The tenuousness of safety culture

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Only a few days ago, SafetyAtWorkBlog questioned the usefulness of vision statements.  A leaked internal memorandum from the structural mechanical process division of John Holland reported in the Australian media on 27 April 2009 shows just how tenuous such statements can be.

According to an article in the Australian Financial Review (not available online, page 3), the divisional general manager, Brendan Petersen, listed 81 injuries to subcontractors and employees and 51 near-misses in 2008.  The memo acknowledges that the situation is “unsatisfactory and unacceptable” and Petersen makes a commitment to “do something about it”.

The trade unions have jumped on this memo as an indication that John Holland is not living up to its principles, although there is a lot of irrelevant and mischievous industrial relations baggage behind any of the current union statements about John Holland’s operations.

Petersen’s memo admits that, as well as his division’s performance being unacceptable

“we also have sites that consistently allow work activities to be undertaken in an uncontrolled or unsafe manner, sites that don’t take employee concerns about unsafe workplace conditions seriously and sites that don’t report near misses so as to learn from them and ensure the situations never re-occur again.”

That such an established company with such an active program of safety management acknowledges these deficiencies is of great concern.

On being asked about the memo, Stephen Sasse, John Holland’s general manager for HR, spoke of optimism and the safety efforts introduced since the 6 April memo however, behind his words is an acknowledgement that the safety culture has not been supported.

“To an extent [the memo] is an exhortation to middle management and supervision, and to an extent it is a warning that we cannot tolerate staff who do not share the John Holland values around safety…”

The John Holland values are listed on their website as 

  • “Commit to the successful completion of a wide variety of construction, mining, services and engineering projects through our specialist and regional construction businesses 
  • Commit to continuous improvement in all we do 
  • Understand our clients’ businesses
  • Achieve our vision of “No Harm” through safe and responsible work practices 
  • Build and maintain open lines of communication with our people’ our partners and our clients
  • Provide excellent returns to our stakeholders
  • Create an environment where our people are challenged, motivated and satisfied
  • Conduct business ethically, honestly and with diligence at all times”

The No Harm value is expanded upon through it’s “Passport to Safety” program.

In the AFR article, it is noted that Comcare currently has four federal court prosecutions occurring against members of the John Holland Group.

It seems trendy to broadcast the values of a company’s safety management system as if they are new and unique to their companies when, in fact, many of the values reflect legislative obligations under OHS law.  The trap that many companies are facing is that reality does not match the ideal, and may never do so.

A strong argument can be made to be a quiet achiever on workplace safety – to just get down and get managing – without trumpeting the values that can become an embarrassment when the real world pierces the academic fog of the MBA.  Perhaps true safety leadership comes from those who do it on the shop floor rather than than those who advocate it in the boardroom.

Kevin Jones

Vision statements = hypocrisy (mostly)

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 I have experienced two situations recently which made me question the value of corporate mission statements.

Recently the CEO of an Australian company spoke about how safety was a core value and how committed to safety she was.   She is a recognised leader in safety and directly involves herself in safety management and meetings. However, her employees in the audience were shaking their heads because the safety culture she espoused was not as widespread through the company structure as she believed.

The other situation was a staff meeting I attended with a regional CEO and International CEO where they were unaware that employees in regional offices and undertaking shiftwork had not been integrated into the corporation. In fact the shiftworkers had not been informed of the CEO visits until the last minute.  The company has “integration” as a corporate value.

Leadership (a most dubiously-applied concept in my mind) and vision statements may “come from the top” but they do not flow by themselves to the four corners of a company. They must be worked on, almost as a full time mission.

Vision statements have been promoted in so many corporations that have fallen over through mismanagement that statements have become a bit of a joke, in most circumstances.   Nothing kills motivation quicker than hypocrisy.

(This also occurs in organisations that begin a program of corporate restructure and positioning, and the first item on the agenda is a “sexy new logo.)

It is important to remember that Enron’s motto was “Respect, Integrity, Communication and Excellence.”  If one thinks that Enron is an unfair corporate example, look at one’s own company statement and seriously ask yourself whether all elements of the company are operating to those standards.  Perhaps, someone needs to provide corporate morality audits.

Lastly, any vision statement must accept and mention that the principal aim of any company is to make money (a fact I learnt from Peter Sandman).  To omit this reality immediately shows that the statement is not grounded and is simply management spin.

Kevin Jones

“Getting back on the (trauma) horse”

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Mental health in the workplace is one of those recent manifestations of psychosocial hazards.  It continues to evolve and during this process one is never quite sure where the best and most relevant information can be obtained.

