What is Farm Safety Week really saying about safety?

This week is Farm Safety Week in Australia.  This means that a lot of organisations will be issuing media releases about how to either, improve safety performance (ie. reduce harm) or raise awareness of risks and safety.  What is likely to be missing from the information is practical information.  This is partly because of the unique nature of farmers – isolated, small businesses, politically conservative and working from home.

Safe Work Australia

On the first day of the week Safe Work Australia (SWA) released an

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Big business seminar adds to OHS knowledge library

The latest broadcast in Safe Work Australia’s Virtual Safety Seminar (VSS) series is aimed at the executive level of management and entitled “Why big business needs to lead work health and safety“. One of the attractions of the VSS is that Safe Work Australia is able to draw upon senior and prominent business leaders who do not often talk occupational health and safety.

This seminar included contributions from Diane Smith-Gander, Dean PritchardMarcus Hooke and was hosted by Jennifer Hewett.

Several important perspectives were discussed that would be helpful to the intended audience but there were also some comments that deserve contemplation.

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Webinar audience and performance measurement

In mid-April 2017, Safe Work Australia (SWA) filmed its latest webinar at an inner-city hotel in Sydney on the theme of “Why big business needs to lead work health and safety”. SWA has established a strong place in the online safety media by providing unique information in a professional presentation.

I flew up to Sydney for the event as I had heard that SWA was looking for audience members.  There were a few familiar faces in the SWA team and they were excited about the filming. But it is very hard to determine just how successful this type of webinar is.  Performance statistics should be available but they are rarely shared.

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“Every death is manslaughter”

The South Australian Branch of the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) held a protest rally in Adelaide on 15 February 2017 in response to the political negotiations in Australia’s Parliament about the reintroduction of, what the union sees as, anti-union legislation.  Throughout the rally’s presentations (available online through the CFMEU Facebook page), the issue of occupational health and safety (OHS) was raised and it is worth looking closely at what was said and the broader political and safety context.

The issues to be addressed in the protest rally included Senator Nick Xenophon’s “deal” with Prime Minister Turnbull that the CFMEU claims will:

  • ” Make our workplaces less safe
  • Put more overseas visa workers on our building sites
  •  Cut the number of apprentices in South Australia
  •  Threaten job security and increase casual jobs
  •  Fail to mandate Australian made products on construction sites”

After Joe McDonald opened the rally, the Secretary of the CFMEU SA, Aaron Cartledge (pictured above), spoke about how workers in South Australia had been dudded on safety because the health and safety representatives (HSRs) cannot call on external safety advisers to help them with an OHS matter.  This may be the case but Cartledge’s comments illustrate a common perspective of trade unionists – a reluctance to consider safety management strategies other than those dependent on HSRs.

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Research into management perceptions of safety – Yeah But…..

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In August this year Safe Work Australia released “Perceived Levels of Management Safety Empowerment and Justice among Australian Employers”.  The justification for the document is to better understand leadership culture in line with the Australian Work Health and Safety Strategy 2012-2022. It is always useful to understand how business owners and employers see workplace safety as only when we understand their “way of seeing” safety, can we effectively engage in improving occupational health and safety (OHS) but this report could have been so much more.

20161116_091247The perception survey on which the Perceived Levels report was based is an application of the  Nordic Occupational Safety Climate Questionnaire (NOSACQ-50) which is “a tool for diagnosing occupational safety climate and evaluating safety climate interventions”.

The Perceived Levels report found

  • Small business operators felt they didn’t display management safety empowerment and management safety justice enough.
  • The level of activities in these area varied in different industry categories
  • Most employers felt they displayed these activities frequently.
  • Employers with apprentices and young workers felt they displayed these attitudes more.

“Management safety justice” may seem like an odd concept as it is relatively new to Australia and there is very little information available online to clarify.   What might help is the list of questions that was asked in the survey on this topic:

  1. The business collects accurate information in accident investigations.
  2. Fear of negative consequences discourages workers here from reporting near miss incidents.
  3. The business listens carefully to all who have been involved in an incident.
  4. The business looks for causes, not guilty persons, when an accident occurs.
  5. The business knows when to report incidents to the health and safety inspectorate.

