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HEALTH & SAFETY: WHERE TO NEXT?

Over the past two decades, Australia has achieved a steady decline in workplace illness, injuries and fatalities (Safe Work Australia). Increased awareness, regulatory guidance, systems and compliance have had a progressive positive impact.

But in business as in life: The only constant is change. Is it reasonable to expect the approaches of the past 20 years to maintain momentum for the next 20? Are they still the most relevant approaches to mitigate risk in the modern workplace?


Despite our steady gains, we continue to be plagued by musculoskeletal injuries caused by body stressing and poor physical capacity of our workers, falls, trips, and slips – which remain the largest contributor to both incidence and cost – while newer things like mental stress related causes and mental health conditions are accounting for increasing proportions.

Proactive risk mitigation for a multigenerational workforce in an era where the worlds of “work” and “life” are becoming less distinguishable is a genuine challenge.


The tentacles of technology have introduced some interesting dynamics for workplace safety. From the delivery of education and compliance it’s allowed for streamlining, and while that’s improved the efficiency of safety training, has the generic delivery of many safety lessons reduced their perceived relevance and effectiveness in individual workplaces? From a behavioural standpoint, we know that perceived relevance plays an important role in influencing change.


Technology has also become more pervasive and now significantly blurs the lines between “work” and “non-work” time for many people. Have we adequately accounted for the risks that stress, fatigue, and burnout can present in an “always on” world? Is it reasonable to assume that an “unplugging policy” will actually be enough to counter people’s addiction to checking their devices or is it meaningless if the workplace culture expects immediate responses at all times?


Reactive compliance or continually adopting trending safety innovations may initially be useful when companies don’t already have established and ingrained safety policies. Sharing of best practices, adapting and adding them to a burgeoning “culture of safety” can make sense on paper as it helps organisations identify and close gaps in awareness, training, and application. But as safety practices are continually added the risk is a diluted impact. Soon enough, a reactive approach fails. The appearance is an incredibly comprehensive safety program, but in reality, safety messages compete for attention and begin to be spread thinner and thinner. Continually adding layers to a safety program can be perceived as just more red-tape and tick-box items which make simply “getting the job done” harder and harder. It can actually be counterproductive and encourage complacency. Messaging and policies always need to be brought back to what matters most if you want them to have the most impact.


Traditionally, safety compliance has focused primarily on what to do. Rules that govern how we are to behave and act in the workplace and how to perform our jobs with lower risk procedures. They mandate certain frequencies for safety discussions, observations or reporting but sometimes they fail to properly align with other elements of the organisation or they lack a strong value proposition for employees. For example, what if it takes longer to complete a task safely but your employee reward system is based on productivity? Are your employees being encouraged to work faster, or safer… because in this instance, it can’t be both.


Increasing the frequency of safety messaging or safety activities (observations, tool box talks, safety shares, tips of the day etc) doesn’t always have the desired effect of increased adherence. Frequency only has value from a behavioural standpoint if the flow of messages actively reinforces each other. If a “safety tip of the day” or monthly tool-box talk becomes a random assortment of unrelated topics it can fail to reinforce the key purpose. I’m sure you’ve witnessed dry and meaningless delivery of “safety tips of the day” as a result of the sheer monotony. High frequency reminders only add value if they are compelling and provide good continuity and progressive education.


We need to provide good reasons to change safety behaviours.


As organisations aim to evolve towards a true “culture of safety”, perhaps it makes more sense to focus on the “why” behind safety instead of seeking the next trending item for “what”. Shift the idea towards a purpose driven safety and consider safety from a wider lens: not simply an absence of accidents and injury, but more inclusive of overall employee wellbeing.


Total worker health.


Not only “do no harm”, but actually help people feel their work helps them grow, personally and professionally. There are strong correlations between being overweight and high rates of injury, high cost of recovery and delayed return to work. There are also high correlations between high stress or fatigue and error rates which can increase the risk of an accident. Widening the lens and more adequately addressing health (physical and mental wellness) as a safety risk can have significant payback, but it also gives people a better sense of personal benefit and purpose.

People inherently resist being told what to do. There is a cognitive resistance to compliance. In contrast, when there is a strong purpose and at least some sense of autonomy, motivation can actually be enhanced. With a strong “why” and personal value proposition it makes the pursuit of the best ways for how to achieve something an ongoing process.


In practice, we’ve seen compliance with safer work ergonomics and behaviours enhance significantly when employees are taught exactly why changing a work task behaviour is better for them compared to simply telling them a new set of rules for the safest way to perform their work. When given a strong value proposition to work on improving both their individual physical capacity (to make their jobs easier) as well as their job task behaviours (to reduce unnecessary strain and progressive degeneration), injury reductions as high as 50-65% have been common outcomes.


Beyond the concepts of total worker health and purpose driven safety which are making significant gains now, we look ahead towards the near future, when we may be able to use emerging science such as personal brain chemistry to help better understand people with higher propensities for risk. It's about helping teach individuals or management/leaders to recognise patterns or warning signs of imminent escalating risk behaviours and giving them the tools to help appropriately intervene or mitigate.

While Australian HSE is recognised amongst the world’s elite we shouldn’t become complacent. Our workers and work environments continue to evolve and so must our thinking and problem solving to address both current and emerging risks.


If you're ready to embark on a journey of total worker health, we're here to support you. Contact us today.


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