Safety leadership and the red tape drag

Red Tape scribbleDuring a recent seminar I produced the doodle on the right, which depicts what I think the speaker was talking about.  Safety is a goal that can be best achieved through improving a company’s leadership qualities.  However all companies seem to be restricted by red tape, however one defines that. Can this journey be improved?

Decrease the baggage

It may be possible to reduce or minimise the red tape baggage.  Most Western governments are attempting this through inquiries and reviews but this is assuming that it is government bureaucracy that has created this baggage.  In Australia over the last fifty years Governments have allowed business great flexibility in how it achieves OHS compliance and safe workplaces (definitely not the same thing) by reducing the prescriptive basis of OHS laws.  It may have been reasonable to expect that the loss of prescriptive safety would decrease paperwork but over the same time there has been increasing calls for less red tape from government.  

I suggest that the government red tape has been replaced by non-government red tape – documentation required by accreditation bodies, insurance companies, and  newsletters and communications required for a spreading number of stakeholders.

Lightening the bureaucratic load imposed by government is a much smaller challenge than addressing the paperwork required by non-government organisations whose only accountability is to shareholders.  Governments are required to respond to their principal stakeholders – citizens, businesses have customers and shareholders and not citizens.  The relationship is fundamentally different and so are the arguments to reduce this red tape.

As long as red tape analyses only focus on the government requirements, the load is unlikely to lessen.

Increase the company’s strength

A company may try to increase its strength or the force available to counter the red tape drag but this seems unsustainable and foolish, if undertaken individually.  It is a fatalistic acceptance of the bureaucratic load but more significantly is an ignorance of the power of change and a lack of innovation.  Progress up the safety incline will be slow, plodding and unlikely to be tolerated for long by shareholders.

Companies may want to consider sharing the OHS load with another company.  Joint ventures and alliances are becoming more common and could increase one’s strength but it is highly unlikely that the strength will be doubled.  Rather a “partner” will supplement one’s own strength.  Progress will be made but it still seems rather pointless without lightening the load.

Decrease the incline

It may be possible to lower the incline so that the journey is less arduous however it will lead to a lower level of safety in comparison to other companies, and is therefore unlikely to be competitive.  This lower level of OHS may be acceptable if the destination remains higher than the compliance required by the law.  Rather than best practice, try for good practice.

I suspect many companies find this option acceptable as it allows them to remain in their comfort zone – the band within which the journey is easier but the achievements are less spectacular.  They may originally aim high but lower the incline as the challenges become more apparent.  It is like submitting a glorious risk register at tender stage and then reassessing all the risks once the contract is won ( oh, wait, that is what happens).

All of the above

As a safety consultant I always provided clients with a range of around three options for action but also acknowledged that a further option is to do  nothing and rely on luck.  This further option was usually ridiculous in the OHS context but several took this option and would run the risk.  I don’t believe it is possible to do nothing in this safety drawing as there ill be no progress, no achievement, no improvement in safety performance yet some could still interpret this state as comfortable, “safe” and challenging.

I propose that companies can ease their safety journey through a combination of all of the three options.  This may complicate the journey as it requires a detailed strategy on a number of fronts.

On red tape:

  • Take ownership of the red tape and bureaucratic baggage and set internal targets for reduction.
  • Identify the origin of the red tape and begin a dialogue with the originator.
  • Ask why they require such information and whether this information can come from existing sources.
  • Challenge the originators to reduce red tape or threaten move one’s custom or business activities to other suppliers. (Remember never bluff.  Always be prepared to follow through on the threat, so never make the threat lightly)

Increasing a company’s strength

  • Asking for help from others seems to be the best way of increasing the pulling power against the red tape drag but doing so without reducing the load seems pointless and unimaginative.

Decrease the incline

  • By not aiming so high, safety may be more achievable but it is less satisfying and may make one’s company less attractive and competitive
  • Safety could keep just ahead of regulatory compliance but it also narrows the band of compliance and increases the potential effects of a failure.

Most OHS advocates and regulators in Australia believe that safety leadership is the best way to achieve an improvement in a company’s safety performance and safer workplaces but few analyse what they actually mean by safety leadership.  Is it the same as innovation?  Can safety be improved without leadership?

Safety leadership is seen as a panacea for workplace hazards but in most cases the regulators and advocates have no Plan B.  And I am not sure that this panacea has yet to be challenged or verified.  The journey to safety can be improved but only if one accepts that the journey exists in the first place,  if one takes ownership of the problem and if one is prepared to develop an effective strategy for improvement.

Let’s hope that the next seminar does not allow time for doodling or that my artistry greatly improves.

Kevin Jones

Categories business, economics, innovation, OHS, productivity, risk, safety, UncategorizedTags , ,

4 thoughts on “Safety leadership and the red tape drag”

  1. When the target of safe production is placed at per with those of achieving production and sales targets, for instance, the drag load becomes easy for the firm, because the leader is a safety concious leader. It pays off the firm in the form of savings from not being involved in litigations, compensations and medical rehab for injured staff members involved in occupational accidents, etc. I consider this a huge plug on leakages, as well freeing company time for uninterrupted production.

  2. Hi Kevin,

    Audit requirements, insurer\’s requirements and that of bodies such as the FSC are, as you rightly say, far more an imposition than legislative requirements.

    I believe NGO requirements are an attempt to fill a void in safety management in the absence of genuine management commitment (at ALL levels). Stakeholders impose their requirements as they need confidence that their \’stake\’ is not at risk (high levels of injury/illness = poor management = unacceptable financial risk) and to give them the assurances they need to remain stakeholders.

    If safety is never trumped by the \’production imperative\’, and as a result workplace injuries/illness are at sustained low levels, then it can be pointed out to the stakeholders that their impositions are unnecessary.

    The above makes me sound as though I\’m in support of red tape, I\’m not, I\’m opposed to it as it unnecessarily complicates work safety, but merely pointing out why I think it exists.

    Peter Robinson

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