One of the most significant motivators for changes in safety leadership in the executive circles in Australia has been the obligation to apply due diligence to occupational health and safety (OHS) matters. The obligation has existed for several years now but is still dominated by legal interpretations rather than managerial ones. To support the legal obligations, OHS professionals should look at how they can add value to due diligence. One way of achieving, and exceeding, compliance of due diligence would be to subject OHS systems and strategies to a peer-review rather than a narrow audit process.
Firstly, a definition and then some elaboration. Workcover NSW defines OHS due diligence as, amongst others:
- “having up-to-date knowledge of WHS matters
- having an understanding of the business or undertaking and generally of the hazards and risks associated with it.
- ensuring the business has (and uses) appropriate resources and processes to eliminate or minimise safety risks from the work carried out
- ensuring that the business has appropriate processes to receive information about incidents, hazards and risks and responding in a timely manner to that information
- ensuring the business has and implements processes to comply with any duty or obligation under WHS laws. These can include:
Up-to-date knowledge could be interpreted as subscribing to an OHS bulletin but WHS (work health and safety) matters is not just the latest legal prosecution or whiz-bang flange. Knowledge is much more than just information; it requires an active engagement in the OHS profession and relevant industry sector. Too many companies seem to be happy with a broad OHS newsletter subscription and the occasional session with a legal representative.
The third element may be the most contentious as it relies on “appropriate resources”. This is not only the number of OHS advisers, for instance, but also the quality of those advisers. One could argue that an OHS professional without a tertiary qualification is less valuable than one who does but each “resource” should be evaluated for the specific worth it can provide the organisation.
This element equally applies to equipment. Inadequate equipment can encourage workers to “make do” with what they have, particularly if the project or operations managers have not allowed sufficient time for a work task to be done safely.
A peer review process should be applied from the initial stages of the OHS process in order to verify that safety has not only been included in the design of objects but also in the design of a system or strategy.
Government policy makers, Courts and academics place enormous value on evidence being validated by being reviewed by peers or, in the case of experimental research, being replicated. Companies do not seem to verify their OHS management systems and strategies except through formalised, and often overly controlled and narrowly applied, audit processes. Audits are often assessments of the existence of something without assessing the quality of that something. For instance, an audit may find that there is a comprehensive sign-in process at the start of a shift but the appearance of a joke signature, such as Adolf Hitler, on the register shows that the process is not being taken seriously by workers and that the supervisors are not verifying the sign-in process. (There are also emergency management issues and other matters processes that rely on an accurate list of people on-site).
In a 2007 podcast Professor Michael Quinlan, in relation to major hazards, advocated a “triple-auditing process” which included an audit by the inspectorate, another by company auditors and a third being increased consultation with the workforce. This audit system could be applied to any size business but mostly occurs after OHS management systems have been introduced.
Peer review can be a process of ongoing assurance in development, application and dismantling of an OHS system. Such a review can be embedded in a project or process onsite or could be on-call. It could involve nothing more than a quick second opinion or a detailed verification/questioning of a submission, project brief, or management strategy. But it should be much more than a legal opinion if successful OHS, as we are constantly being told, relies on leadership and organisational culture. Legal opinions rarely assess these crucial OHS elements except in a narrow auditable process described above.
It is important to identify who the “peer” is to be. To apply due diligence, that peer needs to have, expanding upon the WorkcoverNSW elements above, an up-to-date knowledge of WHS matters, an understanding of the business or undertaking and the hazards and risks associated with it, an understanding of the industry and maybe political context in which the company operates, and a capacity to think creatively and to foster innovation.
Establishing a peer review process would strengthen the ability of a company and its executives to claim an appropriate level of due diligence on OHS matters (perhaps a “best practice” or “gold standard” level depending on which cliche is more comfortable). But also this would provide access to a level and breadth of OHS knowledge from which companies can innovate, remain competitive and achieve a longer term sustainability.