Transcript Video 4: An introduction to work health & safety management (Chapter 6)

In this video we examine Work Health and Safety Management Systems.

These systems are expected to eliminate latent conditions and minimise the risk of active failures, but what is a safety management system and how do they do this?

The Australian Standard 4801 for Occupational health and safety management systems states that a work health and safety system has five steps:

  1. Ensuring commitment to safety and undertaking relevant policy development
  2. Planning how to roll out the system within the organization and industry context
  3. Implementing safety initiatives and practices
  4. Effective measurement & evaluation of safety initiatives and practices; and, finally,
  5. Reviewing safety indicators to further improve implementation.

Ideally a work health and safety system is like a wheel – it goes round and round (repeating the steps over and over) while constantly moving forward (achieving continual improvement).

These five steps help organisations to identify their safety defence layers and repair any holes that have emerged. Keeping records of near misses, for example, helps identify where the weaknesses are so that serious incidents can be avoided.

So how might we work to address active failures using a safety system?

This requires a focus on the “People” defence layer and people are often more complex than machinery or the procedures required to use them.

While not specifically linked or discussed in the Australian Standards, active failures (the actions of workers that lead to immediate consequences in an incident) might be influenced via the development of a strong safety culture that influences safe managerial decisions and worker behaviour.

Here it is proposed that this safety culture might be embedded in an organisation and work in parallel with each of the steps of the work health and safety management system.

Hopkins (2005) states that “Safety culture is one of a number of ideas currently seen as offering organisations a way to achieve higher standards of safety…The attention now being paid to the cultural approach to safety stems in part from a recognition of the limitations of safety management systems as a means of achieving safety.”

While a system provides a strong framework for managing safety, a cultural approach considers people’s values and behaviours and therefore enhances the system rather than replacing it.

How to develop a safety culture concurrent to the safety system is a core concept in our learning so it is important, first, to understand what, technically, a safety culture is.

James Reason, after using Swiss cheese to try to understand how incidents might occur, spent time thinking about how individual worker values, attitudes and behaviours might be brought together and aligned in order to support work health and safety. He has coined this group approach to safety as being the organisation’s ‘safety culture’.

A business can have a positive safety culture (with workers looking out for each other and themselves and are engaged in safe work practices) or a negative safety culture (where they blame-the-victim and no effort is put into worker safety).

Reason’s Safety Culture Theory comprises four key elements (Reporting, Just, Learning and Flexible) each of these will interact to generate an overarching ‘Informed’ Safety Culture where employees are closely engaged and aligned with the organisation’s work health and safety management system to achieve maximum safety outcomes and avoid serious incidents.

Now let’s examine the four culture sub- components which will engineer an ideal Safety Culture (Reporting Culture, Just Culture, Learning Culture and Flexible Culture).

A Reporting Culture considers the confidence of employees to report workplace incidents – particularly near misses which might otherwise go unnoticed but are an important source of information on weaknesses in our safety defence layers.

The key to achieving a successful Reporting Culture is establishing trust and Reason proposes a ‘no blame’ approach, where employees report even their own mistakes in order to provide relevant safety-related information to their employer. Practitioners then need to think about how to motivate employees to report incidents that did not have consequences as most people won’t want to do paperwork which they consider ‘unnecessary’.

A Just Culture creates an atmosphere of trust between the employee and employer, and between staff, because everyone understands acceptable safety behaviours.

In a Just Culture it must be acceptable to make mistakes while, at the same time, deliberately unsafe activities must not be tolerated.

Employee perceptions of organisational reactions towards employees who mistakenly or deliberately engage in activities leading to safety incidents become very important for maintaining the trust between the employer and employees. So a Just Culture supports a Reporting Culture.

A Learning Culture ultimately determines whether an organisation can generate change based on prior incidents to prevent future occurrences.  A strong Learning Culture will encourage change based on information collected for and emerging from the safety system. So the Learning culture is informed by the Reporting culture but can also be proactive when hazard identification and assessment takes place in organisations.

Finally, the Flexible Culture is the ability of an organisation to respond to change and empower people to make decisions at the right time and place to achieve better safety outcomes.

Reason proposes that in emergency response scenarios the person with the most expertise or information in that moment should move to the top of the chain of command – there should be a hierarchical shift – so that this person becomes the key decision maker as they are best equipped to generate the best safety outcome.

So, overall, if we blame-the-system rather than blame-the-victim we can focus on the continual improvement of safety in our business by using a work health and safety management system to actively maintain our safety defence layers (that is to repair the holes in the cheese) and further reinforce the “people” layer by recognising a cultural element and therefore also focus on generating an ‘ideal’ safety culture.

In such an organisation, people learn from the mistakes of the past and, by taking action to remediate safety issues, reduce the risk of injury or harm to workers over time.

Organisations would aspire to being safe because of their moral values (workers have the right to return home unharmed by work) combined with the potential productivity benefits achieved by becoming a desirable employer fostering healthy and effective employees.

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