The way organisations monitor and report against their safety systems do not demonstrate that a workplace is “safe” from a historical perspective, according to a workplace law firm.
One of the dilemmas in safety management is actually defining what “safe” means, said Greg Smith, director of Wayland Legal.
“For example, does safe mean the absence of injuries? History would tend to suggest the answer to that question is ‘no’ and there are many, examples of organisations that have a long history of no accidents followed by fatalities and catastrophic events,” he said.
Equally, Smith said it seems somewhat cynical to describe safe as an absence of reportable, or recordable injuries.
“If our system ‘fails’ and a person is injured but it is not reportable or recordable, can we say our system is safe? And what about the influence of sick leave?”
“If a worker takes a day sick leave because of workplace stress, in all likelihood this would not even become known to the organisation and certainly not brought to the attention of the health and safety department but is our workplace safe if we have high levels of sick leave?”
Smith, who spoke as part of a recent AIHS webinar on developing methodologies to demonstrate “reasonably practicable” and assurance for due diligence, said that there are also many issues with organisations’ OHS reporting.
“Even if we step back a moment from the difficult question of deciding what safe means, the way organisations monitor and report against their safety systems do not even demonstrate the ‘so-called’ minimum expectation of legal compliance,” Smith said.
“It is, in my mind, a very curious thing that when you look across every reported decision on a workplace health and safety prosecution, the one thing you will not find is the defence lawyer referring to any of the organisation’s health and safety metrics as evidence, they had a safe system of work.”
Smith also observed defence lawyers do not refer to lead and lag indicators because they offer no evidence that the organisation was meeting its legal obligations, much less that the workplace was safe.
The Pike River Royal Commission into the Pike River Coal Mine explosion in New Zealand noted that injury rate data is not much use in understanding the potential for disaster and high hazard industries, and that the board did not receive any information “proving the effectiveness” of crucial systems at the mine.
“To my mind, this is the central issue of health and safety monitoring and reporting – how does it prove the effectiveness of our crucial systems? Historically, it does not,” he said.
In practical terms, reasonably practicable means that an organisation has systems to manage the health and safety hazards in the business and those systems are both implemented and effective.
Smith said health and safety should focus on regular reporting about what was done in a relevant reporting period to confirm that the organisation had appropriate systems to manage the hazards and those systems were in place and effective.
“Due diligence means that executive management has information and understanding – and the willingness – to challenge the health and safety team to convince them that appropriate systems are in place and effective,” he said.
“Executive management cannot be passive recipients of information about health and safety and must continually challenge management to prove the effectiveness of crucial systems in the organisation.”
Smith also said OHS professionals need to shift their thinking about health and safety reporting if they want to play a role in demonstrably evidencing their organisation is meeting its obligations under health and safety legislation and provide a meaningful conversation about whether the organisation is achieving its expectations for health and safety.
“The industry needs to move away from lead and lag indicators and recognise that safety is a ‘narrative not a number’,” he said.
“We need to help executive management in our organisations understand their obligations for health and safety and teach them what it means to bring an independent mind and ‘challenge’ to health and safety information – in the same way they are expected to bring an independent mind and challenge to every other aspect of their obligations; financial, operational, strategic and so on.
“The health and safety industry needs to have much better answers to the ‘so what?’ question,” for example:
- Our recordable injury rate fell from 4.6 to 4.2 this month – so what? What does that mean? What does that tell us about the efficacy of our crucial systems?
- We completed 100 per cent of our health and safety training this month – so what?
- There were 150 management safety interactions this month – so what?
- We closed out 100 per cent of corrective actions this month – so what?
- How do we prove the effectiveness of the crucial systems in our organisation?
Article originally published by the Australian Institute of Health and Safety.
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