Process or Outcome?

Today I was reading a LinkedIn post lamenting the state of health and safety management, evidenced by too many “safety stickers” on a piece of machinery.

A commenter noted that the situation was “absolute madness“, which doesn’t keep anyone safe. Much of the conversation from there was focused on whose “fault” it was and we ended up with all of the usual suspects in the firing line – insurers, lawyers, consultants and so on. Probably quite justified too.

To my mind, this issue illustrates the disconnect apparent in health and safety management between “process” and “outcome“. It seems to me that health and safety management is obsessed with process – the way that we “do” safety. This obsession means that every few years somebody reinvents the way we do safety, or the way we do parts of safety. As evidence of this you only need to think of the transition from safety culture, to safety 1, through to safety 2 and now safety differently – with god only knows what in between. On a micro level, just think how many iterations of the JHA you have seen during your working career.

What makes this more interesting is the process doesn’t really matter. How you “do” safety is not really an issue. What is important is whether you can show your process achieves the outcome it was designed for.

The table below lists a series of cases looking at the “outcome” of understanding hazards. The “processes” were all different: documented, undocumented, buddy systems, on-the-job training and so on. But even where the processes were the same this did not determine the decision – the decision was determined on whether the outcome, and understanding of hazards and risks, was achieved.

Process v outcome

So, the question is not how fancy, new or shiny your process is. The question is whether it achieves the outcome.

Update: Access to the Perilya decisions

A few people have been in touch with me about my recent posts on the Perilya decisions;

What are our obligations to careless workers?

Are your JHAs worthless?

When is a person conducting a business or undertaking?

It seems when you try to access the decisions through the links in my blog, or otherwise try to find them online, they are coming up as “restricted”.

I have been in touch with Caselaw NSW who have told me the decisions have been temporarily restricted to make amendments.

I will provide another updated once the decisions are available, and make any amendments to my articles if the amendments make any difference to my original comments.


What are our obligations to careless workers?

When you survey the range of safety commentary online, it is hard to escape the view that workplace health and safety is still primarily concerned with the behaviour of individual workers, and incidents are the consequence of careless individuals.

In my experience, this thinking does not align with any credible safety management theory, and it is not consistent with an organisation’s obligations under health and safety legislation. At its simplest, a worker’s individual carelessness makes no difference to the obligations of their employer, other organisations or other individuals under health and safety legislation.

The fact that a careless, individual worker did not meet their obligations under health and safety legislation, is no answer to the question of whether you met yours.

In the recent NSW District Court decision, Inspector Nash v Perilya Broken Hill Limited [2018] NSWDC 28 (read decision) the Court canvassed the issue of careless and disobedient workers in detail.

By way of background, On 8 June 2012, an employee of Perilya Broken Hill Limited (PBHL), Mark Pollard suffered a traumatic amputation of his right leg and other injuries when he fell down a haulage shaft at a mine in Broken Hill (Mine). At the time of the incident Mr Pollard, was trying to hang some weights from the bottom of a weigh flask to calibrate an instrument a load cell which measured the weight of ore in the flask.

The weights were in a metal basket and the weight Mr Pollard was hanging was about 10 tonnes. The weights and basket were in the bucket of a loader. Mr Pollard was trying to hang the weights by working from the bucket of the loader, the bucket being located in the haulage shaft.

Mr Pollard was secured to the bucket by personal protective equipment (PPE), a fall arrest system comprising harness and lanyard. His lanyard was tied to the bucket.

While Mr Pollard was working, the weights and basket fell out of the bucket and so did Mr Pollard. His lanyard snapped, and he fell.

