Thought Leadership


From Down Under: A boss’s view of the safety fraternity

January 22, 2014
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ISHN Guest BlogI am the managing director of Australia's largest safety solutions organisation, the Industrial Foundation for Accident Prevention (IFAP).  We are a wholly self-funded, not for profit organisation which provides services across the broad spectrum of safety-related matters ranging from low level induction style training courses to whole-of-organisation safety culture change programmes. Many of the services we provide are deemed as "high risk work" including helicopter underwater escape training; advanced fire fighting; crane operation; confined spaces entry and working at heights. We are constantly asked by our clients to "push the envelope" in simulating the reality of our training courses, and as a result we are constantly considering the reality v organisational risk balance in relation to the services we offer.

I am in a rare position whereby not only am I a safety professional in my own right, but I am also the "boss" of 75 safety pros on my team of 120 staff.

I use the term “safety pro” very loosely here. Unlike in the US, Australia does not have a robust safety professional recognition protocol. Although my country has been leading the international discussion on transportability of safety credentials (viz the Body of Knowledge project), our own backyard is in a state of disorder.

The vast majority (estimated at >80%) of persons in the safety fraternity do not hold degree-level qualifications. The favoured qualification is known as a Certificate IV in Workplace Health and Safety, which can be gained in less than a week of face-to-face learning.

Nearly equal in popularity is the Diploma in Workplace Health and Safety, which purports to be at a higher level than the Certificate IV, but can be gained without first holding the Certificate IV and in just as short a time frame.

As a result we see the vast majority of "safety pros" being under-qualified for the roles they aspire to hold. This statement may seem to denigrate the local safety profession - it is not meant to do so - it is simply a statement of the contemporary circumstance in my country.

Full responsibility

I now turn to my role as Managing Director. In Australia, this appointment brings with it full responsibility for the governance of the organisation, and has fiduciary accountabilities - importantly the fiduciary requirements only apply to shareholders (stakeholders in IFAP’s case) and do not include staff.

So the legal structures for which I am accountable, exempts worker safety in the first instance. I am sure that similar requirements apply to corporations in the US. I am continually boggled by the number of safety people in my country who are blithely unaware of the Corporations Code and why it is such a focal point of corporate governance (and why safety might not rate as highly as the safety person might like).

But the Corporations Code actually requires organisations to implement a "culture of compliance" which at first blush is interpreted as "compliance with the corporations code ..." but that (in the hands of a skilful safety professional) can also be used to ensure compliance with parallel legislation (such as environmental protection, safety etc).

A very good first step

Very few safety professionals in Australia actually "get" this concept, (I venture because of the lack of qualifications) but if a business case for safety is to be built, then using this natural lever is a very good first step.

I quite often hear the lament from the safety fraternity that "my manager doesn't understand me ..." To this I reply - when one understands the myriad of demands placed upon C-level personnel, why should it be incumbent upon them to "learn the language of safety" (environment, labour laws, accounting, IP, IT, etc).

The language of management

Rather, if safety pros are so keen to have their voices heard, the responsibility should be on them to learn the language of management, and place their commentary in the management context.

This somewhat simplified view is (in my experience) further complicated because the safety profession cannot come to agreement with the terms it uses. In a previous forum hosted by Prof Geller I have commented on the insanity of using the term "incident" as a euphemism for "accident" which seems to be the preferred position of the safety profession (although, pleasingly, this seems to be changing, albeit slowly).

Complicating the conversation

It’s time the profession realised that C-level executives know what an accident is, and introducing a new term with fluffy edges around it complicates a conversation. But worse than this is when one tries to explain a couple of the fundamental tenets of the safety discipline.

By way of example - we often cite the "systems approach to managing hazards" and the "hierarchy of controls" as the two most important premises around which safety efforts are built. But the systems approach (as it is most often taught in Australia) exists as an open loop, with no feedback mechanism (goodness - C-level execs will understand what constitutes a system!) and my research in Australia has emphasised that there exist five different versions of the hierarchy of controls, with the number of the levels ranging from five to seven (and one international model postulated nearly two dozen levels!).

For years the safety movement has thrust the concept of a simple (can I call it linear without offending folks?) relationship between the number of "near misses" to "fatalities." C-level executives just don't swallow this stuff....

And so the safety movement resorts to the potential threat of sanction if an organisation breaks the safety legislation.

Threats fail to attract executives' attention

A really interesting piece of work done in the early ‘90s by the Australian industry Commission found that the likely penalty for a legislative breach (based upon #of inspections; chance of prosecution and likely fine) was $33. Compare that to jail time and fines of hundreds of thousands of dollars for a breach of the Corporations Code, and once can see why the threat of punitive outcomes falls short of attracting C-level executives' attention.

So let's consider why safety pros might struggle with their bosses.

Most posit that it's because managers aren't committed to safety efforts. So if that's the case, how do safety pros (realistically) expect the commitment to be demonstrated? I'm a big fan of MBWA because it works on so many levels - but give me something different to "being visible" that satisfies the safety profession's need for demonstration of commitment.

And let us be cognisant of the fact that every organisational pursuit needs management commitment for it to be effective, and therefore the safety pro needs to understand that they are one of many demanding attention from busy managers...

A final thought

Here's a final thought for you to mull over. 25% of my annual potential bonus is derived from the organisation’s 'safety performance, which despite my better efforts to convince my Board otherwise, is based on our organisational LTIFR.

In 2011 we had one LTI for the year - an older employee fell down a set of stairs at an off-site function centre in which we were hosting a breakfast event. His previously operated upon knee gave way while descending the stairs, and because he had three points of contact, he managed to badly wrench his shoulder when he caught his full weight on the supporting arm.

Question 1 - how is my personal commitment to injury prevention demonstrated here, and what could I have done to prevent the accident?

Question 2 - why did I lose my bonus?

And final question - when it came time for the older worker to have surgery to address his shoulder injury, a tumour the size of a tennis ball was found under his shoulder blade ... the upshot being that the fall saved his life.

Question 3 - if the logic behind question 1 was to apply, why wasn't my bonus increased for saving this workers life?

A simple adage for the safety profession - what interests my boss delights the heck out of me... The profession could do a lot worse than to understand what interests their bosses.

Cheers to all,

Martin

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