March 16, 2015
A bunch of leaflets landed in my letterbox this week. They were inside an envelope from a UK publisher of academic works who keeps hoping I will purchase another book. This time the promotion was all about new publications on safety in the workplace. I groaned.
I am, at best, ambivalent about safety and the regulatory environment that is imposed in workplaces. I grew up learning the consequences of climbing trees without a safety net, and there was never a playground swing sheathed in protective rubber. I cycled everywhere on open roads without a care (or a helmet) and later drove a car with a few elements of recklessness. I learned my risk-taking limits through practical experience and without any disastrous consequences. So when I find a person in a hi-viz vest is designated sole responsibility to shepherd pedestrians round a bit of roadworks, I confess to being offended by the assumption that I have no common sense, don’t know my road rules and that I will deliberately create mischief for the roading project.
Of course the flip side of this kind of over-protection is the high accident rate in farming and forestry industries, in manufacturing and on our wharves, resulting in serious injury and death. It seems there is enough management and worker carelessness out there to give cowboys a bad name.
I take a closer look at those leaflets and the blurbs that tell me a little about the content of the books. There’s a whole library of them, all more or less dealing with safety in the workplace, with titles like The Field Guide to Understanding ‘Human Error’; The Past and Future of Safety Management; and The Human Contribution. The common point seems to be the ‘human factors’ that contribute to accidents. Even company bonuses have potential for perverse consequences when attention to major hazard risk is diverted to financial incentives – that’s the book titled Risky Rewards.
There are also a number of titles about ‘resilience engineering’, as in changing human behaviour. Being resilient is all about shifting safety from being protective to becoming productive, increasing the number of things that people do right instead of engendering risk. In my earthquake-risk city resilience is not a new concept: we have been urged for some years now to prepare ‘for when the big one comes’.
One book blurb reminds us that even if humans are the major hazard in a safety system, they can also be the heroes, as a documentary on the Christchurch earthquake demonstrated. Here’s another reason to broaden our thinking beyond the blame and punishment regimes of safety regulations.
The reform of workplace health and safety in New Zealand has caused much concern for the community and voluntary sector, mostly for the extended responsibilities of employers and board members, and increased financial penalties if found at fault. Yet for most non-profit organisations and NGOs this is also an opportunity to review current obligations and practice, and to start encouraging a culture of ‘looking out for each other’, and speaking out about hazards and safe practice. That would go a long way to keep us all safe, much better than ‘turning a blind eye’ and thinking ‘that’s not my problem’.
Hang on a minute. Isn’t this ‘resilience engineering’ just the stuff of developing and managing a volunteer programme? In the selection and training process there is a constant assessment of individual risk elements, and the degree of risk that might impact on the volunteer roles and tasks to which they are assigned. We look out for the well-being of volunteers, for job satisfaction and retention as well as their safety. And volunteers, even if it is not their primary motivation, will find that the pleasure of participation and connectedness will also contribute to their resilience and their safety in the workplace.
The key to excellent health and safety management for volunteers, says a Factsheet on Volunteers, is good planning and good communication. But before you sit back with a got-it-sorted grin, best to check out how good you really are and whether all bases are covered.