The Court said:

In view of the fact that the workers used the bucket of the loader contrary to the understood policy prohibiting it, it is appropriate to look at authorities involving cases of careless or disobedient workers.[my emphasis added]

Drawing on precedent cases, the Court made several observations:

  • Health and safety legislation is designed to protect against human errors including inadvertence, inattention, haste, and even foolish disregard of personal safety as well as the foreseeable technical risks in industry:

The duty to provide a risk free work environment is a duty owed not only to the careful and observant employee but also to the hasty, careless, inadvertent, inattentive, unreasonable or disobedient employee in respect of conduct that is reasonably foreseeable…

  • Foreseeability” is relevant, and it is not generally practicable to take measures to guard against a “detriment to safety” that was not reasonably foreseeable:

It may be that, in some cases, it would not be practicable to guard against a detriment to safety occasioned by an appropriately trained and instructed employee departing from a known safe procedure. This may be so because the risk of the employee failing to follow procedures was not reasonably foreseeable or on a comparison of the training and instruction required to ensure the employee adhered to those procedures with the risks created. There are limits to the degree of instruction which can be expected to be provided to an experienced employee.

  • If there is a foreseeable risk of injury arising from the employee’s negligence while working then the employer must take this into account.
  • The extent and standard of training an employer must give will depend upon the nature of, and circumstances under which, work is performed. It is not always necessary to have classroom-based instruction or work manuals. However, the employer must educate the employee to deal with the full range of circumstances which may arise in the performance of work, including eventualities which are more unusual in character. Such education should involve processes designed to ensure that employees have fully understood the training.
  • It is not enough to simply give employees instructions about health and safety “an employer must also ensure that those instructions are carried out”.
  • But, when an employer has established and implemented a proper system, then this can be an answer to the conduct of individual workers:

Where an employer is found to have laid down a safe and proper practice and there is no evidence that the employer failed to use due diligence to see that the practice is observed, then a casual failure by inferior employees, even if of supervisory rank, to observe that practice on a particular occasion will not render the employer criminally liable for a failure to ensure safety.

In the PBHL case, the Court rejected any argument that carelessness by individual workers limited PBHL’s liability:

I do not see any scope for the application of a principle in this case that would limit the defendant’s liability where the very risk that is in issue is one that was foreseen by Mr Dally and by Mr Slade, where Mr Dally told Messrs Tavian, Harris, Ridley and Gauci that he did not want the workers working the bucket of the loader and where he expected that to be passed on to the workers, and where he expected that to be in the JSA.

Mr Dally and Mr Slade both expected the JSA to cover the risk of the use of the bucket and/or falling from height and it did not. [my emphasis added]

The Court found procedures and instructions for the work were incomplete and workers were directed to start work when the JSA process was deficient and the JSA document was inadequate. The employer should have known both those things.

A common misconception is that safety prosecutions are all about identifying “fault” – who was at fault, or most at fault, when an accident occurred. This is not the case.

Employees who breach known safety procedures may be at “fault”. Indeed, individual workers and supervisors are prosecuted following workplace accidents. But an employees fault is no answer to the question, “did the employer meet their obligations under health and safety legislation?”.

The fact an employee breached safety procedures – even procedures they were aware of, does not prove an employer provided adequate training and supervision, nor does it prove an employer diligently enforced its systems of work.

Are your JHAs worthless?

Worthless” is not my phrase, and I make no assumptions about the JSA process as it is applied in your workplace, but I am interested in whether your organisation could pass the “worthlessness” test set out in the recent NSW District Court decision, Inspector Nash v Perilya Broken Hill Limited [2018] NSWDC 28.

By way of background, On 8 June 2012, an employee of Perilya Broken Hill Limited (PBHL), Mark Pollard suffered a traumatic amputation of his right leg and other injuries when he fell down a haulage shaft at a mine in Broken Hill (Mine). At the time of the incident Mr Pollard, was trying to hang some weights from the bottom of a weigh flask to calibrate a load cell which measured the weight of ore in the flask.

The weights were in a metal basket and the weight Mr Pollard was hanging was about 10 tonnes. The weights and basket were in the bucket of a loader. Mr Pollard was trying to hang the weights by working from the bucket of the loader, the bucket being located in the haulage shaft.

Mr Pollard was secured to the bucket by personal protective equipment (PPE), a fall arrest system comprising harness and lanyard. His lanyard was tied to the bucket.

While Mr Pollard was working, the weights and basket came out of the bucket and so did Mr Pollard. His lanyard snapped, and he fell.

