Part 2 of the Cabbage Salad and Safety podcast’s discussion on managing drugs and alcohol at work is now available.
Part 2 of the Cabbage Salad and Safety podcast’s discussion on managing drugs and alcohol at work is now available.
The Spring 2016 edition of National Safety magazine includes a cover story on leadership written by me. In it John Lacey insists that safety leadership begins at the top. This position is supported by many business and occupational health and safety (OHS) advocates but this seems to me to be based on a misunderstanding of leadership.
In response to a question about leadership in small- to medium-sized businesses, Lacey said that leadership “applies to all”: More…
On October 7 2016, Victoria’s trade union movement held a Young Worker Conference. The major public statement from that conference was the launch of a survey report called Young Workers Health and Safety Snapshot. The report has received some mainstream press which is not unusual for this type of trade union member survey. Almost twenty years ago a similar type of survey from the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) launched the issue of workplace bullying into the Australian consciousness.
The media article mentioned above focussed on the sexual harassment elements of the survey report which is unsurprising as sexual harassment cases have been a mainstay of workplace relations reporting but it overpowered some of the other more recognisable occupational health and safety (OHS) issues.
The recent Victorian report found that:
“Young people are beginning their working lives without the education needed to identify workplace bullying and health & safety hazards and their employers’ obligations to address them. Young people are not being equipped with the tools to confidently question unsafe practices in the workplace and confidently raise issue when needed. This has led to a normalisation of unsafe work practices as the status quo.”
Where is a young worker to receive such information? The school curriculum is already bursting with subjects and there is constant pressure for more. As has been written elsewhere in this blog, school-based bullying is significantly different from workplace bullying due to the very different power relationships between a student and their teacher and a worker and their employer different laws, different rules, different environment, different culture…
Students may receive some exposure to work through a placement or “work experience” but whether that person undertakes a full set of safety inductions is unlikely. The process is usually one of supervision and workplace exposure. In such situations which, formally, only last five working days students may witness workplace bullying but their attention is on work tasks more than on the complex relationships that underpin work.
Employers have the responsibility for providing a safe and healthy work environment. What is not overtly stated in safety legislation is that this obligation is to every worker from their first day to the last. The employer and their managerial system is the principal source of OHS information for young workers. If the worker is in a unionised workplace, their health and safety representative is likely to play a role in this induction process but that is an increasingly rare situation in Australia.
The body of the Young Worker report offers a different take on the prevalence of workplace bullying. It asked
“Have you experienced bullying or harassment from any of the following?”
The categories were Customer/Client, Boss/Supervisor, Co-Worker, None of the above, or I’d rather not say.
Thirty-nine percent said none of the categories listed. Does this indicate that bullying is less of an issues than is often made out? And are workers really getting bullied by clients or are they being harassed? It is sloppy research to combine harassment and bullying in survey questions as bullying and harassment are two different interactions although the mental health impacts on workers may be similar.
This overlap of harassment and bullying continues to complicate OHS interventions, has existed for some time and is continuing to be ignored. (This blog wrote about the issue in 2011) Safe Work Australia (SWA) defines workplace bullying as
“Workplace bullying is repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety.”
It is difficult to see that this definition applies to the relationships between workers and customers due to the requirement for repetition however it may be possible. More likely the client/worker relationship may involve harassment but clarity on how workplace harassment is determined is more difficult. Sexual harassment is discussed in the SWA guide:
“The type of behaviour occurring may need to be determined to develop an appropriate response. For example, if the behaviour involves physical violence or what appears to be unlawful discrimination or sexual harassment, whether it is repeated or not, it will require a different response to workplace bullying.” (page 17)
Given that the issue of “incivility” has been gaining ground as a workplace psychosocial hazard, it may be a useful to consider this in client/worker relationships. However harassment at work may involve stalking and cyberbullying. This mess of potential workplace hazards makes it even more important for surveys like the one conducted with young workers to be very clear on what is being asked so that the responses address the intent of the question. The survey question above on workplace bullying is unhelpful.
Another of the findings is
“Health & safety issues and workplace injury or illness are underreported. 1 in 3 young people who sustained workplace injuries or illnesses did not report them to their boss or supervisor. When asked to perform an unsafe task more than half will do it rather than raise it with their boss or supervisor. Young people reported fear of retaliation – such as losing their shifts or not having their contracts renewed – and fear that health & safety issues or workplace injuries or illnesses would not be taken seriously by their employer. Taking action to report an incident is seen as an extraordinary course of action, rather than the commonplace response to hazards.”
