Safety Leadership push in Queensland

Expect quite a few OHS statements coming from Australian politicians as the country approaches Safe Work Australia Week in late October 2009.

On 16 September 2009, the Queensland Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations, Cameron Dick, sought support for a

“…groundbreaking new program to reduce workplace deaths and injuries.”

Groundbreaking? Not sure. Perhaps for Queensland.

According to his media statement the “Zero Harm at Work ” program “aims to reduce the shocking number of deaths and injuries in Queensland workplaces.”  Dick goes on to say

“Ensuring safety in the workplace is one of the most important challenges facing industry in Queensland… Every year around 100 Queenslanders are killed at work and 30,000 people suffer serious injuries or work related diseases.  The cost to our State of these tragic deaths and injuries is more than $5 billion a year.  And worst of all, mums, dads, husbands, wives and children are left mourning the family member that never came home from work.”

Dick hits the right targets in the media statement but does safety leadership, particularly these types of programs, stop incidents from occurring in the workplaces?

Or is the effect of these programs to have senior executives feel that they are reducing injuries because they are talking about safety?

SafetyAtWorkBlog has long believed that safety awareness does not necessarily equal the reduction of workplace injury and illness.  “Zero Harm” cannot be achieved without financial cost and it is unclear whether industry is willing to invest the amount of money required to genuinely achieve this aim.

But then if “zero harm” is only a goal, an aspiration, then it doesn’t matter if it is not achieved “at least we tried”.  (Or the total cynic would say “at least the voters saw that we tried”)

There are sure to be more such statements and launches in the next six weeks.  SafetyAtWorkBlog will be looking for evidence not aspirations.

Kevin Jones

The importance of independent advice at Board level

The recent court decision by Judge Gzell on the previous directors of James Hardie Industries generated considerable media attention in Australia for many reasons; a primary reason is that the company is perceived as making its profits at the cost of its employees’ health.  The social and corporate cost of inadequate workplace and product safety management is now clear to everyone, even public policy makers.

Another area of attention has come from how Judge Gzell’s decision has affected the operation of company boards and the roles of directors.  This is hugely important to the big end of town but the rules apply to boards big and small.  In August 2009 Regnan (Governance Engagement & Research Pty Ltd) identified three major points from Gzell’s decision; the third is the one that is most broadly relevant.

“Non‐Executive Directors – Today more than ever, investors need competent directors from diverse backgrounds, and this case highlights the critical role non‐executive directors play in overseeing and interrogating company management.  While the facts of the James Hardie case are very specific and do not create additional responsibilities for directors, it does underscore the value at risk when non‐executives fail to perform their role and highlights the role of independent directors to satisfy themselves through the taking of advice wholly independent of management.” [my emphasis]

The need for independent advice is regularly identified as an important element of effective risk management for all industry and professional sectors.  A board of “yes-men” can do a disservice to an organisation in a very short time.

The OHS professional often seeks a “devil’s advocate” role at senior management level yet to achieve that level of influence one often has to “sell one’s soul to the devil”.  It may be possible to be an independent director who holds strong OHS opinions but one would never achieve such a position unless one could demonstrate business acumen, and business acumen often requires the dilution of principles.

The environmental movement has shown one pathway to corporate influence but it is hard to identify an environmental advocate who has achieved corporate influence while maintaining a grass-roots credibility.  Similarly, at some point in the OHS professional’s career it is necessary to choose between the ideology from which progression has come and the career progression that requires a reinterpretation of that ideology into the corporate mould.

Is it possible to represent core OHS principles at board level without “joining the darkside”?

Kevin Jones

Challenges for US labor unions and lessons for all businesses

Doug Henwood releases regular podcasts of his radio broadcasting and occasionally there is content that provides an interesting perspective on occupational health and safety, as does the 3CR program, Stick Together.  On August 1 2009 Henwood interviewed journalist, Steve Early, author of “Embedded With Organized Labor”. The podcast is available online. The Early interview clicks in at the 38 minute mark.

(A video interview with Steve Early is also available)

Early talks about how difficult the United States union movement has found it to maintain the enthusiastic momentum from 15 years ago.  He says that several industrial relations programs have slowed due to a lack of support from the grass roots or perhaps the exclusion of this sector in the initial planning of the programs.

As with many policy issues in the early period of the Obama government, a lot of interest is being placed on labour relations.  The government has begun discussions with labour leaders but these leaders face the challenge of gaining the government’s attention during the miasma of policy changes and President Obama has clearly stated to labour leaders, according to Early, that health care is his primary policy area at the moment.  The last month has shown the level of the challenge on health care policy.

Steve Early echoes the thoughts of Tom Bramble, an Australian academic analyst of unions, when he advocates an increased role for the rank-and-file union members.  It is in this sector that the passionate values of industrial relations and trade unionism are felt the strongest, often because it has avoided the political baggage that comes with the upper levels of the union movement.