The case canvassed a range of issues in safety management, which I will look at in later posts, but for now, I want to consider the roles of the Job Safety Analysis (JSA).

One of the allegations pleaded by the prosecutor was PBHL failed to “assess the adequacy of the Job Safety Analysis”.

The Court took its direction for what a JSA required from PBHLs own documents:

I start by looking at what is required of a JSA. This may be discerned in the first instance from the defendant’s documents.

What is required in a JSA is detail that shows:

  • how the hazards were identified;
  • how the risks were assessed;
  • how the decisions around necessary controls were made.

The Broken Hill Job Safety Analysis Procedure set out six steps in the JSA process.  They included:

  • A JSA must be conducted in a team setting.
  • A JSA should be done on the job site
  • Task supervisors must ensure compliance with the requirements for a JSA.

None of these requirements were met.

PBHL’s procedures said:

The success and value of the risk management process is determined by the quality of the consultation and communication process. Success hinges on involving the right people and using the right information, expertise and experience. Hence, identification and participation of stakeholders is critical.

The Court found that there was “no consultation or communication with the correct stakeholders”.

PBHL’s procedures said:

The less formal nature of … JSAs can present a serious risk in itself. It is essential that these tools are used carefully. If a significant or uncertain risk is missed or not properly managed, participants may be lulled into a false sense of security. Some things to look out for include:

  • New tasks or one that is being done in a new place or using a new method

In relation to this, the Court said:

This was a new task using a new method. The “serious risk” warning should have been heeded.

The Court closely examined PBHL’s own requirements for its JSA process, ultimately finding the process to prepare the JSA was seriously flawed, the JSA itself was inadequate and:

The risk assessment did not involve all those doing the work and was not communicated to all of them. It stood the risk of being and was, for reasons I give, “next to worthless”.

It is also worth noting, the Court’s use of the term “worthless” is not random. The Court has adopted the language of “worthless” from PBHL’s own documents.

PBHL’s Risk Management Guideline gave several directions about risk management, for example:

A risk assessment is worthless if it does not involve communicating with the correct stakeholders.


Ultimately a risk assessment is next to worthless if it is done in isolation without involving those doing the work, or not communicated to all those doing the work or affected by the work.

The Court did not have to look for language to criticise the JSA process, it simply adopted PBHL’s own views.

PBHL employees accepted the inadequacy of the JSA, for example, Mr Harris, a shaft and fixed plant supervisor:

… agreed that it was not appropriate for one person to simply to write out a JSA and then present it to others without those persons having input into its development. He agreed that a JSA should be prepared as a team, particularly as some members of the team may not be aware of, or understand each of the steps of the task. He noted that this was an important consideration, particularly as there might be persons with different subject expertise performing various parts of the task. He also agreed that it would be important to have all members of the team involved in completing a JSA because if only one person completed the JSA, there was a risk that a step would be missed in the process, or a hazard missed or an appropriate control measure not identified.

The point to take away from a case like this is not the specific technical failures of PBHL, or how the work was planned or implemented. Rather, the case highlights:

First, organisations are accountable for what they say in their documented processes.  If you are going to describe an in-depth, potentially convoluted process for preparing documents like JSAs, you need to recognise you are prescribing the standard against which you will be measured.  Write your documents with the end user in mind to give workers some chance of following them.

Second, regardless of what you document, you need to understand if it is implemented and effective.  Although it is not discussed in the PBHL case, it is extremely unlikely this case was the first time the JSA procedure was ignored in so many fundamental ways.  The history of workplace accidents in Australia is fairly compelling – frontline risk assessment documents like JSA’s have little meaning to frontline workers and are often seen as an exercise in bureaucracy: A paper process workers have to complete before the work can commence.

The question that comes out of a decision like the PBHL case has nothing to do with PBHL.  The question is, how do you know that your JSA procedures are any better in practice?

When is a person conducting a business or undertaking?

A recent NSW District Court decision, Inspector Nash v Perilya Limited [2018] NSWDC 29 (read decision), looks at the interesting question of when a person is conducting a business or undertaking.

