The toughest safety assignment I have had

The toughest safety assignment I have had

By the late George Robotham

George gets a call from a management consultant, can I commit a bit of time to review a company’s Safety Management System? Said yes and was told 2 of the company directors want to meet me before going ahead. I think they must take safety seriously if the directors want to meet me, big mistake!

Am there a week or so and they present me with 5 Prohibition Notices and about 32 Improvement Notices, these are overdue for a response to the regulator. About 20 of the Improvement notices are about confined space work, they build big steel tanks.

I discovered the management style of the organisation was very autocratic. The workers were expected to follow the orders of management without question or discussion. The organisation had massive turnover, what happens when you treat your people like crap.

I look at the relevant legislation and relevant Australian Standard, work with the health & safety representative, talk to the blokes, observe practice and do an audit. They have confined space working procedures that cover possibly 50% of the requirements but even these are not being followed. In talking to the blokes who do the work I hear stories of blokes being overcome by fume and having to be dragged out of the confined space.

My audit report detailed the many areas where practice was not meeting legislative and Australian Standard requirements. In my innocence I thought my audit would galvanise management into action. When I realised my audit had little impact I convinced the director in charge of the workshop to get an outside consultant to do an audit. They did a very thorough job and as expected slammed the organisation. There was grudging acceptance from management that there was possibly a need for minor work. The reality was that a major overhaul was required.

I came under a fair bit of pressure from management to pull my head in and back off on the matter.

Meantime the Managing Director comes back from overseas and is aghast that I have spent a few grand on an external audit. I suspect he is getting a filtered version of events from the directors who do not wish to admit what a mess things are in.

We have a safety committee meeting where I report on the consultant’s audit. The Managing Director fought me every inch of the way and tried to get me to back down. He got quite angry because he was not used to people sticking to their guns when he opposed them. I advised the M.D. to talk to his solicitors and he would find out I was right. After the meeting one of the safety officers said he had never seen anyone stand up to the Managing Director the way I did.

Deadly silence for a couple of weeks and then the M.D. bounces into my office all keen to make the changes, we all reckoned he had been to see his solicitors. One of the directors said it was the biggest turnaround he had ever seen in the M.D.

I got the approval to make the required changes but it was like pulling teeth because of management reluctance. I finally got something reasonably acceptable but hell it was hard work. I was later told I was a bit of a hero to the workers as they had been trying to get the changes made for a couple of years.

Between a number of Improvement Notices, a review of legislation, a review of the relevant Australian Standard, my audit and an external audit I have never been on firmer grounds to make safety recommendations. I was lied to, treated like an idiot and pressure was applied to make me back down. It would have been very easy to walk away but that would continue to put the workers at risk.

For the first time in many years as an OHS professional I found it necessary to speak to the regulator about my experiences. I am aware the company has been the subject of 2 Enforceable Undertakings since I left

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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