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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.


Work health and safety (WHS) was in the spotlight at the Labour 20 (L20) Summit in the lead-up to the G20 meeting in Brisbane last weekend.

Kicking off the L20 Summit, federal Employment Minister Eric Abetz pointed to the G20 Labour and Employment Ministers’ Declaration made in Melbourne in September.

“[It] includes the G20 Statement on Safer and Healthier Workplaces – the result of some challenging and thoughtful work by a sub-group of the Taskforce on Employment,” Abetz said in his speech to the Summit.

“The issue of safer workplaces was put on the agenda in response to the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh. This tragedy, of course, is only part of a bigger issue.

“Poor health and safety practices result in an estimated 2.3 million deaths every year.”

The statement commits G20 members to develop robust WHS legal frameworks, and effective WHS enforcement, compliance, safety management and data collection in their own countries.

It also encourages countries to consider their international obligations, including ratifying relevant ILO conventions and using UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, ILO Tripartite Declaration of Principles concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy, and the OECD Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises.

For more details, visit the Minister and the L20 Declaration

Published on 20 November 2014 in NSCA Safe-T-Bulletin.

Rescuing a shark in the wild gives new meaning to managing work health and safety, writes Fleur Bull, head of health and safety, Sea Life

 “How do you catch a shark?” was the opening headline on Sydney’s Channel 7 evening news in February as vision aired of a daring and successful grey nurse shark rescue off Magic Point in Maroubra, NSW.

The rescue mission resulted from local divers reporting sightings of a 1.5-metre female juvenile grey nurse shark. Dubbed ‘Tangles’, the shark had an elastic cord wrapped around its head and gills. From the local divers’ reports of its laboured breathing and their images, staff from Sea Life Sydney Aquarium and Manly Sea Life Sanctuary could see the shark was slowly dying. Dr Rob Jones, Sea Life veterinarian, said the elastic was cutting deeper and deeper into its neck.

The grey nurse shark is listed as a critically endangered species by the NSW Fisheries Management Act 1994. Despite their ferocious appearance, these sharks are placid unless provoked and are often referred to as the ‘labradors of the sea’. These animals are particularly vulnerable due to their late maturation and low breeding success. They reach sexual maturity at approximately eight to 10 years of age and give birth to one or two young only every two years, so the population grows very slowly.

NSW Fisheries, which is part of the NSW Department of Primary Industries, issued a permit to rescue Tangles. But such a permit had not been issued for more than 20 years, which meant no-one had any recent experience of catching a shark in the wild.

New depths

Although everyone has a responsibility to identify and eliminate or control hazards, as the head of health and safety, it was my job to give the health and safety sign-off to catch the shark in open water. My first thought was it would end up like a scene from the film Jaws: people screaming, blood gurgling and limbs missing. This was going to be a unique risk management issue. The importance of managing the risks and limiting exposure to the hazards would be critical during this shark rescue operation. The team’s safety had to remain the priority—Sea Life’s business principles state that safety is its number-one priority.

It wasn’t going to be a simple matter of jumping in a boat, launching it into the sea, catching the shark, removing the elastic, administering antibiotics and releasing the shark to live happily ever after.

Just like most health and safety professionals, my aim is to eliminate the hazards while still being reasonably practicable. However, eliminating the hazards in this operation was impossible —for one thing, the team was going to be diving into shark-infested waters.

Normally when a shark is injured it will stay close to the area it knows. The Magic Point area has two shark ledges teeming with life. This meant there would potentially be about 50 other sharks in the rescue location.

So deciding what was reasonably practicable was a fundamental question that needed to be answered. It needed to be balanced against the degree of harm and likelihood of injury. Importantly, the knowledge and competence of the divers needed to be considered, particularly the divers’ knowledge of shark behaviour.

Significantly, our divers could already tell when a shark or sharks were feeling threatened and/or unsure of a situation and identify the potential for aggressive shark behaviour. Emergency management and preparedness was also a key component in this operation. Although it was a different scenario, I was able to draw on my experience of responding to the earthquakes around the Canterbury region of New Zealand to help develop a plan of action. It was important to ‘prepare for the worst and expect the best’.

Details, details

A team of 11 staff members was assembled to save Tangles.

The team was made up of Sea Life Sydney Aquarium and Manly Sea Life Sanctuary staff members and included a full dive team, Manly Sea Life Sanctuary general manager Ian Wood, veterinarian Dr Rob Jones and marine biologist Craig Thorburn.

The delicate operation needed to ensure shark attack and all other health and safety risks were ironed out before and during the rescue—for the sake of the staff involved and, of course, to ensure the best outcome for Tangles.

Over three weeks the designated team developed and confirmed a plan and produced a detailed risk assessment and hazard management controls (see examples below).

From drawing board to water

On the day of ‘Operation Tangles’ it was sunny, the weather forecast was spot-on and the team was given the green light. The team headed from Manly Cove with the aim of catching the shark. This time there was no Jaws music playing in my head, and the team was confident with the risk and hazard management plans we’d put in place.

The boat dropped anchor and the team completed the reconnaissance dive. The team’s only complication was the depth of the safety platform.