On 28 February 2018, Perilya Broken Hill Limited (PBHL) was convicted of charges under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (NSW) (Act). PBHL was a wholly owned subsidiary of Perilya Limited (Perilya), and Perilya was also charged with offences under the Act, arising from the same incident.

Perilya argued it was not conducting a business or undertaking in the operation of the mine.

In the end, the Court found Perilya was not a Person Conducting a Business or Undertaking (PCBU) under the Act.

The prosecution had argued several matters in support of their position, including;

  • Perilya published documents pronouncing that it owned and operated the mine.
  • The HSE Management System Overview was published in the name of Perilya and recorded that the Perilya Board had a role to ensure that effective and appropriate systems were in place to ensure safety controls were adequate.
  • Perilya’s Board received HSE reports in relation to the operation of the mine.
  • Employees of PBHL reported to the Board of Perilya about HSE at the Mine.

Relevantly, Perilya underwent significant changes in 2008, because of the Global Financial Crisis. This included:

  • Downsizing its Perth office from 40 people to 8.
  • Establishing PBHL as a standalone business as Perilya had no staff to provide support services.
  • Disbanding the HSE board subcommittee, after which Perilya did not have any committee dealing with health and safety, either in its own operations or any of the entities it owned.
  • The PBHL board had responsibility for HSE, including developing its own policies and procedures.
  • The Perilya board was responsible for oversight functions, rather than hands-on management and had no day-to-day involvement in the activities of PBHL.

After the downsizing the only operating asset was PBHL and it was made a standalone business unit.  It had the necessary people, facilities, capability and assets to conduct business activities without support from a corporate office.

The Court noted Perilya:

 … could have controlled everything that happened at [PBHL] but did not have the resources to.

With respect to HSE reporting, the Court said:

The Perilya board considered HSE reports, but did not make any decision on them. The HSE reports considered by the Board were the consolidated group reports rather than the individual reports from the subsidiaries. To comply with its disclosure and reporting obligations, Perilya would need to keep abreast of matters that could affect its share value, financial position or reputation. HSE would fall within that. It was by reason of Perilya’s disclosure obligations that it received reports.


The Perilya Board received a budget from PBHL annually or more frequently. The budget had an impact on Perilya. Likewise, for reasons of disclosure and reporting, Perilya necessarily had to receive this information.

In the end, the Court looked at the practical application of the relationship between PBHL and Perilya. The Court recognised it did not matter that Perilya could have chosen to take over and run the mine.  Being able to take over and run the mine because it was the sole shareholder of PBHL did not make Perilya a PCBU, rather:

It is what was happening in practice that is important

In practice, with only eight staff in Perth, it was impractical for Perilya to be involved in the operation of the mine, and day-to-day management of the mine was in the hands of PBHL.  The Court also said PBHL could change the HSE system without referring to Perilya.

This is not a case of Perilya transferring its duty to another. Nor is it a case of an agreement or arrangement purporting to limit its capacity to influence and control the matter in respect of which it had a duty. This is a case of Perilya ceasing to have control of the mine and its operations. Control must be more than a legal right to control otherwise every parent company with a 100% shareholding of a subsidiary would be, without more, under a duty under s19.

The Perilya decision shows that a close relationship between corporate entities is not enough to make either of them a PCBU.  What must be established is that an entity was conducting a business or undertaking, and in each case, this requires an examination of the relationship between the entities and their role in the relevant business or undertaking.

Swearing at work: Where are we now?

Many employers regard swearing and inappropriate language at work as misconduct, and often grounds for dismissal.  Unfair dismissal claims and other cases which consider swearing in the workplace recognise that abusive language can be misconduct, although it is another question again whether the “misconduct” justifies termination of employment.

On 23 February 2018, the full bench of the Fair Work Commission handed down its decision in Illawarra Coal Holdings Pty Ltd T/A South 32 v Matthew Gosek [2018] FWCFB 749, another case considering inappropriate language in a workplace context.

Illawarra Coal had employed Mr Gosek for more than 11 years, and he was the Lodge President for the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU).

