Is safety a whipping boy?

Is safety a whipping boy?

South African companies have a long way to go when it comes to implementing safety management, writes ALEX ELLIOTT, SHER manager at MegChem Engineering and Drafting Services.

It is amazing how safety is reflected in different sectors of the construction industry these days. Some personnel use safety as a whip to scare workers into following what are perceived as correct safety practices.

But this brings its own problems: Workers see safety practitioners as unapproachable and therefore maintain a low profile while practitioners are in the vicinity; or they get jittery and cannot perform their work in the correct manner.

As an example, I recently noticed a labourer standing on the ground cleaning a piece of equipment and, because most of his work is at heights, he was wearing a safety harness. It had been drilled into the team that if they did not tie-off while working at heights, there would be negative consequences. So, as soon as a safety practitioner appeared nearby, he took the lanyards and looked for a place to tie-off. This was quite a joke and all the people in the area had a good laugh – except for the poor chap that was standing there confused not knowing where to hook up.

My question is: were the risks explained to this unfortunate person, or was the whip simply taken out and used as a threat?

Since the inception of BBS (Behaviour-Based Safety) things seem to be getting better in the safety industry in general; people are observed doing certain tasks and, if there is a deviation, the person is approached properly and explained the risks associated with his or her actions. However, when a shutdown occurs the whole BBS system seems to be thrown out the window and, yet again, the whip comes out.

In the construction sector (and especially the larger companies) the safety practitioners wear different colour overall jackets so as to be visible on the construction sites, with the permanent safety practitioners wearing a different colour jacket to those who are hired-in and who are there to assist the company to manage service providers on site. This is where the next question comes into play: How competent are these hired-in safety practitioners versus the service provider’s safety practitioners?

I am fortunate enough to be able to move freely between projects in a shutdown and had the opportunity to quiz some of these hired-in practitioners. To my dismay, I found a large percentage of them cannot differentiate between a risk and a hazard! Where there were rigging actions happening, for example, I found some could not tell me what a rigging study was, or that the lifting equipment needs to be inspected and load tested, with certification available on site for inspection.

Is safety a whipping boy?Yet these are the people brought onto site to manage service providers! Service providers’ safety practitioners get understandably frustrated with this situation, as they have experienced and dedicated personnel on the project who have more experience than the client’s own hired-in practitioners.

Temporarily-employed client safety practitioners should be screened thoroughly to assess the competencies required in their specific area. This is also applicable to permanent staff, as well as service provider safety practitioners.

Picture this scenario. A team of workers is on site and suddenly a group of trainees and the safety practitioner arrive on site in their colourful attire, unannounced and uninvited. The workforce hits panic stations because there is so much “safety” about.

In my opinion this is where the risk starts. Workers get nervous, even though they have their own safety practitioners with whom they have a good relationship. This creates fear and anxiety within the workforce, which is when tempers flare and incidents start happening.

Safety practitioners’ visibility should not be used as a tool with which to scare staff members. If safety practitioners are competent, their visibility (or colour of jackets) will not have an influence as the workforce will get to know them on a personal level. By not wearing a different colour jacket, the practitioner is seen as part of the team and not a separate entity.

In my opinion, safety can only truly be achieved when everyone works together as a team, with the objective of helping people to understand and mitigate the risks in their working environment. Too often we see that, with client safety practitioners, it’s “their way or the highway” on their particular sites.

The law of negotiating SHE documentation does not seem to apply to certain individuals, and we need to be reasonable and practical in instances where there are grey areas and the law is unclear.

Safety is currently a pendulum that swings both ways. On the one hand you have a “policing” mentality and on the other side a “coaching” mentality. If policing is your main focus, personnel will feel threatened and become uninvolved. You will also find that personnel adhere only when the safety practitioners are in the vicinity, and that safety is thrown overboard the moment they leave the area. This creates a false perception of compliance.

If you approach it from the other side of the pendulum, safety is a team effort, from the client to the service provider, aimed at coaching and guiding workers on site and giving them the confidence to approach safety practitioners and highlight any safety concerns they may have. Once you have a workforce with the confidence to approach safety practitioners, they will start reporting and identifying risks in their own working environment – and the accident and incident rate is bound to drop dramatically as a result.

We need the entire workforce to take safety seriously and the only way to do that is to empower them to report and be proactive. Unfortunately, there will always be a few people that take chances, and these are the individuals that need to be dealt with seriously.

The workforce needs to be involved in creating a culture that is sustainable and integrated, with open communication. The reporter should also be actively involved in solving the problem, which will assist in putting practical and do-able solutions on the table. The focus should also not be on blame, but on the rectification of the problem. By focusing on blame, safety is again used as a whip.

A final word of advice: if you do not have a passion for people and their safety, I suggest a serious re-evaluation of your career choice. 

Losses over profits
While our industry strives for excellence in creating a safer, healthier environment, the reality at the moment somewhat disheartening: the general safety performance around the globe is still at an unacceptable level and therefore remains a huge challenge. This remains a great concern, notwithstanding the fact that hundreds of millions have been spent on safety research over the last couple of decades.

Somehow it seems that this is not translating into sustainable improvement.

The recipe for success, as evidenced by many global companies, is undoubtedly total, organisation-wide commitment, where roles and responsibilities are clearly defined from board and executive level filtering down to shop-floor level. SHEQ – A guide to managing risk, says that to fulfil this commitment, along with a clearly defined world-class strategy for SHEQ sustainability, one needs to understand ones business; employ enterprise risk management, behaviour risk management, business continuity management and information management, with clear management systems; and competency training in skills, knowledge and ability. Backing this up with assessments and auditing will help in managing and reviewing information and taking corrective action.

However, although it is understood that these components should be used together in an integrated, holistic strategy, it is not always executed that way. Businesses therefore need to grasp the many opportunities for SHEQ improvement. Again, these mainly centre on management systems and the corporate mindset. Risk assessment has to be an integral part of business decision making, while social accountability and corporate governance needs to set the tone.

The integration and coordination of a common management system and commitment to SHEQ throughout the entire organisation (backed up by a structured process to measure compliance to the SHEQ system) must tie in with clearly defined processes, where every aspect of control forms an integral part of doing business. Through this, a business can ensure business continuity (emergency preparedness and response, disaster recovery), focus on sustainability and achieve a positive behavioural change processes.

All businesses operate for a purpose whether it be altruistic or simply to generate a return to shareholders, but what is often misunderstood is that the efforts to control losses are as important as the efforts to improve profits. As stated by Louis Allen, “minimising loss is as much improvement as maximisation of profit.” Only once this is fully acknowledged, might the globe see improvement in safety performance.

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Thelma Pugh, MD of Federated Employers Mutual, has had a 24-year career with the company.
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