Commenting on the Australian Government’s new employment services model, Anglicare provided a research paper, Beyond Supply and Demand, that referenced occupational health and safety (OHS) and so caught our attention. The report said:
“…job seekers may experience issues with the importance of getting to work on time, keeping the employer informed if they are unable to attend work, and the following of basic policies and procedures, such as those around occupational health and safety (Cortis et al., 2013). The research also identified that this lack of workplace knowledge leads to assumptions that recruits were lacking in work ethic or disinterested in the work.” (page 6)
The report goes on to discuss the social services context primarily but the OHS mention deserved following up. The research by Natasha Cortis, Jane Bullen, and Myra Hamilton states that employers often misunderstand new job recruits and although OHS is specifically referenced only in the mention of reporting accidents, the rest of the quote below should be noted by employers and safety professionals when preparing OHS communications to new workers.
“Many employers also noted that new recruits frequently lacked understanding of the importance of consistently getting to work on time, ringing in when they were unable to attend, or following basic policies and procedures such as signing in or reporting accidents. In some cases, employers perceived this was due to difficulties in communicating, for example:
“A lot of people leave our company, and especially from the Job Network members, because they’re not very open … like if they wanted a night off, instead of asking for a night off they would just not turn up for work and then not come back … I’m just not sure if they knew how to approach us to ask for something.” (Barnett, Employer 2)
Other employers also explained poor retention in terms of a lack of understanding or communication skills on the part of employees. For many employers, poor punctuality or attendance signified larger problems related to employees’ skills, work ethic and performance, being perceived to signal disinterest and to disrupt operations, which could lead to termination. This issue also arose in the interviews with employment service staff, who reported that their clients were sometimes dismissed from work because employers judged, perhaps unfairly, that they did not fit into the work culture or adhere to appropriate workplace protocols.” (pages 375 – 376)
This research confirms the need to establish a consultative dialogue on OHS and other workplace matters so that one determines the understanding of the new worker and so that the worker is not just sitting through a bunch of confusing nonsense prior to signing on. Some of the behaviours displayed in this transition from unemployment could be interpreted as laziness or disinterest by employers who are unable, or unwilling, to spend the time required to prepare workers for an almost lifelong role in the workforce.
The authors mention workplace culture, a concept increasingly attractive to OHS professionals. A rigid workplace culture may impede the ability of a new worker to “fit in”, depriving them of the opportunity to mature and grow into the trade or profession.
The authors also discuss possible support measures for new workers, such as “buddy” arrangements and shift flexibility. These are not radical concepts in human resources but with the increasing attention to workplace cultures and their OHS impacts, it is well worth considering these elements of HR and job design in the OHS context.
It is also worth noting that employers who are prosecuted under OHS/WHS laws are frequently criticised for failing to provide adequate supervision. Adequate supervision is difficult to determine but the research by Cortis et al supports the importance of more supervision rather than less. Perhaps, OHS professionals and employers need to consider the benefits of differentiating between “supervision” and “support”. An organisation can be structured and designed to be supportive which may reduce the burden of supervision.
For companies that claim that their workers are their number one asset, there must be a high degree of investment in those workers to ensure they will be productive workers over a lifetime and who are also safe and healthy. It does take time, it can be difficult and a nuisance but the payoff can be substantial with loyal, skilled productive, and safe, workers.