The survey results are presented as positives and knowing perceptions is important but the percentages of management safety justice seem alarmingly low for OHS obligations that have existed for decades.  For instance

“Just over half (59%) of employers indicated that their business collects accurate information from incident investigations, although small businesses were much less likely to indicate that they collected this information (54%) compared to employers in medium and large businesses (95% and 94% respectively). ” (page x)

So 41% do not collect information from incident investigations!!  What’s not clear is whether investigations occur at all.

The potential for this type of survey seems good and it would be great to see it carried out more frequently or more broadly and over time so that perception changes the effectiveness of OHS initiatives can be measured.  That is unlikely to occur through Safe Work Australia (SWA), however.

SWA told SafetyAtWorkBlog that it has no plans to repeat the perceptions of work health and safety survey.

OHS people often talk about “work as perceived vs work as done”, acknowledging that planned works are often different from how the work is performed in reality. The SWA report addresses the former but there is no intention to try to verify those perceptions.  SWA advised SafetyAtWorkBlog that

“…to do so would be very challenging from a methodological point of view.”

A major element of OHS management is verifying the reality to the perception, the “work as done” to the work “as planned” through procedures, work instructions and safe work method statements, for instance. Many companies apply a rigorous system of audits, assessments and inspections to verify legal and operational compliance.  Some are beginning to undertake safety culture assessments over time. The benefit to the Australian business community of showing how compatible leadership culture on safety is to the application of safety could have been substantial.

The weight given to this perceptions report needs to be considered carefully as the limitations are identified very early in the document. For instance, the response rate to the 2012 survey was low and the data cannot be said to be representative of the Australian community. Safe Work Australia (SWA) told SafetyAtWorkBlog that

“we cannot be confident that the information is representative of the whole population”.

This Safe Work Australia report provides a glimpse into managerial perceptions but little more. Safe Work Australia does provide other more substantial reports from which there is often more to learn.  One such report, from May 2011 – “Motivation, Attitudes, Perceptions and Skills: Pathways to Safe Work” provided these findings, amongst others

“Commitment to work health and safety as a desirable characteristic of workplaces is strong among those who work in them.Commitment to work health and safety and individual efficacy does not translate into consistent adherence to safe work practice: Talk does not match action.

Talking about work health and safety is essential to impart understanding, but it needs to be accompanied by institutional structures that allow broad participation and that consistently mainstream safe practices.

A key element in talk and action is cooperation among managers, workers, work health and safety authorities, and unions. These actors are interdependent and each is needed to enable the effectiveness of the other. The inverse is also true. Each has capacity to undercut the effectiveness of the other.

Workplaces underperform on safety when management does not put safety first for its own sake (managers don’t walk the talk) and when participation and communication about safety are not consistent and institutionalised: In these circumstances individuals ‘close down’ as active learners and participants of safety.

Social demographic groups did not differ markedly in this report but two consistent trends were observed. Those who are most dismissive of authority while expressing concern about safety and reporting negatively on the safety of their workplaces comprise a disproportionately large proportion of younger respondents and respondents from smaller workplaces.”

Curiously, the Motivations & Attitudes report was not referenced in the employer perception report.

Research relies on replication to validate original research and it is very disappointing that Safe Work Australia cannot replicate this survey. But SWA does have the capacity to build on these survey results and provide a more detailed analysis of these perceptions, often from its existing resources, publications and reports, as seen from the Motivation report quoted above.

OHS benefits enormously from literature reviews that pull together similarly-theme research into an assessment of the current state of knowledge about workplace safety topics. The Perceived Levels report would have benefited greatly from placement within a literature review on managerial perceptions on workplace safety.  It would have also been useful for a more detailed discussion of the assessment themes of “management safety empowerment and management safety justice”.  These concepts are new to Australia and could have been discussed independently and to provide an Australian context.  SafetyAtWorkBlog has been critical of the importation of Scandinavian (and US) concepts to Australia in the past as the socioeconomic structures of Scandinavia are very different from the Australian.

Safe Work Australia should be congratulated for trying something new and it is hoped that someone in Australia continues this work.

Kevin Jones