Cnfusion for the safety professional can come from new, slightly off-topic, issues that can skew the public perception and understanding of exactly what it is one is trying to manage.

Is it reasonable to take inspiration (if that is the right term) from studies of Iraq War sufferers of post traumatic stress syndrome in providing clues to handling mental health issues at work?  

During tertiary risk management courses the debt owed to the armed forces and their planning processes is acknowledged but soldiers operate in a unique culture of accountability, clearly defined duties and a rigid hierarchical structure.  In most circumstances only the broadest of concepts could be translated to the real (non-militarised) workplace.  In a similar way studies of Scandinavian workforce management are interesting but are highly unlikley to be transferable outside the cultural geography.

A very recent example of this problem of getting excited about innovation and then wondering about its genuine applicability, can be seen in the TV show, Catalyst, (video available online for a short time) broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on 16 April 2009.  

The program provides a profile on a computer simulation program that purports to aid the rehabilitation of war veterans by returning them to traumatic events of the war zone.  It seems that the theory is the same as “getting back on the horse that threw you”.

In OHS terms, the applicability for firefighters, emergency response personnel etc is obvious but SafetyAtWorkBlog has reservations.  The use of video simulations and games by the armed services before, during and after combat is discomforting.  

Managers and health care professionals may need to carry some of the responsibility for the cloudiness of mental health and trauma by applying the hyperbole of trauma to relatively benign workplace issues.  Many elements of work are being described as traumatic when they are not.  They maybe disturbing, disconcerting or even harmful but there is a big difference between being punched in the face by a psych patient and driving over a car of civilians in an armoured vehicle.

In other industry sectors, such hyperbole would be described as spin.  It is the responsibility of OHS professionals to cut through the spin and not be distracted by “exciting”, but indirect, innovative solutions.  Let’s look for the evidence and operate from what we know works.  At least until new evidence appears.

Kevin Jones

Australian trade unions hijack the World Day of Safety

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Every year the ILO sponsors the World Day for Health and Safety At Work on 28 April 2009.  This day is a day of remembrance for most countries where people reflect on those who have died at work in the previous year.  Each year, these days are full of tears and grief, and motivation for safety professionals to work harder.

When handled well these are days of sorrow and dignity.  Sadly, occasionally,  these days are hijacked by the trade union movement in their industrial campaigns that only indirectly relate to workplace safety.

A couple of years ago, at the height of the union campaign to oust the Howard Government in Australia, the Victorian Trades Hall spokesperson, Brian Boyd, spoke passionately in support of the campaign.  His political calls did not relate to the memories of the dead workers who people were there to remember and mourn.

For 2009, the Construction Forestry, Mining and Energy Union has imposed their campaign against the Australia Building & Construction Commission on the World Day for Health and Safety At Work, or Workers’ Memorial Day, whichever matches one’s political leanings.  This demeans the original intention of the day and should be criticised.

The tenuousness of the ABCC campaign and safety is discussed elsewhere but it is inappropriate for the CFMEU Construction Division National Secretary, Dave Noonan, to link in a media statement the two issues:

“Each week on an Australian construction sites, statistics show that a worker will die. We cannot let this go on for another week let alone for another five years.  Construction workers and unions are today making a stand for safety. If that means we have to have stop work meetings for safety or refuse to cooperate with the ABCC, then that’s what we’ll do.”

It is believed that there are no restrictions for meetings to discuss OHS matters on construction sites but there are conditions for union right-of-entry on OHS matters as listed below.  The processes seem reasonable and are similar to the processes applied for several years in the Victorian jurisdiction.

It is disappointing to the OHS profession to link safety with a non-safety-related industrial campaign.  What is more disturbing is the misuse of a memorial day to dead workers for political ends.

Kevin Jones

According to the website of the ABCC:

“1. A union official must have one of the following valid reasons to enter your site:

  • Investigate, on reasonable grounds, a suspected breach of the Workplace Relations Act 1996, a collective agreement, an award, an AWA or an order of the AIRC
  • Hold discussions with members or workers eligible to be members of the union
  • Perform inspections and functions under an OHS law *

If none of these reasons apply you have the right to refuse entry.”

Also

“Union officials must comply with your reasonable requests about:

  • The rooms or areas they may use on the site for holding discussions
  • The route they should take to access those rooms or areas
  • Occupational health and safety”

* Under the Workplace Relations Act 1996 union officials who enter a worksite for OHS purposes must hold a valid federal permit, produce that permit on request, exercise those rights during working hours and comply with reasonable OHS requirements.