When is a person conducting a business or undertaking?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Court noted Perilya:

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

With respect to HSE reporting, the Court said:

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

And

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

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

It is what was happening in practice that is important

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

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

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

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.

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.

 

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.

Reflections on Safety: Reasonably Practicable

In August 2016, I wrote a WHS Update about the High Court decision, Deal v Father Pius Kodakkathanath [2016] HCA 31 which considered the legal test of Reasonably Practicable in the context of Australian health and safety legislation. Shortly after that, one of my connections on Linkedin posted an article about Reasonably Practicable. The article offered an engineering perspective on “As Low as Reasonably Practicable” (ALARP), stating:

… recent developments in Australian workplace health and safety law place proactive responsibilities on senior personnel in organisations, so they must be fully informed to make proper decisions

This sentiment seemed similar to an earlier engineering publication which argued that ALARP and “So Far as is Reasonably Practicable” (SFARP) were different and that this difference was, in part a least as result of “harmonised”, WHS legislation.

In both cases, I believed the articles were misaligned with the legal construct of Reasonably Practicable and misrepresented that there had been a change in the legal test of Reasonably Practicable prompted by changes to WHS legislation.

This background caused me to reflect again on the notion of Reasonably Practicable and what it means in the context of legal obligations for health and safety.

To start, I do take issue with the suggestion that changes to WHS legislation have resulted in a shift in what Reasonably Practicable means. The basis of this idea seems to be an apparent change in terminology from ALARP to SFARP.

The term SFARP was in place in health and safety legislation before the introduction of WHS and jurisdictions that have not adopted WHS legislation still use the term. For example, the primary obligations under the Victorian Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 are set out in section 20, and state:

To avoid doubt, a duty imposed on a person by this Part or the regulations to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, health and safety requires the person …

Indeed, the architects of WHS legislation[1] specifically retained the term Reasonably Practicable because it was a common and well-understood term in the context of Australian health and safety legislation:

5.51 Reasonably practicable is currently defined or explained in a number of jurisdictions. The definitions are generally consistent, with some containing more matters to be considered than others. The definitions ‘are consistent with the long settled interpretation by courts, ‘in Australia and elsewhere.

5.52 The provision of the Vic Act relating to reasonably practicable was often referred to in submissions (including those of governments) and consultations as either a preferred approach or a basis for a definition of reasonably practicable.

5.53 We recommend that a definition or section explaining the application of reasonably practicable be modelled on the Victorian provision. We consider that, with some modification, it most closely conforms to what would be suitable for the model Act.  [My emphasis added]

In my view, it is unarguable that the concept of Reasonably Practicable has been well-settled in Australian law for a considerable period, and the concept has not changed with the introduction of WHS legislation.

If we accept that Reasonably Practicable has been consistently applied in Australia for some time, the next question is, what does it mean?

Reasonably Practicable is a defined term in most health and safety legislation in Australia.  Section 20(2) of the Victorian Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004, for example, states:

(2) To avoid doubt, for the purposes of this Part and the regulations, regard must be had to the following matters in determining what is (or was at a particular time) reasonably practicable in relation to ensuring health and safety—

 (a) the likelihood of the hazard or risk concerned eventuating; 

 (b) the degree of harm that would result if the hazard or risk eventuated; 

 (c) what the person concerned knows, or ought reasonably to know, about the hazard or risk and any ways of eliminating or reducing the hazard or risk; 

 (d) the availability and suitability of ways to eliminate or reduce the hazard or risk; 

 (e) the cost of eliminating or reducing the hazard or risk.

In the High Court decision, Slivak v Lurgi (Australia) Pty Ltd [2001] HCA 6, Justice Gaudron described Reasonably Practicable as follows:

The words “reasonably practicable” have, somewhat surprisingly, been the subject of much judicial consideration. It is surprising because the words “reasonably practicable” are ordinary words bearing their ordinary meaning. And the question whether a measure is or is not reasonably practicable is one which requires no more than the making of a value judgment in the light of all the facts. Nevertheless, three general propositions are to be discerned from the decided cases:

  • the phrase “reasonably practicable” means something narrower than “physically possible” or “feasible”;
  • what is “reasonably practicable” is to be judged on the basis of what was known at the relevant time;
  • to determine what is “reasonably practicable” it is necessary to balance the likelihood of the risk occurring against the cost, time and trouble necessary to avert that risk.[2] [my emphasis added]

Another High Court decision, Baiada Poultry Pty Ltd v The Queen [2012] HCA 14, emphasised similar ideas.

