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.

 

Measuring and Reporting on Work Health & Safety

I approach this article with some trepidation.

I was recently sent a copy of Safe Work Australia’s report, Measuring and Reporting on Work Health & Safety, and subsequently saw a post on LinkedIn dealing with the same.  I made some observations on the report in response to the original post which drew the ire of some commentators (although I may be overstating it and I apologise in advance if I have), but I did promise a more fulsome response, and in the spirit of a heartfelt desire to contribute to the improvement of health and safety in Australia – here it is.

I want to start by saying, that I have the utmost respect for the authors of the report and nothing is intended to diminish the work they have produced.  I also accept that I am writing from a perspective heavily influenced by my engagement with health and safety through the legal process.

I also need to emphasise that I am not dismissing what is said in the report, nor saying that some of the structures and processes proposed by the report are not valid and valuable.  But I do think the emphasis in the report on numerical and graphical information has the potential to blind organisations to the effectiveness of crucial systems.

I also want to say that I have witnessed over many years – and many fatalities – organisations that can point to health and safety accreditations, health and safety awards, good personal injury rate data, good audit scores and “traffic lights” all in the green.  At the same time, a serious accident or workplace fatalities exposes that the same “good” safety management systems are riddled with systemic failure – long term systemic departures from the requirements of the system that had not been picked up by any of the health and safety measures or performance indicators.

I am not sure how many ways I can express my frustration when executive leadership hold a sincere belief that they have excellent safety management systems in place, only to realise that those systems do not even begin to stand up to the level of scrutiny they come under in a serious legal process.

In my view, there is a clarity to health and safety assurance that has been borne out in every major accident enquiry, a clarity that was overlooked by the drafters of WHS Legislation and a clarity which is all too often overlooked when it comes to developing assurance programs.  With the greatest respect, possible to the authors of this report, I fear this has been overlooked again.

In my view, the report perpetuates activity over assurance, and reinforces that assumptions can be drawn from the measure of activity when those assumptions are simply not valid.

Before I expand on these issues, I want to draw attention to another point in the report.  At page 38 the report states:

Each injury represents a breach of the duty to ensure WHS

To the extent that this comment is meant to represent in some way the “legal” duty, I must take issue with it.  There is no duty to prevent all injuries, and injury does not represent, in and of itself, a breach of any duty to “ensure WHS”.  The Full Court of the Western Australia Supreme Court made this clear in Laing O’Rourke (BMC) Pty Ltd v Kiwin [2011] WASCA 117 [31], citing with approval the Victorian decision, Holmes v RE Spence & Co Pty Ltd (1992) 5 VIR 119, 123 – 124:

The Act does not require employers to ensure that accidents never happen.  It requires them to take such steps as are practicable to provide and maintain a safe working environment.”

But to return to the main point of this article.

In my view, the objects of health and safety assurance can best be understood from comments of the Pike River Royal Commission:

The statistical information provided to the board on health and safety comprised mainly personal injury rates and time lost through accidents … 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.”

I have written about this recently, and do not want to repeat those observations again (See: Everything is Green: The delusion of health and safety reporting), so let me try and explain this in another way.

Whenever I run obligations training for supervisors and managers we inevitably come to the question of JHAs – and I am assuming that readers will be familiar with that “tool” so will not explain it further.

I then ask a question about how important people think the JHA is.  On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the least important and 10 being the most, how important is the JHA?

Inevitably, the group settles on a score of somewhere between 8 and 10.  They all agree that the JHA is “critically important” to managing health and safety risk in their business.  They all agree that every high hazard activity they undertake requires a JHA.

I then ask, what is the purpose of the JHA.  Almost universally groups agree that the purpose of the JHA is something like:

  • To identify the job steps
  • To identify hazards associated with those job steps
  • To identify controls to manage the hazards; and
  • To help ensure that the work is performed having regard to those hazards and the controls.

So, my question is, if the JHA is a “crucial system” or “critically important” and a key tool for managing every high-risk hazard in the workplace, is it unreasonable to expect that the organisation would have some overarching view about whether the JHA is achieving its purpose?

They agree it is not unreasonable, but such a view does not exist.

