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'It's not the paper that keeps us safe': How this water business improved safety by reducing red tape

Complicated and repetitive safety compliance paperwork on water project construction sites may soon be a thing of the past, with new research showing that increased safety processes don’t result in a safer workplace. 

Presenting a new risk-based assessment tool for safety management during Ozwater’20 Online this week, Downer Utilities Safety and Innovation Lead Michelle Oberg said the business’ ‘Beyond the Clutter’ research project aimed to improve safety while reducing red tape. 

“At Downer, we consider safety a never-ending pursuit. But how do you manage safety when data is not giving the insights we need to do this well?” Oberg said. 

“There’s a need for a new approach. Traditionally, we focus on improving compliance as a way of improving safety. But we know this is really not the case. Improving compliance and rules does not improve safety long-term.”


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Oberg said safety and compliance clutter had become expensive without offering enough improvement in the actual safety of personnel. 

“In 2014, Deloitte released a report saying that Australian businesses spent $155 billion on self-imposed rules and regulations that are not proposed by law,” she said. 

“We put these in place because we think it’s what we should be doing. It’s a lot of money, and a lot of lost productivity, for very little return on safety.”

A new approach

Oberg said safety and compliance systems were built around the occurrence of instances of un-safety, which results in excessive safety management protocol, or safety clutter. 

“What does your organisation consider safety to be? One misinterpretation of safety is when we talk about it in terms of accidents or incidents, when the opposite is true. If we have an incident, we are not safe in that moment. Yet our safety management system is built on this process,” she said. 

“Every time an accident or incident occurs, there’s an investigation and recommendations are made. Generally we add more procedures to our safety checklist, to tell our people exactly what they are supposed to be doing.

“We refer to this additional compliance as safety clutter. By adding those extra bits and pieces into our procedures, we are not really supporting our people. It’s going to be impossible to snuff out every single instance they face day-to-day.” 

Removing the clutter

But it’s not just about saving time and money – Oberg said safety clutter can actually damage safety management by taking attention away from the realities of the site.

“It’s not the paper that keeps us safe, it’s our people,” she said. 

“Safety clutter can damage employee ownership of their own safety. It can be terrible for adaptability. It’s very rigid, it can erode trust and it creates an unnecessary trade off between safety and productivity.”

Downer Utilities Operations Manager Matt Thomson said data from the first phase of the research project showed that safety documents and procedures had little to do with worker safety, but that safety needed to be built into a team’s culture. 

“Importantly, there was no reduction in safety behaviours or outcomes through implementing decluttering and reducing the amount of paperwork on our sites,” he said. 

“This was independently verified and observed by Griffith University’s Safety Science Innovation Lab. We can see considerable cost savings could be made if we rolled this out across our entire water business. 

“The research trial was undertaken in 2017–18, and savings added up to about 14% of the cost of the project. When we implemented the tool, this saving stabilised at 9%.”

Building trust

Oberg said the tool developed from the research project enables the utility to identify when (and how) decluttering is appropriate with certain construction partners. 

“When we work with our construction partners, they have to work under many different safety processes: they have the Downer Utility system, the council’s system, the construction partner’s system and their own systems too,” Oberg said. 

“When we get to the declutter phase, we allow them to operate under their own system, with us trusting that they know what they are doing.

Oberg said 30% of the business’ construction partners were currently working in “hybrid decluttered modes”. This is expected to increase following stage two of the research project. 

To learn more about Ozwater’20 Online and to register, click here.