The management plan called for a safety platform to be located at a maximum depth of 10 metres. This was not possible due to sea swell movement.

However, the team located a safety platform at a depth of 16 metres. This was agreed to, on the condition that the team needed to increase the time required for divers to resurface, eliminating potential diving sickness.

Next, the sock (a device for capturing the shark) trial dive was completed successfully. No further adjustments were needed.

The rescue dive could now take place. It turned out to be the shortest of the dives and went without issue.

On the first attempt the team guided Tangles straight into the sock, enabling them to wrap a stretcher around her and bring her to the surface, where Dr Jones cut the cord and injected a course of antibiotics. Tangles was then released back into the water.

Ten weeks later, Tangles was spotted off Magic Point making remarkable progress, her wounds healing well.

Significant risks, hazards and controls

• Weather—before going ahead, the weather forecast and satellite imagery on the day were to be assessed and a visual check of wave height and wind speed was to be made at the dive location.

• Underwater safety platform—a reconnaissance dive was to be completed by two divers to confirm the location of a safe working platform at a maximum depth of 10 metres. Divers were to surface and discuss the situation with the dive team.

• Diver communication—a full-face mask was to be worn by each member of the dive team.

• No mid-water rescue attempt— the rescue was to only take place on the safety platform.

• A maximum of three rescue attempts—otherwise it would increase the risk of the shark becoming aggressive. If any diver felt that after one attempt the shark was already aggressive the rescue was to be postponed.

• Sock trial dive—the dive team was to practise setting the sock for capturing the shark. They were to surface to provide feedback and discuss the rescue procedure. The actual rescue dive was to proceed only if everyone was 100 per cent sure the hazards and risks were at an acceptable level.

• Divers’ knowledge and competence—divers needed aquarium and open-water shark diving experience, appropriate dive qualifications, and to have completed Sea Life’s internal diver training competences.

• Emergency management preparedness—the team needed to be able to respond to the many potential emergency situations.

Download the story in PDF How to Catch a Shark (PDF 1219 kB)

Published in National Safety magazine,  July-August 2014.


If the federal Trade and Investment Minister Andrew Robb was 40 again he wouldn’t tell too many people he lived with a mental illness, because he couldn’t take the risk.

Robb was sharing his own experiences with depression at a gathering of workplace mental health stakeholders to launch a new Black Dog Institute workplace initiative last Friday.

He described how he had lived with mental illness for most of his life.

He said stigma was still an issue for the community to deal with, noting there were a lot of put-downs when people got half the chance.

Also, when his illness was diagnosed and he was trialling medications, he found he couldn’t handle the side effects and do his job at the same time, and some people assumed he would retire.

But now that the medication issues have been resolved, Robb says he has never felt better.

He said his boss, the Prime Minster Tony Abbott, treated him like everybody else and delegated work, but pulled him up when he had made mistakes.

Dr Samuel Harvey, Senior Lecturer in Workplace Mental Health at the University of New South Wales and Research Fellow at the Black Dog Institute, also speaking at the launch, said preventative not just reactive mental health measures were necessary at all workplaces.

Harvey said there were no simple answers, and evidence-based solutions that addressed mental health problems at organisation, team and individual levels were necessary.

Importantly, good leadership was key to the success of any mental health initiative, he said.

For more details visit the Black Dog Institute.

Published on 5 June 2014 in NSCA Safe-T-Bulletin.

A physiotherapist, a resource industry reformer and a mounted police officer have received Australia Day Honours for their services to work health and safety.

Barbara Jean McPhee received an Order of Australia for significant service to physiotherapy as a practitioner in occupational health, and as an author.

McPhee is a specialist occupational health physiotherapist and the principal consultant at OHS Services Network.

Her long association with WHS includes being an independent expert member of the New South Wales Mine Safety Advisory Council since 2006, a member of the NSW Joint Coal Board Ergonomics Intervention Project from 1990 to 1991 and President of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society of Australia from 1991 to 1993.

Among her books, she co-authored Bad Vibrations: A Handbook on Whole-Body Vibration in Mining (2nd Edition Coal Services Health and Safety Trust, 2009), and she authored Practical Ergonomics: Human Factors at Work (Coal Services Health and Safety Trust, 2005).

Tania Joy Constable received the Public Service Medal for outstanding public service in the development of Australia’s liquefied natural gas and other resource and energy industries.

Among her achievements, Constable oversaw the regulatory reform that established the single national regulator for offshore petroleum in Commonwealth waters, the National Offshore Safety and Environmental Management Authority.

Sergeant Karen Mercia Owen received the Australian Police Medal.

Owen is a sergeant at the Mounted Unit of the New South Wales Police Force. She has been with the unit for 30 years.

Among her duties, she is responsible for managing the WHS risks of pairing riders with horses.

She has also led the Anzac Day parade, worked on many demonstrations and rode the Household Cavalry horses and performed for the Queen at the Diamond Jubilee Pageant.

Other recipients were also honoured for their WHS and other achievements.

For more details, visit the Australia Day Honours.

Published on  30 January 2014 in NSCA Safe-T-Bulletin.


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