The importance of handling professional complaints professionally

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Any member of any profession can be subject to the complaints process of that profession’s governing body.  A complaints procedure is an essential element of any organisation.  In fact, one could argue that the professionalism and maturity of an organisation can be judged by how that organisation investigates and handles a complaint.

Not only must a complaint be handled professionally, it must be seen to be handled professionally.

Regardless of whether a complaint is valid or baseless, it is essential to have

  • Clear guidelines on how to make a complaint and the consequences of lodging a complaint;
  • Defined complaints handling procedures;
  • Complaints procedures that have been tested through desktop exercises and simulations;
  • An independent assessor/mediator;
  • An understanding that of natural justice;
  • An independent appeals process; and
  • The commitment to support, in practice, the professional ideals espoused.

Many executives, particularly of volunteer organisations whose good intentions are often not supported by the necessary administrative procedures, resources or skills, run the risk of exacerbating both frivolous and valid complaints.

As can be seen by some of the articles in SafetyAtWorkBlog, from James Hardie Industries to restorative justice to handling aggressive customers, people expect a certain dignity and accountability in their professional dealings.  A major element of safety management, and basic professionalism, is the ability to apologise when mistakes have been made.  For only through an acknowledgement of mistakes can the integrity of a process be (re)established.

Australia’s Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has shown the power of the apology when he acknowledged in 2008 the injustices done to Australia’s indigenous population.  It took courage to apologise for actions done long ago by someone else.  The ability to apologise shows a maturity and professionalism that is still lacking from many Australian organisations, voluntary and corporate.

Kevin Jones

James Hardie directors face the consequences of their poor decisions

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SafetyAtWorkBlog has kept a watchful eye on the long saga involving the directors of James Hardie Industries and their mishandling of a compensation fund specifically established for victims of the company’s asbestos products.  The compensation fund story has been handled well by Gideon Haigh in his book on the company.

The saga has since evolved into one of the duties and actions of the board of directors, moreso than one of compensation.  Today, 20 August 2009, the previous directors will be told of the financial and professional penalties determined by the New South Wales Supreme Court.

The ABC News online has an article about the impending court decision but more relevantly to the OHS and compensation issues is the fact that the existing compensation fund runs out in 2011 and the company says that the current economic climate does not allow for any more funds.  For a company that has earned good profits from asbestos over many decades, two years of poor corporate performance does not seem to balance the scales.

Too many corporations are using the global financial crisis to mask their own management failings.  The United States and England have seen this more than most countries.

The ABC was able to interview the current CEO of James Hardie Industries, Louis Gries, who is not as damning of the past directors’ decisions as some might expect, and the reporter, Sue Lannin, asks many direct questions about the company’s responsibilities to victims of its products.  This interview deserves careful listening.

Company directors around Australia are watching how the court case ends and the size of penalties they may face if they make similar decisions.  The OHS element is oblique to the issue of directors’ responsibilities but it is the hot topic in Australia at the moment and many OHS professionals talk with these same directors.  It may be necessary to adjust one’s language or message when talking safety with them from tomorrow on.

Kevin Jones

Should OHS regulators be involved in the competence of professionals?

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WorkSafe and the Safety Institute of Australia are at the forefront of pushing for a defined level of competence for the safety professional.  WorkSafe identified this need many years ago and has been working on establishing alliances with safety professions since then to achieve its aims.

Significantly similar issues have been discussed in the United Kingdom over a similar period however, in that process the WorkSafe equivalent, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), have chosen not to participate.  According to a recent article in HEALTH AND SAFETY AT WORK, the HSE has stated its position

“Speaking at IOSH’s recent conference, HSE chief executive Geoffrey Podger was adamant that the general description of competence in the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 (MHSW) Approved Code of Practice (ACoP) is sufficient. “I don’t think it helps the whole health and safety system if HSE tries to over-define the area,” he said, adding that there is still a “huge opportunity” for the professional bodies to work on their own definition.”

This position is considerably different from that in Australia where WorkSafe is now closely working (some would say too closely) with the SIA in developing standards and protocols that it and its partners want to operate nationally. Its aim seems to be similar to one the HSE and Health & Safety Commission established in 2007 – “Mapping Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Professional Body Activities in Scotland”.  It is worth looking at the page to see the list of safety professional bodies who are listed, the services offered and the membership databases.

Pages from externalproviders[1]A crucial HSE document is the “HSE statement to the external providers of health and safety assistance”.  Its statement that competence should be a goal rather than a benchmark should worry the Australian competence lobbyists.  In the Ponting article above, IOSH calls for more clarity but, as discussed elsewhere in SafetyAtWorkBlog, OHS legislation clearly states it is the employers’ ultimate responsibility to establish a safe and healthy work environment.  They may choose assistance from competent people but why should it be the regulator that establishes this?  The professional bodies such as IOSH and SIA have existed for decades.  Have they not determined levels of competency for their own members by now?

Geoff Hooke of the British Safety Industry Federation says

“when you ask how you measure competence, the simple answer is: with great difficulty”.

In general, shouldn’t the response from OHS professional associations be along the lines of

“we believe that all members of the XXX Association are competent within their fields and we would not hesitate in recommending our professional members in providing competent advice to companies…”?

These organizations who are calling for a clear definition are often the same organizations that are in support of “as far as is reasonably practicable”, a vague management concept that can be defined and re-defined depending on which judge hears which OHS prosecution. – the antithesis to the prevention principles of OHS.  One cannot call for certainty in one area while advocating flexibility in another.

The UK Works and Pensions Committee was right in saying that more control is required on external consultants and clearly lobbed the responsibility on the professional bodies.

Ponting’s article concludes that it is the job of the professional bodies to organize accreditation and the maintenance of that accreditation but acknowledges that it is politically fraught.  That is not enough reason to look to the regulator to solve the problem as it only makes the regulator the target of criticism over the process and the results.  The professional bodies themselves must work to a commonality of purpose and relinquish years of demarcation and, sometimes, schism.

The Australian safety professions would ultimately gain far more credibility for themselves and their professions if they too took it upon themselves to define accreditation, audit their members’ competencies and assist in the maintenance of skills.  In that way Australia may gain a safety profession of which everyone can be proud.

Kevin Jones

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

OHS and Corporate Responsibility in Asia

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In 2000, Melody Kemp was interviewed for Safety At Work magazine about her experience monitoring Western corporations’ workplace safety in Asia. Below is an extract of that interview.

In 2000, Melody Kemp was interviewed for Safety At Work magazine about her experience monitoring Western corporations’ workplace safety in Asia.  Below is an extract of that interview.

The full interview is available by clicking the HERE.pages-from-2i5-melody-kemp-interview

Recently you were part of an international OHS inspection team in Indonesia. Can you tell us about that?

I guess the reason I became part of the team was that I was known to the social research group that we were working with.  First, Reebok, who we were working for, put the job out for tender, which was actually quite unusual.  Normally the other shoe companies tend to elect an international consulting accounting firm like Price Waterhouse or Ernst Young.  

The woman who took over the human rights job used to work for the Asian Foundation and she had a totally different set of beliefs.  She had a background in social activism and human rights, so she was interested in a different approach.  Being as independent as they could be they decided to take this opportunity. They subcontracted to a prominent social research group who have worked for World Bank and have a lot of status.

Also, they were all Indonesians while I was the only foreigner on the team but I also speak Indonesian.  A major factor was that we were all familiar with the language and culture.  They needed an OHS person, they preferred to work with a woman, and I was the only woman they could find in Indonesia with that mix of skills.