Safety only for the Rich and Powerful

Safety only for the Rich and Powerful

imageWe see today that safety is only for the strong, wealthy and powerful (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-01-25/victorian-junkyard-woman-sentenced-to-jail-over-death/10746110?pfmredir=sm). If you run a small business and can’t afford safety or lack competence in safety, or are isolated in the bush, watch out – you’re off to gaol. If you are a mega corporation, well connected and can buy a QC or SC, you’ll never go to gaol. You can afford safety, even any big fine, just pass it on to shareholders.

Yes, it is very sad that people die at work. Yes, this 72 year old woman obviously ran a junk yard for 40 years that was an ad hoc collection of ‘make do’, ‘can do’ and ‘it will do’ ways of selling junk. Yes, she was obviously ignorant of workplace safety basics. Yes, you could get a bargain from this 72 year old at a menagerie of mess 174 kilometres from Melbourne, if you could find it. Probably her work practices had not changed since she started in 1979. But what is the real message in this story? What lessons and learnings are here for her, for us and for Safety? What will change in health and safety for this 72 year old serving time in gaol? Having worked in gaols, I’ll tell you now – nothing!

If you are a corporate behemoth, you will never go to gaol regardless of how many people are killed on site.

Of course, her work practices were probably atrocious but I bet they had worked for her for 40 years. When you run a struggling junk yard business making a bare few dollars, safety is expensive and would probably put you out of business. I’m sure there were probably Officeworks SWMS on a shelf somewhere in her messy shed/office anyway.

I have lived in country and outback for many years and on isolated properties just like this one and in Australia we reward those who ‘have a go’, ‘make do’ and have a ‘can do’ attitude. ‘Can do’ is one of the mantras for many tier one organisations. The Australian frontier spirit is about ‘can do’. It’s built into the Australian Legend we celebrate every Anzac Day (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_folklore; https://quadrant.org.au/magazine/2008/09/the-australian-legend-fifty-years-on/ ). We even have a Prime Minister who constantly spruiks the jingoistic ideology of ‘having a go’! (https://www.afr.com/news/transcript-of-new-prime-minister-scott-morrisons-first-press-conference-20180824-h14h1a ).

It is clear from the story that the fine and court costs alone will put this woman out of business, that’s the end of her joys in life, love of ‘treasures’ and hoarding ‘junk’. But if you sit in an ivory tower on the 44th floor of a skyscraper in Perth, Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane, you have nothing to worry about with Due Diligence (https://safetyrisk.net/due-diligence-workshop-2021-february-2019/ ). You can afford safety!

Have a read sometime of Greg Smith’s work (https://www.waylandlegal.com.au/blog) and see what happens in safety prosecutions and case law. Or better still read Paper Safe (https://safetyrisk.net/paper-safe/ ) or come to the Due Diligence Workshop (https://safetyrisk.net/due-diligence-workshop-2021-february-2019/  ) if you want a taste of reality in safety. Find out where the fear is and that most of what is practiced in safety doesn’t work anyway. All the checklists, mantras, matrices, pyramids and bureaucracy that are undertaken in ritual performance don’t invoke safety nor protect you in court should you be unlucky anyway. But if you are splash for cash, you have little to fear.

Do some research, who with money, power or position ever goes to gaol for a workplace fatality? What happened to the executives in BP? Texas City? Pike River? Do any of these colossal fines and threats of prosecution change the culture of safety at work? The answer to these questions obviously depends on your wealth, power and position. This is the message in this story.

So, where is the government and regulator in the educative space? When you can’t afford safety and are isolated in some small country town or farm in the middle of nowhere, and you don’t know any better, what does a gaol sentence serve? And if we only dish out gaol sentences to the small time bumblers, what do we learn? What does it say about an industry that crusades on principles that only have meaning if you can afford it? How many more country businesses out there do the same every day but are just lucky? I know of many.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

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Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

11 Replies to “Safety only for the Rich and Powerful”

  1. The solipsism of safety has no boundaries, professionalism or integrity. Directors via their lobbyists are also advocating for insurance against penalties for breaching statutory legislation, which is a travesty of justice and makes a mockery of law,

    During the UK parliamentary inquiry into the collapse of Carillion it was reported by Frank Field that PwC, Ernst & Young and Deloitte offered a comprehensive range of strategic management consultancy services to the organisation and then get paid to clear up the mess they helped create, when the house of cards came tumbling down.

    The same companies were involved in the Home Insulation Program.

  2. Such a full expose of the regulator. Today doing promos with TACVic zero heros at a football game. Dumb down safety on full show with no idea of what safety is.

  3. Good story, thank you. Of course there are numerous work locations where safety is unaffordable for the owners. But still, the worker has died. And if Mary had done improvements over time, maybe that would not have happened. So if we want to make the world safer, there should be a punishment if things go wrong (and before that). However, the punishment must be effective.

