Leadership or cowardice?

Few would argue against the need for occupational health and safety (OHS) regulation for high-risk work but many are arguing against OHS laws on the basis of low-risk workplaces. It seems logical that low risk work should not require laws but perhaps the traditional definition of OHS and risk is colouring our judgement. Perhaps some are making these arguments because they are afraid to change. Perhaps some of these leaders are, in fact, cowards.

New Zealand

There is discussion in New Zealand currently about exempting small “low-risk” businesses from some OHS obligations in the name of “red tape” but also on the understanding that small business seems to equal low risk.  (Similar discussions, or changes, have occurred in the UK, Australia and the US) Opponents are pointing to the farming sector as an example of a small business that is also high-risk but, in New Zealand in particular, the agricultural sector is politically influential and the red-tape argument seems to be winning against the risk issue.

But these discussions remain linked to the traditional mindset that safety risks are primarily traumatic physical injuries.  There is an increased acceptance that psychosocial risks at work can be as harmful (costly?) as physical injuries albeit in a different form.  This position has led to the perception that mental health risks are increasing but the accurate measurements required to substantiate this perception are only just beginning as people argue over definitions and jurisdictions. However there is no doubt that psychosocial risks now must be considered in any OHS management system.

So are low-risk workplaces low risk?

So are low-risk workplaces low risk? Yes, if we only consider physical risks but no, if we broaden our definition of risk and hazard to include psychosocial issues.  (Perhaps the question should be “are low-risk workplaces low harm?”) OHS and Work Health and Safety (WHS) laws increasingly require us to use the latter definition so that companies comply.

The advocates of red-tape/low-risk exemptions understand this change in approach and seem to have been frightened by the apparent magnitude of the task.  They have realised that to achieve OHS/WHS compliance they will need to change the way they do business and the way they treat their workers and this is scary.

This fear has generated calls to change the rules, to make it easier to comply.  The sad part of all of this is that the fearful response is happening at the same time that there are calls for greater OHS leadership.  Surely the best leadership results from facing these fears and conquering them.

The Dominion Post’s editorial of August 8 2015, summarises the political challenges over this issue well, challenges that other governments will also need to face:

“The Government can declare that agriculture is not high risk and so free its political mates from that bothersome stuff about work safety representatives. Or it can do the rational thing, declare agriculture high risk – and face a backlash. That decision will show how much National really cares about work safety.”

Behind this political challenge is a discussion about the fundamental elements of workplace safety.  These include –

  • our moral obligations to others, particularly those who work for us;
  • our preparedness to accept less profit but to have safer workers; and
  • our capacity to accept mistakes or failures and to learn from them.

Workplace safety is often only as hard as it is allowed to be. The inability to change shown by some business leaders is complicating the OHS task.

One website lists the following words as antonyms for Leadership:

  • impotence,
  • inability,
  • incapacity,
  • powerlessness,
  • weakness,and
  • subservience.

Perhaps we should add cowardice.

Kevin Jones

Categories accountability, business, ethics, evidence, Leadership, OHS, psychiatric, psychosocial, risk, safety, small business

3 thoughts on “Leadership or cowardice?”

  1. Kevin, NZ know the smaller the business the bigger the risk, working in the same sector, task or role. But the question being asked is, does having a rep in a smaller business make it safer? This is the red tape you refer to. The NZ discussion is around trying to determine the trigger when a business should have a formal H&S rep. It would be stupid for the self-employed to formally nominate themselves and have a formal rep process – to represent themselves. What about 5 people in a business? 10? Larger business probably do need a rep – or do they? Are there other ways to encourage engagement and participation rather than slavishly going to the magic bullet – and having a rep. So how to legislate a H&S rep requirement that covers all business risk and size profiles? This is the basis for the discussion in NZ – the definition of a low risk small business is an attempt to put some rules around the trigger for a formal rep system. This does not mean the business can not manage their risk, and there are separate regulations coming around the critical need for workforce engagement. (Note the current NZ Safety laws have a trigger of 30 people for all businesses before a rep is required. The new trigger will have a lower worker trigger ie the number of businesses in NZ needing a H&S rep will increase under the proposal)

  2. A great conversation starter Kevin. Thank you. The discussion against OHS regulation and ‘red tape’ is being driven by the mouthpieces of those sectors in this country that want to minimise any out-going costs from their collective pockets and it appears to be driven by a desire to create a return to a time when employers were not really held to account when their personal action or inaction was directly or indirectly the root cause of significant injury and ‘harm’ to Australian workers.
    The problem with the use of the term risk is that hardly anyone actually understand the meaning of the term and in my experience many people, including many working in the Safety space, think it is interchangeable with hazard.
    The strength of using the term ‘harm’ is that it implies injury or hurt and covers physical and emotional injuries equally.
    A broken bone, permanent disability, or emotional duress and breakdown are real outcomes of poor safety management. The concept that it should hurt less if you were injured by a small or medium business that was cutting corners to line it’s owners pockets is quite offensive.
    I remember clearly a senior WorkSafe Inspector stating “If you can’t make a profit and run your business without needing to put people in serious harms way, then you shouldn’t be in business”. This was in response to a small business owner whining that he would not make any money if he had to run his business safely.

  3. Small business- low risk, that seems to be the most common response, when in actual fact many small businesses are just as high risk in many areas;- vehicle movements, transport, goods receival, slips and trips,work loads (probably even more so in the current economic climate around the world), older equipment, lack of risk assessments (as we can’t afford it). Sorry but the old adage of do it right the first time saves money, still holds true no matter what the business is.
    If we go down the path of exempting some we will have a situation worse that the GST with all sorts of exemptions and others trying for exemptions. Our traffic laws dont provide exemptions for business based on size or risk – its a case of one size fits all. Its really the same argument in reverse as the one all the pollies and unions ere bleating about before the election that mining companies should be penalised more, ignoring the clear facts that despite there being a lot of small mining companies there is one law and that applies to all.
    When you consider the so often stated fact that 90-% of Australia’s work force is employed by small business, the sort of rhetoric going on would mean that most of Australia’s work force might end up being not covered by safety legislation, a situation that cannot be allowed to occur. Just look at all the problems in the US where the smaller businesses and lower paid workers do not seem to get such coverage.

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