Entry into Comcare’s offices is restricted due to COVID-19. Ongoing lockdowns may result in service delays. Be assured that we are still working and available to assist you. We appreciate your understanding and apologise for any inconvenience. Find out how you can contact us during this time.

Use space to open navigation items

Should we regulate the safety of work or the work of safety?

Video transcript of the WHS Inspector Forum presentation – Should we regulate the safety of work or the work of safety?
Presented by Dr David Provan, Forge Works and Dr Drew Rae, Griffith University on 3 December 2020.


So, in this session you're going to be presented with a series of reflective questions about the relationship between the work of inspectors, safety practitioners and the safety of frontline workers. What assumptions do we make about these relationships? What evidence do we rely on when we apply indirect pressure to frontline work by regulating the social administrative activities such as management systems and risk arrangements?

So, by way of background, we’ve got Dr Dave Provan who has a masters of safety and risk management, an MBA, and a PhD in safety science. So, he understands how to lead organisational-wide strategy and change. He transforms organisational psychology and the latest safety science research into effective safety outcomes. Dr Drew Rae manages the Safety Science and Innovation Lab at Griffith University and Drew brings a critical cross-disciplinary approach to the work of examining myths, rituals, and bad habits around safety practice. Doctors, the floor is yours. Take it away.


I'm not sure if I've said this on a public forum before and I'm a little bit nervous about saying it while Sidney is still in the chat and listening. But I am not remotely a fan of the term Safety Differently. I think there's a real risk that when we start to talk about improving safety, we also have the possibility of being divisive.

Obviously if people are already frustrated then they're going to be interested and inspired by something different. But if people are quite happy with what they’ve been doing so far then obviously talking about doing things differently is going to be seen, at least implicitly, as a criticism of what they have personally been doing. Particularly with people who have devoted the mission in their life’s work to making things safer. Being told, hey, what you're doing is not the right thing, you’ve got to do it differently. I think it can, at times, be a fairly unfair thing to say.

And we’ve got Caitlin to put up in the chat just people’s instinctive reactions to what Sidney’s been saying so far and what your current attitudes are. So do feel free to use the thumbs up to express where you're thinking in terms of your reaction to the idea of Safety Differently. And, as you do that, I want to start talking by finding some points where I'm hoping that everyone, no matter what our approach to safety is, there are some things that we can fundamentally agree with. So, these are things that, hopefully, everyone agrees are things that really matter for safety.

So, the first thing is what really matters for safety is the environment in which work happens including the capital equipment in that environment. If someone is teaching in a classroom that’s going to present very different and probably lesser hazards to someone who is working on a construction site. Someone who’s in a North Sea oil rig working at the top of a stack is going to have a different degree of safety to someone who is working in a Coles or Woolworths supermarket. So, the environment matters.

The second thing that really matters for safety are the people around us. For almost every job, working alone puts someone at a higher risk than working with other people nearby who are able to help out, who are able to challenge, who are able to rescue if something goes wrong. The third thing that matters and we might disagree with our language that we talk about this, but the way in which tasks are done.

There are some ways of doing every job which are safer than other ways of doing the same job. We can talk about that as ergonomics, we can talk about that as biomechanics. Some people like to talk about it in terms of errors and violations. But however, you want to talk about it, some ways of doing a job are safer, some ways of doing a job are more dangerous. And the fourth thing that matters are the tools that we have. Doing a job with the right tool for that job is always safer than doing it without suitable tools.

So, you can imagine your sort of classic accident is one where all of those things come together. And we’ve all seen it in accident reports. Someone is working in a hazardous environment, they're alone, they don’t have the right tools to do the job properly so they're improvising, and they get hurt. So do feel free to put a comment in the chat if you disagree with me, if you think that these things don’t matter for safety. But I'm really hoping that we can at least start our discussion by agreeing that this is what we all want.

The challenge and the question we face – and this is where all of the disagreements in safety come from – is that there are legitimate disagreements about how we make sure that these things go right all of the time. What's the appropriate actions that we take to protect these things? So, let’s put a label on it and let’s say that these things that we agree matter for safety are the safety of work. And they're all properties of frontline design or operational work.

But there's lots of things that we do that we call safety that are not directly connected to these things. So, we do all sorts of things which were the causal link between these activities and the frontline work require several steps. We do risk assessments, we do job safety analysis, we have SWMS, we have safety cases and we have contractor prequalification systems. We sit down in a meeting and we have a safety moment. We sit at a desk and we tabulate our lost time injury statistics in order to compute and report them.

