The Prosecution Problem

There is concerning trajectory in the current conversation about regulating health and safety in Australia. The conversation is almost exclusively focused on the consequences of workplace accidents, specifically ongoing calls for increasing penalties and introducing a class of offence called “Industrial Manslaughter”.

At the risk of trying to close gates long after the horses have bolted, I would like to suggest some other conversations which do not simply involve more of the same.

Read more here:

The Prosecution Problem

 

Due Diligence prosecutions under WHS Legislation (and other fairy stories)

Due diligence was supposed to be the health and safety “boogie man“, hiding under the beds of boards and CEOs – keeping them awake at night and focusing their minds on health and safety. The truth is the due diligence provisions in WHS legislation have made no practical change to the legal regulation of health and safety management at an executive level (whatever their theoretical legal effect might be) and continue the long-running lack of interest in health and safety at a boardroom level that Australian regulators have evidenced for years.

I am happy to be corrected on numbers, but as far as I can tell, since introduction of WHS legislation in about January 2012, there have been 819 workplace fatalities according to Safe Work Australia’s figures. I do not know how many of those resulted in prosecutions – it is extraordinarily difficult to draw the disparate data of health and safety regulators together to create a meaningful picture. But what does seem fairly clear, is that there have only been a handful of prosecutions under the due diligence provisions of WHS legislation. Moreover, every one of those has been against a small business and the person prosecuted has some hands-on, day-to-day involvement with the work being performed. There is no example as far as I can tell of a “company officer” who is removed from the day-to-day operations of the business.

Presumably, all of the boards and chief executive officers of large organisations who have suffered workplace fatalities are exercising effective due diligence. I think it is far more likely that the question has not even been asked and this level of executive management has not been subject to any scrutiny whatsoever about their oversight of health and safety management. Again, I stand to be corrected.

None of this should come as a surprise to anybody who has an understanding of health and safety prosecutions in Australia over the years. Nearly every example of “management” prosecutions have been against managers of small businesses with day to day involvement in the operations of the business.

A 2005 paper by Neil Foster found:

In cases involving formally appointed directors, almost every case involved a director who was heavily involved in decisions or actions “on the ground” which led directly to the incident concern (page 114).

and

Almost all the companies concerned (as far as can be judged from the reports examined) were either effectively “one-person” companies or at least small family companies with limited assets. … The directors concerned were almost all likely to have high personal knowledge of workplace procedures and, as noted above, many were heavily involved in the particular incident concern. There are no examples in these cases of a large company where a member of the board was held liable for failure to exercise “due diligence” in addressing the issue of safety (page 116).

(Personal Liability of Company Officers for Corporate Occupational Health and Safety Breaches: Section 26 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2000 (NSW), (2005) 18 Australian Journal of Labour Law, 106)

Nothing, it seems has changed.

Due Diligence Program in New Zealand

This is a call out to all of my connections in New Zealand.

Dr Rob Long and I will be in New Zealand at the end of August, running due diligence programs for clients. While we are in Auckland, we want to take the opportunity to run some 1-day, public due diligence programs, and are calling for expressions of interest for either 30 or 31 August.

During the program we will be discussing ideas from our book, Risk Conversations: The Law, Social Phycology and Risk. You can also see our discussion about due diligence from the book, in the video below.

The expected cost of the 1-day program is $495 (AUD) plus GST.

You can access more information about the program HERE. You can also email me directly- gws@nexuslawyers.com.au – or email admin@humandymensions.com.

 

 

What we say matters: Zero and other Aspirations

It seems hardly a day goes by without social media raising a new discussion about the merits or otherwise of “Zero Harm”.

As I understand the various arguments “for” and “against”, there seemed to be three broad categories of argument (although I do not discount further or additional arguments).

One argument says that Zero Harm is not a target, or a goal, rather it is an aspiration – something to pursue.  If I may be so bold as to paraphrase Prof Andrew Hopkins, it is like a state of grace – something to be striven for, but never truly achieved.

