Transcript Video 2: An introduction to work health & safety management (Chapter 4)

In this video we are going to consider why health and safety isn’t consistently implemented both between organisations and between countries around the world.

So, at the organisational level, why might one organisation be very proactive about work health and safety (doing wellbeing for example) and another may only do the minimum or try to avoid any focus on worker safety?

Some factors to consider might be:

  • Size – the number of employees and/or the financial capacity might affect work health and safety management. For example, a small business might have a different practical approach towards work health and safety compared to a large organisation (even if both organisations are trying their best to protect their workers).
  • Danger – Some jobs might be physically or psychologically more dangerous than others. It might be physically more dangerous to work in a mine compared with working in an office. It might be psychologically more dangerous to work as an air traffic controller due to stress than being a shop attendant (unless you have problems with your customers!!!). So some businesses – just to get the job done – may need a stronger safety focus than others.
  • Legislation – different parts of the world have different laws so work health and safety requirements might just be different

So, there may be some scenarios where an employer could get the job done more cheaply without safe work practices (perhaps in a developing country without legislation and with many available workers), alternatively, in a knowledge economy (where employees are valued for thoughts and ideas) an employer might want to support wellbeing as they require relaxed and thriving employees to achieve the company’s aims. Every situation and response to work health and safety will be different.

Likewise, employees come with different attitudes towards work health and safety. Firstly, consider their varied past experiences – perhaps they have ‘gotten away with’ doing a dangerous practice successfully many times in the past (like the employee who takes a shortcut across the factory floor to leave work 5 minutes earlier to make sure they get to catch their bus) or perhaps the employee is very safety conscious (they may have seen someone having a serious injury at work and experienced the consequences of that loss) and are now safe work champions.

You can already probably tell from these scenarios that another key factor influencing work health and safety in an organisation are employer and employee values – the attitudes and beliefs towards work health and safety that either prioritise it or deprioritise it in a particular business.

Values and goals are a bit tricky because in an organisation there is a combination of top-down values or priorities but also bottom-up behaviours – what the employees think and do.

To try to explain why people might have different values and goals towards work health and safety Hopkin’s proposes his ‘Binary Approach’.

Hopkin’s suggests that you either blame-the-victim (and believe that the worker causes the situation and/or injury) or you blame-the-system (and believe that the situation and/or injury occurred because of an error in the safety management system). Put simply, you either tend to blame the worker or blame the manager!

Every decision from then on is based on which of these two approaches you have towards work health and safety management and, subsequently, create a proactive or reactive safety culture.

If you blame the victim, you believe as an employer that you cannot improve your workplace safety unless you stop recruiting ‘dangerous’ people – when people are injured they are considered ‘high risk’ people and you would try to remove them from your company. Ideally you believe that human resource managers can avoid them during the recruitment process.

If you are an employee who blames the victim you would simply think that you are a safe person and it won’t happen to you whilst ever you are working around other safe people – you might even victimise ‘dangerous’ people who have had accidents and exclude them from your workgroup or social group.

If you blame the system, you will try to understand how the person came to be injured and what might have gone wrong in the practices and processes that led to that injury. In this case it is less about blame and more about learning to avoid similar consequences in the future.

The key difference is that when you blame the victim no learning takes place and potentially more people will go on to be injured. In the second scenario learning takes place and improvements to safety management ideally result in less people getting injured.

Our course endorses a blame-the-system approach. The reasons behind this will be presented using current theory and case studies. In particular we will use James Reason’s Swiss Cheese Model which helps us to try to explain and understand how system errors can lead to workers being at increased risk of injury or harm.

However, before discussing the systems approach and its related theories, it is important to know the difference between an ‘accident’ and an ‘incident’.

An ‘accident’ is “…an undesirable or unfortunate happening that occurs unintentionally and usually results in harm, injury, damage, or loss; casualty; mishap.” This definition from is similar to what we all know and understand – an accident is when you get hurt but it’s unpredictable and, importantly, unpreventable. So, if we think back over an accident we realise that nothing could have changed.

In work health and safety management it would be impossible to prevent accidents…it is important to understand that we cannot manage random, unpredictable, workplace injuries. Even insurance companies have an exit clause and do not pay out for ‘Acts of God’ which are legally defined as “An event that directly and exclusively results from the occurrence of natural causes that could not have been prevented by the exercise of foresight or caution; an inevitable accident.”

In this course we cannot manage accidents but we DO manage incidents.

An incident is defined in Australian Standard on work health and safety (4801) as: “Any unplanned event resulting in, or having a potential for injury, illhealth, damage or other loss.”

At first this may not sound different from an accident as both accidents and incidents are both unplanned, however, an incident is believed to be preventable while the accident “could not have been prevented by the exercise of foresight or caution.”

In work health and safety we do not manage Acts of God but, instead we manage the Acts of Humans and we believe that by taking a systems approach we might be able to observe, measure, learn and improve so that incidents resulting in serious injury or harm occur do not occur (or, at least, occur as rarely as possible).

Now, if you focus even more on the definition for an incident you will notice it says “Any unplanned event resulting in, or having a potential for injury, illhealth, damage or other loss.”

This, too, is a key difference. Incidents are not always harmful – they do not always go catastrophically wrong – but, instead, they are indicators of issues in the work health and safety management system.


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