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Hard hats and hi-vis: Australian safety culture focusing on all the wrong things

Australia has traded common sense for hi-vis vests and an obsession with compliance, safety guru Sidney Dekker told attendees on the final day of Ozwater’19.

“You are wasting a lot of time and money on this in Australia,” Dekker said.

“Last year, the cost of compliance was $250 billion. You pay one person out of every 10 to watch what the other nine are doing.

“That’s Australia today – your compliance culture has got out of control.”

Dekker, who runs the Safety Science Innovation Lab at Griffith University, is an advocate for doing safety differently. Along with his keynote address, Dekker also hosted a workshop on this topic as part of the Ozwater'19 Industry Safety and Wellbeing Program, sponsored by John Holland.

Rather than seeing people as a problem to control, he said organisations need to defer to the expertise of employees doing frontline jobs.

“Doing safety differently acknowledges people are smart,” Dekker said.

“They’re solving problems, they understand the work; you hired them because they know what to do.

“Don’t tell them what to do, ask them what they need. Don’t ask the people who write the rules, ask the people who do the jobs – they’re the experts.”

The current safety culture puts people in an impossible situation, Dekker said, where they are expected to get the work done and also follow all the rules.

He said there is one question employers should be asking their staff: What is the stupidest thing you need to do to work here today?

“There’s always going to be a distance between work as you imagine it, as your HR department imagines it and how work is actually done.

“We’re putting people in an impossible pinch: do the work, but follow all the rules.”

Although it has become common to see achieving ‘zero harm’ in a business’ safety strategy, Dekker said this approach runs counter to what it aims to achieve.

“Declaring zero harm is a stupid idea,” he said.

“It’s a relic and if your organisation does it, stop doing it … It’s not just silly nonsense, it’s dangerous.”

He pointed to a four-year study of two groups of infrastructure companies in the UK. One group of companies had four fatalities and 214 major incidents, while the other had zero fatalities and 135 major incidents.

“Which group had declared zero harm? The first one,” Dekker said.

“If you have ‘zero harm’, you stop employees from talking about things that go wrong. It is stupid and unethical.

“You want to innovate safety? Rip your zero harm posters from the wall.”

Instead, businesses should focus on understanding why things go right, rather than only concentrating on the small number of incidences where things go wrong.

“Break down barriers, talk across departments and hierarchies,” Dekker said.

“Doing safety differently is about identifying and enhancing, in any way possible, the things that make things go right.

“That’s doing safety differently, and that is your role.”