Underreporting of injuries is a perennial problems at all levels of any workplace. If you report an injury, you are seen as careless, unthinking and/or untrustworthy and a failure. You feel like you made a mistake and that it is your fault. Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t but that should not be a relevant consideration in most OHS circumstances. The negative shameful feelings are most likely to appear in an organisation that does not understand their workers and their work practices. The managerial focus is likely to be on production outcomes, or deadlines, rather than on the quality of the work or the safety of their workers. Yet it is the managers and employers who are in charge of managing those deadlines and resourcing the production process.
It may sound naive but a production urgency in any work process is indicative of poor planning and poor preparation. Such a situation increases a range of business risks, including the encouragement the sacrifice usual safety practices. Workers should take responsibility for their actions but that is different from accepting the blame.
Some companies have instigated alternative incident reporting measures where an anonymous report can be sent to a senior supervisor if the incident report is discouraged, or not attended to, at the level of line managers and supervisors. Such systems are well-intentioned but only operate in industries or companies where there is a level of organisational maturity that can guarantee no repercussions on the reporter. This situation remains rare.
Incident reports are an important element of OHS but they are seen more as generators of unnecessary work instead of an opportunity to improve. This fear of being seen as a failure is a powerful emotion with which OHS needs to contend.
Refusing unsafe work
The report shows that almost 56% of young workers asked to perform unsafe work did so and that the remainder raised their safety concerns with a supervisor. The report gives emphasis to the first of the statistics but the statistics can be read positively as the number of workers raising concerns is considerably higher than one would expect. It would wonderful if this level of safety awareness was representative of the whole young workforce. Although the survey is not confined to trade union members as earlier surveys were, the level of safety awareness in the respondents is likely to be higher due to the manner the survey was conducted.
The statistics also do not indicate what the consequences were for those who raised safety concerns. Two respondents quoted say they were relocated and the issue remained and the other says they were fired (page 8)
Teenage can be a stressful time of transition into adulthood and, in many ways, work is an established path to progressing that maturity. The move from school to work can be equally disorienting as the daytime rules of one’s life over the last twelve or so years disappear, change or are tweaked. It is understandable that new work experiences may generate mental health issues and that relationship and family pressures may impinge on the workplace.
However, employers who target young workers are well aware of this transition and should have detailed and strong managerial processes to ensure that the young worker works well in their first job but are also set up for the rest of their working life. It may feel okay to discuss personal issue with a teacher you have known for over a decade or a parent you have known all your life but how do you talk about personal issues with your boss or manager? It can be a daunting experience but shouldn’t be.
According the Young Workers’ report
“Mental Health issues related to work are not correctly understood and dealt with as workplace health issues for which employers have responsibilities. Starting work is a significant developmental milestone for young people, but if the experience comes with stressors related to mental health its many benefits are undermined. Young people reported self-censoring the injury as they weren’t sure work-related mental health issues were valid workplace health issues, or they felt their employer would not see their issues as valid. Young people also cited precarious work, either through casual or temporary contract employment, as a trigger for stress and anxiety.” (page 3)
Older OHS professionals should take some responsibility for young workers being unsure of whether mental health is a valid workplace issue. The OHS profession has neglected workplace psychosocial hazards for decades and still remains unsure about how to incorporate them into their safety management systems. Unless mental health issues manifest themselves in visible ways, they remain largely invisible to employers, showing a fundamental misunderstanding on the psychology of workers. (This week is Mental Health Week in Australia which is campaigning on the mental health of youth, so there is likely to be some good advice in the press.)
The other issues raised – precarious work, etc – are likely to get some attention through the Labour Hire report that is currently awaiting release from the Victorian Government and the inquiry into WorkSafe Victoria’s enforcement strategies. Similar inquiries have occurred in other Australian States and will strengthen the calls for better interventions and additional funding. And, of course, there is the ongoing broad concerns over pay rates and safety conditions in a broad range of Australian workplaces like 7Eleven and others.
The issue of sexual harassment was touched on above but one of the report’s findings addressed this issue specifically.
“Young people, particularly young women, report sexual harassment in the workplace is commonplace, unaddressed and preventable. Young people and particularly young women receive it from all directions – customers, bosses or supervisors and co-workers. Young women reported a normalisation of sexual harassment in the workplace, citing it as an everyday occurrence that was treated by employers as a ‘non-issue’. They also reported being placed in unsafe work situations which resulted in sexual harassment, such as working alone early in the morning or late in the evening.”