I think the same question could be asked of every other potentially crucial safety management system including contractor safety management, training and competence, supervision, risk assessments and so on. If we look again to the comments in the Pike River Royal Commission, we can see how important these system elements are:

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.”

But equally, the same question can be asked of high-risk “hazards” – working at heights, fatigue, psychological wellbeing etc.

What is the process to manage the hazard, and does it achieve the purpose it was designed to achieve?

The fact that I have 100% compliance with closing out corrective actions tells me no more about the effectiveness of my crucial systems than the absence of accidents.

The risk of performance measures that are really measures of activity is tha they can create an illusion of safety.  The fact that we have 100% compliance with JHA training, a JHA was done every time it was required to be done, or that a supervisor signed off every JHA that was required to be signed off – these are all measures of activity, they do not tell us whether the JHA process has achieved its intended purpose.

So, what might a different type of “assurance” look like?

First, it would make a very conscious decision about the crucial systems or critical risks in the organisation and focus on those. Before I get called out for ignoring everything else, I do not advocate ignoring everything else – by all means, continue to use numerical and similar statistical measures for the bulk of your safety, but when you want to know that something works – you want to prove the effectiveness of your crucial systems – make a conscious decision to focus on them.

I thought that the JHA process was a crucial system, I would want to know how that process was supposed to work? If it is “crucial”, I should understand it to some extent.

I would want a system of reporting that told me whether the process was being managed the way it was supposed to be. And whether it worked. I would like to know, for example:

  • How many JHAs were done;
  • How many were reviewed;
  • How many were checked for technical compliance and what was the level of technical compliance? Were they done when they were meant to be done, were they completed correctly etc.
  • How many were checked for “quality”, and what the quality of the documents like? Did they identify appropriate hazards? Did they identify appropriate controls? Were people working in accordance with the controls?

I would also want to know what triggers were in place to review the quality of the JHA process – was our documented process a good process? Have we ever reviewed it internally? Do we ever get it reviewed externally? Are there any triggers for us to review our process and was it reviewed during the reporting period – if we get alerted to a case where an organisation was prosecuted for failing to implement its JHA process, does that cause us to go and do extra checks of our systems?

We could ask the same questions about our JHA training.

I would want someone to validate the reporting. If I am being told that our JHA process is working well – that it is achieving the purpose it was designed for – I would like someone (from time to time) to validate that. To tell me, “Greg, I have gone and looked at operations and I am comfortable that what you are being told about JHAs is accurate. You can trust that information – and this is why …”.

As part of my personal due dilligence, if I thought JHA were crucial, when I went into the field, that is what I would check too. I would validate the reporting for myself.

I would want some red flags – most importantly, I would want a mandatory term of reference in every investigation requiring the JHA process to be reviewed for every incident – not whether the JHA for the job was a good JHA, but whether our JHA process achieved its purpose in this case, and if not, why not.

If my reporting is telling me that the JHA process is good, but all my incidents are showing that the process did not achieve its intended purpose, then we may have systemic issues that need to be addressed.

I would want to create as many touch points as possible with this crucial system to understand if it was achieving the purpose it was intended to achieve.

My overarching concern, personally and professionally, is to structure processes to ensure that organisations can prove the effectiveness of their crucial systems. I have had to sit in too many little conference rooms, with too many managers who have audits, accreditations, awards and health and safety reports that made them think everything was OK when they have a dead body to deal with.

I appreciate the attraction of traffic lights and graphs. I understand the desire to find statistical and numerical measures to assure safety.

I just do not think they achieve the outcomes we ascribe to them.

They do not prove the effectiveness of crucial systems.

 

Demonstrating compliance: The SD Tillett case

I recently posted an article about the way health and safety is measured and reported in organisations.  In the article, I argued that many of the indicators that we used to understand how well health and safety risks are managed in our business are measures of activity and provide no real assurance that health and safety risks are being managed.  I suggested that the assumptions that are drawn from these indicators create a dangerous illusion of safety – because all our indicators are green”, we assume our risks are managed.

The article prompted a lot of discussion and several questions about how health and safety are measured and how organisations might better understand if their health and safety risks are being managed.

