Safety Hits a Snag

Safety Hits a Snag

imageThe media and social media in Australia recently lit up over the overcooked Bunnings directive that sausage sizzle volunteers must place onions beneath the sausages in order to prevent slips and falls in their stores – supported by the trite platitude that safety is their “number one priority”. Funny that Bunnings are quite happy to send inexperienced DIYers home with a 9” angle grinder or chainsaw!. Some were perplexed that such a relatively trivial thing could become such a national issue, even inviting comment from our Prime Minister! There is a lesson here for Safety and that is that people have had enough of silly initiatives, covertly forced upon us and defended in the in the name of safety, with prosaic aphorisms – they are not afraid to vehemently express that disdain when there no fear of repercussions (something they would not dare do at work). The supporters of this initiative could do nothing but trot out a 3-year-old example of a customer who allegedly slipped on an onion and settled for a large sum (subject to a non-disclosure agreement). The whole process was certainly not well done……….

Dr Rob Long wrote about this recently in Bunnings Banger Bungle. His co-author of the best-selling book Risky Conversations”, Greg Smith, has now chimed in with this piece below (recently published HERE). I highly recommend Greg’s latest book, “PAPER SAFE” where he covers the paradox of trivial rules undermining the importance of WHS.

Of Sausages and Onions

There has been a recent outcry across the health and safety community, and others I suspect, about the recent decision of a chain of hardware stores, Bunnings.

If you are reading this outside of Australia, you might not appreciate the full cultural significance of what is happening. For many people, Bunnings is more than a hardware store, it is a Saturday morning ritual, and an important part of that ritual is buying a sausage on piece of white bread, with onions and tomato sauce. Proceeds from this “sausage sizzle” go to charity, and both my daughter and sister-in-law have participated in this fundraising exercise. Having spent the last three decades in various stages of home renovations and handyman projects, I have made a pretty significant contribution to the sausage sizzle myself.

The Bunnings directive to volunteers who man the sausage sizzle has been to place the onions underneath the sausage, not on top of them, for ostensibly occupational safety and health reasons. Bunnings chief operating officer has been quoted in the press as saying they want onions placed underneath the sausage to prevent them falling out and creating a slip hazard.

(See: Bunnings onion directive)

The directive was accompanied by reports of a visitor to Bunnings who slipped on an onion, fell back and hit his head three years ago. The matter was apparently settled out of court and subject to a nondisclosure agreement. This in itself is ironic, because if “safety is always our number one priority” (see the article above) why does Bunnings need to cover up the incident with a nondisclosure agreement, rather than share it? Surely other organisations are confronted with the threat of onion related disasters at sporting events every weekend – what was done to inform them of the risk, in pursuit of this most important “priority”?

In my recent book, Paper Safe: the triumph of bureaucracy in safety management, I wrote about rules, and how many rules in the name of health and safety are seen as trivial and can work to undermine the importance of health and safety in organisations. This certainly seems to be the overwhelming reaction to the Bunnings onion directive – a stupid, unnecessary rule which demeans health and safety and calls it into ridicule.

I certainly think there is room for this type of criticism. I pity the poor health and safety officer who is going to be asked questions about onion safety at every workplace barbecue for years to come.

But there is another side to this conversation. In Paper Safe, I also wrote about “the Handrail Conundrum”.

People falling down stairs at work represents a potential threat to the organisation – at the very least injured workers be entitled to workers compensation. In the same way, people slipping and falling at a business premises represents a threat – there is a very real likelihood of someone seeking legal redress and damages if they are injured.

It is not the risk that is in question here – it is the response to it.

I do not think we can argue there is no risk from the onions, but there is certainly a conversation to be had about an appropriate response to the risk.

I think the most cringeworthy aspect of the story is the silly response – the statement “safety is our number one priority“. Safety is our number one priority just seems like a platitude. We have all heard it said so often and know it is not true in practice. I do not pretend to know Bunning’s real stance on safety, but I cringe every time I hear it said by a corporate spokesperson because it smacks of corporate dishonesty – especially when accompanied by a nondisclosure agreement.

But the real problem with dressing the onion directive up as some sort of “caring” safety response is, in isolation, the onion directive is meaningless.

I mean, is there really evidence that onions underneath the sausage are less likely to fall out than onions on top? Not in my experience of eating them. I would love to know the research that went into this decision-making, or whether somebody just thought it was a good idea without any basis.

Even if there was empirical data to support the onion placement strategy, the strategy is, itself, all but unenforceable. Is there a realistic expectation of being able to enforce compliance with the onion placement directive across the thousands of volunteers who rotate through Bunnings stores across the country every weekend? Perhaps we could appoint the 15-year-old who stands sentry at the main entrance as the onion monitor? I can just imagine the range of conversations they would have to endure, with everyone from hassled tradies running late to get to a job, to frazzled fathers dashing between Saturday morning sporting events with half the team in tow looking for the “right” reticulation head. And yes that is a real thing!

Anyway, fixing the onion risk does not address the problem. The problem is the slip resistance of the floors. Go and walk around Bunnings on a Saturday and see if you can find any other potential risk factors, over and above the onions. What might you find? Bits of sausage itself? Splotches of tomato sauce, mustard or other condiments? Splashes of meat pie filling or bits of crust? God only knows what, being thrown out of prams and strollers by recalcitrant toddlers who do not really want to be at Bunnings – apple slices, rusks, juice, bits of toast – the list goes on.

