This morning I was doing some work with contractors talking about the concept of health and safety assurance, both in the context of reasonably practicable and due diligence.
One of my areas of interest and concern when working with organisations to understand if their health and safety risks are being managed, is that a great deal that is done in the name of safety and health is characterised and measured in terms of “activity”. In my experience, very little regard is had to the “purpose” of the activity, whether that activity achieves the relevant purpose and whether the purpose is beneficial for safety and health outcomes.
I have looked at these issues previously in my articles, A short primer on due diligence and Lead indicators: Reinforcing the illusion of safety.
As an example, the group discussed the idea of management “walk arounds” or safety conversations. Amongst the group we were able to identify a number of potential “purposes” for this activity, including to confirm whether risks were being controlled, to demonstrate management commitment to safety and to understand any concerns from the workforce.
Most of the organisations involved in the discussion had the “number” of safety conversations managers held as a key performance indicator.
In every case however, the only measure applied to this management task was the number done, that is a measure of “activity”. There was no measure, or even consideration given to, whether this management activity was effective in achieving the purpose. Moreover, none of the organisations had even turned their mind to the possible negative ramifications of this management activity.
In my experience, whatever the intention of the manager while conducting a walk around or safety conversation, if they are perceived by the workforce as being an unnecessary intrusion on their working day or worse, a manager simply trying to tick their KPI’s for the month, they can have profound, negative effects on health and safety and completely disengaged the workforce from the safety message that managers are trying to deliver.
100% compliance with the scheduled numbers of management safety conversations might look good on a traffic light scorecard and might give a sense of comfort, but there is a significant risk that the activity is actually undermining safety performance and contributing to the illusion of safety.
I am not saying all management activities are negative, I am just saying that most organisations do not know what the impact is. Rather, we make assumptions based on the numbers – if we do a lot, the outcome must be good.
Having finished the morning discussions, I was reading the news from ABC online, when I came across the following article:
Eddie McGuire’s comments ‘incredibly disappointing’, Cabinet ministers say
The article deals with the recent controversy over comments by various AFL football commentators in the context of violence against women.
Christian Porter, the Social Services Minister linked the comments to the Government’s new $30 million domestic violence campaign, and the report goes on to state:
According to Mr Porter, the Stop it at the Start campaign has already had 25 million individual views, making it the most successful domestic violence campaign launched by any Government. [My emphasis added]
I could accept this comment if the “purpose” of the campaign was to get as many individual views as possible. However, I would have thought a more appropriate measure of success for a domestic violence campaign – one that is presumably linked to its “purpose” – would be a reduction in the instance of domestic violence.
A similar dilemma occurred a number of years ago in relation to Victorian railway safety and the “dumb ways to die” campaign. This campaign was also hailed as a success based on its very high level of traction in social media, although I understand the number of fatalities on Victorian railways actually increased (see for example Dr Rob Long’s comments in Dumb Ways to Die and a Strange Sense of Success).
It seems that style over substance, or activity over purpose is not limited to health and safety management, but it does represent a threat to the management of whatever problem it is applied to.
Health and safety initiatives are, or at least should be, designed to achieve outcomes in the workplace. They are not initiatives for their own sake, nor are they perpetuated as wellsprings of activity.
Every health and safety initiative should have a clearly articulated understanding of its purpose, and a set of criteria by which that purpose will be achieved. We also need to bear in mind the ongoing safety paradox; while safety initiatives have within them the potential to improve health and safety, equally they have the potential to undermine health and safety and make our workplaces less safe.
What do you know about your safety initiatives?