Corrs Chambers Westgarth Employment, Workplace Relations and Safety Team has launched our Leadership Video Series, in which we profile Australian IR, HR and Safety leaders discussing key issues in the world of work. We aim to connect our clients to the latest thinking on issues such as innovation, digital disruption, how work is changing, and the impact on IR and safety systems and management. In this video, Practice Group Leader John Tuck explains the Leadership Video Series.
Dr Drew Rae
For safety practice to remain relevant in Australia, why is a new brand of safety required?
I think we don’t see safety as a brand in this country. I think we see it as a requirement of employment, and the problem with that is that the modern worker is actually a consumer. They aren’t just an employee in the real world, they are also a consumer.
I don’t think that what we have done in the past is wrong. I think that it has got us so far, but we are half way up a cliff now. It is a bit like we are on a platform. If we want to get the rest of the way using models that are now 100 years old, I don’t think that is going to get us there.
And I think that trying to push these models and make them fit into 2015 and beyond is awkward and has had all sorts of problems.
A good example of that would be compliance. Deloitte did a fantastic paper called “Get Out of Your Own Way”, a white paper, and identified that our compliance is now costing us $155 billion a year in self-imposed regulation, that’s over and above what’s required by the government.
The consequences for business of this over-compliance is that not only are we struggling to manage the OH&S burden within our businesses, we are also struggling to remain relevant in 2015.
Businesses need nimble, effective and progressive solutions that are flexible and change quickly. But also the employees that we are pushing down our compliance onto are becoming more and more disengaged.
Deloitte identified that front-line workers are now spending on average 8 hours a week just managing the compliance burden in their organisations. And this is a direct consequence of using traditional models that no longer fit a modern workplace.
How do we capture the interest of this highly discerning, tech-savvy, next generation workforce?
Well just who is the modern employee? And I don’t think we really understand that. In safety we would be using traditional models to engage with our own employee and that worker doesn’t exist anymore.
The modern employee is savvy, they understand what good looks like, they expect good, they expect you to catch their interest and their attention. When they go into the workforce they expect that they are going to be listened to, that they are going to be engaged, that their skills are going to be utilised.
And I think that for safety professionals we are struggling to keep up with that. We don’t see their participation as a choice, we see it as a requirement of employment. So we don’t try to craft, literally craft, elegant and beautiful messages to meet this discerning consumer’s needs.
I think we need to start considering ourselves as shopkeepers: what are we going to present from our shop to our consumer to meet their unique and individual needs.
Also, we make the mistake in safety of thinking that our workforce is all blue collar. All our advertisements, all our billboards, our posters, our images are around the guy with the hard hat and the zipped up vest.
Now blue collar workers only make up 14% of our workforce, and there is this huge generation of people who have completely different expectations and a different thought process to those people.
The modern employee wants more from their experience of work. I think we need to consider work as a customer experience platform and say to people “how do you deliver that?”.
What skills will the safety professional of the future need to remain relevant?
I don’t actually think it starts with the safety professional. It starts with the organisation and the executive team.
Organisations need to understand what brand of safety they are about to adopt. I then think once you have done that, the next step is to either skill up, or hire safety professionals, you want to meet that vision, that brand.
So what will that safety professional look like? The very first skill will be an innovator and a creator, an explorer.
We prize in safety the skill to be able to recreate the models of the past, to successfully understand them and to be able to implement into the business – whether it’s reporting of a Heinrich triangle, or whatever it may be. However I don’t think the models of the past are going to get us to where we need to be in the future.
So hiring people who are experts in recreating and implementing models of the past, I don’t think is ideal. One of the skills we should prize in the safety person is their ability to innovate and create new and interesting ways to meet the specific needs of the organisation that they are within.
The second skill I think that we are going to need is a marketer. I think the safety person is going to have to understand how to create customer experience platforms and consumer experiences, within the workforce, that intrigue; are market worthy; are interesting and exciting; and catch the interest and the choice of this highly discerning and fascinating new breed of worker that we have within our workplace.
The third skill that a safety professional is going to require is to understand the needs of this work model, and the workforce’s need to self-determine. To have experiences without the middle man, to do things for themselves, and by themselves, and to create their own destiny. I think the safety person in the future will understand how to shape those experiences.
