Communicating about OHS in New Zealand

Safety conferences rarely generate media interest unless the relevant occupational health and safety (OHS) Minister is speaking or there has been a recent workplace death or safety scandal. At the recent SafetyConnect conference held by the NSCA Foundation in Melbourne, SafetyAtWorkBlog was able to chat with the Editor of New Zealand’s SafeGuard magazine, Peter Bateman. Peter has been editing the magazine and writing about workplace health and safety for a long time and, as an outsider to the OHS profession, he has some useful perspectives on how to communicate about safe and healthy workplaces.

Peter Bateman and Kevin Jones in 2015

SAWB: Peter, great to see you at the Safety Connect conference in Melbourne, hosted by the National Safety Council of Australia Foundation.  So, day one, thanks for coming over from New Zealand.  You’ve been coming to safety conferences for a long time.  How important are safety conferences to your magazine given that Safeguard runs its own conferences as well?

PB: We’ve had the opportunity, through growing the credibility of the Safeguard brand through the magazine, that’s given us I think the trust and the credibility with readers so that when we launched the awards actually, the first event we launched way back in 2005 and then the main conference a couple of years later.  And they were small, but they were successful in their own way and we’ve just been fortunate to grow them year on year, so New Zealand Workplace Health and Safety Awards have been going for 15 years and the main Safeguard National Health and Safety Conference for almost as long.  Then from that we’ve managed to create some more specialist one-day conferences as well.

SAWB: I think I’ve seen a LegalSafe one.

PB: LegalSafe, which is more on the compliance side for those people who want more compliance side even though that’s not my particular area of interest.  But I recognise that a lot of people are very focused on compliance and fair enough.  Then more recently we’ve developed HealthyWork which started off as a way of bringing together traditional occupational health interests with the emerging wellbeing side but has really gone more into the wellbeing and psychosocial stuff as we’ve progressed. And in the last couple of years we’ve launched SafeSkills for H&S reps.

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Tough but short-term

A toxic fire in an industrial district creates plumes of dangerous smoke billowing up into the air as seen from behind a near by warehouse building, 2019. Credit:Christopher Freeman

Melbourne, Australia has recently suffered several notable factory fires that resulted from unsafe storage of chemical wastes. These fires have resulted in toxic fumes across residential suburbs, environmental damage to local waterways and some injuries to workers. Victoria’s Minister for Workplace Safety, Jill Hennessy has responded by increasing penalties for breaching occupational health and safety (OHS) laws. This is a good short-term measure and indicates to the community that their government is doing something but is not a sustainable prevention strategy.

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Hopkins challenges safety culture advocates to look at structure

One of the major influencers on occupational health and safety (OHS) management in Australian has been Andrew Hopkins. His influence comes from a combination of being outside the formal OHS profession and establishing a platform that is inclusive of information from a range of sources. In short he is a sociologist.

Hopkins’ latest book has just been released. “Organising for Safety – How structure creates culture” is a radical departure to his previous books about organisational culture. Here Hopkins questions whether cultural change is the gradual spreading of new ideas and instead proposes that

“… the culture of an organisation is determined to a large extent by its organisational structure.”

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He also mentions power, a concept rarely discussed in OHS and almost entirely left to exist in sociology (Oh, the need for more Humanities study!). Power pops up in Human Resources but not to the same extent.

Hopkins also refers to, and creates, organisational charts that were in place at the time of a disaster and then to the reorganised structures after the disasters. Hopkins discusses how those new structures are in direct response to the new understanding of risk from the CEOs and Boards.

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New film provides an update on legal action over the 2014 Hazelwood mine fire

An independently-produced documentary, Our Power, about the Hazelwood mine fire had its Victorian premiere on March 2 2019. The Hazelwood coal mine fire was a major workplace disaster than generated substantial public health damage in the neighbour communities in the Latrobe Valley. An early record of the event and its impacts can be found in Tom Doig‘s book The Coal Face.

The documentary provides unique vision of the fire and how it burned and polluted the neighbourhood for over a month in 2014. As time goes on, the fire is seen more as an environmental disaster as it is workplace incident and speakers in Our Power are certainly confident in linking the fire with the privatisation of State-owned assets and the social injustice that underpins neoliberalism.

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Workers’ Inferno

Recently the 20th anniversary of the Esso Longford disaster was commemorated in Victoria. Coinciding with this anniversary was the release of a book about the disaster and its personal aftermath, Workers’ Inferno, written by Ramsina Lee.

This book has been in development for many, many years and the Lee’s writing talent is on display in the structure of the book and the stories within.  These stories largely linear But the multiple strands allow Lee to jump from one to the other providing a variety tone.

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