A member of the CFMEU had made a complaint about a manager at Illawarra Coal, and Mr Gosek had represented the member in relation to this complaint.

The allegations in the complaint were not proven.

On 4 October 2016, Mr Gosek, who was not rostered for work, went to the pub and was drinking. During the afternoon Mr Gosek sent a text message to seven of his colleagues and his supervisor. The text message said “dogs”. The employees rang Mr Gosek to discuss the text. Mr Gosek could not remember what he said in these conversations, but it was not contested:

  • The phone calls involved tense and heated discussions.
  • Mr Gosek used inappropriate language and called his colleagues a variety of names including “f**king dog” and “dog c***”.
  • Mr Gosek was under the influence of alcohol at the time.

This outburst was related to the workers participation in the incident investigation, or as the Commissioner described it:

Mr Gosek intended to convey to his colleagues his disappointment as Lodge President about their role in the investigation and his view that they had not upheld union principles and they had lied to the investigator.

When the case was first heard, the Commissioner found that Illawarra Coal had a valid reason to end Mr Gosek’s employment, but the termination was harsh, unjust, or unreasonable and ordered Mr Gosek be reinstated.  One of the factors influencing the decision was a finding by the Commissioner that the type of language used was “commonly used in the mine”.

Illawarra Coal successfully appealed the decision.

While there were multiple grounds of appeal canvassed in detail by the Full Bench, regarding the specific conduct, two Commissioners found:

by focusing on the language and not the totality of the conduct the Commissioner downplayed the character of the conduct. The problem was not that Mr Gosek swore at this work mates. The conduct involved an expletive filled tirade which included threats directed at employees because they participated in an investigation.

In part the case is indicative of the difficulties faced by employers when assessing this type of conduct, because Commissioner Booth rejected the appeal, noting:

Although the conduct of the Mr Gosek on the day in question was clearly inappropriate, for the reasons detailed in this decision, the Commissioner took into account the conduct of the applicant and a range of other matters and concluded that the termination of Mr Gosek ’s employment was also unfair. That is, the decision reached by the Commissioner was that Mr Gosek’s behaviour was unacceptable but explainable. Therefore a finding the dismissal was unfair was available to the Commissioner. No error is revealed.

In my view, the case reinforces, rather than gives any new direction, about inappropriate language in the workplace.  The principles we can take away from decided cases, including this one are:

  • Prior warnings and repeat offences of swearing or inappropriate language in the workplace will support an employer’s decision to dismiss an employee.
  • Even if swearing is common in the workplace, it must be considered in context. It is one thing to swear in a general sense, it is another thing to swear aggressively and maliciously at another person, which is more likely to support a decision to dismiss an employee.
  • A single isolated incident of swearing, even directed at a person, is unlikely to justify dismissal.
  • While swearing, inappropriate language, or inappropriate behaviour, can be a valid reason for dismissing an employee, the dismissal must still be “fair”. Generally, this means that an employer must:
    • Give the employee an opportunity to explain their conduct;
    • Consider the conduct in context – why did it occur and were there any mitigating factors?
    • Consider the circumstances of the employee and any factors relevant to them, such as length of employment or prior performance.

Whilst misconduct cases often present difficulties for an employer, setting up clear processes to investigate and address misconduct while avoiding the temptation to “rush to judgement” will give you the best chance to successfully manage the situation.

Workplace bullying: Understanding the legal labyrinth

Recent allegations about workplace bullying and workplace conduct in public authorities in Western Australia have thrown the legal context of workplace behaviour into sharp relief.

Workplace “bullying”, while having a specific meaning in legislation, has become somewhat of a catchall phrase for a range of workplace behaviour spanning several legal contexts.

Historically, bullying has been understood as an employment issue, often in the context of discrimination or harassment.  From time to time, bullying has crossed into the workplace health and safety jurisdiction, but in most cases, this happens when the “bullying” results in some sort of physical outcome.  For example, the Café Vamp case involved prosecutions under Victorian health and safety legislation, with significant fines for the employer and several individuals following horrific workplace bullying leading to a young worker suiciding.