Sexual harassment, dignity, respect, objectification and discrimination are broad social issues that are being addressed in many ways. The workplace is part of society so there is some degree of overlap but the solutions to these concerns will not come through occupational health and safety but OHS can stop these social issues becoming worse through safety culture and organisational improvements.
OHS already has form in addressing the hazards identified in the last sentence in the quote above. No worker should be placed in a position of risk whether that is in the context of being alone or unsupervised. OHS regulators have long had Guidances and Codes about these risks but they have often been ignored as soon as the control measure includes additional cost or disruption, such as is likely to occur when buddying up or adjusting a roster to give safety equal or higher priority to productivity.
The Young Workers Centre has called on an improved high school curriculum on workplace hazards. Such calls have been made repeatedly by a range of OHS advocates for decades and they have rarely been taken up for several reasons including that the curriculum is already full. Curricula, in Government Schools at least, are determined by the various Departments of Education so this is where the major lobbying should be aimed. Schools are unlikely to give workplace bullying much attention when they need to address school- and cyber-bullying and school bullying programs are entrenched in many educational areas.
The Centre recommends
“Sexual harassment in the workplace must be specifically defined and recognised as a workplace health & safety issue by WorkSafe and other government bodies.”
This recommendation illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding of sexual harassment. As mentioned above sexual harassment is a consequence of a broad range of social and workplace factors that have existed for decades and will require a broad social movement. Trade unions have a tendency to believe that regulations can solve all the problems but regulation can only go so far, particularly on issues that may require generational change.
The trade union agenda may be more obvious when the rest of the recommendation is considered:
“State and federal governments must collect data on sexual harassment and gender-based violence in the
workplace so that resources for prevention are correctly allocated. The introduction of recognised Women’s Advocates in the workplace will raise the profile of sexual harassment as a workplace issue at the workplace level. Advocates would be entitled to training on gendered workplace health & safety issues and recognised as participants in consultation processes alongside other representatives.” (page 13)
Governments are already collecting what data is available but as with all workplace data, particularly if it is self-reporting, it is unreliable. The call for sexual harassment data collection will face the same under-reporting problem of more traditional injuries that the survey identified. There are also some lessons to be learnt by the Fair Work Commission’s bullying data which indicates that workplace bullying may not be as big an issue as some advocate or expected.
The call for “recognised Women’s Advocates” seems like a clear call for a different type of health and safety representative (HSR) with regulated training requirements. And why “recognised”? Recognised by whom? If sexual harassment is such a workplace issue, cannot this be handled with the cooperation of the current HSRs? If not, then the training of HSRs needs a substantial revision to accommodate this new generation of psychosocial workplace hazards.
Other recommendations include the introduction of
“…. a bullying code to improve employer [OHS] compliance …”
This is a surprising recommendation in some ways as trade unions know that Codes of Practice are just codes almost like the Pirates’ Code – “more a set of guidelines”. The Victorian trade union movement has been grumbling about the lack of a bullying code of practice ever since the employer advocates demanded that what was intended to be the first bullying code earlier this century was “downgraded” to guidelines and has remained that way ever since.
The Young Workers Centre also calls for an incident reporting system that supports anonymity. How is one expected to report a workplace bullying incident without identifying the bullied party? Is a WorkSafe inspector really expected to enter a workplace to investigate a bullying accusation from an anonymous report?
The only information that has been made available about this research to date is a fifteen page report which is not available publicly at the time of writing. It is hoped that the Young Workers Health & Safety Snapshot is just that, a snapshot, and that a more detailed body of research work and analysis is available and that this will be publicly available. This detail should be able to provide clarity on young worker perspectives and the realities in which they work, that is, the legitimacy of the perceptions.
The research should also provide justification for the recommendations which at the moment are under developed and seem to relate more to broader trade union safety campaigns than to the young worker survey responses.
As a contribution to the safety discussions in National Safety Month and Mental Health Week, it is useful but could have been so much more.
The second session of the SIA National Convention is flatter than the the first, not because it is not interesting but because it is providing us with the social context for occupational health and safety (OHS) rather than challenging the OHS profession.
Bernard Salt is a very high profile demographer whose job is almost entirely about providing social context to whatever we do. He mentioned OHS specifically only four times and then primarily to do with driving trucks but the age data Salt presented shows the need for improvement in the health and wellbeing of the workforce so that quality of life can extend in line with the extended period of our lives.
