WHS Legislation is NOT about Safety it’s about Culture.
I asked a couple of managers the other day what they thought the WHS legislation was about. You see, my client had asked me to make sure that their managers knew of their legal compliance obligations – a fairly typical request often from senior management. So, I thought I’d start with what the managers already knew, or thought they knew, by asking a few questions.
Funny, a few years ago I would have gathered my computer and PowerPoint presentation and launched into a lecture on the Act and the Regulations and Codes of Practice and Standards and penalties for breaches etc. but these days I’m happier having conversations and asking questions – turns out it actually generates better understanding – who would have thought, but I digress.
So, I simply said to them, “… can you explain to me what you think the WHS legislation is about?” Their collective response didn’t surprise me; it came after a bit of shuffling of feet and some murmuring about how “it is complex” and “it depends on what you are looking at” and “it depends on what the job is” and “it depends on what industry you are in” and “it’s about making people safe” and so on; but eventually they agreed that they didn’t really know or understand what the WHS legislation was actually about. Now, given that these people were experienced operators; had completed some tertiary education, had been in industry for quite some time and in some fairly high risk industries including, heavy engineering/ manufacturing and aircraft maintenance among others; many people would have been surprised by that.
Why was I not surprised? The simple answer is that my experience tells me that most people have been so flooded by the volume of words surrounding the legislation and that they have not been able to pick up the intent of it. So, what IS the intent of the legislation?
The answer isn’t in the title of the legislation. In fact the titles (Work Health & Safety Act and Work Health & Safety Regulation) may be causing some of the confusion. The titles are about health and safety, when the Act is actually about RISK. How can I make that claim?
Well, the clue is in the bit of the Act that the Inspector from the Regulator will use to assess your compliance when there is cause for them to visit.
You see the Regulator won’t be asking questions about safety management systems and inspection systems and safe work method statements and such; even though that is what will most likely be presented to them. They will be asking questions related to your Risk Culture. They will be interested in what you understand about your responsibilities, what your business is about, what you understand can go wrong, what you are attempting to do about what can go wrong, what resources you invest in managing what can go wrong, how well those resources are being applied and how you know that things are going as well as you are hoping they will (given your efforts).
These are all risk questions based on the Due Diligence requirements from the Act (Division 4, Section 27 (5)) and given that those requirements include terms like “reasonable”, “generally” and “appropriate” there will be a reasonable (that word again) amount of subjectivity to their questions, your answers and the degree as to their satisfaction with your answers. Essentially they will be asking about your risk management culture and as we know from an understanding of social psychology, culture is a broad and complex “thing”.
So, why do we talk about safety when the legislation is about risk? What is your risk management culture? How risk savvy are your people? What sort of conversations do you have at your workplace regarding your risk culture as opposed to safety? What language do you use when talking about the impact of your operations on your people? Because that is the real guts of the legislation; it is about the impact of your operations on your people.
In another conversation, at the previously mentioned client, I asked some of the blokes what the impact might be if we stopped talking about “safety” and instead used different language when we really mean to be talking about looking out for each other. I asked them what would happen if we instead used the term “wellbeing” instead of safety. Well, what a difference that made! The conversation then opened up to include other risks besides the risk to people and the possibility of personal injury. It included risks related to the quality of their products and services, risks to the environment, to sales, to their standing in the community, and so on; eventually we found we were discussing a more holistic approach to the impact of the operation on people, we found that we were considering risk related to everything which impacts on the success of the company.
We agreed that the company’s main priority is not safety; its number one priority is its continued success, which is very much linked to the “wellbeing” of the employees. After-all, people out of work, with bills to pay and no money coming in and limited chances of new jobs, is a recipe for all sorts of by-products for those concerned (stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues, excessive drinking, potential for spousal and child abuse and violence etc.) none of which (since they didn’t happen at work) are workplace “safety” issues – but they are obviously people “wellbeing” issues related to the operations of the business; and in the long term societal issues. So what can be done?
I believe that a change in the language of safety is needed in order to lead people to think differently about how we care for our people. I believe that conversations in the workplace, which use language focussed on the “wellbeing of our people” and an understanding that innovation and improvement can only come through our acceptance of risk, and an understanding of how people make decisions, is a better way of developing better “safety” conversations. In fact I agree with my friend and colleague Rob Sams from Dolphyn, I’m not into safety anymore; I much prefer to concentrate on peoples’ wellbeing, though encouraging risk discernment, and building a Rysk Savvy ™ culture. It has a more holistic view and asks questions that go deeper than just workplace safety; AND by the way, it also meets the intent of the legislation, which is where we came in.
I welcome your comments and thoughts and maybe a chat about being “Rysk Savvy ™” and meeting compliance obligations.
Author: Max Geyer
Phone: 0419 143 457