In another case, a New South Wales company and two of its directors were prosecuted when a 16-year-old worker was physically assaulted in a workplace “hazing” (Inspector Gregory Maddaford v M A Coleman Joinery (NSW) Pty Ltd).  It will be interesting to see what regulatory or legal approaches authorities will take in relation to the recent allegations of hazing at university colleges.

In an article published by ABC News online on 28 February 2018, the city of Perth was allegedly accused by staff of creating an “unsafe workplace” because of “sustained and persistent poor conduct” by elected members.  The article goes on to explain successive CEOs had taken leave, variously described as “stress” and “personal” leave, allegedly caused by breaches of an employment contract in one case and an “unsafe workplace environment” another.

Another article posted by ABC News Online reports that WorkSafe Western Australia is investigating the Southern Ports Authority over allegations of a “toxic culture of workplace bullying” in the Authority.

This last example shows a shift in attitude by the regulator, away from physical harm to investigating allegations of bullying in their own right.

We have also seen examples where an employer’s response to concerns about behaviour in the workplace can result in psychological harm and consequent legal proceedings.  For example, in Campbell v Woolworths [2017] NSWWCC 213, an employer was liable for an employee’s major depressive disorder following a workplace investigation.

Whatever the headline descriptor might be, bullying, harassment, discrimination and so on, it is apparent “psychological harm” issues arising from this behaviour cut across a raft of legal frameworks including unfair dismissal and general protections claims under the Fair Work Act, harassment and discrimination claims under various state and Commonwealth legislation, workers compensation claims, workplace health and safety legislation and in some cases the criminal law, for offences such as assault.  I am sure there are others.

Workplace behaviour and the potential harm it can cause is a significant workplace risk.  Employers need to make sure they have adequate processes to minimise the risk of inappropriate behaviours and respond to them if they occur.  The content of those processes will vary from organisation to organisation, but I think we can say with some confidence, just relying on Employee Assistance Programs will not be enough.

For the health and safety industry the whole concept of workplace behaviours and psychological harm is a fundamental challenge to the entire structure of how we do business.  At the most basic level, and I have written about this before, there is an arguable case that current practice of health and safety contributes to psychological harm in the workplace.

But, even if you are not prepared to go that far, I think it is strongly arguable that health and safety legislation, regulators, and health and safety practitioners are not well-equipped to deal with the complex environment of psychological harm.  Health and safety legislation in Australia, despite the deference we might have to the concept of “health”, is fundamentally concerned with fatalities and significant physical injuries in blue-collar work – mining, construction, agriculture, oil and gas and so on.  Almost exclusively, inspectors working for health and safety regulators come from a technical, operational or engineering background – at least the ones who appear on site.  The health and safety industry is built on an engineering paradigm, very well-equipped to deal with heavy industry, but poorly disposed to the management of people and their psychological well-being.

This whole discussion, in my view, is made more interesting because Safe Work Australia is currently asking for comments as part of their review of the model WHS laws.  Unlike the lost opportunity that was the introduction of WHS laws in the first place, let’s hope this review can look beyond the narrow, 1970s approach to workplace health and safety and try to incorporate all (or some) of the complexities of a modern working environment.  Further, let’s hope the review looks beyond the narrow self-interest of the health and safety industry to incorporate the whole spectrum of concerns about workplace “well-being”, including compensation, discrimination, harassment, employment relationships and so on.

In a modern, sophisticated society, personal well-being at work should not be an elaborate version of the Monty Hall Problem, nor left to the whim of regulators and their choice of which cases to pursue.  Any serious conversation about WHS legislation would include, at a minimum, alignment with workers compensation legislation but should understand and incorporate – or at least align to – employment and discrimination legislation.


Policies, procedures, stress and the safety paradox

Something I have often observed over the years I have been commenting on health and safety management, is the Safety Paradox. The Safety Paradox supposes initiatives for health and safety have the capacity to improve safety outcomes, but also the unintended potential to undermine safety.

These days, it seems stress and other forms of psychological harm are at the forefront of human resources and health and safety management. I cannot go a day, it seems, without seeing an article about workplace stress and what we should be doing about it.

