People and safety
Article by George Robotham – Download his free Safety EBooks Here
In the push to implement complex, integrated management system, long ponderous paper work, bureaucracy, the latest fads, self serving commercial safety management systems, buzz words such as Zero Harm and the other assorted bull shit that often happens in safety, we tend to forget effective safety is about the people.
My introduction to safety
I just drifted into safety but its importance was bought into focus when I was 21 and attended an accident scene where an 18 year old, female, office employee was seriously injured. I comforted her while waiting for the ambulance. As she drifted in and out of consciousness 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 I had a few drinks after that. However, this was in the days before critical incident stress debriefing was thought of, the myth abounded to just ‘harden up’.
The subsequent investigation revealed some issues that had not been handled well by various people, I was overcome with the unnecessary ‘waste’ of a young vibrant person.
I think this is where my passion for safety and risk really started. There was a realization of the impact of poor workplace safety and the belief that a most of the time it is relatively easy to manage.
Not long after the death of the young woman, there was an accident where a bloke was crushed between an access platform and the shoe of a dragline, he received multiple injuries and was made a paraplegic, this also had a profound effect on me. It dawned upon me that equipment designers were slow to acknowledge design problems in their equipment.
Serious personal damage and people
When serious personal damage occurs, OHS personnel tend to get caught up in the lives of victims and their loved ones. There is no more levelling an experience than having to go with the police to the house of an employee and telling them their loved one is dead. I wouldn’t wish that experience on anyone.
I have seen the waste of a person, with so much potential and future, and that loss is unbelievably distressing. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t find such experiences distressing. That is why I get so upset about bullshit and snake oil paraded as safety effectiveness. I see so much rubbish that people do in the name of safety, that is only there for cosmetics, it doesn’t save lives. Half the time, it’s about making money or covering someone’s arse, but it’s not about safety.
I remember like yesterday, in my duties as Safety Advisor, driving to an employee’s house and speaking to his wife. I remember seeing her face as she came rushing out of the house, seeing me and expecting bad news. There was a look of relief on her face when she was told her husband was injured and in hospital for a day or two but would be ok. Just imagine if I had had much worse news, you never want to experience that.
The safety people I have worked with
I have often had leadership roles where I have had to lead junior OHS people.
Most of the safety people I have worked with have been highly motivated and caring, few have had what I would consider as great technical OHS skills, even fewer had well rounded broader management skills, some put the workers first, some put themselves first, some have been highly competent, some have been a waste of space, some have been good trainers and some have been hopeless. Working with and trying to get the best out of these people has been a significant challenge for me. I have often thought my understanding of self and others and interpersonal relationships has not been up to the task.
Learning about people and safety
The human being is an unusual and unreliable animal and their behaviours are hard to predict. I believe the first thing to do in understanding others is to understand yourself. There are various psychological assessment tools available, these will give some insight but do not get too hung up on what they tell you. Getting along to some short courses on interpersonal relationships will help. If I had my time over again in safety I would have started out by completing a Psychology degree, hopefully that would have given me some skills to understand others. I believe Dr. Rob Long’s learning initiatives in Safety Leadership and Risk Psychology represent a significant step forward in understanding people and safety.
An observation of mine is that despite having great OHS technical skills a number of OHS people are let down by their interpersonal skills.
As I get older my critical reflection on practice tells me interpersonal skills are just as important as OHS technical skills. There is not much point having a great message if you cannot get it across, if you have great technical skills but cannot get along with people you will not succeed.
I was introduced to and practised appropriate self-disclosure in a Psychology subject. You will find in a new relationship if you reveal a little bit of you (provided it is appropriate) the other party will reveal a little bit of them(provided it is appropriate), if you then reveal a little bit more of you(provided it is appropriate) they will reveal a little bit more of them (provided it is appropriate), and so the cycle goes on. This is very simple, incredibly effective and I use it all the time to build relationships. Of course if you really hang all your dirty washing out it will probably stuff up the process.
On a counselling subject I was introduced to and practised reflective listening. This is a very powerful technique to get to the core beliefs of those around you. Someone says something, you may say “If I understand you properly you think x” ,this gives the other party the opportunity to expand on their view or “Correct me if I am wrong but I think you are saying y” .
There will be times others do things that annoy you, often they will have what they think are good reasons for what they are doing and they will have no idea they are annoying you. A good formula for these situations is to express your feelings as follows-
“When you A, I feel B, because C, and I would like you to do D, because E”
The only person who knows how you feel is you and most people will not know how you feel and many will be happy to adjust their behaviour accordingly. If this does not happen at least you have the basis for ongoing discussion.
I suggest all safety professionals read up on these techniques, it can make your life much easier!
People Skills by Bolton is a good reference, to get the best value out of the book you need to work through some of the exercises in the chapters.
