Australian Prime Minister talks to the great unwashed

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The edge of panic is starting to appear in Australian concerns over swine flu.  Some health officials, who should know better, are slipping slightly off message.  The Queensland government’s chief medical officer has recommended that food should be stockpiled.  This was quickly jumped on by the Federal Health Minister, Nicola Roxon, has tried to provide a more palatable context to the stockpiling:

“We want people to be aware of the risk of this disease, we want people to be taking sensible planning steps but we don’t want panic,” she said. “It’s very important that we don’t have a rush on products that people just during the course of their ordinary shopping might think about whether they have some of these extra supplies.”

The Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has offered some of the blandest, but relevant, advice:

“For all Australians to engage in the simple practice of washing their hands with soap on a regular basis.”

Kevin Rudd is not the poster boy for personal hygiene unless eating one’s earwax is a suitable hygiene practice.

SafetyAtWorkBlog will continue to watch for evidence of the effectiveness of handwashing in influenza control.

Roxon’s advice is sound however in one very important way – sensible planning steps.  Cut through the hyperbole.  Listen to reputable health advice, and keep your colleagues and employees informed.  If that happens, we’ll get through this threat.

Kevin Jones

Safe Work Australia Awards 2008

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Safe Work Australia is a fairly new configuration for  Australia’s OHS department but it’s awards have been going for some years.  On 28 April 2009 the awards were held in Canberra.  The timings don’t seem quite right but that is the scheduling of these sorts of things in Australia.

The award winners from the State events are nominated for national awards, usually, conducted six months later.  SafetytWorkBlog has written elsewhere  about the need to review this system.

The winners this evening were congratulated by the Workplace Relations Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, Julie Gillard and were

The obvious peculiarity in the award winners is the absence of winners from Victoria, Western Australia and Queensland, states with large populations and/or large mining sectors.

The Dorsal Boutique Hotel gained considerable kudos in New South Wales’s awards in October 2008 with its bed elevator that reduces the need for housekeepers to bend when making the beds.  It is a good example of thinking further into the problem and asking why beds are designed the way they are and why can’t we change it.  It has a limited use but considerable appeal to the millions of hotels around the world.  More information can be found on the solution at the NSW WorkCover Awards site.

It is always more gratifying to see successful things rather than successful programs as the things are often transferable to many workplaces and are visual solutions to problems, sometimes problems we weren’t aware of.  Leadership and management awards are more a recognition that a company has taken safety seriously which has been a legislative requirement on business for decades.  There is little innovation to show in these areas.  More the award is for the fact that known techniques have been applied in difficult work situations or industry sectors or company configurations.

This is not to say the effort of the award winners is less valuable than tangible solutions but often these changes come from a changed management structure or a traumatic event or new focus from the board.  It is easier to understand the significance of these OHS “agents for change” when focusing on an individual achievement.  The award for Viki Coad is a great example of the difference one person can make.  It is these achievements that should be more widely applauded. 

Indeed readers could benefit greatly from looking at the State winners in this individual category for that is where inspiration can be found.

Kevin Jones

(Kevin was invited to attend the awards event by Safe Work Australia)

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

Engagement is Consultation re-badged

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Recently an international business established an intranet discussion forum concerning “employee engagement”.  By and large, this is another example of business management twaddle.

Essentially, when one engages with another, there is discussion, a conversation and the sharing of ideas in a cooperative, positive manner.  In OHS circles this is called “consultation”.  By discussing issues, people learn the basics, they refine their understandings and, often, come to a consensus or a resolution.

“Engagement” is another word for what happens on a daily basis in workplaces everywhere.  What is bothersome is when a new management term is generated in order to, primarily, sell a new management book, and in a much lower priority, to provide a new perspective.

In the current edition of Australia’s business magazine, BRW, there is a discussion on engagement, (not available online).  Through an OHS perspective, interpret the following quotes about “employee engagement scores):

“About 40 per cent of employees were failing at the most basic level, saying they either didn’t know what was expected of them or didn’t have the tools to do it.”

OHS = consultation, job description, induction, supervision.

“Those in a leadership position now are taking advantage and redoubling their efforts around employee engagement.”

OHS =  leadership, safety culture

The article makes a useful distinction that an “engaged employee” does not equal a “happy employee”.

The BRW article does not, however, discuss the possible downsides of engagement.  There is a risk that benchmarking of engagement may applied inappropriately and, according to the CIPD:

“Research confirms however that there is a significant gap between levels of engagement found among UK employees and those that would produce optimum performance.  HR professionals need to recognise that engagement is a strategic issue that cannot simply be left to manage itself.”

Engagement is another tool for management but just how many tools are needed?

In short, a management system needs to talk with employees, listen to employees, and support employees.  Wow, how radical.  It can be that simple.

Kevin Jones