Unfair dismissal, delphic motherhood statements and other observations on safety documentation

Delphic adj. ambiguous, enigmatic, obscure. Also Delphian [L Delphicius, from Gk Delphikos of Delpji (the ancient city in central Greece, famed for its oracle of Apollo, which was noted for giving ambiguous answers.) (The Macquarie Dictionary)

Let me apologise for the somewhat ‘delphic’ nature of the title for this blog, but it is an accurate description of a recent case and other findings, which has led to the observation on safety documentation. Although I might say less of an observation and more an update on, or restatement of, a long running concern that I have had about how safety documentation continues to actively undermine our efforts to create safer workplaces.

First are the recent unfair dismissal proceedings in Paul McGrath and Maitland Hayward v Sydney Water Corporation t/as Sydney Water [2013] FWC 793.

The case involved two workers who had their employment terminated after apparently breaching their company’s ‘lock out/tag out’ (LOTO) procedures. In the end, the termination was overturned and they were reinstated to their original positions. A number of the reasons for the decision turned on matters particular to Australian unfair dismissal laws, and included things such as:

• The long period of service of the two workers.

• The long and unblemished safety records of the two workers.

• The workers’ age and work history.

• The impact of the termination on the workers.

• The workers’ remorse.

However, the quality of the LOTO procedure was also a factor. The tribunal dealing with the claim noted:

• The LOTO procedure did not expressly detail the steps required to be taken to isolate power sources.

• The LOTO procedure requires formal training every two years, which did not occur.

The tribunal noted that there was “some attraction” in a submission that Sydney Water was itself in breach of its own policy.

• Evidence of experienced electricians was that the LOTO procedure was, at best, unclear, and at worst, confusing.

The tribunal noted that Sydney Water seemed to acknowledge this problem by undertaking extensive retraining of its employees on the procedure, because employees were concerned that they could also be subject to disciplinary action for a breach of the procedure.

The issue of the quality of safety documents in a safety context was also explored in the Royal Commission into the Pike River Coal disaster. The Commission noted in that case:

By November 2010 there were over 398 documents in the electronic system. Of these 227 were in draft as they were not signed off by two managers, although they were still used in the meantime. The number, and length, of the documents posed a challenge to the credibility of the system.

Although many of the documents were helpful, there were problems, not only with the sheer volume of material, but also with some of its content. For example, in 2010 two consultants and a Pike manager assessed the ventilation management plan and concluded it needed a complete review. (Volume 1, page 73)

Unfortunately, there is nothing surprising in this. The quality of safety documentation has been implicated in most major disasters for the past 25 years. And again, unfortunately, the response of the safety profession (and others) seems to be to keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. A few examples should suffice to make the point:

Longford Royal Commission: Fire and explosion at Esso’s gas plant in Longford, Australia. Two fatalities.

Esso’s [safety management system], together with all the supporting manuals, comprised a complex management system. It was repetitive, circular, and contained unnecessary cross referencing. Much of his language was impenetrable. These characteristics made this system difficult to comprehend both by management and buy operations personnel. (Page 200)

Montara Commission of Inquiry: Uncontrolled release of hydrocarbons off the north-west coast of Australia on 21 August 2009. No fatalities.

A number of aspects of PTTEPAA’s Well Construction Standards were at best ambiguous and open to different interpretations. The fact that a number of PTTEPAA employees and contractors interpreted aspects of the Well Construction Standards differently illustrates the ambiguity and inappropriateness of the Well Construction Standards. (Page 9)

The Deepwater Horizon: Fire, explosion and uncontrolled release of hydrocarbons in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010. 11 fatalities.

If you look at the [Transocean’s safety] manual, you’re really impressed by it. It’s a safety expert’s dream. Everything anybody could ever imagine is in there. …because as one looks at it, everything under the sun is covered. It’s hard to see at a particular place somebody saying symptoms of that or this. If you see that, do this. This is not said by way of criticism. People have tried like hell in this manual to get it right. But it may be that when time is short, there might have been different ways to make clear exactly what should have been done in a short period of time. (Page 168-169)

I do not have any firm evidence about why this continues to be a problem, but I do have a number of observations based on my experiences over the past couple of decades.

Some of the issues appear to be systemic, for example, it does not seem to me that many health and safety professionals receive training in writing quasi-legal documents – which is ultimately, what safety management documentation is.

Another issue is the continuous “layering” of the safety documentation. This is often evident after an incident where the automatic response appears to be to amend or write a new procedure. More often than not, this is done without actually understanding why the initial procedure failed. Over time, this builds a volume of safety documentation incapable of being implemented.

However, the biggest concern I have observed in the last three or four years in particular is the ubiquitous “thumb drive” or USB stick. More and more we are observing safety documentation that has not been developed for a business or a particular risk, but rather has been cut and paste from some other organisation with no real regard for its application.

When you consider the quality of safety documentation in a general sense, it is not unreasonable to conclude that nobody is really reading these documents with any care or attention. I find it extraordinary how often I have to deal with safety management plans and other documents that contain the name of a totally unrelated company. Clearly the document is nothing more than a cut and paste from some other plan, but has been signed off by four, five or move different managers – yet even something as basic as the wrong company in the documentation is not being picked up. If the people responsible for developing and approving these documents were not reading them, why on earth would we expect the workforce to?

OK. So what does this have to do with the oracle of Apollo? It is taken from the Montara Commission of Inquiry:

The Inquiry also considers that (i) the Hazard Identification (HAZID) workshops which were conducted between PTTEPAA and Atlas to identify and manage risks at Montara; and (ii) the Safety Case Revisions/SIMOPS Plans which were produced by both entities, were pitched at far too great a level of generality. For instance, the workshops and documents did not deal in any specific way with management of barriers. Moreover, the SIMOPS documents were replete with delphic ‘motherhood’ statements, such as the following:

Safety management in the field is primarily the responsibility of the Vessel Masters/Superintendents, FPSO OIM, Rig OIM and WHP Person In Charge (PIC). The prioritisation of all activities in the Montara field is the responsibility of the PTTEPAA Project Manager. However, control of the individual activities during the field development remains with the relevant supervisors.

All parties in the Montara field development shall have clear structuring of HSE interfaces to ensure that there is no confusion as to: approval authority; roles and responsibilities of personnel; organisational structures, management of HSE; operating procedures; reporting structures; and SIMOPS. (page 135)

In the end, if our safety documentation does not provide good guidance about how the health and safety risks in the business are to be managed, what value does it add? And if it cannot be understood by the people expected to implement it, if it creates ambiguity and confusion, it is not overly pessimistic to think that it could be undermining our efforts to create safer workplaces.

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