Peter Gahan (pictured right, speaking)of the Centre of Workplace Leadership is a regular speaker at the Safety Institute of Australia’s conferences. His outline reflects the theme of this conference by disrupting our sense of security and career.
The challenge comes from how we respond to this unease. If we curl up on the couch to binge watch a show, the career is over. We need to look for the opportunities that the disruption offers but this may require us to reassess, if not throw out, the foundations of our profession or the dreams on which we chose our career.
Richard Coleman is well known in the Australian OHS profession through his prominent safety career. His attraction as a conference speaker was on display because he was able to adjust his presentation to accommodate the examples and context that previous speakers addressed. Coleman focused on the digital disruption, particularly as it affects blue collar occupations. He believes that some of these jobs will go within the next five years.
Coleman’s focus on digital disruption provided a great summary of the OHS application of augmented reality and wearable technology. The latter has the best opportunity for safety improvement, particularly in the area of manual handling. Sensor technology can provide better levels of information and in real time that allows immediate interventions at times of great risk.
What these speakers and the panel are all about is to think creatively and think big. Fantasise about your job and the tasks you do now and whether they will exist in ten years and how you can change them now to prepare for the future. If your job leads to a dead-end, change the job. It seems easier to do this now, than ever before
In a comment to a recent blog article Gregor McGhee asked:
“Just out of curiosity can you recommend any books for comparison with respect to presentation, footnotes, references and endnotes?”
Most books related to occupational health and safety (OHS) are written by academics for an academic audience so there are clear referencing protocols and styles with which that readership will be familiar and comfortable. The challenge comes when academics are asked to write for a lay audience for whom concepts must be explained and backgrounds and context provided.
But there is a similar challenge to OHS regulators who provide guidance material that often derives from academic research but also for the legalities of safety legislation. SafetyAtWorkBlog was able to talk with Jackie McAdam, a freelance editor, designer and writer who has worked for the UK’s OHS regulator, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
Format and Language
NIOSH has a program of Research to Practice (R2P) where research grants are given, or work commissioned, on the understanding that the research will also be “translated” into a format and language that allows for the research findings to be applied in the real world. NIOSH says it:
“…..collaborates with partners and stakeholders to:
Focussing on the communication element of the program fits with the OHS principle of consultation (although the whole R2P program is really consultation) with particular attention to the reader and audience. NIOSH has provided an excellent roadmap guidebook to assist writing research in this “new” way.
For more practical advice on the style of writing, governments often publish style guides or manuals. Australia has published such a book for fifty years and the recent 2002 edition remains a mandatory read for most government policy writers. The American Chemical Society publishes a guide of its own.
The UK Experience – Jackie McAdam
I have worked with HSE on and off since 2005 as both an editor and a designer. It’s important to clarify that these are my thoughts as an individual, but I do have a lot of experience and knowledge of how HSE operates and what the organization deems as important.
Early projects I worked on (which are still available online) include COSHH essentials, Asbestos Essentials and leaflets such as Working with substances hazardous to health: A brief guide to COSHH.
Who does HSE believe its audience to be? Business owners? OHS Professionals? Consultants? Or All of these?
HSE is well aware that OHS professionals use our guidance and information as a valuable resource, but our editorial style guide emphasises the need to use plain English to make publications accessible to workers and management too.
COSHH essentials, for example, has an initial sheet in each series aimed at managers, but the remaining sheets are intended to be used by everyone. A lot of guidance includes safety checklists for workers to make sure they are protecting themselves.
Despite the view of the UK in some respects as a nanny state, it’s important the workers take responsibility for actions that could put themselves and their workmates in danger. As an organisation, HSE does a lot of work with stakeholders to establish what happens in practice in the workplace. It’s all very well providing a perfect scenario, but that doesn’t happen in real life, and it’s about taking measures that are reasonably practicable and not coming up with a solution that’s disproportionate to the level of risk. I think that’s why our recent strategy events [#HelpGBWorkWell] were so successful at getting feedback from so many stakeholders. [link added]
How important is it to refer to previous editions of OHS documents or should each edition be considered brand new?
We try to discourage links directly to PDF documents in our publications, as the landing page gives vital information on what has changed since the previous version. It could be a change to the law, but sometimes we have just updated some of the references. Even if that information isn’t on the landing page, it should be on the first page of the document so read that first, it isn’t just sales blurb.
What are the most common criticisms of safety guidances from readers?
