Dead Men Tell No Tales – Safety Storytelling

A common theme throughout presentations at the Safety Asia Summit in Kuala Lumpur was the need to communicate safety and health clearly and concisely to variety of nationalities with a variety of literacy levels. My presentation aimed at reminding the OHS professional delegates that they may already have skills that they could use in communicating safety issues to their audience or workers and contractors.

Every culture has stories. Stories have been the dominant way of teaching for centuries but we are gradually losing some of our innate storytelling skills or we do not see how they may be relevant to the workplace. OHS professionals could benefit from redeveloping those skills and also encouraging those skills in others. Stories can be a base for teaching,listening and, in OHS parlance, consultation.

The story

Quite often people in business talk about “the story” without really appreciating the complexity of storytelling, or the power of storytelling. Here are two quotes about stories that I plucked from a marketing brochure:

“The story is what drives the bond between the company and the consumer.”

“Stories can be used to communicate visions and values, to strengthen company culture, to manage the company through change and to share knowledge across the organisation.”*

There is some truth in these quotes but the purpose of the quotes undermine their value. The book these are from discusses storytelling in terms of branding and advertising, in other words the purposeful manipulation of people’s desires. For marketing and advertising is the sector where storytelling has been most effective in supporting the selling of products and the selling of ideas.
Continue reading “Dead Men Tell No Tales – Safety Storytelling”

Is illiteracy a big safety risk?

In a couple of years all Australian States will probably have OHS laws which require active consultation on workplace safety matters.  But how effective will the consultation be if a noticeable part of one’s workforce struggles with literacy?

For many years OHS included a gentle and steady push for OHS information to be provided in Languages Other Than English (LOTE).  Many OHS regulators had Codes of Practice providing guidance on how to communicate safety issues to workers who cannot speak or write English.

The Australian Industry Group (AIGroup) has been running a project on improving workplace literacy for some time.  AIGroup sees literacy as a major impediment to productivity and safety.  The ACTU sees the risks posed to one’s safety predominantly.  On 26 May 2010, AIGroup’s CEO Heather Ridout wrote in The Australian newspaper (not available online) about the project and the workplace risks.  A report from the literacy project has found that “low levels of literacy and numeracy were an issue for”:

Labourers and process worker 45%
Apprentices 25%
Technicians 23%
Administrative staff 17%
IT staff 13%

Continue reading “Is illiteracy a big safety risk?”

Freshening an OHS career

OHS professionals, as with any profession, can easily become out-of-touch with what their profession is all about.  This is to improve the safety of people through a professional and competent approach.

Some professionals lose touch because they may be dealing with corporate OHS policies all day,  they may never get away from head office and the endless round of meetings, they don’t get to go to events outside their own professional network or they are simply comfortable with  the “academic” role and not miss getting their hands dirty on the shop floor.

In each of these scenarios the OHS professional is doing themselves, and their profession, no favours.  Their career may progress but their thinking does not.  Some OHS professional associations are at the same plateau.

There are some small things one can do if one wants to break the cycle and obtain a better quality of work.

  • Test the validity of the corporate polices by arranging for an internal audit by someone else and participate as an observer.
  • Take one’s skills out of head office and offer to mentor some of your contractor’s OHS people.
  • Establish a pro-bono service for the smaller businesses nearby.
  • If one’s company is in an industrial estate, start-up an Estate OHS group where business owners can meet to share or create solutions.
  • Offer one’s OHS services to a not-for-profit organization, if your company offers “volunteer” leave.
  • Offer to assist students at all levels with their OHS assignments.
  • Take a sabbatical to majority world sectors, such as Asia, and offer one’s OHS skills to OHS and labour advocates in that region.*

The biggest threat to one’s safety skills is stagnation.  If one’s professional safety organisation does not have the programs available to freshen up your skills and approach, go outside the safety field.  It is surprising how one’s skills in one area can be applied in others, such a public health, environmental safety, transport or maritime safety.

Kevin Jones

* A particularly useful organisation that is worth contacting is ANROAV – the Asian Network for the Rights of Occupational Accident Victims

A colleague in Asia recently told SafetyAtWorkBlog that ANROAV is in need of variety of educational materials.  Many of these are basic tools such as jigsaws that can be used to identify hazards or safe work options.

$A10,000 would be a great help in establishing a basic education fund which could access a suite of OHS comics and short films that can be used for education on fire risk, cancer, mine safety, electronics, solvents etc..

Discrimination and OHS information in languages other than English

One of the most ignored OHS obligations in Australian workplace is to provide safety information in a language other than English. Most workplaces in a multicultural society struggle greatly with this obligation and, more often than not, rely on employees to pass on OHS information to their colleagues in the employee’s language.

This translation is an integral part of a safety management system and needs to be well-considered when developing and operating a system. OHS professionals need to be assured that the correct OHS information is getting to where it is needed and understood at that point.

A recent discrimination case that illustrated these issues occurred in the New South Wales Administrative Decisions Tribunal (Tanevski vs Fluor Australia P/L [2008] 7 August 2008). The tribunal found that Fluor had indirectly discriminated against Mr Tanevski (a Fluor employee since 2003 and with 314 years as a supervisor in rail maintenance) by placing a literacy requirement on him that he was unable to meet and that the tribunal found to be unreasonable.

A safety report had highlighted the “management of low English literacy standards of personnel” as a high priority for improvement. Mr Tanevski had been demoted from his role as a supervisor over concerns about his literacy level in relation to complying with the requirements under its OHS management system. The tribunal found that the company’s concerns were legitimate but unreasonable as

“there was a feasible, low cost alternative which did not involve any increased risk to safety…[to].provide him with training on the new HSE system, instruct him on how to complete the necessary forms and assist him with the duties, such as writing statements and reports, which he was unable to perform”.

In other words, the company needed to support the operation of the safety management system by helping the people who need to use it.

There is also another point to make from an OHS management perspective. Should not the new HSE system have accommodated the known literacy needs of existing employees? Information in the decision says that Mr Tanevski was a five-year employee with the company and there were no concerns with his work performance, indeed testimonials spoke otherwise.

The New South Wales OHS Act 2000 states

“An employer must ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of all the employees of the employer.
That duty extends (without limitation) to the following:…
(d) providing such information, instruction, training and supervision as may be necessary to ensure the employees’ health and safety at work,…”

The Victorian OHS Act is more specific:

“An employer must, so far as is reasonably practicable—………..
(c) provide information to employees of the employer (in such other languages as appropriate) concerning health and safety at the workplace…….”

The rail safety legislation may have obligations specifically to that industry. Both OHS regulators, WorkCover NSW and WorkSafe Victoria, have guidance notes on how to provide OHS information in languages other than English. WorkSafe Victoria also lists the language needs of employees as a necessary element in any OHS training needs analysis.

The Tanevski case may also have been dealt with by WorkCover NSW but that the issue came up through legal action on discrimination in a non-OHS tribunal, illustrates that OHS professionals cannot rely only on information provided by the OHS regulators.