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Safeguard Magazine

Dare to disrupt

PETER BATEMAN reports from the 13th edition of the Safeguard National Health & Safety Conference in Auckland.

The theme of this year’s conference – Dare to Disrupt – was taken up by opening speaker Phil Parkes, chief operating officer of platinum sponsor WorkSafe New Zealand, who noted that there are signs that the country’s health and safety performance, which had been slowly improving, has started to plateau.

The theme of the conference was therefore perfectly timed, he said, because when results plateau disruption is required.

“I challenge each of you to commit to doing one thing differently as a result of this conference – one thing this week, one thing next week, and one thing next month.”

The first international speaker, Andrew Barrett from Australia, proved his disruptive credentials by displaying some of his primary school reports written by a succession of teachers despairing at ever gaining his full attention.

Barrett immediately subverted the conference theme by saying true disruptive innovators are rare, and that we would all do better if we focused instead just on innovation. Discarding conventional meanings of the word, he suggested his own: innovation is value-added novelty in practice.

“Become obsessed with the needs of your customer and delivering value to them, with novelty – making it real.”

Citing futurist Dave Wild – a speaker at last year’s conference – Barrett agreed with his proposition that the best way to predict the future is to create it yourself.

Innovators, he said, listen slowly [to their customers] but act quickly to build a workable prototype to put in front of them to get rapid feedback, shortening the cycle time.

As for the H&S profession, Barrett said it was perceived as being risk-averse.

“We need to address this. It’s about leaning into and engaging with risk. An innovation for the profession is to say yes more often.”

Next up was WorkSafe double act Phil Parkes and Daniel Hummerdal. Parkes cited public sector academic Malcolm Sparrow, who suggests that after a regulator takes care of its core business, it has a choice about where to place its discretionary effort – and if the regulator doesn’t make a clear choice, it’s effectiveness will be diluted.

Parkes offered one such choice to the audience: once WorkSafe has taken care of its core business, would people like to see it put effort into compliance with the law, even where no harm is being caused? Few hands went up.

Alternatively, he said, should WorkSafe target where harm is being caused, even if no law is being broken? A forest of hands shot up, even if going down that road, he warned, would lead to accusations that WorkSafe was indulging in mission creep by acting beyond its core mandate.

Hummerdal, who has a specific innovation mandate, told us that in New Zealand we have a “beautiful opportunity” to approach H&S management in a unique way, rather than doing what most other countries do: using negative, reactive drivers and winding up with a negative culture of H&S.

He intends to disrupt the regulator’s traditional approach to new ideas. Echoing Barrett’s advice earlier – listen slow, act quickly – he intends to adopt multiple small-scale experiments, taking a trial-and-error approach, rather than building massive programmes with endless rounds of consultation and taking years to design.

“Develop practices where people are the solution. Invite them to the table. Focus on work and how to make it better.”

Once the first half-dozen small projects are completed there will be an opportunity to look at structures to support further innovations. “It will put pressure on WorkSafe and we might be inconsistent. But it’s cool to have a regulator driven by curiosity.”

Next up was Craig Marriott from FirstGas, working under the same heading as his recent book Challenging the Safety Quo. He started by noting the obvious because many organisations still resist this truth: if accidents are happening when people are trying to do their best in suboptimal conditions then focus on fixing the working conditions rather than trying to “fix” the workers.

At weekly team meetings the questions are about work, not about safety: where did things go well? What frustrations or difficulties arose? What came as a surprise? If something went wrong, how well did we adapt and recover?

“People are much more comfortable talking about their work than they are talking about safety.”

He challenged the received wisdom, particularly prevalent since Pike River, that New Zealand is “no good at safety” and has to somehow catch up with the rest of the world.

“I don’t buy into it. We have a can-do attitude, a problem-solving attitude. I think traditional safety approaches aren’t good in New Zealand. They squash innovation with their rules and compliance.”

Safety-II principles, he said, are well aligned to this country’s way of doing things. “There’s an opportunity not to catch up with other countries, but to leapfrog them.”

Edinburgh-based human factors expert Steven Shorrock picked up on Marriott’s theme, saying one question he always asks H&S practitioners is how much time they spend outside their office. The usual response? Very little. Regulatory compliance, they say, keeps them tied to their desks.

The downside of this, said Shorrock, is that H&S people deny themselves the opportunity to see when normal work is getting worse, or getting better. “Accidents are just normal work until something happens.”

As well as Safety-II’s work-as-imagined and work-as-done, he suggested two further categories: work-as-prescribed (policies, procedures, regulations) and work-as-disclosed. Work-as-prescribed can lead to absurd procedural overload, such as the more than one thousand pages of procedures he saw at a London control tower.

Work-as-disclosed is what we are willing to say about our work, bearing in mind the consequences. An example? There was a control tower where staff had been reporting they were overloaded. He interviewed people but was getting nowhere. Then he spotted an entire bin full of Red Bull cans. Further questions: why did staff need so much of it? Gradually, the truth emerged. It turned out they were frequently working double-shifts and getting very tired. However, it suited the controllers, who got short weeks; and it suited the management because they didn’t have to hire more staff. But it certainly wasn’t safe.

Staff everywhere, he said, know their work systems are not perfect, that they are degraded in some ways: understaffed, under-equipped and so on. They are also perfectly aware that they make trade-offs between safety and efficiency.

