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Are you ‘getting amongst it’ at your workplace as you lead your workforce through cultural and technological change in the 21st century?

The award-winning 1998 film Saving Private Ryan opened with a bloody 27-minute sequence depicting the Omaha Beach landing during World War II. It was a depiction so realistic that many war veterans walked out of cinema screenings.

But, curled up in her hotel room, watching the re-run to fill in time between meetings on a recent business trip, Marilyn Hubner, training and research support coordinator with the National Safety Council of Australia (NSCA), saw something else besides the historical horror scenes unfolding.

“It showed a leader [Captain John Miller, played by Tom Hanks], who’d been tasked with a seemingly impossible job, working alongside the people he commanded,” says Hubner, who is currently investigating the development of safety attitudes and perceptions of construction supervisors as part of her doctoral  studies. “He didn’t send men into a dangerous situation that he himself was unwilling to confront. Rather, he fought beside them, and even when he was injured he kept running, fighting, doing the job and motivating by example.”

Walking with their team and understanding the tasks they’re asking them to tackle is something that leaders at work should do more of as they face the challenges of a changing landscape, Hubner says. “There’s something to be said for leaders being seen at the coalface, out on the floor or at the worksite, walking around and keeping the channels of communication open,” she says.

“My research is showing that managers do care about safety from an individual perspective, but once they’re required to adopt a broader organisational focus, some of that immediacy and connection gets lost.”

Such an approach represents a growing appreciation within work health and safety (WHS) circles of the importance of the context in which work occurs, compared with the traditional focus on risks (such as dangerous goods, shiftwork and so on). Elements relevant to the context of work include employee involvement, work/life balance, growth and development, recognition and the valuing of health and safety issues.

“We also know that commitment from senior management is an absolute requirement for safety,” Hubner adds, “but the commitment needs to be demonstrated to workers in a practical, not systematic, manner.”

As the only Australian industry representative for the International Institute for Critical Pedagogy and Transformative Leadership, Hubner will be among the key speakers at the NSCA Foundation National Safety Conference, ‘The Challenges of Workplace Safety in the 21st Century’, to be held in Sydney in October 2015. She will present some of her research into safety perceptions and workplace cultures, including the surprising finding that large companies possessing the resources to maintain comprehensive WHS departments may be perceived as less supportive than smaller ones. “Large organisations offer great systems and policy, but that commitment is rarely shown to workers in a coalface situation,” she says.

In an earlier project, Hubner interviewed divers working on ocean oil and gas rigs. Some were employed by one small dive operator that had just 12 staff. “The managing director goes out on the boats with divers, walks and talks with every employee, attends staff meetings and hosts related functions,” she explains. “The same divers, when employed by bigger dive operators, report not seeing that at all—possibly because as companies grow, the hierarchy grows, and senior managers just don’t have time to do those things any more.”

Another speaker at the NSCA Foundation National Safety Conference is Chi-Ming Law, who has been the secretary general of the Asia-Pacific Occupational Safety and Health Organization (APOSHO) since 2010 and is currently the honorary president of the Hong Kong Occupational Safety and Health Association. He will examine the poorly understood differences between leadership and management, and how conceptualisations of both are changing.

For example, Law notes that “participative management”, in which new directions emerge from individuals and work groups, is a highly effective form of leadership. “The development of this trend may ultimately lead to the inclusion of input from end users or customers, who may then become the eventual leaders as they are providing new directions and market-oriented perceptions,” he says.

Law argues that safety leadership is of equal if not greater importance than other types of business leadership. “[More] consideration must be imposed upon safety leadership because of the presence of significant potential consequences, such as permanent disability and loss of life, which are not recoverable,” he says. “In the past, safety leadership has not been given the priority it deserves, and strict compliance with statutory requirements has resulted in minimum standards.”

Law further notes the challenges associated with new technologies and the ways they are changing how and where work is undertaken. “The internet … has propagated an absolute incentive of automation, which will inevitably decrease human intervention,” he says. This will minimise human exposure to high-risk operations, further shifting the balance of WHS away from personal, individual risks and towards the creation and maintenance of systems. “We would expect to see traditional safety activities decrease until full automation is achieved, at which point they would vanish,” he adds. “Ultimately, [it will] come to pass, so preparation and planning should be undertaken now.”

Emerging in the wake of this phenomenon is what Law describes as a “total safety and health culture” that would be adopted by the public at large. “Individuals will be habituated to health and safety considerations and practices, and these will be totally integrated into daily life,” he explains. Workplace accidents will not be tolerated; nor will corner-cutting practices that subvert safety initiatives. “Public demand for healthy and safe work environments will form one single, acceptable standard, and this will be adopted by leaders, managers and individual workers,” he says.

Hubner agrees that a culture that de-normalises workplace accidents, even in high-risk industries, is crucial. “Many organisations still perceive safety as … an added extra, rather than the main event,” she says. “This happens because we, as a society, want things fast and cheap; as such, internal pressures often outweigh any obligations people feel to safety.”

But Hubner is optimistic this culture can change. “Using environmental awareness as an example, it’s clear that people are moving towards alternative energy sources and demand for organic foods is growing; as this momentum builds, the costs come down,” she says. “It will take time, but eventually we’ll get to a point where safety performance is not only an absolute priority, it also doesn’t have to cost more money.”

Download the story in PDF rsz_masthead-convertedLeadership, culture & technology in the 21st century (PDF, 1633kB) 

By Denise Cullen, published in National Safety magazine,
May-June 2015.

 


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