I don’t always get that feedback directly but I know that it’s crucial that we work with industry experts to get our facts and our language right. HSE’s long-term belief that plain English is crucial to making guidance easy to access has recently become the mantra of www.GOV.UK in marketing its ‘digital-by-default’ approach. You mentioned Australia’s style manual, I haven’t read it yet, but if you want to compare notes you could check out Gov.UK’s style guide at: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/content-design/writing-for-gov-uk.
There has been evidence that peer pressure prevents workers even reading guidance, so making sure it’s relevant to the target audience is top of the list. That’s about the way it reads, the way it looks and how it’s marketed.
How much “translation” is required and has this amount lessened over your experience?
As an editor with no specialist knowledge in health and safety, or the type of hazards we deal with, I have to check with my authors that I’ve understood the gist of what they are trying to convey before I edit their text. They get to approve every change to make sure I haven’t changed the meaning. My job is essentially to translate the technical jargon into something the person on the street can understand. Occasionally HSE has to use some technical language, but technical doesn’t mean academic; academic styles of writing can put people off. They simply don’t think it’s aimed at them.
I’ve also been asked to ‘translate’ the findings of research reports. For example, RR558 – Taking risks with asbestos: What influences the behaviour of maintenance workers? by the Institute for Employment Studies discusses worksite culture and the reasons that workers don’t recognize themselves as being at risk from asbestos. The report mentioned a greater concern for others than themselves, so I used language to remind them that the risks they took could affect their workmates or family to try and bring about behaviour change.
Did the HSE MythBusters program affect the writing style or strategy?
To be honest, no! When you work at HSE, you quickly realise how crazy some of these myths are. HSE’s line hasn’t changed, but Myth Busters was one way to get the public, and companies, to recognize when HSE was being used as a scapegoat for someone else’s over-cautious approach.
You mention in your review of Carsten Busch’s Safety Myth 101 that Carsten describes a Safety Culture that has been so misused that it has become a meaningless buzzword in many circumstances. There can be no doubt that this is the case, HSE’s press office is quick to rebut any over-the-top reporting of ‘elf ‘n’ safety gone mad’. Most of this in the UK tends to be in the tabloid press whereas I’ve noticed a change over the years towards more accurate reporting by agencies like the BBC.
Does HSE still produce hard copy editions of publications and guidances?
Not as many as we used to, but yes we do sometimes still print publications if there is enough demand for a printed version.
What about the future of OHS communications?
The future is digital – mostly. Yes, we will still print some publications, but like all things these days, it’s now about the immediacy of social media, responsive communications that can be read on the go on your smartphone rather than opening a book. Everyone expects the answer to any question to be readily available, and OHS is no exception. Essentially, we all want an app that can do that – and there is, for some things. Check out HSE’s asbestos app
When I’m asked what an editor does, which is a surprisingly common question, I do sometimes have to remind myself of how important our role is. We don’t write the stuff, necessarily, but we do make it readable by the right audience.
What about language that just doesn’t really tell you anything, but is just bluster and padding? Politicspeak, jargon, gobbledegook.*
One of the main jobs of an editor is to get rid of all that. Yes, we also make the text consistent, it doesn’t just read better, but it’s easier to follow; you set a precedent at the beginning of the text and you follow it through. We correct the grammar, obviously, but we also make the text make sense! OHS guidance could probably never be called a good read, but it doesn’t have to be a complicated one.
I am not sure that this answers Gregor McGhee’s question as the books mentioned above are not straight comparisons with Busch’s Safety Myths book. In some ways any safety book from a reputable and established publisher should illustrate the structure and protocols required. One of my points and why I contacted Jackie McAdam was to emphasise the importance of an editor in any work.
It is useful that Jackie is a graphic designer as well as an editor as this allows her to picture the end result as well as the information contained. Also she points out the crucial importance of communicating with the writers or source content providers to ensure you don’t misrepresent ideas in the translation from the technical to the readable.
Recently I spoke with Dr Rob Long when he was working through the proofs to his latest book , “Risky Conversations” and he was frustrated with the editing process required but also impressed by the complexity of editing. Editing is a skill and a trade and one that is becoming less common as more and more of the text production tools become readily available. But in most circumstances editing will still be a requirement even if it is to provide that final polish to a product or book.
Of course, like workplace safety, the best results come from having this role as early in the creativity and production processes as possible. Engaging an editor early in a project educates that editor on the text’s context, aim and point and builds a collaboration which avoids, mostly, a deadline panic, which can be an occupational hazard for all writers.
language that is meaningless or is made unintelligible by excessive use of technical terms.]