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Australia, Features, Opinion, Opinion

Why workplace safety is broken in Australia and how to fix it

SafetyCulture COO Alistair Venn says empowering workers is the most important step in resolving a national problem that costs billions of dollars.

SafetyCulture COO Alistair Venn says empowering workers is the most important step in resolving a national problem that costs billions of dollars.

More than 100 Australian workers have already lost their lives to workplace incidents this year. This unacceptable statistic should serve as a warning to business and government leaders that existing safety processes are failing and something needs to change.

The image of an angry safety manager examining every move made by frontline workers and barking orders is still all too familiar in many industries. But this top-down enforcement model is fundamentally flawed and often ineffective.

It makes much more sense to involve workers directly in monitoring situations and fixing issues before they become a problem. Ignoring eyes and ears on the ground is the safety equivalent of landing a plane blindfolded. It’s probably not going to end well.

That’s why organisations must recognise their people as a first line of defence delivering valuable insights in the moment, not resources to be managed from afar. Any other approach to safety is counterintuitive, nonsensical, and quite frankly dangerous.

On the surface, Australian organisations appear to have prioritised safety in many aspects of their daily operations. Government-issued posters are commonplace in warehouses around the country, and new employees in high-risk environments are assured that everyone has the right to return home safely after a shift.

But dig a little deeper and Safe Work Australia statistics tell another story. More than 107,000 serious injury claims during 2017-18 resulted in the average Australian worker missing 5.8 weeks of work. The compensation bill for these incidents was more than $1.2 billion.

Incidents not reported

Incident reporting is the Achilles’ heel. In Australia, more than 30 per cent of safety incidents go unreported. This rate of reporting is one of the lowest in the world. The problem impacts leaders and frontline workers, with one in four senior managers regularly failing to report safety incidents.

Fractured reporting prevents many critical events from being reported as problems arise. Worse still, poor visibility of incident resolution is discouraging employees from reporting incidents at all.

These low levels of reporting are symptoms of the larger cultural issues at play. The primary driver of employees failing to report incidents is an under-appreciation of the benefits. When employees take the time to capture an incident, they rarely have visibility of the impact on safety. This disconnect is disempowering and results in incident reporting being perceived as a box-ticking compliance exercise.

Developing an effective safety culture starts with robust incident reporting processes. It’s about delivering tools that empower workers to take responsibility for their own safety and become part of the solution. During my time at Rolls Royce, employees were tasked with developing solutions for safety issues impacting their own role. The new processes were presented at team events, with workers recognised for contributions to keeping their colleagues safe.

Safety has come into sharp focus as Covid-19 continues to disrupt the way that Australians go about their daily lives. The virus is rapidly changing safety processes forever. With every interaction now high-risk, new procedures are mandatory to protect customers, employees, and reputations.

For example, a single missed step in a restaurant cleaning process now presents an unacceptable risk of virus transmission. These novel challenges have accelerated demand for effective alternatives to managing new safety and compliance requirements. A proactive approach to workplace safety can mean the difference between getting on with business and suffering brand-damaging media coverage.

This newfound sense of urgency has seen many organisations experiencing a cultural shift. Traditional approaches to workplace safety are being replaced with employee-led initiatives. It’s encouraging to see so many businesses across industries enabling teams to build this behaviour into standard operating procedures.

Fixing the system

 Despite these improvements, Australia’s culture of underreporting ensures that critical issues remain invisible to business leaders. This lack of incident reporting is a blemish on an otherwise globally respected approach to safe working practices. The cost of this broken approach to an important workplace safety process is measured in lives as well as dollars.

Fixing the cracks in this fractured system doesn’t need to be difficult. It begins by allowing workers to own responsibility for their safety. We’ve seen time and again with our clients that making frontline workers part of the solution quickly breaks the cycle, creating a positive feedback loop that keeps people safe and reduces the financial burden of workplace safety incidents.

iAuditor by SafetyCulture is available to help you manage the challenges of operating through a pandemic and create a data-driven early warning system for your business. Click here to access free checklists and guidance specific to the Construction industry.

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