I thought it would be helpful to further the debate by looking at a few cases where organisations have met their legal obligations, even though there was an accident to try and understand the sorts of factors that are considered.

In this article, I want to look at the decision of Moore v SD Tillett Memorials Pty Ltd [2002] SAIRC 47, a decision of the South Australian Industrial Relations Court.

On 21 December 1999, an employee, Mr Bacon was helping another employee, Graham Muscat, move an “A” frame loaded with approximately seven granite sheets.  The men were moving the granite sheets using a forklift.

Mr Bacon died when the granite sheets loaded on the ‘A’ frame fell, trapping him between the granite sheets and a metal table.

The defendant company, SD Tillett Memorials Pty Ltd was charged as follows:

On the 21st day of December 1999 at Hindmarsh in the said State, being an employer, failed to ensure so far as was reasonably practicable that its employee, namely Craig Anthony Bacon, was, whilst at work, safe from injury and risk to health and, in particular:

(a)     failed to provide and maintain so far as was reasonably practicable a safe system of work; and

(b)     failed to provide such information instruction training and supervision as were reasonably necessary to ensure that the employee was safe from injury and risks to health.

The particulars of the charge, that is the precise allegations were that SD Tillett failed to:

·         Provide and maintain a safe system for the movement of ‘A’ frames loaded with granite sheets.

·         Provide and maintain a safe system for the loading and storage of granite sheets on ‘A’ frames.

·         Provide adequate information instruction and training to Graham Muscat will about the safe movement of “A” frames loaded with granite sheets.

·         Provide adequate supervision for the employee and Graham Muscat.

·         Provide adequate information instruction and training to the Operations Manager, Stephen Tanner about the loading and storage of granite sheets on ‘A’ frames.

The process for moving the granite sheets required them to be secured using a strapping.  When Mr Bacon died, the slabs had not been strapped in accordance with what was described as a “standard operating procedure”.  While there was some discussion about a memorandum setting out this standard operating procedure, it was not produced in the trial period

Earlier in the day, there had been an incident where slabs had not been strapped, and disciplinary action was taken against the work involved.

There is no discussion in the case about SD Tillett’s injury rates or any other lead or lag indicators used to measure health and safety.

The evidence at the hearing came from the workers.  In all but one case, that evidence was consistent.  The evidence confirmed that all the workers understood the requirements to strap the granite, and this was a requirement that was continually reinforced by the operations manager Mr Tanner.  The Court said:

… there is a common thread through the evidence of those witnesses that there was a continuous verbal reinforcement of the requirement to strap loaded “A” frames.

The only person who said he was not aware of the prohibition against moving the granite without strapping was the driver of the forklift, Mr Muscat.  In relation to his evidence, the Court said:

It is my view that Muscat has tried to cover up the system of work that he adopted at the time of the incident. His denial of any rule about strapping loaded “A” frames is contrary to the evidence of all the other witnesses who were either former employees or current employees of the defendant.

With respect to the written standard operating procedure or memorandum, although the document was not produced at the trial, the Court formed the view that the procedures had been committed in writing, because all the witnesses gave evidence that they had seen a written procedure or memorandum.  The prosecution then argued that a written record should have been made of who had received the document.  In response to this, the Court said:

This is of course desirable but what would it have achieved against a background of constant verbal reinforcement? Recording who received the document had not been carried out in the past although there was a universal awareness of the document by the employees and former employees save and except for Muscat. As I have indicated I find that the evidence of Muscat is unreliable.

This proposition is in quite stark contrast to what we normally see.  Here we have witnesses who clearly understand the safe procedures are doing the work, even though a documented procedure could not be produced.  Normally, we are faced with a position with a documented procedure can be produced, but nobody understands it or complies with it.

The preponderance of evidence in the case was that the employees were aware of the requirement to strap the granite before moving it using a forklift, there was constant verbal reinforcement of this requirement, and disciplinary action was taken against employees who did not comply with this requirement.  In the face of this evidence, the Court found:

I find on the totality of the evidence led by the prosecution that it has not discharged the onus of proving beyond reasonable doubt that there were one or more measures which the defendant may have reasonably practicably taken but did not take which would have eliminated or ameliorated the risk.

