Contractor safety management series: Introduction

I have just finished finalising a presentation for a case involving the death of a worker employed by a subcontractor that was 2 companies removed from the Principal. The case involved the prosecution of the Principal in respect of a fatality.

Earlier this year I prepared a post and presentation on the Hillman v Ferro Con (SA) decision, which also involved the death of a worker employed by a contractor. You can access the blog post and video presentation here.

Contractor safety management seems to be an ongoing struggle for a lot of businesses, so I thought that I would do a series looking at a number of cases that examine the issues around contractor safety management. At the end of the series I will try to bring together a number of the issues raised to see if we can’t structure some key guiding principles.

At this stage, I am planning a series of 10 or 11 video presentations looking at some of the key cases across a number of jurisdictions over the last few years.

The first case in the series is Nash v Eastern Star Gas, a recent decision of the New South Wales Industrial Court which was handed down on 6 September 2013. You can access the blog post and video presentation here.

I hope you enjoy the series, and I look forward to any comments or feedback.

Conactor safety managment series Part 1: Nash v Eastern Star Gas

In August 2009, Bruce Austin a working director of a small business, The Saver Guys, died from head injuries after he was hit by a length of pipe that was being extracted from the ground.

Mr Austin’s business had been contracted by another entity, Applied Soil Technology Pty Ltd. The relevant work was being overseen by Austerberry Directional Drilling Services Pty Ltd, who had in turn been engaged by Eastern Energy Australia Ltd on behalf of a related corporation, Eastern Star Gas Ltd.

At the time of the accident, Mr Austin and others were trying to recover a blocked pipeline from under the ground.

Although a number of entities were prosecuted and convicted in relation to the fatality, this case looked at the safety management arrangements in place between Eastern Star Gas and Austerberry Directional Drilling. The case provides some useful insights into the expectations placed on businesses removed to an extent from the conduct of the physical work by a contractor. It also demonstrates how an organisations’ own, documented safety management systems (in this case a contractor safety management system) can be used to demonstrate that the organisation is not meeting its obligations.

You can access a copy of the decision here, and the video presentation here.

References in the Presentation:

Hillman v Ferro Con (SA)

Be careful what you wish for: Is the safety “profession” being sidelined?

Let me start with a few caveats and/or disclaimers.

First, this post has been inspired by a number of articles and discussions on line about the “practice” of safety and the safety “profession“. I only qualify profession because of the amount of disagreement about whether people who advise about safety are professionals, and what their role is.

Second, this is an outside looking in discussion (I am a lawyer by training and practice for the last 20+ years), and inside looking out (I run a combined law firm and safety consultancy, specialise in safety management and have been a senior health and safety adviser in the oil and gas industry).

Finally, this is a top down view. Most of what I do these days is designed to help senior executives and boards understand if their health and safety risks are being controlled. Part of this means that I spend a lot of my time challenging safety managers to show that what they do works.

With all of that on the table, the point of this post is to raise an observation: It seems to me that more and more safety managers and advisors are being excluded from the table.

When it comes to decisions and strategies that organisations genuinely care about, the safety manager is simply not present.

This first struck me about 10 years ago. At the time I was involved in a depressingly high number of matters that involved fatalities and in every case, the decision makers dealing with the fatality did not include the senior safety advisor. General managers, CEO’s, HR managers, CFO’s – they were all there, but not the safety manager.

Thinking about this further, in more recent times (about the past 5 years) I have noticed two key trends.

One is the due diligence debate.

In Australia a number of jurisdiction have introduced legal obligations on “company officers”, requiring them to demonstrate personal due diligence with respect to the management of health and safety risks.

It seems to be that this “debate” has been hijacked by lawyers (apologies to my friends in the law) and that the safety advisors are completely ill equipped to deal with the issue. If you look online at the articles, commentary and observations about due diligence in Australia it is a discussion dominated by lawyers.

My personal experience is that I am often called into an organisation only because the senior safety advisor cannot explain the due diligence obligations to the executive managers, nor clearly define a way to manage those obligations.

What this (it seems to me) has led to is:

  1. Safety advisors are not driving key executive management initiatives that impact safety; and
  2. Safety management has become little more than “legal risk management”, which may or may not drive good safety performance.

The other observation come from the oft quoted phrase “safety is a line management responsibility“.

It seems that a number of businesses are embracing that philosophy and using it as a driver to reduce the health and safety “head count“.

Again, my personal experience is a high level of frustration from businesses about the poor quality of service from health and safety advisors. It is one thing to push responsibility for safety onto line management, it is another thing all together to use that as an excuse for not doing your job – a perception that the safety profession has been burdened with.

While senior executive accountability and line management responsibility are cornerstones of effective safety performance the safety profession must define its role and place in that framework.

We must also add value.

Hiding behind mountains of paper, unrealistic and unachievable aspirational safety objectives, jargon and the inability to explain the relationship between what we do and how it adds value all contribute to marginalise safety advisors from  management and the workforce.

What value do we add?