All of the Australian health and safety regulators have adopted programs and publish guidance material on workplace stress and what employers should be doing about it.

However, what I do not see, is a self critical reflection by the health and safety industry, questioning the extent to which our health and safety practices contribute to psychological harm in the workplace.

Could health and safety be doing harm?

What has emerged, at least to my mind, is the extent to which our policy, procedure and policing approach to safety and health, far from alleviating psychological harm in the workplace, might be contributing to it.

Safety management might be part of the problem.

In a Western Australian inquiry into the possible impact of fly in/fly out work on “mental health” the Australian Medical Association identified the way health and safety is managed can contribute to a “distinct sense of entrapment” (page 43):

The AMA also expressed its concerns about this issue, noting that “[o]nerous rules, safety procedures and focus on achievement of production levels have been shown to create a distinct sense of entrapment in FIFO workers.”

The inquiry drew, in some measure, on an earlier report, the Lifeline WA FIFO/DIDO Mental Health Research Report 2013 which also appeared to note the adverse impact of safety and health management on psychological well-being. For example “[a]dhering to on-site safety rules” was identified as a workplace stress (page 77). Interestingly, the Lifeline report noted a sense of “intimidation” brought on by the number of rules and regulations associated with work on a mine, and :

This sense of intimidation was further mirrored in the outcomes of mining safety regulations which in theory were designed to care for workers but in practice led to inflexible regulation over genuine safety concerns (page 81).

Examples from the Lifeline report include:

… a participant recalled a situation in which a worker handling heavy loads required an adhesive bandage but was unable to ask someone to get them for him because he had to fill out an accident report first (which he was unable to do mid-job); hence he had to carry on working without attending to his cuts. Alternatively, another example of the application of safety rules in an inflexible manner was illustrated when a group of workers were reprimanded for not wearing safety glasses on a 40 degree day even though they could not see from them due to excessive sweating. Hence, safety rules themselves were accepted as a necessary part of work but their implementation in an inflexible uniform manner created stress as workers felt their impact hindered their ability to conduct basic work tasks safely and/or without attracting rebuke. Hence, site rules and regulations could translate into arbitrary and punitive forms of punishment, which undermined participants’ ability to fulfil jobs to their satisfaction and left them feeling insecure with their positions (page 81).

It seems, then, we need to think beyond our own perceptions of what might contribute to workplace stress and understand the impact that our efforts to manage health and safety might actually be having. Again, as the Lifeline research noted:

… although past research has shown that site conditions and cultures, such as isolation and excessive drinking are problematic, this research shows that the regimented nature of working and living on-site also takes a toll on mental health and wellbeing. From the responses of many participants, it was apparent that following site safety rules (either under pressure of internal monitoring or in the perceived absence of adequate safety precautions by co-workers and supervisors) was a significant stressor. Participants felt unable to apply self-perceived common-sense judgments and also reported feeling vulnerable to intensive scrutinising, intimidation and threats of job loss (page 82) [my emphasis added].

The common criticisms of safety management and its emphasis on process, controlling behaviour and discipline seem to go directly to factors identified as contributing to psychological harm in the workplace. The pressure to comply with rules, fear about reporting incidents, the inability to exercise individual judgement on how to manage risk and the inflexible application of process are all side-effects of process driven safety.

It is also going to be interesting to see how health and safety regulators, often the champions of paperwork and process, oversee potential impacts of systems on psychological harm in the workplace. Indeed, it would be very useful to see what risk assessments, research or other measures are taken by regulators prior to issuing improvement notices, or giving instructions to workplaces about how to manage risks.

Does the health and safety industry understand the potential effects of their interventions, or undertake any research to understand the potential harm our health and safety intervention may cause?


Termination of Work Health and Safety Officer

A recent Fair Work Commission decision, considering the dismissal of a Work Health and Safety Officer in Queensland, provides some useful commentary about the importance of health and safety personnel not just escalating health and safety concerns, but pursuing those concerns. The case also reminds health and safety personnel to exercise good personal due diligence in their role.

