New book challenges current OHS trends

Quinlan coverProfessor Michael Quinlan has a new book that focuses on lessons from recent mining disasters but, as with the best of occupational health and safety (OHS) books, it challenges orthodoxies.  Some OHS consultants and experts have built careers on these orthodoxies, trends and fads, and will feel uncomfortable with the evidence put forward by Quinlan in “Ten Pathways to Death and Disaster – Learning from Fatal Incidents in Mines and Other High Hazard Workplaces“. The honesty and humanity in this book makes it an essential part of any OHS professional’s library.

Quinlan establishes an important tenet from the very start:

“… knowledge is not created in a social vacuum.” (page xi)

This simple dictum is vital to an understanding of the true causal factors on OHS decision-making.  People die from OHS failures.  Politicians create laws and situations that can encourage failures, increase risk and can provide a veneer of respect for heartlessness and exploitation.  Business owners may feel pressured to place production before safety.  Some OHS writers and advocates stop, often unconsciously, at the point where their theory or market research would fail scrutiny.  Some apply critical thought only “as far as is reasonably practicable” to continue a business activity that is short-term or to sell their consultancy package to gullible or naive corporate executives.

Quinlan writes of the “political economy of safety”:

“The political economy perspective argues that safety, including workplace disasters, can only be understood in the context of the distribution of wealth and power within societies, and dominant social policy paradigms that privilege markets and profit, production or economic growth over safety.” (page 24, emphasis added)

To many readers this may sound like socialism in its mention of wealth distribution and power but such a perspective is valid even though it may be unfashionable.  Such a broad perspective allows for a critical assessment of other OHS research approaches such as, for instance, the culture advocates. 

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Zero Accident Vision and its OHS potential

In 2013 the  Safety Science journal allowed open access to an article that discusses “The case for research into the zero accident vision” (ZAV). The terminology is slightly different but seems compatible with the “zero harm” trend occurring in Australia. The authors acknowledge that

“…. many companies with a good safety reputation have adopted a zero accident vision, yet there is very little scientific research in this field.” (link added)

Although the discussion revolves around experience in Finland and Finland has a unique culture, the concepts discussed are indicative of the ZAV:

  • “accounting for complex contexts;
  • setting up norms, rules and performance indicators;
  • identifying the role of safety climate and safety culture;
  • studying human behavior.”

The authors’ short discussion of context is important as it acknowledges the state of knowledge of hazards and advocates systemic analysis.  It also mentions dealing with ‘normal accidents” in complex settings that leads to either looking for safer substitutes or ‘high reliability theory’ and ‘resilience engineering’. Context is vital but there is also the trap of paying too much attention to context and not enough to the hazard, a situation that can often happen with wellbeing programs. Continue reading “Zero Accident Vision and its OHS potential”

“Safety” deserves to be supported not replaced or rephrased

worksafe-0125_lr-2SafetyAtWorkBlog has written previously that the term “safety” seems to have fallen out of favour with some preferring terms such as “zero harm”. In November 2012 I wrote:

“In some ways, “safety” has become an ineffective term, even a negative term in some areas. It is understandable that some companies and safety professionals would wish to rebrand their skills or activities as something else, like Zero Harm, but a more sustainable strategy would be to work on having Safety regain its credibility.”

I was reminded of this when reading an article in the latest edition (71) of Industry Update, a safety equipment publication that publishes many advertorials.  Dr Marcus Cattani wrote:

“I don’t use the “safe” word anymore! The “s” word has such a poor reputation I find it can turn people away.

If people turn away from “safe” as a word this places great pressure on the safety strategies of OHS regulators and governments.  Does the community believe that safety is different from what the regulators believe?  I don’t think so and reckon that the success of the fundamental social values espoused through the various incarnations of WorkSafe Victoria’s Homecomings advertisement illustrates the common understanding of safety. Continue reading ““Safety” deserves to be supported not replaced or rephrased”

Zero Harm persists in confusing companies on safety

Zero Harm = Zero Credibility

Australian lawyer, Andrew Douglas is one of the most passionate safety advocates I have met and he is a dogged critic of the Zero Harm branding present in occupational health and safety thinking. In his latest article at Leading Thought, he discusses Zero Harm and states that:

  1. “It is untrue and neither workers or supervisors believe the concept is true. Therefore it is unsustainable.
  2. The structures mean you get a clean out of low risk, low hanging fruit but your high end risk is unaffected.
  3. The safety knowledge of those most at risk, the workers, is not improved nor is their decision making capacity. Without changing mindsets people will continue to make deadly decisions.
  4. The positive studies do not measure Zero Harm against another process – I don’t doubt that any money and focus on safety will impact safety performance. The issue is it the best, does it reduce the risk of serious injury or death?
  5. The language, metrics and rhetoric of Zero Harm is utterly inaccessible to workers. They need a language in safety they own and understand.”

This level of criticism would do for many corporate safety programs as Zero Harm runs counter to the consultative and collaborative safety management process. Curiously one Australia’s OHS regulators, Workplace Health and Safety Queensland (WHSQ), has bought into the Zero Harm concept applying it to leadership. Continue reading “Zero Harm persists in confusing companies on safety”