I find that there were constant verbal directions to strap loaded “A” frame pallets before any movement. The responsibility for the incident lies not with the defendant but elsewhere.

I therefore find the defendant not guilty.

This case reinforces that it is incumbent on an employer to be able to demonstrate that they have proper systems in place to manage the health and safety risks in their business and that those systems are implemented, understood, constantly applied and enforced.

 The inherent weakness in most health and safety reporting is it does not confirm any of these matters.

Injury rates do not give us this information.  The number of action items that have been closed out does not give us this information.  The number of management walk arounds or “interactions” does not give us this information.

Let me address the obvious objection at this point.  In my view, this is not just about legal compliance.  If an organisation does not have effective assurance that they have proper systems in place to manage the health and safety risks in their business and that those systems are implemented, understood, constantly applied and enforced how can they have any comfort that health and safety risks are being managed?

In my view, it is beyond argument that health and safety reporting needs to move beyond measures of injury rates and “activity” and start to provide positive assurance the critical health and safety risks are being managed.

 

 

 

Everything is Green: The delusion of health and safety reporting

Over the past 12 months, I have been engaged in a significant amount of health and safety “assurance” work, helping organisations to try and understand if the health and safety risks in their business are effectively managed.  Perhaps the most enduring image to come out of the last 12 months for me is the misleading and dangerous assumptions people make based on health and safety reports. 

 Often, when people look to criticise health and safety reporting, they point to lag indicators such as injury rates.  I do not want to talk about injury rates as a measure of health and safety performance in this article, so I would like to put that issue to bed with this observation from the Pike River Royal Commission

The statistical information provided to the board on health and safety comprised mainly personal injury rates and time lost through accidents … 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.” 

Let’s be clear.  There are no major accident enquiries that have identified personal injury rates as a legitimate measure of the effectiveness of health and safety management.  Personal injury rates are a measure of how many personal injuries have occurred – no more.  Any organisation that assumes personal injury rates are a measure of the effectiveness of their safety management system is misguided.  We have known this for decades. 

The challenge is not managing personal injury rates.  The challenge is proving the effectiveness of our crucial systems for managing health and safety risk.  If our systems are effective to manage health and safety risks, improved safety performance should follow. However, the reverse does not hold true, and countless major accident enquiries have identified fundamentally flawed safety management systems disguised by good and improving personal injury rates. 

We have seen over time the development of so-called “lead” indicators as a counterpoint to traditional, lag indicators.  Lead indicators, supposedly designed to provide insight into the effectiveness of safety management systems. 

But do they? 

Overwhelmingly, lead indicators are nothing more than a measure of activity and the fact that our measures of activity have 100% compliance – they are all green – creates a dangerous illusion of safety. 

A popular “lead” indicator for safety and health is the number of management interactions.  These might be variously described as safety conversations, safe act observations, behavioural observations, safety interactions, management walk arounds and so on.  Inevitably, they show up in a health and safety report as part of a table of lead indicators or a dashboard of “traffic lights“.  These indicators, or traffic lights, are usually coloured red if the indicator has not been met, amber if it has not been completely met and green if the requirement has been met. 

Other, typical indicators might include: 

·    Corrective actions closed;

·    Audits completed;

·    Training completed;

·    Hazards identified; or

·    Pre-start or “Take 5” cards completed.

No doubt there are countless more. 

The difficulty with all of these indicators is that they are measures of “activity“.  Invariably, they tell us whether things have been “done“. 

They tell us nothing about the quality or effectiveness of the activity. 

They tell us nothing about the influence of the activity on safety. 

They make no contribution to proving the effectiveness of our crucial systems. 

One of the phenomena that I have observed about health and safety management over the years is the notion of the “safety paradox“.  The safety Paradox supposes that everything we do in the name of health and safety can both improve and undermine safety in the workplace.  A very good example is a frontline risk assessment tool such as the JHA. 

The JHA is a ubiquitous frontline risk assessment tool implemented by organisations all over the world.  At its best, it can be an effective mechanism to help frontline workers identify the risks associated with their work and develop suitable controls to manage those risks. 

Conversely, it also can disengage the workforce from the safety management message of the organisation and drive a complete “us and them” mentality. 

