Safety: Seriously Super or Silliness?

Anyone who works in an industrial setting is familiar with the concept of Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S, HSE, or one of the multitude of variations on the name).

Working in the field, the battle around OH&S and its acceptance is relentless.  Every company has their version of a set of 'Golden Rules', a specific training course designed to get you up to date and a regime of hazard observation and constant reporting that is allegedly designed to make workplaces safer.

Does it? Well, perhaps the proof is in the pudding...

Incidents are certainly occurring at a lower rate than they were 20 or 30 years ago.  However, there is something to be said for trying to avoid a safety culture that is about stifling productivity.

So where is the line between taking care of people and stifling their ability to work and think?

The answer isn't clear; obviously, since thousands of corporate man-hours have gone into thinking about this.  It does not help that we live in such a litigious society, meaning a portion of the motivation is what I like to call "booty insurance(or better known in the industry as CYA - Cover Your A***).  In the absence of academic knowledge in the area, I have decided to go with my personal-anthropological-observational-learnings and extrapolate wildly from there.

In a couple of interesting conversations recently, starkly different attitudes towards safety have come to light in sharp relief.  Here are a couple of the different characters people (by and large) fall into.

The old bloke who does NOT think any of the safety initiatives make an ounce of a difference.

"Back in my day..."

The standard call of the old-timer is that back in his day things were different and people were fine.

Except they weren't always fine, and when you dig a little deeper they usually admit a lot of people were hurt ("oh yeh, he put his back out, oh yeh, well he only has three fingers now").

They do have a fair point in saying that excessive reporting  does not necessarily mean people are thinking more about the task at hand.

These (mostly) men usually have their hearts in the right place and seemingly the largest frustration is not at the interest in safety, but the tools used to implement them.  Extra paperwork, repetitious reporting and superfluous systems often cause rejection of the concept outright rather than a tenacious engagement the rest of us green hands could use.

The young one who has just accepted it is a numbers game.

A fair few of young lads and ladies coming into the system fit into this category.  We understand it is a requirement - we haven't known the system to be any different really - and follow only because we must.

Write one hazard per person per day? Done.

Think about one hazard per person per day? Hmm, not so much.

True engagement in the system isn't guaranteed, and this is the weakness in the system.  How do you force people to think?  The frameworks in place are supposed to do this, yet...

The safety lad / lady who has never worked on the rig/in the workshop/on the track.

The archetype of the disliked safety official.

An individual who exists more in people's minds than in reality, this the type of individual who enjoys reporting on others without a conversation first, does not necessarily take on feedback from the field operators and generally is a blight on the safety cause.

Perhaps companies are more this character than individuals though.  People can be reasoned with, most of the time. Corporations and institutions are much more behemoth.

The safety person who has seen too many people get (or almost get) hurt and wants to do something about it.

...and this is the person who has the capacity to make the most difference.

Fortunately, the vast majority of the safety personnel on site that I have met are of this variety.  It is just unfortunate that they have to seemingly fight a battle with their institution to be able to communicate the culture and restrictions on site to the rule makers in the office.


The cowboy culture of doing things crazily and dangerously is not as prevalent as people think (or as I thought it would be), particularly in Australia.  So suffocation of field operators with rules and regulations can be self defeating if it is excessive and the monotony or ineffectiveness of the tool removes from the outcome.  For example, operating procedures that are 50 pages long when all that is needed is a simple step-by-step 'this is how you use this piece of equipment' in a way that mitigates the hazards.  By over-complicating the tool, people are dissuaded from using it.

Another example is the banning of products in a reactionary manner due to an involvement in a single incident.  There is a rumour that a mine site banned rags as they were involved in some sort of incident, only to reinstate them a few days later as they realised the workshop couldn't really operate without rags.

Ultimately, however, we all want to go home, and being safe in a workplace is imperative in allowing that to happen.  For that to happen, safety must be a part of the equation.  The trick is to getting the balance right.  Like everything else, that involves communication, respect and a healthy teaspoon of cement.

(I kid).

What do you think?