Safety in the C Suite doesn’t always run smoothly

It is rare for workplace safety to gain a half-page in the daily press in Australia but this occurred recently in The Australian.  The newspaper’s industrial editor, Ewin Hannan, built an article, “Tunnel Vision on Safety“, around the following quote from a leaked memo from 2010 then head of human resources, industrial relations and safety for John Holland, Stephen Sasse, in relation to the management of the Airport Link project:

“‘‘In my seven years with John Holland, I have never seen any project or management team that was so cavalier about the company’s OHS (occupational health and safety) system, principles and values and I have grave doubts about the management’s team’s capability in safety.’”

This is a remarkable statement but Sasse has been outspoken on safety issues in the general construction sector before. In 2011 a change in the senior management of Leighton Holdings, the parent company of John Holland, created doubt about Sasse’s future and Sasse left the organisation in October 2011.  The latter articles also indicate Sasse’s relationship with the union movement which may be part of the reason the unions are repeating their calls for an inquiry into John Holland and its licence with Comcare.  SafetyAtWorkBlog has several articles about these industrial relations tensions from 2009.

Since the quote above Australia has undergone a change in its OHS legislation which has placed enormous focus on the importance of applying due diligence to workplace safety matters.  This is an attempt to focus on senior executive accountability and to support the attempts at cultural change through safety leadership.  This is an admirable strategy but one that will only succeed if supported through enforcement and prosecution.

Several Australia States are contemplating infrastructure projects that are similar to the Airport Link project, such as the East West Link in Melbourne.  John Holland is part of one of the consortia expressing interest in this project.  The company mentions Airport Link as part of its experience with tunnelling.  It also mentions the Lane Cove tunnel project which is probably most memorable in Australia for its partial collapse.  The East West Link project  will come under the oversight of the Federal Safety Commission, if Federal money is involved as is most likely, but also must comply with the Victorian Construction Compliance Code, which has a specific requirement for workplace safety.  Curiously it is rumoured that Stephen Sasse was involved in an early draft of the model safety management plan being developed by the Construction Compliance Code unit.

The trade union comments in The Australian article focus on the worker safety issues of the John Holland projects but overall the article is talking about corporate safety management, the increased attention to due diligence, the sometime struggle to establish a unified or consistent safety culture at the executive level.  It also illustrates that such issues and debates can enter the public world, even years after the debate seems to be closed.  Lastly, it raises the significance of getting the contract “right” in the earliest stages, a sort of “safety in (contract) design”.  It needs to have clear safety criteria, clear performance metrics and an effective system of audits AND monitoring at all levels of the contractor’s structure.

On 22 November 2013 Comcare issued this media release about John Holland which states

“Comcare’s Regulatory Services General Manager, Neil Quarmby said that the court proceedings are an important reminder that employers must ensure that diligent and effective assessments of work health and safety risks are performed. Employers must also provide this information to all employees.”

Diligence and effectiveness are clearly the new focus of OHS regulators. Stephen Sasse’s quote shows that he knew this several years ago.

Kevin Jones

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