A Culture of Care (and sackings…)

Sighhhh…….every time I publish one of these true stories I am inundated with private emails from people telling similar stories and their disdain for these aspects of safety – but they fear speaking up about it. Rebelling against the ridiculous and harmful side of safety is interpreted by the binary oppositional thinkers (ie the zero harm zealots and safety crusaders) as sacrilegious (see Sacrilegious Safety)  and that we are just troublemakers who must want to hurt people – please feel free to leave anonymous comments, your identity is safe with me. Are you a Safety Crusader or a Safety Leader?

A Culture of Care (and sackings…)


I caught up with a good friend Martin over the weekend and he was telling me about his work situation. Martin works in heavy industry as a contractor, he has done most of his life and he’s now in his mid 40’s.

Martin is currently contracting at a mine that is owned by a large company I think he said was called Neo Bingo, or at least something that sounded like that. We got to talking about safety (although I usually try to avoid this topic, it inevitably comes up in my social conversations) and Martin was telling me how working at Neo Bingo was as bad as it gets when it comes to safety.

Martin told me “they ram safety down your throat. There are pre-start talks every day where they tell us we need to do this and don’t do that. They remind us of the Golden Rules, they test us on some really basic shit that even a first year apprentice knows and they bang on about Zero Harm”. Martin went on to tell me about how they have all these sayings about ‘safety at work and home’, and that it is something they need to do 24/7, safety isn’t just about work it’s about life and about an attitude that you choose to have.

They also talk about ‘caring and looking out for your mates’, about ‘making safety personal’ and ‘caring for your safety is what we do’. (I’ll spare you the rest of the rubbish, you’ve probably heard it all before).

So by this stage, I was ready to change the topic, I get bored very quickly talking about ‘safety’. It’s usually stories about control, people doing silly things, or control!

But Martin shared a story that I thought should be shared beyond our conversation. It was the story of a contractor who had been ‘thrown off site’ for a safety breach.

So you might be thinking, he failed to isolate a machine, he didn’t follow a Golden Rule, or he was working at height without a harness, one of those usual scenarios. Not on this occasion. Not at ‘Bingo’, where safety is a 24/7 thing, where safety must be something that is in your blood, where they never compromise safety. No for this guy his ‘safety offence’ was overtaking one of the bosses on the way to work.

Yep, Johnno was driving to work on a public road when he overtook one of the ‘bosses’. When he got to work, the Boss made a point of going to as many pre-start meetings as he could, asking if anyone owned a silver Commodore. When he found his man in Johnno, he didn’t say anything else, he just acknowledged that Johnno was the owner of the car.

Within 10 minutes Johnno was called into the office of the contract company he works for and was told “mate we won’t be needing you to come back to this site, thanks. You can pack up your gear now. We’ll pay you the minimum of 4 hours for this shift and might be in touch about work elsewhere, but we don’t need you to come back to any other ‘Bingo’ site”.

There are a few questions raised here; was he speeding? What company rule did he breach? How can you effectively sack someone for doing something outside of work? Of course, none of these really matter all that much, what really matters is that leaders can demonstrate control and authority, they can command obedience, and dictate terms, even outside of work.

Is this really what safety has become?

What I have become very frustrated about in ‘safety’ is that in orgsanisations like ‘Bingo’ where the discourse is all about control and about power, that they mask this with silly safety slogans and language that inevitably uses the words ‘care’, ‘mate’ and ‘family’. Why do they pretend that they care?

Why don’t these organisations just say it like it is and put up as their policy what they really do, something like “we will not tolerate any behaviour or actions that may put us at risk of breaking the law, so we will create a stupid obsession within our leadership that will drive out any person who does not do things exactly the way we expect them to be done.” Wouldn’t it be so much easier if the ‘Bingo’s’ of this world were up front and stated what they really expect? Instead, they hide behind ‘safety’ as being the way that they demonstrate care for their people – good corporate responsibility?

