Safety risk and safety data: Exploring management line of sight

I have recently done a video presentation on a fatality at the Adelaide Desalination plant, which you can find by following this link.

Recently, I was reading some of the transcript of the South Australian Senate Inquiry into the desalination plant (which you can find by following this link), and was struck by one manager’s description of all of the activity undertaken in the name of safety:

We start with the inductions when new staff join the project. So, at 6.30am, usually three times a week—I attend probably two of them; I was in one yesterday—we induct new staff onto the job. The first thing I point out is the list of non-negotiables. The second thing I point out is for each person to look after their mate. It starts there. We then have a standard list of documents. I will read from this list, because it’s quite a large list. There is the HSC risk register, task specific for each job. There is a construction execution plan. There is a JSA, task specific.

We have daily start cards for each area, which is another thing I introduced. I am not sure if we gave you a copy, but it’s a small easily-filled-in card where a work team can assess the risks of adjacent trades, etc. So, that is a specific thing. We have a pre-start meeting every day. There are SafeWork instruction notices posted at each of the work areas. We toolbox the job weekly, because the pace of this job changes. You can go out there in two-day gulps and the whole access can change, so we need to make sure people see that. We have the non-negotiables in place. We have site and work-front specific inductions, which is what I told you about. Again, I attended one yesterday.

I have regular safety walks. I have trained all of my management team and the two layers beneath that to go on safety walks. We have our OHSC risk register. There is a just culture model in place. So, if I need to address an incident and it turns out that this person needs retraining or perhaps needs to be disciplined or work outside the fence somewhere, we use this just culture model for that. We have all been trained in that. There are safety KPIs for management. There is a safety enhancement committee, which is a mixture of workers and staff. I actually chair a weekly safety leadership team, and that’s improving safety over and above. We are looking to refresh it all the time. And so it goes on. I have two pages of this stuff.

Now, there may have been far more information that sat behind all of this activity, but it seemed to me to be a typical approach to safety management – and one that typically gives no insight into whether the risks in the business are actually being managed.

One of my particular areas of interest in the context of safety management is “management obligations”, and more particularly how managers (at all levels) get assurance that the health and safety risks in their business are being effectively managed. It is a concept that I have referred to before and written about (Smith, 2012) as “management line of sight”.

An area of speciality for me is management obligations training; courses that are designed to help managers understand their legal obligations for safety and health, and how their behaviour – what they “do” – contributes to effective safety management.

Over the last 3 or 4 years I have put the following scenario to the various courses:

Who here knows about a risk in their business or area of responsibility that could kill someone?

Invariably, most hands go up.

Who has safety information that comes across their desk on a regular basis.

Again – most hands go up.

OK. What I would like you to do is to think about the risk. Then I want you to think about the data that you have looked at in the past 3 months.

Pause ……

What does that data tell you about how well the risk is being controlled?

And then the lights come on, with the realisation that their organisations spend inordinate amounts of time and resources producing volumes of information that tell them nothing about whether risks in the business are actually being controlled.

This “gap” was most recently highlighted in the Royal Commission into the Pike River Coal Mine Disaster (Pankhurst, 2012), in which 29 men died in an underground coal mine explosion in New Zealand. The Royal Commission noted the following:

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).

Typically, in a training course discussion there is no meaningful consensus on  what the “crucial systems” are in a business, much less how we prove that they are effective.

What we can say with a high degree of certainty is that traditional measures of safety performance do not prove the effectiveness of crucial systems – certainly LTI and other personal injury rates do not, and we have known that for at least 25 years. However, other indicators are equally poor in creating insight into the control of crucial systems. The number of management site visits do not enlighten us, nor do the number of audit actions that have been closed out, the number of “behavioural observations” don’t help, the number of people trained, the number of corrective actions completed, the number of JHAs or “take 5s” done and on it goes.

These things are all indicators of activity, which are designed to ensure that the safety management systems are effective, but ultimately, they leave us in no better position as far as understanding the effectiveness of crucial systems.

There is another interesting challenge that falls out of exploring management line of sight, and that is, what should I be looking at?

Historically, and as I touched on above, we typically consider safety in the context of harm and risk: what can hurt people and how likely is it that they will be hurt? But line of sight and assurance demands a wider gaze than hazards and risks.

The Royal 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. (my emphasis)

“Crucial Systems” mean more than gas monitoring or ventilation. They are more than the control of physical risks. They incorporate broader organisation systems around hazard identification and risk assessment, contractor safety management, management of change, incident investigation and so on. All elements that are designed to work together so that the “system” as a whole is effective to manage risk.

If organisations are weak insofar as they cannot “prove” that physical risks are being controlled, the reporting, assurance and line of sight to prove that these other “crucial” systems are effective is almost non existent.

When was the last time you received a report “proving the effectiveness” of your incident investigations, for example?

What are the “crucial systems” in your business, and how would you “prove” that they were effective. Food for thought.


Pankhurst, G., Bell, S., Henry, D (2012). Royal Commission on the Pike River Coal Mine Tragedy. Wellington, New Zealand

Smith , G. (2012). Management Obligations for Health and Safety. CRC Press, Boca Raton

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