This is my first article / opinion piece on LinkedIn, in fact my first article in any forum and I’d like to share my views on the current state of workplace safety.
I believe that by large degree, we’ve lost our way. Compliance has become the main attraction. Don’t get me wrong, compliance is important, it provides our licence to operate but this obsession has led us to the misdirected view that systems are the answer to everything. The same systems that we have designed to protect the reputations of our MPs and the backsides of our Directors, CEOs and senior managers have become so complex and resource hungry that they are hurting our profitability and productivity but are not improving health and safety outcomes for our frontline workers, in this area our performance has plateaued.
18 months ago I was at the crossroads; I started to question whether I wanted to continue in a career that I felt so passionately about. I was sick and tired of conducting audits and investigations that went nowhere, fed up with seeing management plans and procedures not being utilised, annoyed at being called a narc or a nerd, embarrassed at how easy it is for some to become a ‘safety professional’ or the exploits of some of our ‘safety nazis,’ frustrated at seeing the same issues crop up in clients big and small and disillusioned and disgusted at seeing regular reports of serious injuries and fatalities caused by the same failures.
Over the years I’ve racked up plenty of hours in the mining and construction industries and dabbled in government, stevedoring and a few others but it was the first 15 years of my working life slogging it out as a mechanical tradesman in the steel industry and in the coal industry as an operator / tradesman and mining supervisor that has had the biggest influence on my direction as a safety practitioner. During that time, I saw 3 of my work mates perish in a gas outburst and another mate have his arm all-but severed as an earthmoving tyre locking ring violently slammed into him. I have always tried to orient my efforts through the lens of the front line worker and supervisor, striving to have a positive impact on safety at the pointy end.
But after 18 months of thought and some solid research I’m reinvigorated and excited about what the future holds for safety. There is a growing movement exploring, creating, agitating and promoting a different approach to safety that has been best summed up by Sidney Dekker, that people aren’t the problem, people are the solution!” There is some great material out there, just look for names like Dekker, Hollnagel, Pink, Dweck, Rae, Braithwaite, Pitzer, Long, Green, Hummerdal, Collins and several others.
The new view of safety is not about ignoring the processes we’ve developed and used over the last 30 years, it’s about a change in focus and stripping out complexity and bureaucracy, focusing on critical risks – preventing fatalities and permanently disabling injuries and illnesses. It is not a ‘silver bullet’ program that we can purchase and ram into our businesses – the current ‘mindfulness’ brigade comes to mind here. It is about people, relationships, growth and adapting our systems, equipment and our overall outlook to recognise the complexity of human condition and risk; leading not as a ‘hero’ but as an enabler, belief in our teams.
We can also learn a lot from other professions – lawyers like Greg Smith, former elite military personnel like Mark Divine and Rhys Dowden.
But like most things worthwhile, it’s going to take some bloody hard work, the resistance to change, to move away from our traditional model, is strong. Luckily we’ve got some courageous companies leading the charge, Laing O’Rourke are one good example. It would be great to hear from others that are willing to take on the challenge. More of the same isn’t going to get us where we want to go.