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

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

Gender, violence, Batty, Hulls and business preparedness

Recently the Victorian Women Lawyers conducted a seminar into the outcomes of Victoria’s Royal Commission into Family Violence.  SafetyAtWorkBlog attended even though the topic seems, initially, to have a tenuous link to occupational health and safety (OHS).  Family violence is relevant to OHS through its influence on workplace mental ill-health, productivity and the need for cultural…

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Safety leadership through action rather than PowerPoint

The Spring 2016 edition of National Safety magazine includes a cover story on leadership written by me.  In it John Lacey insists that safety leadership begins at the top.  This position is supported by many business and occupational health and safety (OHS) advocates but this seems to me to be based on a misunderstanding of leadership.

nsca-mag-coverIn response to a question about leadership in small- to medium-sized businesses, Lacey said that leadership “applies to all”:

“[Leadership] is not different but how to apply it will be different. The start must be from the top down. The basic values, behaviours, knowledge and systems will be defined by the organisation no matter how large or small it is.”

This is remarkably like safety culture and my response is that leadership can be displayed by anyone at any level of a company or society and can manifest at any organisational level.  The fact is that it is easier to sell a commodified leadership to executives as they are expected to show leadership in times of crisis or stockmarket uncertainty and most of us translate that into leadership of safety.

Leadership, as with most elements of OHS, takes time and effort – sometimes over generations.  This is particularly so with anything concerning corporations that are wary of change unless that change supports profit and shareholder returns. (I would argue safety increases profits and company value but this is an argument than struggles for traction)

The most abused aphorism used to justify this focus on executive leadership is that “a fish rots from the head down”. Nonsense.  As this website states, it is the guts of a fish that rots first.

fish boneThe attention given to senior executive leadership is an organisational echo of the economic trickle-down theory which has been roundly dismissed as flawed and, in some instances, has contributed to increasing socio-economic inequality.

Lacey acknowledges that anybody within an organisation can lead although leadership starts from the top.  He supports my contention that leadership occurs at all levels of a business and that actions show leadership and safety, probably, more effectively and cheaper than any training session.  Lacey says

“…even the gesture of picking-up litter or wearing the correct [personal protective equipment] in front of others in the work team can be seen as a form of leadership. Leading by example is an old but such a true saying. 

These actions are the best way of improving workplace safety and showing leadership, and for the least cost.  Safety should be improved by actions rather than PowerPoint.

Kevin Jones

[Note: please support National Safety magazine if you can.  It is not available online and only through subscription but it is one of the few hard copy OHS magazines left in Australia and one of the few, if not the last, that actually pays its writers (not as much as we’d like but that’s the continuous battle of the freelance writer).  This stance is keeping advertorials at bay and gives National Safety an integrity that is often missing in other safety publications]

No one is hurt, so there is nothing to see

When talking about workplace health and safety there is almost always questions about why one type of workplace hazard is given more priority than others.  This is most common in discussing the neglect of mental health and psychosocial issues in comparison to incidents that result in physical Night photo of Houses Westminster Bridge and Big Ben, Londoninjury or death.  The reasons given are almost always social ones, external to the workplace. A commentary in The Guardian newspaper for 1 November 2016 by David Conn adds another reason.

Parts of the English community have been calling for an inquiry into the “battle of Orgreave” which occurred in 1984 during the miners’ strike.  This call was strengthened following the findings into the Hillsborough disaster and the cover-up by police. Orgreave campaigners were given hope by statements from the UK parliamentarian Therese May, upon becoming Prime Minister.

On 31 October 2016, the Home Secretary Amber Rudd told Parliament that no inquiry at all will be held into the event at Orgreave over which protesters were taken to Court in a prosecution that fell to bits after police evidence was found to be “unreliable”..

What is most pertinent to OHS is this comment from Conn:

“Rudd declared there was not a sufficient basis for an inquiry, partly because nobody died at Orgreave, as if this is the bar now being set for whether wrongdoing should be held to account.” (Emphasis added)

Rudd’s original statement said this:

“Despite the forceful accounts and arguments provided by the campaigners and former miners who were present that day, about the effect that these events have had on them, ultimately there were no deaths or wrongful convictions”

The Orgreave campaigners accepted that no one died on the day of the incident but that did not seem to be the point of the campaign.  The allegation is that the conduct of the police generated unnecessary harm.  Lives were ruined, families broken.  The campaign was for justice.

Rudd establishes a moral benchmark that only fatalities generate official inquiries.  Mental health and the impact of traumatic events get a lower billing.  This reflects a similar approach to workplace incidents and harm.  Broken legs get more attention than broken heads yet it is fair to say legs heal faster.

Fatalities, in some ways, are easier to manage because there is no disputing that death has occurred, only how and why.  Trauma, mental illness, psychosocial problems are more complex as the illness themselves are often disputed or, at least, the extent of harm is disputed.  Such psychosocial conditions also have a greater potential to reveal uncomfortable organisational truths such as poor management, poor leadership, exploitation, incivility, disrespect and abuse.

The U.K. Government venerates its political leaders but continues to show poor leadership in areas that could extend political careers (let’s acknowledge that motivation) as well as restoring faith in the political process, which is suffering badly around the world, and providing comfort to its citizens.

