starting to learn it?

    Our legislation openly supports the development of risk management skills, but isn\’t it becoming a bit late once you have entered the work force?

  4. \”I was a long haired, harem pant-wearing protester\”


    On a more serious note; why do people automatically assume that discussions of this type are a precursor to the activity being banned by the so-called \”nanny state\”, I can\’t such a suggestion in the post. Kids have been banging nails into lumps of wood in kindergartens and child care centres for years and I see little evidence that it\’s going to stop in the near future – at least they\’re now wearing eye protection which my kids never did.

    1. Dave, I don\’t have any photos but someone else might. \”Ban the Church, Ban the State, hey does my bum look big in these harem pants?\” They were red with a silver thread, if you really want to know, and I miss having a fringe. 🙂

      I have addressed the nanny state comment below also. I didn\’t think of nanny state at all in writing the article. Of much more relevance in the comments is the matter of risk aversion and dignity of risk.

      Part of the issue may be that all businesses need to record injuries and incidents and injuries to children are uncomfortable to report, particularly in education and early child care. Parents provide children to carers with the expectation of \”care\” and injuries can be interpreted as a failure to care. This is not always the case but, as I have said below, it is difficult to know when to \”let go\” and some parents never do.

      Another part of the issue is that people do not wish to acknowledge failure, but safety is very often about how we respond to failure, how we learn from our mistakes and how safety changes are introduced to prevent a recurrence. (I talk about this more in an article on failure from October last year – Safety professionals deal with failure all the time. Safety is built on failure.

  5. Hi Kevin,
    Another good thought provoking article.

    Your opening para … \”occupational health and safety in Australia is no longer occupational. Occupational health and safety (OHS) established its parameters in its title but now most of Australia is bound to Work Health and Safety laws.\” I believe needs a rethink.

    O-hs used to focus primarily on the employer\’s premises and the \”occupied\” employee.

    W-hs focuses more broadly on where work is done on behalf of an employer (or PCBU) and encompases a broader set of those who do work for the PCBU.

    But both focus on who it\’s done by, what it\’s done with and how it\’s done. So the change is only one of scope not in what must be done to ensure safety.

    In truth, at least in NSW, OHS has always included places where work is done apart from the employer\’s premises – vehicles that are driven as part of a job, home offices where telecommunitng may occur, etc.

    Hence the child in the childcare centre is doing something that could injure himself and/or others and the PCBU is responsible to ensure the safety of any and all who may be affected.

    I like the approach in the disabilities industry called \’dignity of risk\’. We allow our clients with disabilities to experience whatever they want to so long as we have assessed it for risk, made them aware of it (given their capacity to understand) and are confident they will not be \’serioulsy\’ adversely affected by it.

    But I wholeheartedly agree with your comment \”I think the answer is that I have never really advised about safety, only about risks and hazards.\” – I own to that approach as well. I believe we only achieve safety when the hazards and their associated risks are recognised and
    relevant steps are taken to mitigate the risks.

    Sometimes just being aware is enough – eg crossing the road – If I can judge the distance and speed of approaching traffic I can choose to cross or not. But if I can\’t either recognise it or judge it then I am always at risk (unsafe) when crossing the road.

    And I like your comment \”Safety is in everything we do, to varying degrees, and it is the job of the safety professionals to tell this fact to the world.\” I love it when people (not just at work) stop and think about what they\’re doing when I\’m around because they think I\’m the \’safety policeman\’. What I hope for is that they\’ll stop and think about it even when I\’m not around. And I love it even more when people call me to see if I can add anything to things the\’ve already considered. Sometimes I see it differently so can offer alternative controls to mitigate risks.

    Keep up the good work with the thought provokers.

  6. Gday Kevin, good article again.The world is changing rapidly, probably far too rapidly.I grew up on a farm and still vividly remember at a very young age of cutting my forehead with the claw hammer with only one claw and running my finger along the spokeshave blade to see if It was as sharp as the carpenters said it was- it was!
    The nanny state is changing behaviour by our children, yet it is difficult to argue against the nanny state that is regulating safety on building or mine sites.Last week in WA we had the young man dying when working alone at night with live wires and the worker in Melbourne killed by the wall collapsing.And theres the old line about getting killed crossing the road which nearly happened to me a few weeks ago on the second day of my WHS course, ironically.We still kill each other on the roads in large numbers and most collisions are not accidents but involve poor judgement and reckless behaviour.

    1. Humphrey, I remember many childhood injuries, particularly falling through the roof of the woodshed.

      I am not sure that it is fair to use \”nanny state\” in the context of this article as the concerns are not being expressed by the government or the childcare authorities. Indeed, it is a major plus that the childcare centre allows the hammering activity in the first place.

      Many of the comments about this article mention how risk-averse our society is becoming, not only our society but our corporations as well. I perceive that this risk aversion could be the early stages of a social attitude and an unplanned\” policy strategy that could lead to the establishment of the \”compensation culture\” that has been discussed in the United Kingdom. [does anyone else think of fairytale castles whenever Kingdom is used?] Australia may need to show a maturity beyond its two centuries in response to this risk-o-phobia before it comes to dominate political and social policymaking.

  7. Hi Kevin;
    \” Safety is in everything we do, to varying degrees, and it is the job of the safety professionals to tell this fact to the world.\”

    Perhaps the focus on, and \’professionalisation\’ of safety has removed it from normalisation. Now we need to actively consider safety, we need to risk assess every task, common sense is a by-word for unprofessional.

    Have we so distilled safety as a separate task, that it is no longer a natural process. Experience is no longer an acceptable form of learning, all learning becomes driven by administrative action.

    The young boy in the picture will hit his thumb, it will hurt. He will then get a hug (if this is still acceptable), go out into the play ground and skin his knee. When he goes home, in his excitement he will bump his head on the door frame. All learning experiences at that age. Yet he will share the wonderful creation of nails and wood when his dad (or other) gets home that night.

    Are we so risk averse, that we can no longer have these experiential learnings? I consider at times the nanny state is reducing our resilience to harm.

    Let\’s protect ourselves certainly, but the world is a hostile place and we need to be able to roll with it\’s punches.

    It\’s days like this I wonder how I survived my childhood. Yet I did.

    1. Mark, I can understand the concerns of the parents as I have children who I worry about all the time. One of the hardest things for a parent to do is to allow a child to make mistakes, particularly if there is the potential for harm.

      Many employers have a similar level of concern for employees and I have been asked many times over the years \”how do I know when to lift the supervision?\” This is very tough to answer and varies from case to case. For adult workers, there is at least an element of competence that can be considered and often determined, but for children this is rarely possible.

      The experiential learning you mention is similar to the issue that appears every so often about building the physical resilience of children by allowing them to play in dirt. \”Helicopter\” parents are difficult to manage in a child care situation but has anyone noticed there are no \”helicopter\” employers. There appears to be a clear delineation between in supervision of children and workers, but no in the case of the bullying. Odd that.

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