Systems as Imagined v Systems in Practice

The recent NSW Supreme Court decision, Attorney General of New South Wales v Tho Services Limited (in liquidation) (ACN 000 263 678) [2016] NSWCCA 221 is another in a long line of decisions that highlight the disconnect between safety management systems as they are documented, and what occurs in practice.

Documented safety processes are important.  They provide guidance on how safety is managed and evidence that an organisation is meeting its obligations.  However, where an accident reveals long-term, systemic non-compliance with obvious safety expectations documented safety processes do not provide a defence, often they do not provide mitigation, and in cases such as this they are an aggravating circumstance.  As the Court noted:

The vast range of induction and supervising protocols adopted by the respondent or in force at its premises serves not to relieve the respondent of its responsibility for safety but on the contrary powerfully reinforces the extent to which the respondent failed to put them into practical effect.

For documented safety processes to add value they must:

Be consistent with the organisations risks and obligations;

  1. Be completed correctly; and
  2. Reflect what actually happens in practice.

All too often, documented safety management systems are one of the biggest contributors to the illusion of safety: the gap between the management of health and safety risk as we imagine it and what actually occurs in practice.

These are concepts that I have explored in my recent book, Risky Conversations: The Law, Social Psychology and Risk, and its accompanying video.

You can access a more detailed article about the case here.

 

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