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Disrupt your safety mindset

Robyn explores safety culture, organisational behaviour, and leadership. This column appeared in the December 2021 edition of Workplace Issues.

In late August I had the pleasure of opening the Australian Institute of Health and Safety’s SAFEfest conference (which was held virtually).

When I looked at the conference program and speakers, I was pleased to see the focus on safety behaviour and culture. Having a background in organisational behaviour as well as work health and safety, I am acutely conscious of the challenges of bringing a behavioural focus to safety that complements the traditional safe systems of work approach.

Recently WorkSafe published the 2020 Industry Snapshot where we look at the trends in worker injuries over the last 12 months, 5 years and 10 years. It was perplexing looking at some of the trends. The words of Professor Julius Sumner Miller goes through my head as I wonder ‘why is it so?’

Why is it that when the number of workplace injuries has dropped 21% in the last 10 years, the number of serious injuries remains unchanged?

Why is it that the number of serious injuries in the agriculture, forestry and fishing sector is 21% higher than it was 10 years ago, and in construction 6% higher?

Why is it that 1 in 5 workers injured in 2020 worked in the Health Care and Social Assistance sector?

Why is it that although body stressing injuries have reduced by 10% over the last 10 years, they still make up 38% of all injuries — a proportion that hasn’t changed much in recent years.

Why is it that mental stress injuries have increased by 21% over the last 5 years? Is it more injuries or is it more reporting of injury?

I could keep asking the questions — and wouldn’t find ready answers. Maybe we don’t have them yet. Maybe we need to disrupt our thinking about traditional ways of reducing workplace safety risks and try new and different ways of improving safety performance.

Organisational behaviour research is well-grounded on what motivates people at work. Behavioural economics considers the drivers for changing behaviour.

There is much to be learned by safety professionals from these disciplines. It isn’t new knowledge; the momentum has been building to use this research to improve safety and build on the successes achieved through safe systems of work.

It is not yet an approach we see inherently built into managing safety when our inspectors and advisors work with industry, workers and unions. If it was inherent, we would see more and more workplaces where:

  • safety is designed into the way in which we do work, not bolted on to the way we work
  • safety is seen not as a cost of doing business, but something we do because we are in business
  • safety is not only talked about by our leaders and workers, but it is inherent in how we think
  • consultation with workers and collaboration with contractors, suppliers, designers and other duty holders happens as early as possible and is genuine and meaningful.

So while on the one hand, as safety professionals, we should be looking at how to do safety differently; on the other hand, we need to deal with the external disrupters that create new risks. And over the last two years we have seen significant disruption: the COVID-19 pandemic, and its effects on how we do work (and where we do work) and mental health and stability. Other disrupters that have been on the horizon in recent years include the gig economy, increasing automation and artificial intelligence, and the ageing workforce.

Having a strong safety culture and mindset takes time and commitment from everyone in the workplace. Teamwork, collaboration and communication are vital. But the rewards are high. It will build flexibility and agility to help respond to these and other challenges — and as we have seen in recent times, we can and must anticipate and plan for change, and be flexible in our planning and response.

These are important steps for ensuring safe workplaces and safe workers, now and into the future.

Updated: 19th January 2022