Time to reassess our approaches to machinery safety

9781472450777.PPC_alternative mobilitesTalking about workplace safety and machine manufacturing is unfashionable, perhaps because Australia’s manufacturing capacity is in strong decline. And occupational health and safety (OHS) seems preoccupied at the moment with psychosocial hazards and wellness.  But one Australian researcher, Elizabeth Bluff, has undertaken an empirical study of safety attitudes, motivations and practice in the manufacturing and OHS regulatory sectors and produced a remarkable book that needs to be read by everyone involved with workplace health and safety.

Bluff writes

“In illuminating the mechanisms underlying manufacturers’ responses for machinery safety the research also makes wider conceptual and theoretical contributions.  It provides insights into knowledge and motivational factors as principal elements shaping firm performance for social and regulatory goals, and advances understanding of how these elements are constituted in the everyday operations of firms and their interactions with external actors.” (page 3)

Bluff’s book is not solely a literature review of machinery design safety laws but is based on two empirical studies; one of machinery manufactures and one on OHS regulators that

“…investigated their inspection and enforcement policy and practice for machinery design and construction.” (page 5)

Bluff writes that

“in essence the research uncovers the web of influences that create plural responses among manufacturers and differentiate their performance for substantive safety measures.” (page 6)

Existing research identifies principal motivational factors for machinery manufacturers as “legal, economic,or normative, but not social.” (page 6, emphasis added)

Bluff also points out the fragility of corporate safety motivations:

“Apparent drivers for firms to take action on machinery safety could be cancelled out by barriers to taking such action, as when an espoused moral obligation to protect human health and safety was counteracted by over-riding business concerns about the functionality and marketability of machinery.” (page 6)

Importantly this book is truly an international book as it can compare the Australian machinery safety laws to the Machinery Directive in Europe.   Australian OHS writers could benefit from more frequent comparisons to European structures and initiatives because the pressures for regulatory uniformity and harmonisation across States frequently matches that of the European Union’s Member States.

Bluff found that the European safety regime “was more developed that the arrangements” (page 23) required under Australian OHS law – a gentle call for the Australian regulators.

Bluff’s empirical study of manufacturers found

“Only a small proportion of firms had comprehensively recognized hazards, used safe place controls as the primary risk control measures, and provided substantial, good quality safety information.  The other firms had not ensured that their machinery was designed and constructed to be safe, or had not effectively informed their customers and end users about the safety aspects of their machinery.” (pages 43-44)

This should be of enormous concern to Australian businesses who rely on machinery meeting suitable standards but, more importantly in the OHS management context, rely on manufacturer’s guidelines and documentation as the principal source of knowledge for safe operation and maintenance. Manufacturers’ information is a vital part of the supply chain of knowledge.

There is much in this book for the OHS regulators.  In looking at the motivators on machinery manufactures, Bluff found that

“Taken together, these findings demonstrate that state regulatory sources were not key constitutents of knowledge about safety matters in firms.” (page 74)

She builds on some of the work of her colleague Neil Gunningham:

“Legislation that is not enforced effectively rarely fulfils its social obligations…, and this research points to the need for OHS regulators to take a fundamentally different approach in their interventions with machinery manufacturers.” (page 74)

A crucial chapter with broader OHS implications is Chapter 8 that deals with “Motivational Factors and Performance”.  It is worth remembering that this book is based on empirical studies and so the findings of this chapter identifies evidence of what people and companies do, and why. If ever an extract was required from this book, this chapter is the one as it summarises so many OHS issues and challenges so well.  Bluff found the research

“…has shown that manufacturers that accepted responsibility for machinery safety and had positive legal, quasi-legal or economic rationales for taking action on safety matters tended to perform better for substantive safety outcomes compared with the sample overall.  On the other hand, firms that did not accept responsibility for machinery safety tended to perform more poorly.” (page 160)

Occasionally Bluff includes quotes from interviews that reflect comments familiar to OHS professionals and regulators. Bluff includes this quote from a crane and hoist manufacturer:

“It’s got to a point where it’s become ridiculously ridiculous [sic] on what you have to go through to try and eliminate risk….. Where do you draw the line?  It’s got to the point in some of the cases I’ve seen in some of the reviews where you think it’s time to basically pack up, shut up and go home because you cannot cover everybody all of the time, but if you do get pinched or someone takes you – well it’s good night nurse, why bother?” (page 151)

Bluff’s book is a refreshing take on OHS and its inter-relationship with business decisions.  The empirical study provides evidence of a type that is  sorely needed in these times of red tape hysteria and inquiries into productivity.  The book’s title, ” Safe Design and Construction of Machinery – Regulation, Practice and Performance”, is accurate but understates the book’s significance and potential.

Kevin Jones


Categories business, design, engineering, ergonomics, ergonomics, evidence, government, hazards, law, OHS, research, safety, state of knowledge

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