More on 10 Sure Fire Ways To Stuff Up a Safety Management System

10 Sure Fire Ways To Stuff Up a Safety Management System- Expanded version

Article by the late George Robotham


When the original paper was published there was a reader request to expand on the brief points made. This paper is my response to that request. The paper What Makes A Safety Management System Fly goes into detail on establishing a safety management system.

safety stuff up

10 ways to stuff up a safety management system


1 Lack of management commitment,

Leadership and drive from the top of the organisation.- Many managers say they are committed to safety but like all of us, they are judged by what they do, not by what they say. It must be a highly visible commitment to safety. Employees can smell a bulldust artist a mile away. Highly effective safety people will struggle if they do not receive appropriate support from management.

General leadership and particularly safety leadership is the often forgotten key to excellence. Both types of leadership are quite poor in many Australian companies. The paper The Things You Need To Know About Health And Safety Leadership outlines my thoughts on this topic.

2 Too much concentration on lag indicators such as the Lost Time Injury Frequency Rate at the expense of leading indicators.- The following are my reasons why the L.T.I.F.R. impedes progress in safety.

The L.T.I.F.R. is subject to manipulation

Some safety people cheat like hell with their L.T.I.F.R. statistics encouraged by managers with an eye to keep their key performance indicators looking good. The more the pressure to keep K.P.I.’s looking good the more creative the accounting. If the same ingenuity was displayed in preventing personal damage occurrences as is displayed in cooking the books we would be in great shape. All this makes inter-company comparisons of L.T.I.F.R. statistics less in value.

Ponderous deliberations

Safety people spend inordinate periods of time obtaining rulings on what to count and how to count it from bodies such as the Australian Standards Association. Often answers obtained are imprecise and the decisions are left to personal opinion. One is reminded of a sporting analogy where it is more important to play the game than keep the score.

Measuring failure

Most measures in management are of achievements rather than failures such as the number of Lost Time Accidents. There is a ground swell in the safety movement talking about Positive Performance Measures in safety (refer to the National Occupational Health & Safety Commission and the Minerals Council of Australia web-sites for a discussion on this topic) It is relatively simple to develop measures of what you are doing right in safety as opposed to using outcome measures such as L.T.I.F.R. Positive performance measures can be used to gauge the success of your safety actions.

Great L.T.I.F.R., pity about the fatalities

I have personal experience with a company that aggressively drove down L.T.I.F.R. to a fraction of its original rate in a space of about 2 years yet killed 11 people in one incident.

The Lost Time Injury Frequency Rate predominates discussions about safety performance. How can a company be proud of a decrease of L.T.I.F.R. from 60 to 10 if there have been 2 fatalities and 1 case of paraplegia amongst the lost time injuries? The L.T.I.F.R. trivialises serious personal damage and is a totally inappropriate measure of safety performance. I am reminded of the annual report of a major Australian company that waxed lyrical about the reduction in L.T.I.F.R. in the main body of the report. A footnote in small letters at the bottom of the page mentioned a few fatalities very briefly.

3 Thinking minor personal damage is a good predictor of life-altering personal damage.-

My grandmother used to say “Look after the pence and the pounds will look after themselves” In the world of traditional safety there seems to be similar thinking that if you prevent minor damage you will automatically prevent major damage. Accident ratio studies (insisting on set ratios between near misses, minor accidents and serious accidents) are prominent and accepted unthinkingly. The much-quoted “Iceberg Theory” in relation to safety does not stand up to scrutiny in the real world! The “Iceberg Theory” is fine if used for statistical description but it cannot be relied upon for statistical inference. (Geoff McDonald)

The result of the “Iceberg Theory” focus is a furious effort to eliminate lost time injuries in the belief that all major personal damage occurrences will be eliminated in the process. Certainly there are minor personal damage occurrences that have the potential to result in more extensive damage (and we should learn from them), but personal experience tells me the majority of minor personal damage occurrences do not have this potential. It is a matter of looking at the energy that was available to be exchanged in the personal damage occurrence. The common cold cannot develop into cancer, similarly most minor injuries will never develop into serious personal damage.

The concept that preventing the minor personal damage occurrences will automatically prevent the major ones seems to me to be fundamentally flawed.

All organisations have limited resources to devote to safety, it seems more efficient to prevent one incident resulting in paraplegia than to prevent 20 incidents where people have a couple of days off work (some will say this comment is heresy)

Somewhere in the push to reduce L.T.I’s, reduce the L.T.I.F.R. and consequently achieve good ratings in safety programme audits the focus on serious personal damage tends to be lost.

Reducing the L.T.I.F.R. is as much about introducing rehabilitation programmes and making the place an enjoyable place to work as it is about reduction of personal damage.

4 Not using the continuous improvement philosophy and other facets of Quality Management in your safety approach.-

One company I worked for introduced a very rigorous approach to quality management and it improved safety and efficiency markedly. I find many organisations have the basics of quality but lack the drive for continuous improvement. Encouraging employees to question and improve what they are doing is vital. Many organisations take the opposite view and bury things in bure racy, bulldust and paperwork and the employees give up in disgust with regard to improving efficiency.