Another argument, more of a middle ground, articulates that Zero Harm is “okay”, but may have an unintended consequence of driving adverse behaviour.  In particular, it is argued that Zero Harm causes individuals and organisations to hide incidents or manipulate injury data in support of an organisation’s “zero” targets.

Yet another argument says that the language of zero is totally corrosive and destructive.  It argues  the language of zero  – amongst other things – primes a discourse that is anti-learning and anti-community (See, For the Love of Zero by Dr Robert Long).

I would like to use this article to discuss two matters.  First, the Safety Paradox in the context of aspirational statements, only using “zero” as a starting example.  Second, to demonstrate how aspirational statements can be used against organisations.  Both these points are closely related but ultimately, I want to argue whatever your “aspirations” you need to have “assurance” about the effect they have on your business.

The Safety Paradox is a concept I have been exploring for some time now.  The Safety Paradox supposes that our safety initiatives have within them the potential to improve safety and cause harm.

In my view, the single biggest weakness in modern safety management is the assumption that safety management initiatives are “good“.  I have no doubt that the proponents of Zero Harm suffer from this assumption.

The question of whether Zero Harm is good or bad is, on one view, totally irrelevant.  If you are a Zero Harm organisation the only thing that really matters is the impact Zero Harm has in your workplace.

  • What is the purpose of Zero Harm in your organisation?
  • How do you demonstrate that Zero Harm achieves this purpose?
  • How do you evidence that Zero Harm does not undermine safety in the way that many commentators suggest?

My personal experience with Zero Harm means that I remain unconvinced of its benefits, but I do not feel I am closed to being persuaded otherwise, it is just that I have never worked with an organisation that has been able to address the three questions proposed above.  Moreover, in my experience, there is usually a significant disconnect between corporate intentions and operational reality: What management think is going on is often very different from what the workforce believes.

Considering all the published criticism of Zero Harm as a concept, I do not think it is unfair that the onus should be on Zero Harm organisations – including government regulators – to demonstrate that Zero Harm achieves its intended purpose and does not have a negative impact on safety.

Now, this is more than a matter of semantics.  Aspirational statements can, and are used against individuals and organisations.

On 21 August 2009 and uncontrolled release of hydrocarbons occurred on the West Atlas drilling rig operating off the North-West coast of Australia.  The incident reawakened the Australian Public to the dangers of offshore oil and gas production, leading to a Commission of Inquiry into the event.

During the Commission the aspirational statements of one organisation was used against an individual.  The criticism was that a contractor had removed a piece of safety critical hardware, but not replaced it, and had not been directed by the relevant individual to replace it.

There was some discussion about a presentation provided by the organisation, and that resulted in the following exchange.

Montara slide

Q: All right. If the operator could go to page 0004 of this document, that overhead, which is part of the induction training of drilling supervisors, is entitled “Standards”. Do you see that?

A: Yes.

Q: If you could read what is said there, you would agree it captures, if you like, a profound truth?

A: Yes.

Q: Do you agree that that is a truth not simply applicable to drilling supervisors but also applicable to PTT management onshore?

A: Yes.

Q: I want to suggest to you, sir, that your decision not to instruct Mr O’Shea or Mr Wishart to reinstall the 9-5/8″ PCC represents a very significant departure from what is described on that screen.

A: Yes, I can concede that.

Q: Without wishing to labour the point, your decision not to insist upon the reinstallation of the 9-5/8″ PCC was a failure in both leadership and management on your part?

A: Yes, that’s what it seems now.

Q: With respect, sir, I’m suggesting to you that, faced with the circumstances you were, your deference, as it were, to not treading on the toes of the rig personnel and insisting on the reinstallation was, at that point in time, a failure in leadership and management on your part.

A: I will accept that.

How many of these untested platitudes infect organisations, waiting for the opportunity to expose the business to ridicule and criticism?

Or consider if you will, the following scenario. An employee is dismissed for breaching mobile phone requirements when his mobile phone was found in the cabin of the truck he had been operating.

The employee bought an unfair dismissal claim and the presiding tribunal found that there was a valid reason to terminate his employment.  However, the tribunal also found that the termination was unfair for several procedural reasons. In part, the tribunal relied on the level of training and information that the employee had been provided about the relevant procedure.

