In November 2012, the Pike River Royal Commission (Commission) published its report into the underground coalmine explosion in New Zealand in which 29 the miners were killed.
The Commission made some very clear and unambiguous observations about the sort of information that senior executive management, up to and including the board, should receive about health and safety. The Commission (2012, volume 2, p. 53) stated:
The statistical information provided to the board on health and safety comprised mainly [LTI rates]. The information gave the board some insight but was not much help in assessing the risks of a catastrophic event faced by high hazard industries. … The board appears to have received no information proving the effectiveness of crucial systems such as gas monitoring and ventilation. (My emphasis).
I do not know how long the safety profession has understood that statistical information about injury rates provides no meaningful insight into the effectiveness of safety management systems, yet it persists as a fundamental measure of performance.
What major accident inquiries of the past 25 years, and the Commission make clear, is that effective health and safety management requires more.
However, I think that there is a legitimate question mark over the health and safety profession’s capacity to deliver truly effective health and safety management.
I have been doing a lot of executive level assurance work lately: Working with senior managers and boards to help give them insight into whether or not the health and safety management system is operating effectively. Often, the starting point for this work is to sit down with the most senior health and safety manager of the organisation and asked the question:
What are the key things that I should be concerned about, and how do we know that they are being properly managed?
More often than not, the senior health and safety manager cannot answer those questions and they are often very reluctant to give an opinion about whether or not the safety management system is operating effectively. In a number of cases, the health and safety manager believes that it is not their job to know if the health and safety management system is working effectively – that is the job of line management.
For what it is worth, in my view this is a complete misinterpretation of the notion of line management responsibility, and a complete abrogation of the obligations of a health and safety professional.
I believe that health and safety professionals are responsible for building a system that is effective to control the health and safety risks in a business. It is not the job of the health and safety professionals to ensure that that system is implemented; that is the responsibility of line management. However, it must be the obligations of the health and safety professionals to know whether that system is effectively implemented and to be able to advise the organisation one way or the other.
The Commission (2012, volume 2, p. 176) also stated:
Ultimately, the worth of a system depends on whether health and safety is taken seriously by everyone throughout an organisation; that it is accorded the attention that the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 demands. Problems in relation to risk assessment, incident investigation, information evaluation and reporting, among others, indicate to the commission that health and safety management was not taken seriously enough at Pike.
Typically, the senior executives in the organisations that I work with have never received a report or a presentation from anyone that gives them assurance that critical health and safety system elements are working. True, they have never asked for it but they did not know they needed to and nobody has ever told them otherwise.
They are not given advice that elements like incident investigation, hazard identification, risk assessment and so on are actually being implemented in accordance with the requirements of the documented system and are operating effectively (or not) to control the risks that they were designed to control.
The fundamentals of safety management have not changed:
- Do you know what the hazards in your business are?
- Do you know the risks that arise from those hazards?
- Have you developed controls to manage those risks?
- Are the controls implemented and effective?
What we cannot hide from, is that effective safety management and governance requires that we provide honest and accurate information to the most senior levels of an organisation about the crucial safety system elements and critical risks in our business – whether those elements are effective, and those risks are controlled.
Currently, it appears that as a “profession”, we do not, and we may not even be equipped to.
As a health and safety professional, ask yourself:
- What information does your board get?
- Is health and safety taken seriously enough in your organisation?
And most importantly, how do you know that the safety management system is operating effectively and the risks in your business are being controlled?
 Pankhurst, G., Bell, S., Henry, D (2012). Royal Commission on the Pike River Coal Mine Tragedy. Wellington, New Zealand