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Toiling With Hearts and Hands

Our land may abound with nature’s gifts and some of us may be young and free, but are we the safest country?
Helen Borger
Published in National Safety March/April 2014 Edition

Over the past decade, Australia has lowered its incidence rate of work-related compensated injury and musculoskeletal fatality claims by 42 per cent, exceeding its target of 20 per cent. Safe Work Australia’s preliminary data says 146 such compensated fatality claims were accepted in 2011–2012. This data underestimates the real number of fatalities as not all are counted. And the most recent international comparison in 2009 shows Australia lags behind six other countries in stemming work-related compensated and uncompensated traumatic fatalities.

Also, over the past decade, Australia has only been able to reduce the incidence rate of serious compensated work-related injury and musculoskeletal disorder claims by 28 per cent, not the targeted 40 per cent. Safe Work Australia’s preliminary data says 128,050 serious claims were compensated in 2011–2012. This data underestimates the real number of such injuries.

Now, Australia is embarking on another 10-year national safety strategy, and by 2022 it hopes to have reduced the number of injury fatalities by at least 20 per cent and the incidence rate of claims requiring one or more weeks off work by at least 30 per cent.

Chair of Safe Work Australia and CEO of Carnival Australia Ann Sherry AO says any injury or fatality is unacceptable, and more needs to be done to get these tolls down.

Sherry discusses with National Safety what is working in Australian work health and safety, what is not working and what the future holds.

Good works

Despite the challenges facing Australia today, Sherry says workplace safety has improved over the past 20 years. She agrees that it’s not easy to manage safety but says “it is easier to manage when it’s embedded in the way that you think about your business … One of the things that Australian business is doing better … is rather than OHS being an overlay or additional something you do after you have done everything else, it’s more embedded in the way people are thinking about running a good business.”

One factor Sherry believes is driving this behaviour is the availability of better safety data. “Once people didn’t really measure these things … You got a report occasionally that   something had gone wrong …”

She says accessing and examining good data is fundamental to running a business well, because it leads to questioning of business and individual costs and considering ways in which things can be improved. Sherry says lost time injuries (LTIs) are part of this data. The advantage of LTIs, she says, is that they are “comparable across industry … [and] business and industry want to know [how they compare]”.

However, LTIs are a lag indicator. What about the use of positive performance indicators? Sherry says they are hard to measure but notes that Carnival Australia, for example, measure[s] everything —it doesn’t have to be an injury or a lost time”. The company also implements near miss and risk reporting, and conducts internal forums for sharing good practice, among other initiatives. “I think that is a positive outcome in business … having mechanisms to talk about things that have worked and sharing good practice,” she says. “It is the positive side of measuring … [but] it is less of a measurement and more of a process I think.”

Another factor driving improved safety is changes in the public’s view. “Once, it was the view that jobs were risky … and you accepted the risk when you went into the workplace,” notes Sherry. “Now, people have a view that workplaces should be safe, and everyone needs be part of ensuring that workplaces are safe.”

National perspective

Despite the improvements, it’s obvious more needs to be done to reduce work-related death and injury. The failure of serious injury rates to fall fast enough is one area of concern.  Sherry says high rates of injury are concentrated in particular sectors, such as agriculture and forestry, and that part of the challenge is that many of these businesses are owner-operated or small enterprises, which can be a difficult group to reach.

Ironically, in some of these sectors, technology has negatively impacted injury, as in the use of quad bikes in agriculture. “Even though technology brings you other benefits, there has been a counterpoint around health and safety [with] some of the technology,” notes Sherry. “That has been getting much more focus but continues to need more.”

Highlighting national data via Safe Work Australia is part of the strategy for improving safety outcomes. “I’m chairing a very disparate group of people … [from] industry to trade unions to state health and safety bodies,” says Sherry. The intent, despite these disparities, is to make all workplaces safer and to do it in a way that is practical and can be implemented.

She says that one of the challenges lies in the conversation about embedding safety into workplace cultures and in rewarding and showcasing workplaces that implement successful safety programs and, as a result, run their businesses more effectively. It is Safe Work Australia’s education role to join with the jurisdictions to produce material to get across the message that safety isn’t just about a regulation or requirement; it is also about making businesses work better and keeping people safer, she adds.

In addition, safety is also about simple fixes that have big impacts, not just complex solutions, says Sherry. She points to innovations that have been discovered through the annual Safe Work Australia awards, such as the redesign of farm gates to prevent people from being crushed. She says the best of the awards need more ‘airplay’ so they become part of the message to business that there are solutions available.

“Sometimes, I’m concerned that the speed of [safety] implementation is slow, because it takes a long time to get the message out.”