Delphic motherhood statements part 2 – safety documents that nobody can understand

A little while ago I did a post looking at the complexity of documented safety management systems, and the role that documentation has played in undermining effective safety management. You can review the post here.

I was recently sent an article (you can access it here) which underscores the potential negative impact safety documentation has on safety performance.

The New Zealand research found that:

  • Two thirds of employees did not fully understand information contained in health and safety documents , including safety procedures;
  • 80% of employees were not able to accurately complete hazard report forms; and
  • Safety documents were highly complex and used vocabulary that employees did not understand.

A fascinating aspect of the research is that it provides a list of words that were unfamiliar and confused employees. Some of those words included “significant hazards” , “competence”, “accountabilities” and “not adversely affect”. All words that reflect the requirements of legislation and guidance material but have little place in the day to day comprehension of workers.

From my own perspective, I have to say that this research is entirely consistent with my study of major accident events going back 30 years. Every major accident events enquiry that I have ever researched has identified that in some way the documented safety management systems undermine effective safety performance. Typically they are too complex for the people who have to implement them to understand.

Based on my experience I would add two further phrases to the list of unfamiliar words: ” reasonably practicable” and “root cause”. These two phrases are ubiquitous throughout safety management documents in Australia, yet universally whenever I am conducting obligations or investigation training there is no common (much less “correct”) understanding of what these things mean.

There are two things that I find professionally embarrassing as a person who has spent the last two decades specialising in safety and health management . The first is our continued reliance on lost time injury data as a measure of safety performance in light of the overwhelming evidence that they add no value to our understanding of the management of risk.

The second is , despite at least 30 years of “reminders” that out documented safety processes add little to the management of safety risks, almost universally we continue to do the same thing, in the same way but somehow expect a different. I think Einstein had something to say about that.

I have recently been working with a senior executive in an organisation who confronted a safety consultant with the following:

“if you can’t explain it to me easily, then you don’t understand it yourself “

An interesting test to apply to our safety documents?

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 et.al, 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.

References

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

25 Years on: Remembering Piper Alpha

In the past few weeks I have been asked to do presentations and share my views about the legacy of Piper Alpha in this, the 25th anniversary year of the disaster.

For me, the positive legacy is the advancement in safety regulation, engineering and “safety in design” that has seen the improvement of the physical safety of high hazard workplaces. Safety in design has also improved the “survivability” of disasters so that when accidents to occur, their consequences are better mitigated.

The ongoing disappointment, however, is the persistent failure of management oversight and assurance to properly understand if health and safety risks are being managed. This is a failure that has played out in every major accident inquiry since Piper Alpha and continues to undermine effective safety management.

You can see a video presentation of these ideas and concepts here.

Transpacific Industries: Disciplinary action as a safety control

This is a case I have looked at before, and often use in management training to help explain the concept of reasonably practicable, and the relationship between reasonably practicable and the hierarchy of controls.

I was prompted to post it following the release of Safe Work Australia’s guidance material on reasonably practicable.

The case involved the prosecution of Transpacific Industries following a fatality in 2009. In an earlier, almost identical  incident, Transpacific had responded to a breach of its procedures with what the Court described as “robust disciplinary action“. When the repeat incident occurred in 2009 the question that was argued was whether the earlier disciplinary action was a “sufficient response“: Was it reasonably practicable? You can access the video discussion of the case here, and a copy of the case here.

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Regards.

Greg Smith

Unfair dismissal, delphic motherhood statements and other observations on safety documentation

Delphic adj. ambiguous, enigmatic, obscure. Also Delphian [L Delphicius, from Gk Delphikos of Delpji (the ancient city in central Greece, famed for its oracle of Apollo, which was noted for giving ambiguous answers.) (The Macquarie Dictionary)

Let me apologise for the somewhat ‘delphic’ nature of the title for this blog, but it is an accurate description of a recent case and other findings, which has led to the observation on safety documentation. Although I might say less of an observation and more an update on, or restatement of, a long running concern that I have had about how safety documentation continues to actively undermine our efforts to create safer workplaces.

First are the recent unfair dismissal proceedings in Paul McGrath and Maitland Hayward v Sydney Water Corporation t/as Sydney Water [2013] FWC 793.

The case involved two workers who had their employment terminated after apparently breaching their company’s ‘lock out/tag out’ (LOTO) procedures. In the end, the termination was overturned and they were reinstated to their original positions. A number of the reasons for the decision turned on matters particular to Australian unfair dismissal laws, and included things such as:

• The long period of service of the two workers.

• The long and unblemished safety records of the two workers.

• The workers’ age and work history.

• The impact of the termination on the workers.

• The workers’ remorse.

However, the quality of the LOTO procedure was also a factor. The tribunal dealing with the claim noted:

• The LOTO procedure did not expressly detail the steps required to be taken to isolate power sources.

• The LOTO procedure requires formal training every two years, which did not occur.

The tribunal noted that there was “some attraction” in a submission that Sydney Water was itself in breach of its own policy.

• Evidence of experienced electricians was that the LOTO procedure was, at best, unclear, and at worst, confusing.