The training documentation provided did not clearly demonstrate that employees were trained in this new procedure and signed accordingly, or that it was given a significant roll-out to employees commensurate with their ‘zero tolerance’ attitude to incidents of breaches, given how this case has been pursued (my emphasis added).

If you are going to have a “Zero” aspiration, that has to be reflected in your business practices. It seldom is.

What I think these examples illustrate is an inherent weakness in the way health and safety is managed.  We, as an industry, are overwhelmingly concerned with “how” we manage health and safety risks without paying anything like enough attention to whether the “how” works.

Do all of our aspirations and activities actually manage health and safety risks, or are we just keep keeping people busy or worse, wasting their time?  As importantly, how do we know our initiatives are not part of the problem?

BP’s corporate management mandated numerous initiatives that applied to the U.S. refineries and that, while well-intentioned, have Baker panel reviewoverloaded personnel at BP’s U.S. refineries. This “initiative overload” may have undermined process safety performance at the U.S. refineries (The Report of the BP US Refineries Independent Safety Review Panel (Baker Panel Review), page xii).

There is no doubt that safety is not the only management discipline that suffers from these deficiencies: “style over substance” and “window dressing”.  But if we claim the high moral ground of protecting human health and life, then perhaps the onus on us to show what we do works, is also higher.

Health & Safety Assurance Workshop

On 2 May 2017, I am running a HSE assurance workshop in conjunction with Roy Fitzgerald from Meta-Dymensions.

The program will teach participants the key legal principles for demonstrating effective HSE assurance and how to develop a methodology for demonstrating and evidencing that HSE hazards and risks are being managed as low as reasonably practicable.

As part of the workshop, participants need to bring information about a HSE hazard in their workplace and during the workshop will apply the assurance methodology to:

·    Build an assurance process for that hazard; and

·    Create a framework to demonstrate and evidence whether (or the extent to which) the hazard is managed as low as reasonably practicable.

Participants will be required to bring information about the hazard and how it is controlled, including policies, procedures, standards and so on. Ideally photographs, diagrams and maps if applicable.

The hazard that participants review should not be too complex.  It is more important that participants work through a hazard to ensure they understand and can apply the methodology.  Once they have the understanding, they will be able to apply it to more complex hazards.

Spaces in the workshop are limited, and we do not anticipate more than 20 participants for this program.  However, to participate, you must send at least two or three participants so they can discuss and work together on reviewing the hazard and developing the assurance processes.  You can only send a maximum of three participants.

You can find more information about the workshop, including venues and prices HERE, but please give contact me a call if you have any questions would like to discuss the workshop.

 

WHS Reporting and Due Diligence: Some practical thoughts

My social media feeds have been abuzz recently following the release of Safe Work Australia’s report, Measuring and Reporting on Work Health & Safety. In part (or perhaps wholly) it is my fault for suggesting the report focussed on activity over assurance and could be problematic in that regard.  (see for example LinkedIn, Measuring and Reporting on Work Health & Safety, Everything is Green: The delusion of health and safety reporting).

In several comments and emails, I have been asked to provide some “practical” examples. While it is difficult to provide something that will satisfy everyone, below I offer a few questions that might be useful to interrogate the efficacy of health and safety reporting in your organisation.

I would preface the example below with an observation on due diligence.

Despite what several commentators and marketing campaigns might have you believe, due diligence cannot be satisfied with a checklist, or by attending a WHS training session. The concept of due diligence existed long before WHS legislation, and it has been examined by courts and tribunal in many areas of business. One of the underpinning concepts of due diligence is “independent thought”.

It is incumbent on an individual who is charged with exercising due diligence to exercise a level of independence to understand the “thing” they are required to be diligent about. If that thing is safety, due diligence requires more than passively accepting a monthly WHS report. Due diligence requires independent thought and challenge to understand what you need to know about health and safety and whether the report is informing you about what you need to know.

So, in the spirit of that inquiry, what questions might you ask?

What is the purpose of health and safety reporting?

It might seem trite, but I think it is a legitimate question to start with. After all, if we do not start with a purpose, how to we judge effectiveness?

