Safety in Action Conference Report – Day One

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The Safety institute of Australia has tried a different approach with their 2008 safety conference on April 29. It’s first day was dominated by a single stream of CEOs and senior executives talking about how they see safety. I expected a day of cliches but these were refreshingly minimal. There were a few mentions of “safety culture” and even more mentions of “leadership” but surprisingly very few speakers spouted the DuPont safety jargon that has dominated corporate safety presentations for many years.

Ziggy Switkowski was a real win for the SIA but sadly he spoke principally about climate change. I found his talk very interesting but it was only when he spoke about his advocation of safety at a board level that the relevance of his presence and experience had the audience sit up.

Switkowski’s presentation has set the agenda for the integration of environmental considerations in safety conferences and the SIA’s planning but the value of his climate change presentation will become obvious in the next few years.

The presentation by Peter McMorrow of Leightons was the stand out presentation of those I saw. His display of the personal commitments and safety pledges that Leighton executives need to sign off set the bar for the other CEO presenters. McMorrow’s links between safety and profitability were particular good.

I am constantly suspicious about corporates who say ” safety before all else” because there are more examples of companies sacrificing safety for profits than good corporate citizens. Peter Sandman, and others, have said in the past that the principal (sometimes the only) obligation on corporations is to the shareholders, and shareholders watch the share price. McMorrow seemed to provide an example that breaks the status quo but it wasn’t convincing.

Also, there was no mention of the recent prosecutions of Leightons by WorkSafe Victoria where the judge was highly critical of the level of operational awareness of the senior managers in the company. It seems that corporate and social goodwill were not the only motivators in providing organisational safety change at Leightons but the omission is telling.

Safety, Maintenance and Business Continuity

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America and Europe have a huge advantage over Australia – they know how to respond to a broad range of disasters. Australia has had its share of bushfires and cyclones but because the country is so large and the geology so stable, the large metropolitan centres of Sydney and Melbourne have been spared. This stability has led to less emphasis on the fragility of infrastructure by business operators than there should be.

America and Europe have a huge advantage over Australia – they know how to respond to a broad range of disasters. Australia has had its share of bushfires and cyclones but because the country is so large and the geology so stable, the large metropolitan centres of Sydney and Melbourne have been spared. This stability has led to less emphasis on the fragility of infrastructure by business operators than there should be.

In the Herald-Sun newspaper on 12 April 2008, there was a cover story on the organizational neglect of the State’s electrical infrastructure. This was emphasised recently when it took 6 days for many homes to have power restored after a serious storm, a storm that was of the level that Sydney experiences regularly and that the tropical areas of Australia and designed to withstand.

A government inquiry will be held into the delay but this is unnecessary. Privatised corporations are notoriously neglectful of the need to maintain infrastructure services as there is little profit in holding resources in reserve for large-scale disasters. Numerous inquiries into the disasters on the privatised rail networks in England have shown the corporate values of privatised transport companies, some of whom have investments in Australia.

The poor and unsafe conditions of the infrastructure are not the fault of the companies if we take it that their raison d’etre is to make profit. But we cannot extend the same understanding to governments who forsake the public good for the sake of an improved bottom line.

Poor maintenance leads to unsafe conditions which lead to disasters. As safety professionals we need to stress that adequate levels of maintenance are a core part of any preventative strategy. Not only will it reduce the social impact of any disaster but it maintains a robust corporate economy, reduces employees’ exposure to trauma and establishes a company as an important community asset.

Accountability for industrial accidents in Malaysia

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This last week, the New Strait Times reported on an initiative by the Malaysian government to increase companies’ responsibility for workplace safety by making “professionals” “responsible for accidents in the workplace”.

It may be a terminological argument about whether safety professionals or risk managers or company directors are to be held personally responsible for safety infringements and incidents

This last week, the New Strait Times reported on an initiative by the Malaysian government to increase companies’ responsibility for workplace safety by making “professionals” “responsible for accidents in the workplace”.

It may be a terminological argument about whether safety professionals or risk managers or company directors are to be held personally responsible for safety infringements and incidents – a discussion that is echoed in many jurisdictions around the world. It is likely to result in some reassessment of management responsibility in Malaysian companies. I would also speculate that the applications for OHS manager jobs may decline in Malaysia.

The article quotes the Human Resources Minister Datuk Dr S. Subramaniam as saying “If a crane accident occurs at a construction site, we want the engineers involved in ensuring the crane’s safety to be answerable.”

The initiative is clearly one that is directly related to the limited resources available to a safety regulator when every business is a workplace. Again this is a problem shared by regulators worldwide.

What is interesting is that this position has not (yet) evolved into one of corporate killing or industrial manslaughter legislation or corporate accountability, as it has elsewhere. Always the case by employer groups is that such a level of accountability would deter businesses from entering activities which would present an unacceptable level of risk, thereby harming economic growth. I suspect that the level of economic growth in Malaysia and the Asian region is likely to keep the debate going for quite some time without any resolution.

Note: a short video of  Datuk Dr S. Subramaniam speaking at the April 2008 conference is available HERE at the 2.43 minute mark

OHS and Climate Change

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Many of my OHS colleagues have responsibility for environmental safety, some to the extent of being rebadged HSE or OHSE. I have been an ardent advocate of managing business safety and risk issues in a coordinated and integrated manner. Historically, I would have applied the risk management standard as the umbrella framework, others do not.

Many of my OHS colleagues have responsibility for environmental safety, some to the extent of being rebadged HSE or OHSE. I have been an ardent advocate of managing business safety and risk issues in a coordinated and integrated manner. Historically, I would have applied the risk management standard as the umbrella framework, others do not.

The balancing act for health, safety & environment managers is to consider a vast array of matters without losing the focus of the core task, in my case workplace safety, for others this may be public liability, or triple-bottom-lines etc. Depending on the industry you work in, environment can have a greater or smaller role in your business.

I remember working on safety management for a transport company where I reported to the quality manager. I can report to lots of different titles but in this case the quality manager allocated an uneven priority to safety compared to other business elements. He saw quality as by-far the most important element, perhaps it was because he was uncomfortable in other areas outside of his expertise, I don’t really know. But his attitude did not allow for integration only sublimation. I remember his attitude when I have to consider elements beyond my expertise and have them fit into the business strategy in which I have responsibility for safety or maybe risk.

Time management and the prioritizing of tasks is never far away from occupational safety and business operations. It is important that environmental impacts of your business, and those on your business, are discussed in a serious manner at all levels of your company. If it is not on the agenda, it is not in people’s minds. Indeed some have said that the environment is the new OHS. I am not so sure as environmental issues have a global impact where OHS is limited to a smaller community.
In the context of community, an important consideration is whether the implementation of environmental strategies will re-organise business structures to the extent that there are staff losses. In a relatively small nation like Australia, if the environmental management trend continues to grow at the same time, the social impact from unemployment could be significant. However similar concerns have been voiced in recent memory over the level of automation in workplaces and the impact of automatic teller machines on the banking sector. In a fairly short amount of time, the workforce is redistributed to areas of need but for the unemployed and their families this short period can be very painful.

I was taught that risk management can be a major force for good by tying important business elements under the one, fairly broad, set of criteria. When I entered the real world of risk management I encountered as much narrow-mindedness in the risk management profession as I had seen elsewhere. I hope that as the environmental business issues gain prominence that the other disciplines listen, consider and, maybe, embrace the environmental so that all the important elements in our lives and our businesses are weighed, balanced and integrated. Work/life balance is far more than just hours of work and time with the kids.