The case concerned that the death of a subcontracted worker during forklift operations.  Baiada was the Principal who had engaged the various contractors to perform the operations and in an earlier decision the court had concluded:

it was entirely practicable for [Baiada] to required contractors to put loading and unloading safety measures in place and to check whether those safety managers were being observed from time to time ((2011) 203 IR 396 at 410)

On appeal, the High Court framed this finding differently.  They observed:

As the reasons of the majority in the Court of Appeal reveal by their reference to Baiada checking compliance with directions it gave to [the contractors], the question presented by the statutory duty “so far as is reasonably practicable” to provide and maintain a safe working environment could not be determined by reference only to Baiada having a legal right to issue instructions to its subcontractors. Showing that Baiada had the legal right to issue instructions showed only that it was possible for Baiada to take that step. It did not show that this was a step that was reasonably practicable to achieve the relevant result of providing and maintaining a safe working environment. That question required consideration not only of what steps Baiada could have taken to secure compliance but also, and critically, whether Baiada’s obligation “so far as is reasonably practicable” to provide and maintain a safe working environment obliged it: (a) to give safety instructions to its (apparently skilled and experienced) subcontractors; (b) to check whether its instructions were followed; (c) to take some step to require compliance with its instructions; or (d) to do some combination of these things or even something altogether different. These were questions which the jury would have had to decide in light of all of the evidence that had been given at trial about how the work of catching, caging, loading and transporting the chickens was done.[3] [my emphasis added]

In light of these, and other decided cases it is possible to form a practical test to consider what is Reasonably Practicable.  In my view, it is necessary for an organisation to demonstrate that they:

  • Have “Proper Systems” to manage the health and safety risks in their business; and
  • Exercise “Adequate Supervision” to ensure that the Proper Systems are implemented and effective to manage the risks.

What constitutes Proper Systems and Adequate Supervision is a judgement call that needs to be determined with regard to the risks.  It requires an organisation to balance the risk against the cost, time and trouble of managing it.[4]

It is also worth noting at this point, that Reasonably Practicable is, generally speaking, an organisational obligation.  It is not an individual,[5] and in particular, it is not an employee obligation.

I often see, when working with clients, safety documents required be signed by employees that the state that risks have been controlled to “ALARP”.  This is not the employee’s responsibility and the extent to which an employee does or does not control the risk to ALARP does not affect an employer’s obligations.

In broad terms, it is the organisation’s (PCBU or employer) obligation to manage risks as low as, or so far as is, Reasonably Practicable.  The employee obligation is to do everything “reasonable”.  This includes complying with the organisation’s systems.

It is the organisation’s obligation to identify the relevant health and safety risks and define how they will be controlled, ensuring that the level of control is “Reasonably Practicable.  It is the employee’s obligation to comply with the organisation’s requirements.

So, what might Reasonably Practicable look like in practice?

I recently defended a case that involved a worker who was seriously injured at work.  Although the injury did not result from a fall from height, the prosecution case against my client was based on failure to meet its obligations about working at heights.

My client had, on any measure, a Proper System for managing the risk of work at heights.  They had a documented working at height Standard and Procedure both of which were consistent with industry best practice and regulator guidance material.  All work at height above 1.8 m required a permit to work and a JHA.  The documented procedures prescribed appropriate levels of supervision and training.

In the three years before the relevant incident, my client had not had a working at height incident of any sort nor had they had a health and safety incident at all.  Based on all of our investigations as part of preparing the case, there was nothing to suggest that the incident information was not legitimate.

The activity which was being performed at the time of the incident was conducted routinely, at least weekly, at the workplace.

In looking to construct a Reasonably Practicable argument to defend the case what would we be trying to do?  In essence, I would be trying to establish that the incident was an aberration, a “one off departure” from an otherwise well understood, consistently applied system of work that was wholly appropriate to manage the risk of working at heights.

In practice, that would mean:

  • Producing statements from all of the workers who performed this task describing how it was performed in practice, and demonstrating that their understanding of the way the work was performed in practice was consistent with the requirements of the organisation’s documented systems;
  • Producing completed documentation from when the job had been performed previously, and demonstrating that the documentation was consistent with the organisation’s requirements, and completed correctly;
  • Producing statements from supervisors who approved the documentation and oversaw the performance of the work and demonstrating that their understanding of the way that the work was performed in practice was consistent with the requirements of the organisation’s documented systems;
  • Producing completed documentation from when the injured worker had performed the work previously and demonstrating that the documentation was consistent with the organisation’s requirements and completed correctly.

There may be other information that we would seek, but in broad terms, the information outlined above helps to build a case that there was a proper system that was effectively implemented and that:

  • All the workers understood the system,
  • All the workers understood how it ought to have been applied, and
  • It was applied in practice.

What happened?

