One in three bosses put production ahead of safety or just don’t care: WorkSafe research

One in three supervisors say senior management is not serious about safety and another 9 per cent are in denial, research commissioned by WorkSafe Victoria and to be presented at the Safety In Action Conference in March will reveal.

One in three supervisors say senior management is not serious about safety and another 9 per cent are in denial, research commissioned by WorkSafe Victoria and to be presented at the Safety In Action Conference in March will reveal.

The safety regulator and watchdog surveyed 1,160 Victorian supervisors and categorised them into six groups — Carers & Protectors; By the Book; Structure Seekers; Disgruntled; Disconnected; and Paper Cutters — according to their attitudes about safety.

WorkSafe Victoria workplace support and education division manager, Jill McCabe, will present the findings to the Conference in Melbourne on March 31.

In a video interview filmed by conference host, the Safety Institute of Australia (Victoria Division), McCabe said the research will help guide training and education strategies for managers and supervisors.

“The research has given us food for thought in terms of what we as an organisation need to do in future to shape attitudes of not just supervisors but upper management. It also gives food for thought for particular organisations and the way that they operate. ”

Describing the 33 per cent of supervisors categorised as Disconnected or Disgruntled, Ms McCabe said both were in “…workplaces where upper management really don’t seem to care about health and safety.”

“The Disconnected supervisor personally cares about health and safety but their senior management doesn’t., so they find it very difficult to raise issues and get them dealt with in the workplace.

“The other group, the Disgruntled, say ‘If senior management don’t care, why should we?’ and then there’s a very small group that …think …the worst that could happen in this workplace is that someone would get a paper cut.”

Ahead of his address to Safety In Action Conference titled “Educating Workers — it is not Rocket Science”, experienced OHS manager Gavin Merriman said he was not surprised that 19 per cent of supervisors were Disgruntled and another 14 per cent fell into the Disconnected category.

“I don’t see anything startling in either of these figures. I would suggest that these would be standard meat and three vegetables in most people’s perceptions of their supervisors,” he said.

“The supervisor comes from the shop floor. He or she is someone who has worked hard, had a good attendance record, a clean slate on discipline, has not challenged the employer on shonky safety practices. Someone that is reliable and who is respected by the shop floor.

Someone that gets the widgets made regardless of inconvenient interruptions. When you come from this background, you know that widgets per day is your yardstick, not the number of Job Safety Analyses (JSA). “.. the supervisor is in the unenviable position of balancing safety against production.

Production will win as the widget count is what keeps the boss happy.”

Workplace and litigation lawyer, Andrew Douglas, who will talk about “Making OHS Core Business” at the Safety in Action Conference said a failure of senior management to communicate rather than an inherent disinterest in safety was likely to be behind the research results.

“It’s not really that surprising to find that 33 per cent of supervisors think management isn’t serious about safety. The message about the need for increased production can sometimes overwhelm the messages about the priority of safety,” Douglas said.

“What this survey shows is the need for management to constantly engage with supervisors and model a real investment in safety.”

Safety Institute of Australia national president and OHS consultant, Barry Silburn, was less optimistic in his assessment.

“I think the perception of supervisors is that many employers don’t take safety seriously is accurate,” Silburn said.

“Some take the attitude of ‘It won’t happen to me’, others buy a $500 generic safety management system and let it gather dust on the shelf, while many others have a risk management policy that consists of ‘I pay my workers comp, why should I pay any more?’”.

“Organisations won’t spend money on things they don’t think will happen so it generally takes an incident for them to realise they need to invest in safety.

Safety is ruled by incidents that go to court, and we then act to prevent them happening a second time. Very few will do anything to prevent it happening the first time. We need a catalyst but what that is remains a mystery.

One model to promote greater interest in workplace safety will be presented to the Safety In Action Conference by the Federal Safety Commissioner, Helen Marshall, who presides over a construvtion industry scheme in which senior management commitment must prove a commitment to health and safety.

“The initial application asks for a range of evidence,” Marshall said.

“For example, companies need to show that senior management visit project sites to discuss OHS issues. We then test this evidence on an on-site audit – in this example, the auditor would approach a random worker and ask whether senior managers regularly inspect the workplace and discuss safety issues with employees.”

“The Australian Government only wants to do business with companies with the best OHS practices and since we’re spending billions of dollars, that’s significant leverage to encourage companies to become accredited by our scheme.”

Jill McCabe, Gavin Merriman, Andrew Douglas and Helen Marshall will present their addresses to the Safety In Action Conference over its three days from March 31 to April 2 in 2009 at the Melbourne Convention Centre.

The full interview with Jill McCabe plus video footage from the 2008 conference can be viewed at www.siaconference.com.au. The Safety In Action trade show will be held concurrently at the Melbourne Exhibition Centre. Visit www.siaconference.com.au or phone (03) 9654 7773 for more information.

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