    I think that poor Maria has enough regret of the incident to think carefully about what she can do about safety improvements. She should be accompanied in this. That should be her punishment. And the big companies? Say what you do and do what you say. Safety first? Then also the safety of your suppliers and your contractors first. and not shifting the things that you can not safely do yourself to the companies that work as Mary.

    The ‘ordinary man’, however, also has a responsibility. You have to see where you get your stuff. Idealistic and unfeasible? Unfortunately yes. But we can continue to strive!

  4. Jerry, I find it very confusing that the regulator wants to make the world a safer place and is a believer in zero harm, that they have such a strange focus on punishing the weak and vulnerable. Of course zero harm is never zero, it’s always selective harm as is demonstrated in this story. If you do some research you will find that punishment and gaol sentences have no effect on culture or the safety industry. You can read more on that through Greg Smith’s blog.
    Similarly, these big companies with all these meaningless mantras like ‘safety first’ simply amplify the problem. When it comes to court such nonsense slogans are never tried as meaningful. If there is a fatality obviously safety wasn’t first but nevermind, noone will go to gaol.
    None of this is about what Due Diligence is anyway. DD is an ethic and moral disposition not a mantra, it cannot be validated by paper work or meaningless language like zero harm. DD is neither a formula nor regulatory imperative but much more about what ethic drives one’s care for others. If you really care about others you certainly wouldn’t speak so much bullshit to them. It seems more important to run around football games with ‘zero heros’ promoting tokenistic safety and then let economics do the rest.

  5. Maybe my English isn’t good enough, but I think you’re right about the hard sentence. But I do not believe in no punishment at all because you are a little company. That is not how the world works in my opinion. If nothing happens, you’ll get away with it, if not you burn your fingers.

    I think you always have to promote safety. The slogan safety first is a good vehicle to promote safety. An approach witch says “look, these are the risks, what would you as a worker do” is nice, but will always de undermined by time or money pressure.

    In the end, if ethics and moral meet money and pressure, ethics and moral only win in films. In real life, we are not there (yet)j

  6. Jerry, i find the mantra safety first simply becomes a great vehicle for hypocricy and scepticism, it disempowers the safety message rather than empowers it. People on the front who engage in high risk know that its just tokenism. Neither safety first or zero harm promote safety but rather make safety into this dumb down noise that says nothing. Zero harm looks really dumb when you set your definition of safety by injury data.
    As for punishment. there are plenty of ways to provide negative reinforcement other than goal time. I’m sure the fatality in itself has shaken up the world of the junkyard woman. The trouble with ethics and morality is that the safety industry doesn’t know about it. They are not studied in any safety qualification and certainly never a topic of safety conferences. When you are in bed with advertising dollars of the big corporates, its best to keep the tokenism going and gaol weak and vulnerable people.

  7. Idealistic and unfeasible? Well, I have shown and used several tools I learned at CLLR at companies that I work with and for and they are not only feasible but being done. Workspace, headspace, groupspace, suspending agenda, humble inquiry, ICues are all tools that I learned in Rob’s course work and has been very well received and effective. In fact, I just presented all of those tools to a group of executives at my company last Tuesday (we have probably 50,000 employees in the USA alone, not a small company) and I got at least one who has used it in the field already and raved about the success he had during a recent safety observation. He compared “humble inquiry” to the old approach of “telling” and was (his words) “amazed at the difference it made in connecting”. My pitch to them was, we are leaving our employees exposed to MORE risk by “telling” instead of “asking”. If you study with Rob, read his books or any of the other supporting texts (like Weick, Deci, Higgins, Schein) and learn how to present this so it is framed as building onto the lower steps of safety maturity vs casting it all of traditional safety purely as “wrong” (I made this mistake early on) this is doable. Its being done. I know, because we are starting to do it. I have been using these tools for well over a year now. I tell you, with nothing to gain by stating this, NOT using these tools and the dispositions of humble inquiry is exposing employees to hidden layers of risk that could otherwise be tackled vs not being acknowledged or understood.

  8. There were no criminal prosecutions following Aberfan, Piper Alpha or Samarco and the latest Mariana mining disaster in Brazil will be diffused and defused into harmless and divisive channels of bureaucracy:

    https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/nov/25/brazils-mining-tragedy-dam-preventable-disaster-samarco-vale-bhp-billiton

    Don Blankenship did some stir following Upper Big Branch but it was purely symbolic sabre rattling from Barack Obama, especially following BP Deepwater Horizon.

    An educated, healthy and confident nation is much harder to govern – Tony Benn

    This is reflected via a global infatuation with passive vicarious entertainment, which masquerades as news.

  9. Thanks Dyno, hey but what would I know. The fact that it works in every company and organisation I have ever worked for can’t be true, it has to be zero harm, after all DuPont don’t kill that many really. The only thing my detractors know for certain is that nothing associated with me could possibly work.

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