Rather than be able to demonstrate that the incident was a one-off departure from an otherwise effective system, the evidence revealed a complete systemic failure.  While the documented system was a Proper System and complied with all relevant industry standards and guidelines, it was not implemented in practice.

Most compelling was the fact that, despite this being a weekly task, there was not a single instance of the working at height Standard and Procedure been complied with.  We could not produce a single example where either the injured worker or indeed any worker who had performed the task had done so under an approved permit to work with an authorised JHA.

All of the workers gave evidence that the primary risk control tool on site was a Take 5.  The Take 5 is a preliminary risk assessment tool, and only if that risk assessment scored 22 or above was a JHA required.  The task in question was always assessed as 21.  The requirement for a JHA, in the minds of the workforce, was never triggered and none of them understood the requirements of the Standard or Procedure.

To me, this case is entirely indicative of the fundamental failure of Reasonably Practicable in most workplaces.  In the vast majority of cases that I have been involved in the last 25 years, organisations have systems that would classify as Proper Systems.  They are appropriate to manage the risk that they were designed to manage.

Equally, organisations cannot demonstrate Adequate Supervision.  While there may be audits, inspections, checking and checklists – there is no targeted process specifically designed to test and understand whether the systems in place to manage health and safety risks in the business are in fact implemented and are effective to manage those risks.

In my experience, most organisations spend far too much time trying to devise the “perfect” Proper System.  We spend far too little time understanding what needs to be done to confirm that the System works, and then leading the confirmation process.

Reasonably Practicable has not changed.

Reasonably Practicable is not a numeric equation.

Reasonably Practicable changes over time.

Reasonably Practicable is an intellectual exercise and a judgement call to decide how an organisation will manage the health and safety risks in its business.

Reasonably Practicable requires an organisation to demonstrate that they:

  • Have “Proper Systems” to manage the health and safety risks in their business; and
  • Exercise “Adequate Supervision” to ensure that the Proper Systems are implemented and effective to manage the risks.

What constitutes Proper Systems and Adequate Supervision is a judgement call that needs to be determined with regard to the risks.  It requires an organisation to balance the risk against the cost, time and trouble of managing it.

[1] See the National Review into Model Occupational Health and Safety Laws: First Report, October 2008.

[2] Slivak v Lurgi (Australia) Pty Ltd [2001] HCA 6 [53].

[3] Baiada Poultry Pty Ltd v The Queen [2012] HCA 14 [33].

[4] See also: Safe Work NSW v Wollongong Glass P/L [2016] NSWDC 58 and Collins v State Rail Authority of New South Wales (1986) 5 NSWLR 209.

[5] There are some exceptions to this where an individual, usually a manager or statutory officeholder will be required to undertake some action that is Reasonably Practicable.

This article is a general discussion about Reasonably Practicable and related concepts. it should not be relied on, and is not intended to be specific  legal advice.

Work as it is actually performed: investigating when nothing happens

There has been some discussions and commentary in various online forums recently looking at the issue of “positive” incident investigations.  Although there seems to be a variety of nuances in the description of positive investigations they focus on “what went right“.

Some of these investigation models have also incorporated a broader management technique of “appreciative enquiry“, which, as I understand it, came to prominence in the late 1980’s (see HERE for examples and information about appreciative enquiry).

The discussion about these frameworks describes the “what went right” philosophy as a positive view of investigations. It is a philosophy that does not focus on blame, but promotes discussion:

The benefit of that approach is that the conversation with witnesses is an entirely positive one. It is not about what could have happened. Not about the doom and gloom narrowly averted. Rather, it is about their heroic act, well designed process or lucky event that allowed us to avoid the adverse outcome. People love talking about positive things particularly if they had something to do with them. (https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/investigate-your-serious-near-misses-positive-way-michael-tooma?trk=prof-post)

 In my view, when organisations are not mature enough to talk about issues in a non-judgmental way, without attribution of blame, the “what went right” enquiry may present a risk.  It may be seen as a contrivance, with the facilitator spending a lot of their time saying things like “remember this is not about blame“.

In “mature” organisations the need to construct a system of enquiry to focus on the positive and avoid discussion of blame is largely redundant because the participants are aligned with and support the goals of the organisation.  Their desire to support the goals of the organisation overrides any petty, personal concerns about individual praise or blame.

If you have ever been privileged enough to work with high-performance sporting teams or elite military forces, you will understand this idea.

A precondition of belonging to these groups is the willingness to say and hear things that support the group’s objectives without personal agendas or taking personal affront.  The newest member of the team has a license to speak frankly about the performance of the most senior, and the most senior is expected to accept that conversation, not in the context of them personally, but in the context of the overall objectives of the team.

The extent to which organisations have to contrive a system whereby participants are corralled by a “what went right” narrative says a lot about the culture of an organisation and the “buy in” that people have to team objectives.