The tribunal noted that Sydney Water seemed to acknowledge this problem by undertaking extensive retraining of its employees on the procedure, because employees were concerned that they could also be subject to disciplinary action for a breach of the procedure.

The issue of the quality of safety documents in a safety context was also explored in the Royal Commission into the Pike River Coal disaster. The Commission noted in that case:

By November 2010 there were over 398 documents in the electronic system. Of these 227 were in draft as they were not signed off by two managers, although they were still used in the meantime. The number, and length, of the documents posed a challenge to the credibility of the system.

Although many of the documents were helpful, there were problems, not only with the sheer volume of material, but also with some of its content. For example, in 2010 two consultants and a Pike manager assessed the ventilation management plan and concluded it needed a complete review. (Volume 1, page 73)

Unfortunately, there is nothing surprising in this. The quality of safety documentation has been implicated in most major disasters for the past 25 years. And again, unfortunately, the response of the safety profession (and others) seems to be to keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. A few examples should suffice to make the point:

Longford Royal Commission: Fire and explosion at Esso’s gas plant in Longford, Australia. Two fatalities.

Esso’s [safety management system], together with all the supporting manuals, comprised a complex management system. It was repetitive, circular, and contained unnecessary cross referencing. Much of his language was impenetrable. These characteristics made this system difficult to comprehend both by management and buy operations personnel. (Page 200)

Montara Commission of Inquiry: Uncontrolled release of hydrocarbons off the north-west coast of Australia on 21 August 2009. No fatalities.

A number of aspects of PTTEPAA’s Well Construction Standards were at best ambiguous and open to different interpretations. The fact that a number of PTTEPAA employees and contractors interpreted aspects of the Well Construction Standards differently illustrates the ambiguity and inappropriateness of the Well Construction Standards. (Page 9)

The Deepwater Horizon: Fire, explosion and uncontrolled release of hydrocarbons in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010. 11 fatalities.

If you look at the [Transocean’s safety] manual, you’re really impressed by it. It’s a safety expert’s dream. Everything anybody could ever imagine is in there. …because as one looks at it, everything under the sun is covered. It’s hard to see at a particular place somebody saying symptoms of that or this. If you see that, do this. This is not said by way of criticism. People have tried like hell in this manual to get it right. But it may be that when time is short, there might have been different ways to make clear exactly what should have been done in a short period of time. (Page 168-169)

I do not have any firm evidence about why this continues to be a problem, but I do have a number of observations based on my experiences over the past couple of decades.

Some of the issues appear to be systemic, for example, it does not seem to me that many health and safety professionals receive training in writing quasi-legal documents – which is ultimately, what safety management documentation is.

Another issue is the continuous “layering” of the safety documentation. This is often evident after an incident where the automatic response appears to be to amend or write a new procedure. More often than not, this is done without actually understanding why the initial procedure failed. Over time, this builds a volume of safety documentation incapable of being implemented.

However, the biggest concern I have observed in the last three or four years in particular is the ubiquitous “thumb drive” or USB stick. More and more we are observing safety documentation that has not been developed for a business or a particular risk, but rather has been cut and paste from some other organisation with no real regard for its application.

When you consider the quality of safety documentation in a general sense, it is not unreasonable to conclude that nobody is really reading these documents with any care or attention. I find it extraordinary how often I have to deal with safety management plans and other documents that contain the name of a totally unrelated company. Clearly the document is nothing more than a cut and paste from some other plan, but has been signed off by four, five or move different managers – yet even something as basic as the wrong company in the documentation is not being picked up. If the people responsible for developing and approving these documents were not reading them, why on earth would we expect the workforce to?

OK. So what does this have to do with the oracle of Apollo? It is taken from the Montara Commission of Inquiry:

The Inquiry also considers that (i) the Hazard Identification (HAZID) workshops which were conducted between PTTEPAA and Atlas to identify and manage risks at Montara; and (ii) the Safety Case Revisions/SIMOPS Plans which were produced by both entities, were pitched at far too great a level of generality. For instance, the workshops and documents did not deal in any specific way with management of barriers. Moreover, the SIMOPS documents were replete with delphic ‘motherhood’ statements, such as the following:

Safety management in the field is primarily the responsibility of the Vessel Masters/Superintendents, FPSO OIM, Rig OIM and WHP Person In Charge (PIC). The prioritisation of all activities in the Montara field is the responsibility of the PTTEPAA Project Manager. However, control of the individual activities during the field development remains with the relevant supervisors.

All parties in the Montara field development shall have clear structuring of HSE interfaces to ensure that there is no confusion as to: approval authority; roles and responsibilities of personnel; organisational structures, management of HSE; operating procedures; reporting structures; and SIMOPS. (page 135)

In the end, if our safety documentation does not provide good guidance about how the health and safety risks in the business are to be managed, what value does it add? And if it cannot be understood by the people expected to implement it, if it creates ambiguity and confusion, it is not overly pessimistic to think that it could be undermining our efforts to create safer workplaces.