Perhaps there is some commercially available product that could be pained on floors to improve their slip resistance. I wonder where you might find something like that … Oh, wait …

I am not critical of Bunning for being concerned about customers falling over in their stores. I understand that. It is a real problem. But I cannot help but feel that if safety really was their number one priority, the response might have been different.

11 Replies to “Safety Hits a Snag”

  1. Recent article in “The Shovel”

    A warehouse chain that has an entire section devoted to chainsaws, compound mitre saws and jackhammers, has warned its customers about the potential dangers of cooked slices of onion.

    “We wouldn’t want people to slip and roll their ankle,” said a spokesperson from the store that stocks machinery designed to dismantle brick walls.

    Walking through the jigsaw, power drill and nail gun section, the spokesperson said onion became slippery when it fell on a concrete floor. He then recommended a product that could remove the onion grease, as well as one that could remove the concrete floor.

    Onions can now be found underneath sausages. Industrial leaf blowers can be found under angle grinders, next to hedge trimmers.

  2. Yes, certainly a snag, for an already damaged product as some of us acknowledge and referred to by comments here and in Robs article on the same topic. I find it very uncomfortable there has been little other critical comment, other than what we read here, from safety people and particularly from the representative body for people working or with interests in workplace safety. (I suspect critical comment is seen as heresy by that body) I feel uncomfortable and conflicted that I read and enjoyed the ridicule directed towards the safety zealots, opportunists et al. and their directives that infest the safety field, yet read of yet another fatality in the workplace. There seems to be a complete disconnect between the two yet the process and outcome sought is supposed to be the same.
    I strongly believe safety for workers at their level is directionless, etc while the safety field is leaderless and lacking in direction for genuine people wanting to improve the lot workers safety.

  3. The industry is in such disarray, how can it be otherwise when at its the foundation is a lack of vision demonstrated by continually speaking nonsense to people. There is simply no vision for safety demonstrated by any of the peak organisations. Who wants to belong to a peak body when it is anchored in love with zero and now the industry is globally married to this nonsense. When you set the language and curticulum by 1930s principles, no wonder modern society laughs at you.

    Zero is what drives much of the petty pissy propaganda masked as care and the preoccupation with minutia.

  4. A quick scroll through the Wesfarmers home page, about us and our people tabs provides sufficient substantive evidence of the organisation’s leadership attributes, which focus on telling, compliance, enforcement, crime and punishment…..A moment is all it takes:

    Its primary objective is to provide a satisfactory return to its shareholders, which mirrors the Friedman doctrine on corporate social responsibility.

    The organisation also owns the NSCA, Greencap and Blackwoods.

    Diane Smith-Gander, a non-executive director is the current chair of Safe Work Australia and former CEO at Broadspectrum, which managed the Manus regional processing centre…..Zero harm indeed.

    Previous sinecures included an executive role with Westpac that has lost its moral compass, which is quite a significant accomplishment because it never had one.

    Safety, especially Safe Work Australia, which develops national policy is morally bereft and philosophically rudderless.

    If you want to change culture cut the head off the snake or change’ em or change ’em.

  5. One of the fascinating things to watch in this matter is the naive mentalitie of the safety industry to social politics. Of course, since when did safety study politics or ethics?

  6. I think that’s because the basis of safety curriculum is not about safety but compliance to a 1930s approach to behaviourism, hardly an education. The wne something like this comes up safety can’t think critically. It wouldn’t matter what was thrown up, the compliance mindset cannot see beyond the checklist.

    1. Ode to a Bunning’s onion

      I am a Bunning’s onion
      My life was once quite grand,
      I’d get to look at everything
      As you held me in your hand.

      Looking out the drivers window
      Or at the people you would greet,
      All these scenes unfolded
      Up upon my sausage seat.

      Sometimes I would be blinded
      Smothered by that sauce so red,
      Or a squeeze of yellow mustard
      Soaked up by the fresh white bread.

      But now my life’s just not as good
      As it used to be,
      For my view is now constricted
      By the snag on top of me.

      And why you ask have things so changed,
      Why did my status drop?
      It’s all because some Gympie bloke
      Trod on me and went flop!

      So I’ll fade into obscurity
      Underneath some dodgy meat,
      Now that Bunning’s changed the way
      We eat our weekend treat.

      So please do not forget me
      Now I’m down out of the way,
      And now and then lift up that snag
      And smile and say G’day!

      I’ll still be just as tasty
      Cooked so caramel and rich,
      I’m just not as important
      Since becoming Bunning’s B#tch!

  7. This is one of the most over the top safety measures I have ever heard of. I am not Australian and hardly ever will eat a sausage, but I have several Australian friends who do and they are just outraged. Most say that the onions must be placed on top because otherwise the bread will go soggy and spoil the experience.
    I personally think the business of onions being on top or on the bottom should be between the person making the hot dog and the one buying it. Safety managers should keep their noses out of it. C’mon, a bit of common sense goes a long way…

Do you have any thoughts? Please share them below