Governments are shy of inquiries, particularly independent ones, for many reasons, including cost, but they miss the fact that even though inquiries provide findings, it is often the exposure that provides greater benefit than the list of recommendations in the final report.  This is evident from many of the continuing inquiries into child sex abuse by church leaders and others.

Governments, safety regulators and businesses need to accept that psychosocial hazards and incidents have as much merit for investigation as do physical injuries.  Ignoring this perpetuates the harm and compounds the inequity and injustice which impedes resolution and the continuous improvement that society expects and OHS legislation requires.

Kevin Jones

Not all deaths are “newsworthy” but they are all important

As Australia’s Safe Work Month closes, the media is focussed on the four fatalities at Dreamworld theme park in Queensland.  That situation is complicated as, although the incident is being investigated partly under Work Health and Safety laws, the decedents were visitors to the workplace. On the other side of the continent in Perth, prior…

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Labour Hire Inquiry recommends a licencing scheme

Following, ostensibly, the Four Corners exposé of labour hire exploitation in Australia last year, the Victorian Government established an inquiry.  That Inquiry’s final report has been released with lots of recommendations, several pertaining to occupational health and safety (OHS).  The Government’s media release response is HERE. The main recommendations related to OHS are: I recommend…

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Early speculation and reporting on theme park deaths is unhelpful

Late yesterday four adults were killed on the Thunder River Rapids ride at the Dreamworld theme park in Queensland Australia. Investigations are ongoing and it was only recently that the names of some of the victims were released.  The first few days after any fatality are confusing as new information is uncovered, old concerns are voiced and our sympathies for the dead expressed.  However there are usually some comments that are unhelpful, and this morning was no exception.

ABC Radio’s AM program led with a report called “Union expresses concerns to Queensland safety regulator about Dreamworld rides”. In the report Ben Swan, Queensland Secretary of the Australian Workers Union says that the union raised safety and maintenance concerns with the company running DreamWorld, Ardent Leisure Group, earlier this year. Swan said that the concerns involved maintenance regimes and equipment but did not specify that Thunder River Rapids was part of those concerns.

Swan was at pains to not distract people from the incident investigation yet his readiness to be interviewed did just that. The union could have made its point about past safety concerns by pledging to cooperate with official investigations by the Coroner and Work Health and Safety Queensland.

Lawyer, Sugath Wijedoru was interviewed by AM over an incident at the theme park in April 2016 that involved his client. The incident involved a different ride and different circumstances.

Swan’s and Wijedoru’s comments and the structure of the AM report, imply that there was a systemic OHS problem with the theme park’s administration but how does this help the investigation less than a day after the deaths? Does this add to the grief and trauma of the relatives who have only just been informed of the deaths, or provide comfort?  DreamWorld may have systemic safety management problems but identifying this is the role of the investigators.

The information that Swan, Wijedoru and others have about the Thunder River Rapids ride and Dream World’s OHS practices generally is sure to be of interest to the investigators, regulators and Courts but did they need to comment within 24 hours of the tragedies? Who did this help?

The report also end with the reporter Katherine Gregory reminding the listener that

“there is no national regulator for theme parks in Australia. Instead it is managed by each jurisdiction.”

The implication is that there should be one. Why? The only National OHS regulator Australia has is Comcare and that only covers a selection of workplaces and industries. The fact is that Australia has no national regulator of workplace safety in the manner of other countries.  OHS is almost always dealt with by the States which makes the concluding comments curious and unnecessary.

Mainstream media feels the need to report news and the deaths of four people on an amusement ride is certainly news but does it need to encourage speculation about incident causes at the time that the company is trying to work out what happened and address the concerns of its workers, various investigators are only just getting the level of access to the scene they need, and relatives are finding out why some of their family are not coming home?

Kevin Jones

Cabbage Salad and Safety – Episode 5

October is National Safety Month in Australia and episode 5 of the Cabbage Salad and Safety podcast discusses a range of topics to mirror the diversity of National Safety Month.

Siobhan Flores-Walsh and myself talk about:

  • Conferences
  • Culture
  • Gender in Safety
  • Mental Health
  • Simple Safety vs Complex Safety
  • Innovation
  • Marketing and social media

The Gender in Safety conversation is one that I intend to expand upon in the coming weeks and is useful to notion relation to the increasing number of “women in safety”- type events.

KJ SFH HeadshotThis podcast is a mixed bag but I am interested in hearing your thought on the podcast and the topics it contains so post a comment here or email me.

Kevin Jones

Wearable tech provides data, not decisions

People want information about their own health and fitness.  Many are turning to wearable technology and activity trackers for that information, but information requires decisions or actions to gain benefit. The limitations of activity tracking and decisions was reinforced recently with some US research in the area. The University of Pittsburgh School of Education’s Department…

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Criticism of “safety differently” rebuffed

UCATT (Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians) has been a regular critic of the construction company Laing O’Rourke over safety issues.  Recently UCATT took aim at the “safety differently” approach to occupational health and safety (OHS) of which the Laing O’Rourke’s HSE Director European Hub, John Green, has been a leading advocate.  UCATT has…

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