Research suggests that significant numbers of workers see frontline risk assessment tools like the JHA as a backside covering exercise, designed to protect managers from legal risk in the event of an accident.  In most workplaces, this idea does not come as a complete shock, and there is a general acceptance of the limits or weaknesses inherent in the JHA.  However, the use of the JHA continues to roll on without analysis, without thought, without critical thinking and certainly without any reporting at a managerial level about its effectiveness. 

I have never seen a health and safety report that provides information to the executive about the effectiveness of the JHA system in the business.  Given that the JHA is one of the most critical tools used by organisations for the management of high-risk activities (including working at heights, confined space entry, lifting operations and so on) I find this extraordinary. 

I am not going to advocate whether organisations should use a JHA.  But I don’t think there could be any reasonable argument for an organisation not to know whether their use of the JHA is beneficial to safety or is undermining it. 

What about incident investigations? Are Incident investigations an important system in safety management? 

Whenever I asked this question in training workshops, everybody immediately tells me that incident investigations are very important.  If I asked the question: 

On a scale of 1 to 10, with one being unimportant and 10 being critically important, how important our incident investigations? 

Inevitably the answer is 9 or 10. 

But does your system of incident investigation work?  If it is such a crucial systems, how do you prove its effectiveness?  This was an issue that the Pike River Royal Commission wanted to understand, and they looked at it as follows: 

The workers reported many incidents and accidents.  The commission analysed 1083 reports and summarised a selection of 436 and a schedule. …  there were problems with the investigation process … Incidents were never properly investigated.” 

If you are interested, an extract of cross-examination from the Royal Commission asking questions about incident investigations is available here.  It provides an interesting insight into the sorts of issues managers need to address when their safety management systems are being critically analysed. 

Again, I have never seen a health and safety report that provides information to the executive about the effectiveness of an incident investigation process.  Would it be so unreasonable to expect, and given the apparent criticality of incident investigations, that once or twice a year somebody will prepare a report for executive management summarising incident investigations and forming a view about their quality and effectiveness? 

Finally, let’s go back and consider management interactions.  As I indicated above, these are a very common lead indicator for safety management, but they are also very limited, often nothing more than a measure of how many interactions have been done.  There is typically no measure or analysis about whether interactions were done well or whether they have added value to safety management. 

It seems universally assumed management interactions around health and safety are a good thing but are they? 

What is their purpose, what are they designed to achieve and how do we know that they are achieving that purpose?  Is there a risk that management interactions could be undermining safety in your workplace? 

How do you know the or managers are not just wandering around practising random acts of safety, reinforcing unsafe behaviours and generally just pissing everybody off? 

A green traffic light in a health and safety report as an indicator that everybody who should have had a management interaction has done one is misleading and fuels the illusion of safety which underpins so many catastrophic workplace events. 

When was the last time anybody provided health and safety reporting that made any meaningful contribution to proving the effectiveness of crucial systems?  Have any leaders ever received a report showing a detailed analysis of lifting operations over a 10 month period with a formal, concluded you about the effectiveness of the safety management system to control the risks associated with lifting?  What about dropped objects?  What about working at height? 

What about the efficacy of your permit to work system?  Has that ever been analysed and reported on, other than on a case-by-case “reactive” basis following an incident? 

For your next health and safety “reporting” meeting, try this: Scrap your traditional health and safety report, pick a critical risk such as working at heights, and ask your safety manager to provide you with a presentation about whether, or to what extent, the risk has been managed as far as reasonably practicable.

What is your health and safety reporting really telling you, as opposed to the assumptions you choose to make?  Is there any evidence that it is proving the effectiveness of your crucial systems?

 

 

 

 

 

All care no responsibility: What is the role of health and safety management?

I was recently involved is some discussion on LinkedIn about the liability of health and safety managers under health and safety legislation (link here)

Several responses seemed to suggest that because health and safety managers had no authority, they should not have any accountability either – that safety managers only provide advice and have no authority over others.

I must say this is a proposition I find extraordinary, but let’s explore it.

I wrote some time ago that safety managers should have the same level of accountability as company officers, after all, they are the architects of the safety management system and should have some idea about how well it is working  (Are health and safety managers company offices and should they be ?)