I am optimistic about the future of safety in this country. For the first time in many years we are re-imagining how safety will be done in Australia, which is a really exciting time for us. But I think it will require more than just optimism. Organisations are going to have to seek out new ideas and invest to make this future a reality.
What’s wrong with the traditional approach to thinking about safety management and performance?
Everyone likes to say that safety is just common sense which is fine so long as you are talking about an individual doing a single task. The trouble is that doesn’t stack up once you try to get a large organisation and you want to institutionalise common sense.
You start coming up with processes and procedures, and there’s no process or procedure that can cover common sense for every different thing that we want every person to do in every environment.
So the result is we end up with a lot of activities that make work harder for people, but they don’t actually make anyone safer. And then when that doesn’t work, we try to fix the procedures by adding in more procedures.
Eventually we start auditing matrices that we’re collecting to document the investigations into non-compliance, with reporting procedures about procedures, and all of this makes work hard but it doesn’t make work better.
It gives safety a bad name and makes it something that those “evil safety people” do – instead of something that people want to engage with and be part of.
What does new safety thinking mean in practice for safety professionals?
New safety thinking means a new role for safety professionals. We can’t be “safety cops” and we also can’t try to pretend that we’re experts in other people’s work.
There’s no point in coming along to someone who has trained and has experience in doing their job and trying to say “well I’m a safety expert – I can tell you how to do it better”.
So what sort of expertise does that leave for safety people? One option is we can be the “gurus”, we can be the people who know these arcane and complicated safety matters and there’s a small place for that when you’re looking at analysing very complicated systems.
Having some specialist safety techniques – but for the most part being a safety professional is about organisational intelligence. Not being a spy, but being someone who can understand the organisation and hold up a mirror reflecting the organisation back to itself.
Richard Feynman, when he was looking at the Challenger accident, pointed out a big gulf in the language that technical staff use when they talk about risk, compared with the language that management staff use. Other scholars have noticed this same thing.
They call it the gap between work as it is done, and work as it is imagined by those who plan work and document work. And the job of a safety professional is to close that gap by helping the organisation understand what it is, where it’s going and how it varies and faces challenges.
To what extent is Australian and international research engaging with new safety practices?
Safety and its failure is a lot less institutionalised here than it is in the UK and the USA, and to some extent that’s a bad thing. It means we don’t have the same level of education, training and professionalization for safety practitioners.
On the other hand it means organisations in Australia are freer to try out new ideas, and we are leading the world in trying some innovative ways of addressing safety.
We have, for example, supermarkets experimenting with providing local autonomy – stripping away some of the procedures, and training teams in resilience.
We have construction organisations that are looking at positive investigations, looking at work when it goes well instead of just when things go wrong.
We have energy companies looking at: what are the conditions under which workers feel free to point out problems and stop work.
And as universities, we are supporting organisations in conducting these programs and collecting evidence, so we know what genuinely works and what doesn’t.
What shifts are required in the training of safety professionals to ensure the new approach is ingrained in the culture of organisations?
Safety is a profession but we don’t usually educate it in the same way that we educate other professions.
This means that we’ve got people with Certificate 4’s sitting in the same room as accountants, as engineers, as lawyers, all with much deeper professional training.
To be engaged with a profession means the ability to think critically within that profession. We don’t just teach lawyers some laws, we teach them how to be lawyers. We don’t just teach accountants how to manage spreadsheets, we teach them the principles, the history and the fundamentals of accounting and we need to do the same thing for safety practitioners.
Safety is a science – it involves psychology, it involves sociology, it involves empirical studies of the way organisations work and the way they fall towards disaster. Simplistic approaches cost organisations money.
It’s not money that comes from the safety budget, it comes from “salami-slicing” the productivity and motivation of everyone within the organisation, when we replace deep competence with insecure proceduralisation – and promotion of safety instead of understanding of how safety works.
The content of this publication is for reference purposes only. It is current at the date of publication. This content does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Legal advice about your specific circumstances should always be obtained before taking any action based on this publication.