Early reiterates that the best asset for change is an organisation’s membership.  He agrees that there is often a class-divide between the rank-and-file members and union management.  In many large organisations, senior executives are being encouraged to gain a better understanding of their organisations by jumping across the structure to (re)experience the lot of the membership.

Early says that the union movement in the 1930s resolved this by a major reconstruction of unions.  Corporations and conservative organizations are loathe to deconstruct in order to rebuild because, primarily, the executives get too comfortable.  Executives who genuinely understand their organisation, particularly those organisations that are member-based, can rebuild and remain true.

Kevin Jones

Productivity is also the Government’s aim with OHS law reform

A few posts back the productivity priorities of Australian employer groups toward OHS harmonisation were noted, particularly that of the Australian Chamber of Commerce & Industry.

On 25 August 2009, Australia’s Workplace Relations Minister, Julia Gillard, addressed the 15th World Congress International Industrial Relations Association.  The Minister mentioned OHS and said:

“So, our new workplace relations system is now up and running. We are close to reaching agreement with State Governments to end the fragmentation of the past and have the entire private sector by the one national workplace relations system.

Additionally, for the first time ever, after a 25-year wait, Australian businesses and workers are close to having a uniform national occupational health and safety laws. A massive step forward in achieving a seamless national economy that Australia needs to release lasting and much-needed productivity improvements.

But the legal changes are the beginning, not the end, of the reform process.

Australians should now move beyond a focus on law changes to a new focus on cultural change in the workplace. We need to build partnerships between management and workers and their unions that operate for the benefit of all.

Change of this sort is slower to take root than rapid structural reform.

It is more dependent on intangibles, including the goodwill and motivation of those who take part. But in the long run it will have an important impact on our economic prospects.

So over the coming months and years we will be looking at ways of embedding change through workplace relations, innovation and leadership practices in workplaces.” [my emphasis]

Minister Gillard talks of OHS law reform in the same productivity terms as the employer groups.  This may be down to the audience at the conference and the congress’ theme as well as industrial relations being the main focus of the government’s reform agenda but it is an inclusion that, for fairness, it was worth highlighting.

Rather than taking the OHS paragraph by itself, it is telling to see the section in the speech that includes the only direct mention of OHS law reform.  Minister Gillard continues to emphasise the process of establishing harmony across industrial relations as much as in OHS law.

She also is clearly up on the latest business lingo, even though some of the phrases have a cloudy definition –

  • “cultural change”
  • “intangibles”
  • “innovation”
  • “leadership”
  • “collaboration”

The Minister rightly states that law reform is at the end of one process but often at the start of a far more difficult reform process.  There is no guarantee that the new OHS will have a smooth entry and, as with any law, the best test for its suitability is in the Courts, sadly.

Kevin Jones

Leadership, stress and performance reviews – interview

Graham Winter is an Australian psychologist Graham Winter Book 001who was the chief psychologist for the Australian Olympic team and is now an author and business adviser.  In August 2009 he has a book released entitled “The Man Who Cured the Performance Review”.

SafetyAtWorkBlog managed to interview Graham last week about the book, stress and safety leadership.  The SafetyAtWorkBlog podcast is available for download.

SafetyAtWorkBlog Graham Winter Interview

Kevin Jones

Panic in disaster planning

Three years ago I had the privilege of arranging for Dr Lee Clarke of Rutgers University to attend the Safety in Action Conference in Australia.  Lee had a book out at the time, Worst Cases, and spoke about the reality of panic.  Lee’s studies have continued and are, sadly, becoming more relevant.

Recently, Rutgers University posted a video interview with Lee on Youtube.

Shortly after the World Trade Center collapse in 2001, I asked Lee to write something about the event from his experience and perspective.  He wrote a piece for a special edition of Safety At Work magazine.  The article has been available through his website for some time and is now available through here by clicking on the image below.

I strongly recommend Lee’s books.  As he says in the video, they’re quite fun, in a sad sort of way.

Kevin Jones


Offshore industry regulator performance

Australia’s National Offshore Petroleum Safety Authority (NOPSA) has released a report of its own OHS performance based on data from 2005 to 2007.  NOPSA has been in the public eye far more than normal due to the Varanus Island explosion and the various investigatory reports.

The report seems to indicate that, as a regulator, NOPSA is performing to expectations.  NOPSA’s CEO John Clegg has acknowledged that the  industry is below the level of its overseas counterparts.  This is peculiar given that other Australian resources industries, like mining, are ahead of other countries and that safety in the offshore industry has had a high profile ever since Piper Alpha.

The report identifies challenges that are difficult but not very surprising:

  • improving leadership – strong leadership is required for the Australian industry to move to the next level
  • dealing with a shortage of skilled personnel
  • managing ageing facilities and minimising gas releases

It will be very interesting to watch the benchmarking of NOPSA and its future role through the OHS harmonisation process that Australia is undergoing.

Below is the full report and the performance summary.

Kevin Jones

NOPSA 2007-08 cover

   NOPSA summary 2007-08

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