“We as safety practitioners need to take the point of view of apprentice, not master, as we seek to understand how the masters work.”

After lunch, Craig Rooks from Griffins talked about the Be Brave communications skills programme and how it has lifted people’s confidence and helped to reduce staff turnover from 18% to 5% by focusing on projects for each learner.

Machine operators/trainers Michelle Te Kanawa and Nadia Kahui, who have both been through the programme, spoke of their experience. Michelle said she has learned better ways of talking to people – including her niece and nephew! – and has set her workmates the challenge of taking about one safety issue per shift.

Nadia – “I can’t believe I am doing this, speaking in front of all you people” – said the programme gave her the confidence to go for an apprenticeship next year, a move that has since been deferred “due to an unexpected blessing”. Much applause!

Sarah Balfour from Upskills – who had helped Griffins develop the programme – told us about having courageous conversations, and noted that speaking up is not a natural act in hierarchies. The burden to share power, she said, rests on those who occupy privilege.

“Are worker participation practices shallow, or are they deep and meaningful?” she challenged.

Next up – a debate, chaired by the irrepressible Andrew Barrett. The moot? That safety documentation saves lives. On the affirmative side, lawyer Grant Nicholson said documentation creates structure and – if the worst happens – evidence. Rob Powell from the University of Auckland recalled his air force days fitting ejector seats to jet fighters – a delicate job done absolutely by the book.

On the negative side, CHASNZ’s Jon Harper-Slade said the gap between documentation and reality gradually widens, undermining trust; while Rocketlab’s Moni Hogg said safety documentation threatens to crowd out other activities.

Conference MC David Nottage applauded the debaters from the stage, saying it had been a terrific display of “debatemanship”, clearly the word of the conference.

Closing day one, Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety Iain Lees-Galloway said that workplace behaviours that in the past might have been tolerated – around bullying and other mental health risks – could no longer be.

“If we in Government expect other workplaces to change, we have to start in Parliament.”

Starting day two, Australian speaker Wade Needham spoke about Serco’s moves to improve staff wellbeing. Health and safety practitioners, he said, often felt mental health isn’t their job. “I guarantee you, in under two years it will be.”

He said data which for HR practitioners were lag indicators – staff turnover, staff engagement, absenteeism – can be used as lead indicators in mental wellbeing. Fruit bowls and yoga sessions have their place but aren’t a primary risk reduction strategy. Nor is teaching people resilience when you can’t change the work environment.

WorkSafe NZ chief executive Nicole Rosie addressed the issue of bullying and harassment, saying it is clearly part of H&S practitioners’ jobs in the context of good risk management. The regulator, she said, would take enforcement action over bullying but noted that in court it would have to prove the defendant organisation failed to take reasonably practicable steps to prevent bullying. She anticipated such action would be rare.

On the same topic, employment lawyer Steph Dyhrberg said she was harassed twice last year. “Someone said to me: did they have a death wish?”

Taking up the previous point, she said taking reasonably practicable steps does not mean waiting to receive a formal complaint – if the informal route suggests something bad is happening the organisation must act.

“Relying on people to speak up isn’t a risk management strategy.”

Site Safe’s Brett Murray, speaking on new research on suicide among construction workers, gratefully acknowledged the number of initiatives at the awards dinner the previous evening which dealt with mental wellbeing.

“People in our workplaces are imperfect players who work in imperfect systems.”

Kate Bryson, the researcher on the suicide study, presented all the sobering statistics, and suggested mental health education should be delivered as early as the apprenticeship phase as part of an apprentice’s H&S training.

ACC’s Phil Riley spoke about new employer incentive programmes nearing the end of their development, and said the corporation spends about $100m each year on injury prevention (including workplace). He acknowledged ACC’s direct dealings with H&S practitioners are now more limited, given ACC’s levy funds WorkSafe to deliver injury prevention programmes, while ACC influences H&S practices indirectly through its employer incentive programmes.

Northpower’s Dr Kirstine Hulse briefed the audience on the use of microlearning – delivered in bursts of three or four minutes – as a tool to shift workplace culture. Knowledge gained in traditional learning, she said, was largely forgotten within a few weeks. Spaced repetition of microlearning a few times a month helps embed new knowledge.

A panel of three workers saw each one share a particular experience which expanded the way they thought about H&S. Claire Wooldridge-Way, from the Department of Conservation, talked about the unexpected effects of the Kaikoura earthquake on staff, which she described as “mind-boggling”.

KiwiRail’s Peter Buckley talked about the use of the High Performance High Engagement approach following a serious burn injury to a mechanical engineer doing “a quick weld”.

And Richard Thwaites, from Connetics, described how adapting a Safety-II approach has transformed the culture of the company. “The whole company is now centred on people, with horizontal collaborative relationships.”

Closing the conference was Paralympic gold medallist Liam Malone, who revealed he had spent several weeks doing a stand-up comedy routine in Edinburgh last year – and it showed. Describing his many trials and tribulations as a school student, he asked: can a kid with no legs be given out LBW?

After his running career ended he decided he would accept or create opportunities which would confront him with entirely new challenges (hence the Edinburgh stint). He urged us all to do the same, saying that being disruptive doesn’t require one massive change, but a willingness to engage in a series of small changes.

“Don’t just be reactionary. Dare to be an agent of change. Dare to make a difference.”


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