Generally, health and safety by design needs a more national focus. First, says Sherry, we need to be better at tapping into Australia’s intellectual property to better facilitate design. Then we need to focus on “good design that has a health and safety filter, so we can establish design principles for all sorts of things that maybe haven’t had that much design attention in the past”.

In the trenches

So, in Sherry’s view, how should individual enterprises manage safety better? The organisations that do safety well embed safety in everybody’s thinking, she says. Safety is part of managers’ and workers’ remits—so when they see someone doing the wrong thing, they should say something, not let it go; this is how safety becomes embedded in workplace cultures.

Nevertheless, it’s a bit like the chicken and the egg conundrum: “It’s a hard thing to do, really,” contends Sherry, “because it requires a workplace culture where that is the way things are done.”

However, she notes, embedding safety isn’t just about changing workplace behaviours; fundamental technical or engineering problems, for instance, can’t be fixed in this manner.

She doesn’t believe Australian organisations focus too much on embedding safety by changing behaviours, but she notes the problems of going down such a path.

Sherry cites the example of workers who, for good reason, may not be using the ordained safety equipment.

“You’ve got to listen,” she asserts. “It can’t just be about telling people what to do differently; it’s about understanding the dynamics of a workplace … why things develop the way they do and why people create ‘work-arounds’.”  Managers need to look at technical health and safety communication. “You’ve got to be making sure you understand what’s really happening, rather than just applying a solution and assuming it’s going to work.”

Managers must ask themselves the following: “Are you listening rather than telling? Are you just issuing edicts that people don’t understand … ?”

What the future holds

Sherry points to the fact that new industries and new technologies are emerging all the time, “so actually keeping up, with an understanding of what’s happening [is challenging]”. She says Australia’s labour market is much more diverse than it was 30 or 40 years ago, in terms of workers’ age, language ability, gender and employees with disabilities. Therefore, the way work is organised and designed now is “not as straightforward as sticking a sign up and saying, ‘Do this’ … ”.

Sherry also notes the huge growth throughout Australia in small businesses and businesses that operate from home. “There is a dynamic in [this] that we have got to take account of as well,” she says. “What we don’t want is a big, informal sector that hasn’t got the wherewithal to do anything and a formal sector, as it were, who feel like they are heavily regulated.” Because of this, she says, education and guidance is needed rather than “heavy regulation”, because “small businesses just struggle to gobble that up; they don’t have enough time in the day so they often ignore it”.

Moreover, Sherry says, the structure of work has fundamentally changed, with longer and different shift-work patterns (such as in mining), globalisation and more technology-driven workplaces.

Overlaying all this is the need to balance the drive towards greater productivity with that towards improved work health and safety, she says. “You don’t want the safest workplace to go out of business.”

Doing due diligence and keeping the focus on minimising risks before incidents happen are key factors, says Sherry. “How do we change technologies? How do we use technology differently? How do we think about it differently? And the challenge as we look forward is to keep pushing back into the thought processes and the training and the education and the thinking about designing of equipment rather than how do you fix problems … once … something has happened in the workplace.” From a pure business profit-and-loss perspective, it’s far better to do such things up-front, she asserts.

One of the most talked-about work health and safety risks over the past year has been bullying. Initially, a code of practice under the model Work Health and Safety Act was to be released; a guide was published instead.

Sherry says employers were “looking for a pragmatic way of assessing and thinking about how they could train managers and their broader employee base” about addressing bullying. She says that, as bullying was also to be covered under the Fair Work Act and there is now a formal tribunal for hearing bullying claims, businesses were calling for guidance, not “tell us what the regulation is”. The test is whether workplaces can implement the requirements, not “that we have the longest list of regulations in the world,” adds Sherry.

Auditing the model laws

Among the next steps for the model laws is the 2014 audit. With the election of the new Federal Government, the 2016 review has been brought forward. The Australian Government “is very clear about wanting stuff to be practical, not just to be about red tape”, says Sherry. “At the end of the day, the next steps are to ensure we are getting the step change in hazard reduction, injury  reduction, death reductions.”

What does ‘removing red tape’ mean? “There is no push on to remove things,” she assures. “I think sometimes everyone starts with good intent but then by the time you have negotiated [for] all of the states to come on board and all of the employer associations and the ACTU have agreed, then sometimes [what] you end up with … [is] complexity.

“I think we need to keep making sure …  that by the time it gets to an organisation to implement … one, they understand it; two, it can be implemented; and three, it can be implemented in a way that makes it effective.”

Will our safety soon be the most renowned in all the lands?

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