Many enquiries around the world have identified that a focus on personal injury rates is not a good indicator of the effectiveness of the health and safety management system, and on occasions, the focus on personal injury rate management can distract an organisation from managing the critical health and safety risks in its business.

Quite rightly, enquiries criticise organisations where the focus on personal injury rates have undermined the effectiveness of their health and safety management system.  But surely, the health and safety manager also has an accountability?

While it might be correct to criticise a chief executive officer of such an organisation, it cannot be correct to suggest that the chief executive officer has a greater understanding of personal injury rates and their influence on safety management than the safety manager.

While the safety manager might not have “authority” surely, they have accountability to advise the organisation about the perils of overreliance on personal injury rates, and to monitor the safety management system to ensure that any reliance on personal injury rates is not undermining safety management.  It must be correct, that a safety manager should continue to warn or flag any concerns whenever they believe that the focus on personal injury rates damages effective safety management.

Is a chief executive officer’s culpability for failing to enquire about the effectiveness of personal injury rates as a measure of safety any less than a safety manager’s culpability for failing to advise?

What about the positive obligations of due diligence imposed on company officers under WHS Legislation.  Is the health and safety industry trying to argue that those standards should not apply to health and safety managers?

Under WHS Legislation, due diligence includes taking reasonable steps to achieve several stated outcomes. 

To acquire and keep up-to-date knowledge of work health and safety matters.

To gain an understanding of the nature of the operations of the business or undertaking of the person conducting the business or undertaking and generally of the hazards and risks associated with those operations.

I do not think anybody could suggest that health and safety managers do not need to meet these expectations. And if they fail to meet these expectations, surely, they should be liable in the same way as company officers.

To ensure that the person conducting the business or undertaking has available for use, and uses, appropriate resources and processes to eliminate or minimise risks to health and safety from work carried out as part of the conduct of the business or undertaking.

To ensure that the person conducting the business or undertaking has appropriate processes for receiving and considering information regarding incidents, hazards and risks and responding in a timely way to that information.

To ensure that the person conducting the business or undertaking has, and implements, processes for complying with any duty or obligation of the person conducting the business or undertaking under this Act.

While it may be true that health and safety managers cannot “ensure”, in the sense that they do not authorise capital expenditure or budgets to achieve this outcome, it is true in my view that health and safety managers are responsible for “ensuring” or at the very least knowing, if:

  • The resources and processes are suitable;
  • The resources and processes are implemented; and
  • The resources and processes are effective to manage the health and safety risks in the business. 

It cannot be right to say that a chief executive officer or another company officer who does not meet these obligations is any more liable than a health and safety manager.

The only possible, reasonable defence that a safety manager could have is they advised, and continue to advise executive management on the suitability, implementation and effectiveness of the health and safety management resources and processes, but that advice was ignored.

If health and safety managers do not have accountability to ensure (or at the very least have an intimate knowledge of) the suitability, implementation and effectiveness of the health and safety management resources and processes, then what is the purpose of having safety managers at all?

To verify the provision and use of the resources and processes referred to in [the above] paragraphs.

It could not possibly be arguable that a health and safety manager has a lesser responsibility to ensure that the resources and processes for managing health and safety risk in business are used than company officers.

Indeed, I can think of no higher duty placed on a health and safety manager than to provide ongoing verification to the business that the resources and processes in place to manage the health and safety risks in the business are in place, implemented and effective to control those risks.

Several years ago, I was at a safety conference, and there were three safety managers on stage talking through their latest success and innovation.  When it came time for questions I asked:

who is responsible for knowing if these things work?

The question seemed to stump the participants, and I got various, unsatisfactory answers ranging from descriptions of reporting processes through to abrogation of responsibilities to “risk owners”.

While everybody in an organisation has responsibilities for safety and health, surely it is the accountability of the health and safety manager, the person engaged to “manage” health and safety to know if health and safety management actually “works”?

If I want to know if my organisation is managing its health and safety risks as low as reasonably practicable, surely the person best placed to answer that question is the health and safety manager?  If they do not have oversight of the effectiveness of health and safety management in the organisation – when that is what they are employed to do – why should anybody else?

