One of the central tenets of modern safety management is the need to establish a safety culture. However recent Australian research has cast serious doubt on whether this current belief is valid or useful.
In October 2014, the Safety Institute of Australia launched several new chapters to the Body of Knowledge (BoK) project. One of those chapters, based on a literature review and authored by David Borys, addresses organisational culture* and says that safety culture:
“… [has] limited utility for occupational health and safety (OHS) professional practice.”
“… literature has unresolved debates and definitional dilemmas.”
“…..remains a confusing and ambiguous concept in both literature and in industry, where there is little evidence of a relationship between safety culture and safety performance.”
These findings should cause all OHS professionals and company executives to re-evaluate the safety culture advice and products that they have received over the last decade.
In developing harm reduction and prevention strategies, the occupational health and safety (OHS) profession likes to look at worst case scenarios on the understanding that dealing with an extreme event introduces mechanisms that deal with lesser events. Partly this is a legacy of Bird’s Pyramid. During this current month of attention on workplace mental health, the issue of work-related suicide is unavoidable as a worst case scenario for depression and mental ill-health. There are several new pieces of data on work-related suicides that OHS professionals need to consider as part of their own professional development and to increase their organisational and operational relevance.
Mates In Construction
In October 2014, the Mates In Construction (MIC) program released a report on “The economic cost of suicide and suicide behaviour in the NSW construction industry and the impact of MATES in Construction suicide“. Below is a summary of some of its findings, in Australian Dollars:
“The average age of each suicide fatality among construction industry workers was 36.8 years and 37.7 years in QLD [Queensland] and NSW [New South Wales], respectively.”
“The average cost of a self-harm attempt resulting in a short-term absence from work is estimated at $925 in 2010 dollars.”
“Each self-harm attempt resulting in full incapacity is estimated at $2.78 million; and, each suicide attempt resulting in a fatality is estimated at $2.14 million”
“The key cost driver for full incapacity and a fatality is lost income, equivalent to 27.3 years productive years”
“Across all categories, the burden of cost associated with self-harm and suicide is borne largely by the government: 97% or $4.80 million of the total combined cost of $4.92 million.” (all in page 3)
One of the most ignored, but important, elements of occupational health and safety (OHS) management is the business case. Work on this issue is being completed in Australia by Safe Work Australia but the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) has beaten it to the punch by releasing “The business case for safety and health at work: Cost-benefit analyses of interventions in small and medium-sized enterprises“. This document includes new case studies that provide detailed analysis of cost and return on investment from interventions as varied as a vacuum lifter for pavers to warm-up exercises and task assessments of domestic builders by qualified physiotherapists.
The report found that:
- “Wide-ranging interventions appear to be more profitable than interventions targeting a particular
issue related to the sector of the enterprise.
- Interventions that mainly concern training and organisational change appear to be more profitable than interventions based on technical changes (such as introducing new equipment).
- Interventions that include direct worker (participatory) involvement appear to be more profitable, regardless of whether or not increased productivity benefits are taken into account in the
- In most cases, the enterprises managed to estimate benefits related to increased productivity. It
should be emphasised that increased productivity does not always come as a result of improved
safety and health, but it is taken into account in the context of a business case.” (page 10)
Later this month, the Victorian WorkCover Authority (VWA) will be releasing a document entitled “Integrated approaches to worker health, safety and well-being” (pictured right, but not yet available online). It is intended to generate discussion on how to improve workplace safety performance by breaking down the walls of various disciplines, production processes, consultative silos and institutional or organisational biases. This document builds on the overseas experience of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH – Total Worker Health program), the World Health Organisation (WHO – Healthy Workplace Framework) and others to provide an Australian context.
Those who are experienced in risk management principles may see little new in this approach and the publication’s success is likely to depend on how VWA explains the initiative and how its stakeholders, Victorian businesses of all sizes, accept the concept and believe it can work in their own workplaces.
The release of a publication advocating Integration implies that an unintegrated approach to safety management has been an impediment to change. This may be a surprise to risk managers and those who have been consulting broadly on OHS in their workplaces and those companies who have integrated systems managers with responsibility for Quality, OHS and Environment.
The 2014 Annual Report of the Victorian WorkCover Authority (VWA) states a new initiative on workplace mental health:
“…a new direction for the VWA’s WorkHealth program has led to the Victorian Mental Wellbeing Collaboration. The VWA has invested in a tripartite collaboration with peak health promotion agencies VicHealth and SuperFriend to develop a range of evidence based tools and resources that will be tested and refined through industry leaders and made broadly available to Victorian workplaces.” (page 25, links added)
Two significant points in this statement are the development of a range of “evidence-based tools and resources” and the pledge to consult. However what is meant by a tripartite consultation in this context is unclear as traditionally OHS consultation has included employer associations, trade unions and government regulators. If health promotion agencies are included in this latest “tripartite collaboration”. Will the employer groups or trade unions be dropped? Consultation on any new OHS/wellbeing initiative should not be constrained in a tripartite combination.
One of the traps in this initiative is the potential confusion by terminologies. “Mental health” is a well-understood term that is readily applied to the workplace by organisations such as the Western Australian Mental Health Commission who quotes the World Health Organisation
“…. good mental health is not simply the absence of a mental disorder. It is a state of wellbeing whereby an individual can realise their own potential, manage everyday stresses, work productively and contribute to their community.” (page 6)