Robyn discusses the consequences of what happens when something goes wrong, and how that can motivate us to improve safety. This column appeared in the Winter 2022 edition of Workplace Issues.
When a serious incident occurs, the shockwaves are often felt throughout our community. If we think back to tragic events such as the Beaconsfield mine collapse in 2006, the Dreamworld fatalities in 2016, and more recent tragic workplace deaths here in Tasmania — these events are beamed across our media, sometimes around the world, and become etched into our hearts and memories. As individuals and as communities, we are shocked, saddened, maybe angered.
But as employers, safety professionals, and workers, what is our response? What should be our response?
As the work health and safety regulator, WorkSafe investigates incidents and looks for factors that caused or contributed to what happened. Were there safe work procedures and policies in place, were they implemented adequately, and were workers trained in them?
Were the machines or equipment used in a safe condition, regularly checked and maintained, and again were workers trained and supervised to use them correctly and safely? What environmental settings or factors could have contributed?
Did employers and managers know the safety requirements needed for a task; for example, creating and following a safe work method statement for high risk construction work? Were workers consulted with at all stages, from hazard identification to the implementation of risk controls, when decisions about safety were made? Were dynamic risk assessments and any other vital pre-start safety checks done prior to the task being done, the chemicals being used, or the equipment being operated?
While WorkSafe takes an educative role supporting businesses, health and safety representatives, workers and their representatives to improve safety in workplaces, we also have a role in enforcing compliance with our work health and safety laws. This may be through the regulatory tools available to us. Improvement notices educate and give clear direction on changes to be made to ensure compliance with the law. Prohibition notices stop work that puts people at immediate risk. On-the-spot fines, enforceable undertakings and prosecution through the courts occur when there are serious breaches of the law.
Some businesses are doing great things: they understand that making safety a priority protects their workers and is good for productivity and business too.
But our Inspectors still see workplaces that try to save time or money and cut a few corners, that don’t think it’s necessary to train workers how to use equipment properly, that remove guarding from machinery or disable emergency stop switches to speed up work, that don’t find out if they need a licence or permit or safe work method statement to guide their work, that don’t put measures in place to prevent falls. These failures — whether intentional or not — place their workers and the wider community at risk. You can read examples of recent prosecutions and enforceable undertakings that WorkSafe has pursued.
In reading these cases, I hope you stop and think about safety in your workplace: the way you, your managers and your workers or team mates think about safety, and how you all work. I hope the next serious incident that we hear about on the news or the next prosecution you read about in these pages doesn’t just sadden us, but makes us all turn up to work the next day and look at our workplace with a fresh set of eyes.
As employers, safety managers, supervisors and yes as workers, we should look and ask: could that happen here? The workplaces or incident sites may be vastly different to yours, as may be the work being done. But consider the factors that may be common across many incidents — those causal or contributing factors that WorkSafe inspectors look for. Training, supervision, induction, procedures, tools and equipment, safety checks, risk assessments, and more.
There are other opportunities for us to reprioritise safety. Put safety back on the agenda of your toolbox meeting if it has slipped off `or simply become ‘tick and flick’. Go back to reports of near misses and investigate them seriously. Bring forward the risk assessment or safety check you had planned for later in the year, and do it this week, today — and make it a regular and even dynamic occurrence, so your workers think safety every time they perform their task. Talk and work with your workers on safety matters. Unfortunately we often don’t think about our safety at work until something goes wrong. But many workplace incidents, and the injuries and fatalities that are the human consequence of these incidents, can be preventable if we make safety — safe behaviours, safe thinking, safe planning — a priority