The case, Mr Anthony Nieberg v The Heran Building Group Pty Ltd T/A Heran Building Group [2017] FWC 6225, concerned an unfair dismissal claim by Mr Nieberg, a safety officer employed by Heran for about 15 months before they terminated his employment.

From an unfair dismissal perspective, there is nothing remarkable about the case. It is consistent with the principles governing termination of employment, which at its most basic requires a “valid” reason to end the employment relationship, and the employer exercises their right to terminate, based on that valid reason, “fairly”.

Heran defended the claim, saying they dismissed Mr Nieberg because he did not adequately perform his duties as a safety officer, he was issued three written warnings about his performance, but his performance did not improve.

Mr Nieberg oversaw safety on several building sites, and there was evidence in the case about concerns regarding safety on the sites. For example, a town planning and project consultant who had been working for Heran for over seven years wrote to the company about the danger the Heran sites posed and how the sites were not compliant with safety requirements.

The evidence showed safety issues were not being addressed despite warnings Heran gave to Mr Nieberg. The Commission formed the view Mr Nieberg was not taking the appropriate steps to confront the issues on site, or to raise “directly and assertively with the Directors of Heran his concern that site supervisors were simply not doing as he instructed” [my emphasis added] (see paragraph 96).

Mr Harris gave evidence for Mr Nieberg. Mr Harris had been a safety advisor for Heran for just under three months from June until September 2017. Mr Harris told the Commission he was not backed up by management “with health and safety rectifications”, and suggestions he made about safety did not mean much to the supervisors on-site “because they were protected as long as the progress of the sites continued without interruption” (see paragraphs 82 and 83).

Mr Harris said the culture on-site caused him to resign.

The Commission took Mr Harris’s evidence into account, but noted:

I have taken into account the evidence of Mr Harris that was to the effect that he resigned because of what he described as a poor culture of compliance, and because management did not back him up. This would have been of more assistance to Mr Nieberg had Mr Nieberg demonstrated he had been escalating issues to management and actively pursuing enforcement of safety however there is little evidence to prove that he was (see paragraph 105).

The Commission said, Mr Nieberg had “a position of considerable accountability and responsibility” but appeared to be of the view, “if a safety matter had been reported he had fulfilled his responsibility and it was then over to management”:

Mr Nieberg tended to seek to deflect responsibility for the identified safety deficiencies to either site supervisors, or directors for not supporting him. However given Mr Nieberg’s level of responsibility it fell to him to take action when others failed to comply with their safety obligations. I am inclined to accept that he did not escalate issues and insist on consequences being imposed on a failure to comply despite clear warnings that this was expected of him (paragraph 99).

The Commission found:

Heran had a valid reason to dismiss Mr Nieberg based on his performance over an extended period as Safety Officer in not taking measures necessary to ensure Heran’s jobs sites complied with workplace health and safety legislation and other safety related obligations, or to assertively escalate matters when personnel failed to comply with the relevant safety requirements (paragraph 107).

A lack of management support for health and safety is a common, and often very justified, complaint by health and safety personnel.

What this case illustrates is health and safety personnel, by virtue of their position, have to do more than simply raise concerns with management. There is an ongoing and positive obligation to pursue those issues and follow them up.

Moreover, the case reminds health and safety personnel to exercise personal due diligence in relation to their role. Specifically, health and safety personnel should keep good records of what they do in their role, what concerns they identify and raise about health and safety, how they deal with those concerns and how concerns are escalated and managed.

A benefit of health and safety personnel exercising good personal due diligence in relation to their obligations, is they will be better placed to help other managers understand and exercise personal due diligence in relation to health and safety.





Due Diligence Workshop

On 1 and 2 February 2018, Dr Robert Long and I will be hosting a due diligence workshop at the Wayside Chapel in Sydney.

This is the second time we have run the due diligence program at the Wayside Chapel, a truly unique learning environment where participants are exposed to the challenges of risk management working amongst some of the most disadvantaged people in the country.

You can find more information about the program HERE.

You can also review a discussion Rob and I had about due diligence, as part of our book, Risky Conversations: The law, social psychology and risk.