Managers I have worked with
Early in my OHS career I made an error of judgement while working for a safety consultancy organisation. The General Manager attempted to discipline me in a team meeting. My manager, Tim, intervened and took full responsibility for my mistake. I later thanked Tim who explained he did what he did to send messages to 3 groups of people.
The General Manager
“No-one interferes with my people, discipline of my people is my responsibility and it will only be used when all other avenues have been explored and it will always be positive and done in private.”
“You were feeling down and I wanted to let you know you were still a valued member of my team”
Other team members
“I am in charge of this outfit and no-one else interferes with my team. Making mistakes that we learn from is perfectly acceptable”
I would have followed Tim anywhere after this.
It has taken me thirty years and reading extensively about leadership to realise the significance of what Tim did that day.
“Leaders send out messages, often subtly, about what they value and expect.”
For about a year I worked with a General Manager Operations, John, who could best be described as a humble but focused leader who had an overriding commitment to safety. John would turn up at operating sites in the middle of the night to see how safety was being managed. He would jump on a haul truck and go with the operator while the truck was loaded, John would question the operators about safety and tell them that he expected safety to be their top priority. He would walk through the workshop and observe how work was being performed. He would then gather everybody together and give them feedback about safety and tell them what he expected.
He used to give the workers his mobile number and tell them to call him anytime if a safety issue was not solved to their satisfaction. This did not happen often but there was some big action when it did. The approach by John was not always appreciated by the business unit supervisors and managers as he often knew more about how safety was managed at their site than they did, they were kept on their toes.
John had a very simple approach to safety audits, he chose ten things his wide experience told him had been known to cause fatalities and the associated prevention methods. He audited to see if the required preventative actions were in place. At the audit closing meeting he reported on the status of the items and said he expected the required actions to be in place by the time he came back in six months. All this was said in a soft, slow, Southern drawl but the managers and supervisors knew their jobs were on the line.
John let his subordinates know he expected nothing less than 100% commitment to safety, those who did not comply were not around long. Word quickly got around about his safety expectations, single handed he raised the profile of safety in the organisation. Unfortunately after John left there was no one to carry on his work at the same level.
Then there was my manager, Greg. I organised an outside training organisation to conduct training for health and safety representatives. Early in the course the instructor asked me to come over and talk to the participants who raised a number of quite reasonable safety issues with me. Some were within my power to fix so we discussed how to fix them. Some required management action so I asked Greg to attend. Well what a circus! We lost count of the number of times he told us how committed to safety he was, we also lost count of the even greater number of times he refused to commit to positive action to address the issues. In the end the group lost patience with Greg and told him to leave and stop wasting their time. The course instructor, a highly qualified OHS professional, was dumbfounded by the performance Greg put on and asked me where I had got him from. It was not long after this that I resigned, I figured I was wasting my time with a manager like Greg.
Lastly there is my mate Roy who leads the “Connect” program for at risk youth, “Connect” uses adventure-based training to teach team building, leadership and life style skills to young people facing various difficulties in their lives. Working from a simple but well researched and validated model “Connect” influences the lives of everyone it touches, for many it transforms their lives.
Roy is an extremely humble and effective, grass-roots leader with very high moral principles who puts his heart and soul into his work. Through his uncomplicated leadership style Roy has moulded a highly motivated team that consistently operates at a high level. If I was to analyse Roy’s leadership style I would say he simply does the leadership basics exceptionally well. There is little complexity in the way Roy goes about leadership, this is a major strength.
The most important observation I have about the excellent leaders I have worked with is that they valued, respected and understood the people in their teams.
Working with different types of managers has also been an extreme challenge. Some had had their own biases that even a well developed argument will not sway, some have been more interested in promoting their image than looking after the workers, some have had poor communications and interpersonal skills, some have been theoretical rather than practical and some have been incompetent wankers. I worked with one manager who spent a lot of his time boosting his image with senior management, of course while he was doing this the real work he was there for suffered. He used to claim his mistakes were mine and my successes were his. I never trusted him
The people issues in organisations are vital for success in any discipline. The relationships you build will be what determine your success. When I was in the Army a R.S.M. with a chest full of medals said that the most important thing in leadership is to look after your private soldiers, because you are stuffed (Sanitised version) without them. Do your utmost to learn about yourself and the people you interact with.
George can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org, he welcomes debate on the above (it would be indeed a boring world if everybody agreed with George)
George Robotham, Cert. IV T.A.E.,. Dip. Training & Assessment Systems, Diploma in Frontline Management, Bachelor of Education (Adult & Workplace Education), (Queensland University of Technology), Graduate Certificate in Management of Organisational Change, (Charles Sturt University), Graduate Diploma of Occupational Hazard Management), (Ballarat University), Accredited Workplace Health & Safety Officer (Queensland),Justice of the Peace (Queensland), Australian Defence Medal, Brisbane, Australia, email@example.com, www.ohschange.com.au,07-38021516, 0421860574, My passion is the reduction of permanently life altering (Class 1 ) personal damage