5 Lack of succinct paperwork.

There is not much point in having detailed paperwork that is too much like hard work to read.- OHS seems to attract long, wordy, complex reports and presentations that people seldom read, seldom listen to, seldom care about and seldom do much in response. Busy people do not have time to prepare detailed reports and busy people do not have time to read them. The term succinct is rarely apparent.

Many OHS people are complaining they have to spend so much time behind their computer they have little time to get out in the field where the action is happening.

6 Not using face to face communications whenever possible.-

Research by Harvard professor T.J. Larkin suggests when communicating change with the workforce use the supervisor not senior management, use face to face communications and frame communications relevant to the immediate work area and processes. His book Communicating In Times Of Change has some good pointers on communications that safety people will benefit from.

7 Not using a needs analysis to guide all your actions.-

Many safety management and safety learning initiatives suffer from being what people think are a good idea without a thorough formal needs analysis. Identifying needs by consulting with the workforce is vital. The paper Safety Training Needs Analysis may be of assistance.

8 Not training formal and informal leaders in Safety Leadership.-

Excellent safety leadership is a vital part of an excellent safety management system and appropriate interactive learning is essential. The paper The Things You Need To Know About Health And Safety Leadership gives some insight.

9 Not having simple, succinct Safe Working Procedures,

aim for 2 pages at the most, use pictures, diagrams, flow-charts etc.- One of the things we like to do in the safety world is develop safety working procedures, this is despite the fact that without training, supervision and follow up, procedural controls are notoriously unreliable.

At one road construction organisation the corporate safety people developed a S.W.P. for safely crossing a multi-lane freeway, there were good reasons for this. I was given the job of introducing it to the workers. There were 6 pages of complicated, close text and I, with a reasonable grasp of the English language, unlike some of the workers, simply could not understand it. Somehow I could not see the workers reading the document by the light of their torch or truck headlights in the middle of the night in order to carry out the task.

The corporate safety people were ropeable when I said I was not going to introduce it to the workers and it needed to be revised, they refused to revise it. Apparently I was a trouble maker. I gave the job of revising it to one of my crews.

2 pages with simple short steps and a diagram and the blokes were happy to use it because it made sense through their involvement.

I have always had difficulty drawing the line between what you put into a S.W.P. and what you rely on the competency of the worker for.

10 Not using team-building approaches in your safety approach-

Teams can have great synergy to drive significant safety change. Working in teams is very common and appropriate team building approaches and learning are essential. The team of safety people needs particular work. I have found a very effective way to drive safety change is through appropriately skilled safety project teams .

At one organisation I facilitated 2 teambuilding workshops for a newly formed safety team and their supervisors and managers. Everyone commented that it helped them clarify their roles and responsibilities.


photo credit: franklin_hunting via photopin cc

George Robotham

George Robotham

George was a Legend in the Safety World who passed away in Sept 2013 but left us with a great legacy
George Robotham
I have worked in OHS for most of my working life, many years in the mining industry including over 10 years in a corporate OHS role with BHP. Since leaving the mining industry I have worked in a variety of safety roles with a variety of employers, large & small, in a variety of industries. I was associated with my first workplace fatality at age 21, the girl involved was young, intelligent, vivacious and friendly. Such a waste! I was the first on the scene and tried to comfort her and tend to her injuries. She said to me “George, please do not let me die” We put her on the aerial ambulance to Rockhampton base hospital where she died the next day. I do not mind telling you that knocked me around for awhile. Since then I have helped my employers cope with the aftermath of 12 fatalities and 2 other life-altering events. The section "Why do Occupational Health & Safety" provides further detail but in summary, poor safety is simply very expensive and also has a massive humanitarian cost. My qualifications include a certificate I.V. in Workplace Training and Assessment, a Diploma in Frontline Management, a Diploma in Training & Assessment Systems, a Bachelor of Education (Adult & Workplace Education) , a Grad. Cert. in Management of Organisational Change and a Graduate Diploma in Occupational Hazard Management. I am currently studying towards a Masters in Business Leadership. Up until recently I had been a Chartered Fellow of the Safety Institute of Australia for 10 years and a member for about 30 years. My interest is in non-traditional methods of driving organisational change in OHS and I have what I believe is a healthy dis-respect for many common approaches to OHS Management and OHS Training. I hold what I believe is a well-founded perception that many of the things safety people and management do in safety are “displacement activities” (Displacement activities are things we do, things we put a lot of energy into, but which when we examine them closely there is no valid reason for doing them). My managerial and leadership roles in OHS have exposed me to a range of management techniques that are relevant to Business Improvement. In particular I am a strong supporter of continuous improvement and quality management approaches to business. I believe leadership is the often forgotten key to excellence in most aspects of life. I hold the Australian Defence Medal and am a J.P.(Qualified). I have many fond memories of my time playing Rugby Union when I was a young bloke.

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