That is not to say that appreciative enquiry or investigating “what went right” does not have a place in organisations, nor that it could be an important building block along the way to developing something like an elite performing team.  But as a word of caution, you should also understand some of the paradoxes involved.

The Safety Paradox supposes that any initiative done in the name of health and safety has the potential to both improve and damage health and safety in a workplace.

Having sat through appreciative enquiry “management brainstorming sessions” and incident investigations there is a strong sense of “flavour of the month” initiative as well as an even stronger sense of avoiding accountability.  An overriding impression of a process delivered without context or explanation – why this and why now?  The end product is a wall of butcher’s paper populated with sweeping motherhood statements and management speak, completely absent any meaningful desire to manage known problems.

The pendulum, it seemed, had swung too far the other way.

Again, that is not to say it is not an idea that should not be explored and applied.  But it needs context.  It needs explanation; it needs skilful facilitation, and it needs, perhaps most importantly, dedicated and meaningful follow-up with implementation.  Otherwise?  Well, we have all been in “those” types of sessions.

Another aspect of the “what went right” investigations is the requirement for something to have occurred.  There needs to be an incident or near miss to trigger the enquiry.

A risk in the “what went right” enquiry (without more) is that it can contribute to the illusion of safety.

The illusion of safety is the gap between safety management as we imagine it in our organisation and what happens in practice.  Incident investigations can be a powerful tool in exposing the illusion of safety because they have the potential to illustrate the disconnect between what we think happens and what is happening.  By just focusing on “what went right“, particularly in near miss incidents, we may fuel the illusion of safety and create a narrative that our systems are working to protect us from these incidents – effectively papering over the cracks in the edifice.

While avoiding blame and promoting open discussion is important, so too is avoiding sugar-coating the situation.  Again, balance, transparency and genuine enquiry ought to be the goal.

I would like to suggest something different – investigating work as it is performed; investigating when nothing happens.

An investigation framework that I find useful uses systems as opposed to causal analysis.

It supposes that organisations have systems and processes in place to prevent certain things from happening and tries to understand:

  1. What should have happened: how should these are systems and processes have been applied in a particular case to prevent the particular thing from happening; and
  2.  What happened: how was the work performed in the particular case.

From there, we identify and try to explain the “gap” between what should have happened and what did happen.

This framework is not concerned with “causation“.  All identified gaps are given equal attention and analysis, regardless of their potential causal relationship with the incident.  They are all important because they all represent a potential systemic weakness in safety management which, given a different factual matrix, could be causal.

The attractiveness of this framework is that it can help you identify systemic weakness when nothing has happened.

A few years ago I was involved in an incident leading to the prosecution of a client following a working at heights incident.  The incident and the various investigations that followed revealed the usual list of suspects:

  •  Training not followed;
  •  Procedures not followed;
  •  Risks not identified;
  •  Lack of supervision;
  •  Documentation not completed properly, and so on.

As part of working with that client, we applied the systems analysis framework to a range of other, similar high-risk work, including:

  •  Examples where the same task had been performed;
  •  Examples of different working at heights tasks; and
  •  Examples of other high-risk work tasks, including lifting operations and confined space entry.

In every case, the work had been performed “successfully“, without incident or near miss.

However, the analysis of the gap between how the work should have been performed and how it was performed demonstrated the same types of “failures” in the way that work was ordinarily performed as when the incident occurred.

In other words, even when work was “successful”, procedures were not followed, risks were not identified as well as they could have been, training was not complied with, documentation was not completed and so on.

The systemic weaknesses were not just present at the time of the incident.  They were characteristic of the way work was performed in the days and months previously.

The incident was not a one-off departure from an otherwise “good” system – it was simply evidence of otherwise broader, systemic failures.

Moreover, this system analysis approach highlighted weaknesses hidden by the traditional safety metrics – injury rates, action items closed out, hazards reported, management site visits, etc. – all of which were “green“.

I have applied this method of review from time to time over the years where I have been able to convince clients of its value.  On every occasion it brings to light the gap between the safety as imagined and safety in practice, lifting the veil on the illusion of safety.

In the Pike River Royal Commission, the Commission carefully examined Pike River’s system of incident investigation to understand if it “worked“.  They reviewed 1083 incident investigations and did a detailed examination of 436 of them.  Managers were subject to examination of their understanding of the investigation process, and ultimately the Commission found that “incidents were never properly investigated“.

You can see an example of the examination of management HERE.

Weakness in incident investigations, amongst other important systems elements, formed the basis of significant criticism of Pike River and its management:

 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 the health and safety management was not taken seriously enough at Pike.

 What do your philosophy and implementation of incident investigations say about you?