Friday, 26 May 2017 13:55

We need to talk more about health and safety

Written by  John O’Rourke
John O’Rourke. John O’Rourke.

Last month marked the one year anniversary since the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 was enacted.

In that time, companies have done much to improve their health and safety performance.

Much of this activity has been at the senior management or board level as directors and chief executives (CEOs) get to understand their officer duties under the act. There has been an increase in the quantity and quality of information boards have been receiving and this has generated a lot of positive discussion at board level.

Companies (PCBUs) have also been reviewing their health and safety systems and processes to ensure they reflect the new requirements under the act. This has resulted in changes in approach, talking about ‘risk’ rather than just ‘hazards’ and reviewing the level of worker participation and engagement in their health and safety processes.

Despite this good work by many companies, the results of the recent H&S Leadership Forum survey of CEOs highlighted that safety culture and worker attitudes are still their main challenges.

The Deloitte survey showed progress was made in 2016, based on commitment from the top and having a plan for improvement. However, CEOs identified culture and worker attitude as one of the main barriers to improving health and safety performance in their workplaces.

Other challenges were contractor management, worker engagement and risk management, but culture and worker attitudes stood out for these CEOs.

I believe there’s a strong connection between the two issues, as the culture of an organisation strongly influences the attitude and behaviour of its workers and therefore their level of engagement. Research tells us a highly engaged workforce not only supports and enhances the health and safety performance and culture of a company but also has a positive impact on the bottom line from the additional discretionary effort this brings.

One way leaders can achieve a positive health and safety culture is by engaging with the workforce directly and having conversations with workers about health and safety. These conversations should be to listen to workers, rather than telling them about safety.

Mindful leaders should go and find out for themselves from their workers on site or at the farm gate about what’s going on. The aim is to listen and learn and not just talk.

This sounds easier said than done and, in my experience, some leaders struggle with this as they feel the conversation is ‘forced’ and not ‘authentic.’ This is quite natural, especially when starting off, and if the leader feels awkward there’s no doubt the worker will be feeling uncomfortable as well. But leaders need to take the initiative to build the relationship between them and their workers so the conversation comes across as easily as if they were talking about the latest All Blacks selection.

By going to the source, leaders will learn more about the health and safety issue facing workers rather than reading reports or relying on audits. They need to be persistent and consistent in their approach.

Unplanned sessions with random workers and OH&S representatives are the most effective. Visit singly so as not to overwhelm workers and remember the purpose of the conversation is to get information, not to give them a lesson in safety.

The emphasis must be on what we (as management) can do better, and not what you (as workers) are doing wrong.

The message these conversations send to workers is that health and safety is important to the leader and that everyone has responsibility for health and safety within the business.

Improving culture isn’t easy and takes time, but to improve health and safety performance in New Zealand we are going to have to start having these conversations.

• John O’Rourke is a health and safety specialist with national law firm MinterEllisonRuddWatts.

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