Ironically, soon after Martin left, I jumped onto LinkedIn and read a story about an organisation that not only wants to create ‘zero harm’, they aim to go ‘beyond zero’. I read this with interest as it reminded me of ‘Bingo’. I looked at their website, and they talk about a ‘culture of care’, and say that “only a few organizations translate safety into a value, namely that the goal of “zero” (injuries, accidents, tolerance, etc.) is never compromised.So, if I read this right, the goal is zero injuries, accidents and tolerance (and whatever etc. means in this context?), but then go on to say “it is an organization that allows, elicits and rewards innovation, for which it must learn from failures to improve in the future.” So a ‘culture of care’ is one where there is zero tolerance, yet at the same time innovation is rewarded and you learn from mistakes to improve. Is it any wonder people working in organisations like this get confused?

It reminded me of another large organisation that I visited which is also owned by ‘Bingo’. At this organisation, they also talk about zero harm and Golden Rules. When I spoke with the Managing Director in this organisation, he told me that he and his leaders (yes they were his leaders!) all had a ‘no compromise approach’ when it comes to their Golden Rules. If anyone on site breaks them, then his leaders have no discretion at all, they must give the person a first and final warning for the first offence, and they must be terminated on the second offence. He told me, “this is part of my unwavering commitment to safety, it’s what safety leadership is all about”. He also said, “if I have to sack someone to save their lives, then I’m prepared to do that. I care so much about the people that work for me, about their health and wellbeing that I am prepared to make that sacrifice if required. It’s just part of our strong safety leadership culture here.”

When I asked him how ‘sacking someone for safety’ in a small country town, where his business is the largest employer in town, might impact on the health and wellbeing of a person, the conversation abruptly ended.

When I hear stories like this about ‘safety’, it’s a strong reminder to me of why I’m not that into safety anymore.

I’d prefer to work for (and follow) organisations and leaders who are interested in understanding people better and who accept that we will make mistakes. Organisations that aren’t hell bent on ‘crusading’ and controlling. Who don’t use ‘safety’ as a power trip and enjoy putting people out of work in the name of ‘care’. I wish these organisations would just be real about things and not hide behind ‘safety’. But I also understand how social arrangements and context mean so much in how organisations and leaders within them behave.

I believe that there are many good people who work in safety. They do care for people, they do want to educate and support learning, but when you work in organisations like ‘Bingo’, it does things to you. The social arrangements and construct that we work in does affect our decisions and judgments, and I don’t imagine how working in ‘Bingo’ could be anything other than about control and power.

As an industry, and with the many good people that work in it, I hope we can lead ourselves through this. I hope that one day that I may be proud to say that I ‘work in safety’ and people don’t instantly think of me as a crusader. Sadly, I’m not sure that day will come, so in the mean time, I will continue on my learning adventure trying to better understand how to support and scaffold people to better appreciate why we do what we do.

Do you see a day when ‘safety’ will be about people, about understanding, about empathy and compassion, or will control continue to reign the day?

As usual, I’d love to hear your thoughts, experiences and comments.

Author: Robert Sams

Phone: 0424 037 112

Email: robert@dolphyn.com.au

Web: www.dolphyn.com.au

Facebook: Follow Dolphyn on Facebook

Rob Sams
Rob Sams
Rob is an experienced safety and people professional, having worked in a broad range of industries and work environments, including manufacturing, professional services (building and facilities maintenance), healthcare, transport, automotive, sales and marketing. He is a passionate leader who enjoys supporting people and organizations through periods of change. Rob specializes in making the challenges of risk and safety more understandable in the workplace. He uses his substantial skills and formal training in leadership, social psychology of risk and coaching to help organizations understand how to better manage people, risk and performance. Rob builds relationships and "scaffolds" people development and change so that organizations can achieve the meaningful goals they set for themselves. While Rob has specialist knowledge in systems, his passion is in making systems useable for people and organizations. In many ways, Rob is a translator; he interprets the complex language of processes, regulations and legislation into meaningful and practical tasks. Rob uses his knowledge of social psychology to help people and organizations filter the many pressures they are made anxious about by regulators and various media. He is able to bring the many complexities of systems demands down to earth to a relevant and practical level.

Do you have any thoughts? Please share them below