Currently enjoying Rob Sams new book: Social Sensemaking. One of the chapters is based on this article from last year – lots for Safety to learn here:
What can Safety Learn From the Gympie Gympie Stinging Tree?
This week I have been holidaying in Far North Queensland, Australia. It is a warm climate and a great way to welcome Spring and all that comes with a change in season. As my wife and I love to do when on holidays, there has been a nice mix of relaxing and exploring.
We have been fortunate enough to spend time exploring the beautiful Daintree Rainforest. Today we visited the Mossman Gorge where we experienced one of their Ngadiku Dreamtime Walk’s that are conducted by the local Indigenous people. Ngadiku (Nar-di-gul) means stories and legends from a long time ago in local Kuku Yalanji language. Today our welcoming host was Rodney.
As we meandered through the rainforest, I could not help but feel welcomed, valued and respected. Rodney was showing us around an area that his family and ancestors have inhabited for many thousands of years. Rodney shared stories, knowledge and experiences. He guided us through what he described as ‘our backyard’, referring not only ‘our’ being his people, but also ‘our’ as being the people who were sharing our journey today, it was a very welcoming experience.
Whilst Rodney enjoyed pointing out various artefacts along the way and demonstrating some of the history and practices of his people, he was equally as interested in our stories and what we knew. He asked lots of questions and while he was the host for today’s walk, you couldn’t help but be left with the impression that Rodney was keen to learn himself as much as he was interested in sharing his own stories.
Of course, this got me thinking about how, and what we in risk and safety could learn from Rodney just like we may be able to learn from a rock.
As we started today’s walk, Rodney, who can best be described as a ‘top bloke’, warmly greeted us. He started by referring to us as his family and said we were welcome into his backyard, a place we shared. He said he hoped to share with us some of the knowledge that had been passed down to him, but also wanted to make sure that we were able to share our own experiences, ideas and questions.
One of the first things that we came across as we commenced our walk was one of Australia’s most dangerous plants the Gympie Gympie Stinging Tree. This tree, that doesn’t look at all out of place in a rainforest, and certainly had no obvious signs of danger, is rated up there alongside some of Australia’s most dangerous animals in terms of the effect that it can have on people who are exposed to it. If you come into contact with one of these things, the pain I’m told is almost unbearable. You scratch like crazy as tiny ‘nettles’ from the plant are imbedded in your skin. Worst still, while the initial pain can be treated, one of the horrible things about this plant is that the sensation of pain comes back regularly, even after the nettles have been removed and initial triage completed. This return of pain I‘ve learnt can last for many years. It’s sound bloody aweful!
So, I picture how something this dangerous might be treated in the workplace. There would of course be the obligatory ‘this toaster is hot’ style signage, there’d have to be guards around it, there would be instructions, rules, procedures and the list would go on. Danger it seems just can’t be tolerated in today’s workplaces. Now, there has been plenty written about how crazy the safety industry is getting and how our abundance of ‘control’ is quite possibly creating just the opposite of what it may set out to achieve. In this piece however, I want to share the ideas and experiences that I learned from Rodney today and spark some discussion about what we in risk and safety may learn from this approach. So what was Rodney’s approach to dealing with one of Australia’s most dangerous plants?
To begin, it started with questions about what we already knew. As we came up to the plant, Rodney stopped and asked what we could see. He listened intently as we all rattled off a list of what was in front of us, and not surprisingly, not one of us mentioned the Gympie Gympie Stinging Tree. I couldn’t help but think that if this was ‘safety’, Rodney’s next move would have been to say to us all ‘good try’, but you’re missing something very obvious and we all need to ‘listen up’. You know the style of safety person, they seem to enjoy asking questions that they suspect most won’t be able to answer, and seem to enjoy even more watching people as they almost beg them to share their knowledge. This was not Rodney’s style.
Rodney moved next to asking what dangers we thought we might be exposed to in the rainforest. There was a long list of snakes, spiders, uneven surface, sunburn and a few others. Rodney listened and engaged with the group as we shared our stories and thoughts. It was a great conversation with many people sharing stories about how they have been exposed to these things and how they dealt with them. I learned a thing or two.
Rodney then asked if anyone knew of any dangerous plants. A few of us vaguely answered ‘yeah sorta’ but no one really had any specific knowledge that we could share. Rodney pointed out an example of a Gympie Gympie Sting Tree and highlighted its distinctive features that include the ‘nettles’ in the leaves and a bright red berry. Rodney shared stories of its dangers and of some of his own experiences, but there was something different about Rodney’s story and style than what we typically see in risk and safety. In our industry Rodney would have been sharing ‘war stories’ and using these to make sure everyone knew of the dangers and consequences. Not Rodney, no instead it was a ‘yarn’ (a conversation) where he encouraged questions and shared his knowledge, but not in a way where I walked away feeling silly for not knowing. Instead, I walked away feeling part of a conversation and story where everyone involved shared learning. It felt great.
Of course there will be some from a traditional safety background reading this who will probably suggest it would have been far more efficient and appropriate for Rodney to just come out and tell us about the dangers of the Gympie Gympie Stinging Tree up front. That would have been his ‘duty of care’ and would be the responsible approach, after all that’s how we seem to do it in safety. Not for Rodney though, he didn’t seem interested in sprouting how smart he was or how much more he knew, instead for the two or so hours that we shared a walk through the rainforest, he facilitated some great discussions where I’m sure we all learnt a thing or two, least of all about the dangers of the Gympie Gympie Stinging Tree.
I wonder if there something we can learn from Rodney and his approach to sharing experiences, stories and facilitating conversations? I wonder how people who complete our inductions feel afterwards? Do we welcome people into our backyards?
What can safety learn from the Gympie Gympie Stinging Tree?
As usual, I’d love to hear your thoughts, experiences and comments.
Author: Robert Sams
Phone: 0424 037 112
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