Why should the chief executive officer’s obligation to understand the effectiveness of health and safety management in their organisation be any greater than the health and safety manager’s?

It seems to me that until the health and safety industry is prepared to take ownership of health and safety management and stop hiding behind “line management responsibility” and a lack of “authority”, recognition as a “profession” is a long way away.

Until health and safety managers can clearly articulate how well the health and safety management system works in their organisation, and explain what they rely on to form that view, is the position really worthy of the title manager?

 

 

 

Welcome to the intellectual vacuum that is political comment on WHS

Today (29 October 2016) the ABC had an article on the ongoing coverage of the tragic loss of lives at Dreamworld in Queensland.

I have commented before about the disconnect between the loss of life in this workplace accident and the near weekly loss of life in Australian workplaces that the coverage of this incident highlights. That disconnect was underscored by a picture of the Federal Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, laying flowers outside Dreamworld. I do not begrudge Mr Shorten the opportunity to express his condolences (or advance his political position depending on your level of cynicism), but I cannot recall too many times political leaders have given similar public displays of solidarity when people die at our construction, mining, agricultural or any other workplaces.

But what has prompted this article is the simplistic, reactive, leaderless response that politicians trot out in the face of these types of events.

The ABC Article reports Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk as saying:

“It is simply not enough for us to be compliant with our current laws, we need to be sure our laws keep pace with international research and new technologies,”

“The audit will also consider whether existing penalties are sufficient to act as deterrents, and whether these should be strengthened to contain provisions relating to gross negligence causing death.

“Because we all know how important workplace safety is and how important it is to have strong deterrents.

“That’s why Queensland has the best record in Australia at prosecuting employers for negligence – and we are now examining current regulations to see if there are any further measures we can take to discourage unsafe practices.”

The idea that we “should not be compliant with our current laws” is both a nonsense and a failure of policy makers to properly accept the findings of the Robens Report published in the mid-1970’s. The reason our laws cannot keep pace with “international research and new technologies”, is because governments continue to insist on producing highly prescriptive suites of regulation which in most cases are adopted by organisations as the benchmark for “reasonably practicable”.

For most businesses, particularly small and medium-sized businesses, technical compliance with regulation is the high-water mark of safety management – an approach reinforced by the “checkbox” compliance mentality of many regulators.

WHS legislation is a leading example of this failure of policy, in so far as it increased the number of regulations in most of the jurisdictions where it has been implemented.

Flexible, innovative safety management requires a regulatory framework that promotes it, not limits or discourages it.  How can a regulator have any credibility when it calls on industry to keep pace with “international research”, when it continues to define safety performance through the publication of lost time and other lag injury rates?

Ms Palaszczuk then adopts the standard “tough on safety” call to arms, without taking the time to recognise inherent contradictions in what she is saying. She boasts that “Queensland has the best record in Australia at prosecuting employers for negligence”, but hints at tougher penalties still.

If the considerable penalties under the WHS Legislation and the “best record” of prosecuting employers are not a sufficient deterrent, why would “tougher” and “better” be any different?

I have written about these types of matters before, and would just ask that before policymakers go charging off in pursuit of higher penalties and more prosecutions, we stop and take the time to see if this tragedy can provide the opportunity lost during harmonisation and introduction of WHS legislation.

That lost opportunity was a chance to stop and consider the way that we regulate and manage health and safety in this country.

And can we start with the question of whether criminalising health and safety breaches and managing safety through a culture of fear driven by high fines and penalties is the best way to achieve the safety outcomes we want?

What is the evidence proving high penalties and prosecutions improve safety outcomes?

Are there ways that we can regulate safety to provide significant deterrents and consequences for people who disregard health and safety in the workplace, but at the same time foster a culture of openness, sharing and a willingness to learn and improve?

Can we redirect the time, money, expertise and resources that are poured into enforcement, prosecution and defending legal proceedings in a way that adds genuine value as opposed to headline value?

This is a chance to stop and think. This is a chance for the health and safety industry to stand up, intervene and take a leadership role in health and safety.

If we do not, the intellectual vacuum will continue to be filled by the historical approaches that have brought us to where we are today.