How safety regulation undermines safety

There is an interesting paradox in safety management, in so much as a lot of what we do in the name of safety and health actively undermines our safety efforts.

This week I was confronted with another, recurring example.

I was speaking at a conference and talking, in part, about the relationship between “safety” risk management and “legal” risk management, and the relationship between them.

After the presentation a manager that I know well and have worked with in the past spoke to me about a a significant problem that he was grappling with. They had recently been prosecuted in relation to a workplace injury. He was not complaining about the prosecution, in so far as the nature of the incident most likely warranted some form of sanction.

What irritated him was that they were prosecuted, essentially, based on evidence drawn from their own, internal, incident investigation.

To make matters worse, some of the charges did not relate to the incident. They did not allege that the safety failures “caused” the incident – they were simple “breaches” of their safety obligations in the broader sense.

As this manager described it, they did not need to identify these “non-causal factors” in the incident investigation. They did it in the spirit of trying to learn and improve, yet to his mind they had been punished for trying to do the right thing.

What this meant, somewhat understandably, was that the approach to incident investigations had changed: Narrowly focussed, only considering objective, immediate causes and not examining safety management more broadly and all investigations are sanitised by lawyers.

A good outcome for safety?

I recall a number of years ago working with an industry group that used to regularly share members’ incident investigations on their web site and at regular forums – again, in the spirit of learning and improving.

Unfortunately, the practice has all but ceased as companies refused to have potentially “harmful” information made public. Those that did make information available had sanitised it to the extent that it was effectively meaningless.

There is also a seemingly common practice among safety regulators, whereby rather than do their job and investigate incidents, they simply require a company to provide them with a copy of their internal investigation. Again, hardly an incentive for an organisation to undertake any meaningful interrogation of their safety management.

When we look back at the harmonisation process in Australia it is clear that it was a terrible opportunity lost to address how we legislate to provide better safety outcomes. Unfortunately, it was only ever intended to provide a better “administrative” outcome.

As Western Australia embarks on a process of “modernising” its safety legislation, perhaps there is an opportunity to genuinely think differently.

For example, as an individual I have a right to protection against self incrimination, so that if an Inspector compels me to give a statement, that statement cannot be used against me in a subsequent prosecution. Why couldn’t that same right be extended to a company’s incident investigation?

Surely, the interests of improving workplace safety and health through a fearless examination of safety management following an incident should take priority over arming regulators with the information that they need to mount a prosecution?

One thought on “How safety regulation undermines safety

  1. I believe what has occurred here is not in the best interest of the Safety Industry as a whole and instead of providing a positive input into the industry they are set to continue with only a negative residual effect.

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