To many, the purpose of health and safety reporting might seem obvious, but if the history of workplace health and safety has taught us nothing else in the last 30 years, it has taught us about the dangers of assumptions. Do not assume to know the purpose of anything in health and safety – actually know the purpose and test against that purpose.

In many organisations, health and safety reporting is sold as a legal requirement, so in keeping with that theme, perhaps the purpose of health and safety reporting might be

To demonstrate the extent to which our health and safety risks are managed so far as reasonably practicable.

But before the comments start flowing about legal expectations being our minimum standards (sigh!), perhaps we can agree on something like:

To demonstrate the extent to which our health and safety risks are managed.

For those of you who aspire to “zero”, I will leave it to you to come up with your own purpose statement for health and safety reporting. Good luck.

What is the purpose and relevance of an element of health and safety reporting?

Health and safety reports might be filled with all sorts of statements and data. But what purpose do they serve?

A very popular health and safety reporting metric is the number (or percentage) of corrective actions closed out following an incident investigation.

On its face, that statistic is nothing more than a measure of activity – how many things have been done against how many things should have been done. On its face, and at its highest, it might be a measure of “operating discipline” – we are good at doing the things we said we would.

But if the purpose of health and safety reporting is to demonstrate the extent to which our health and safety risks are managed, it does not seem to add much value at all.

Another way to think about a statistical set of action items being closed out is to consider them as an indicator of the effectiveness of incident investigations. After all, the quality of incident investigations is very important to the overall quality of health and safety management and something that inquiries are likely to look at in the event of an accident (See for example Everything is Green: The delusion of health and safety reporting)

Perhaps if people had spent more time asking this question about injury rate data over the past 25 years, it would not have pride of place in safety management today.

What assumption do we have to make if an element of health and safety reporting is going to have value?

If we argue that the number (or percentage) of corrective actions closed out following an incident investigation tells us something about the quality of incident investigations, what assumptions do we have to make?

If 100% of corrective actions from incident investigations have been closed out, and I have a sense of comfort from that, I am making several assumptions. I am making assumptions:

  • About the quality of the incident investigations;
  • About the strength of the reasoning and analysis leading to the findings;
  • That the corrective actions have a strong, logical relevance to the findings;
  • That the corrective actions will be effective to address the issues identified in the incident investigation;
  • That the corrective actions have been closed out, as opposed to ticked off in a data base;
  • That the corrective actions have been well implemented; and
  • That the corrective actions are effective to address the issues identified in the incident investigation.

None of these issues are revealed by the number (or percentage) of corrective actions closed out following an incident investigation.

Indeed, if a health and safety report could show 100% of corrective actions from incident investigations have been closed out without any of the assumptions above being true.

And if these assumptions are not valid, and if a major accident happens, and if it is found that incident have never been properly investigated[1], how can it be said that an organisation and its management was serious about health and safety and exercising due diligence?

I have always believed, at its core, health and safety management is about controlling health and safety hazards.

To some extent, I do not care how organisations say they manage health and safety – safety 1, safety 2, safety differently, visible felt leadership, rules, procedures, prescription, discretion, people are the problem, people are the solution etc., etc., etc. – prove to me that it works. Prove to me that what you do controls the health and safety hazards in your business.

If two people die in an electrical incident at your workplace, nobody cares what your last safety culture survey reveals. You need to demonstrate how the risk of electrocution was managed in your organisation, and whether it was managed effectively.

No one cares what your TRIFR rate is, no one cares how many action items have been closed out, no one cares how many safety interactions your managers have, no one cares how many hazards have been reported, no one cares how many pre-start meetings you have conducted ….

The relevant issue is whether health and safety hazards have been effectively managed.

The things we do in the name of health and safety only matter to the extent that they have a role to play in managing health and safety hazards.

If the number of action items closed out after an incident investigation is important to how hazards are managed, we should be able to explain how and demonstrate the relationship.

Health and safety reporting only matters if it gives us an insight into how well we manage health and safety.

What does your health and safety reporting really tell you?

 

[1] See for example the Royal Commission into the Pike River tragedy.