Those things might matter for safety but if they matter for safety they matter by an indirect route. So why do we do an induction? We do an induction because we think that an induction will change what someone knows about or thinks about so that when they're out at work they're knowing or thinking differently. That knowing or thinking differently changes the way they act and that changes safety. So, you can see that there's always these causal steps. And we can legitimately challenge and disagree about how long these causal chains are or whether we think that they are plausible.

So, one person might be a big fan of safe work method statements but, effectively, what they're saying is that having a safe work method statement is going to somehow change someone’s behaviour at a site. Which might then change the site environment which then changes someone else’s behaviour that changes work. Someone else might look at a safe work method statement and they say, no, I disagree. People don’t read safe work method statements and if people don’t read them there's no way that they're going to change their behaviour, there's no way it’s going to change the site. So, I don’t think safe work method statements are good for safety.

So, we can label all of these things as safety work. So, these are things that we do in the name of safety that we hope ultimately to have some sort of impact on safety at work. But I think if we’re going to have an honest conversation, we have to acknowledge that there are lots of reasons that we do these things. And some of those reasons really have nothing to do with an earnest belief that they make a difference to the work environment, to the work behaviour, to the people around us at work, to the tools that we have.

So why do we do lots of these things in our organisations? Three big reasons. The first one and the one that I think is most relevant to regulators is that we do a lot of these activities to demonstrate safety to others. So, in other words, these are activities that are pointing away from the point of risk towards an outside stakeholder. So, we’re not doing the safe work method statement because we think it will change the workplace behaviour. We’re doing the safe work method statement because our principal contractor or an inspector is going to ask for the safe work method statement. So, we’re doing the activity to demonstrate to someone else that we’re safe.

We might do a Take 5 because we think it improves safety, but we record the Take 5, we write it down so that we can show someone else later that we’ve done it. That’s demonstrating safety. Second thing that we do is we do a lot of things that are really about showing ourselves that we care. So, no one seriously believes, and I've never met anyone who seriously believes, that having a safety moment actually makes people safer. There's no one who can articulate, what's the causal link between at the start of the meeting someone says some sort of statement about safety or something that’s happened to them and some real-world decision that physically changes the workplace.

We do that because, at our meetings, we have to make lots of decisions which directly compromise safety. Safety is no one’s number one priority. At best, it’s one of a set of values which are constantly traded off within any business. So, we have safety moments and other similar activities so that there's five minutes at least where people can genuinely have safety as the centre of attention. As the number one priority for that moment to make people feel and show and care about safety.

And the third thing we do, which is also very relevant for regulators, is a lot of safety activities are really not about directly influencing safety. They're about operating a management system. And the hope is that if you have a strongly functioning management system that ultimately that will influence those four things that really matter, that they’ll influence the safety of work. But that’s a very indirect link because most of the activities are just about managing that system. They're collecting data within that system, they're maintaining documents within that system, they're reporting within that system.

And we do that because that’s the way modern responsible organisations run. Its organisations run by use of management systems and someone’s got to do the work to operate and keep those management systems functioning. And that’s what a lot of safety advisors and safety professionals spend their time doing. So, here’s the challenge and question then is, we have all of this safety work, these things we do to demonstrate safety, to make us feel good about safety, to administer the safety management system.

And then we have safety of work which are the things that really matter and with very, very little specific evidence showing us the link between the two. Now, that doesn’t mean that there is no link. Of course, there's a link, of course there's lots of things that we do that keep people safer. Of course, there are times when our safety work makes a big and important difference. But we don’t always know exactly when that is or why that is or how that is or how direct that is. It’s very, very hard to point to a particular risk assessment and say this risk assessment changed something fundamental.

This particular safety moment, this particular Take 5, this particular meeting, this particular report had an impact physically on the safety of work. So that then creates a real challenge and question when it comes to regulators because lots of people – and this is really what the Safety Differently movement from my point of view is about – are challenging whether we’re doing the right safety work. And so, there are organisations who are saying some of these things that we do in safety work don’t matter at all, we want to stop doing them.

Other organisations are saying, well, we like doing this but we don’t like the way we’ve been doing it, we’d like to do it differently. Other organisations are saying well, there are these other activities like learning teams that we’d like to be spending time doing. And in order to spend time doing these we’ve got to spend time doing less of the other things that we think are less important. And how regulators react to businesses making those decisions is going to make a real difference in what sort of freedom organisation have to try to improve their own safety.

So, what we’d really love to do is manage the safety of work. We’d really love to be managing are people using the right tools in the right environment with the right people in the right way? But those things are local and transient, they can be right one day, wrong the next day. And an inspector can't spend all of their time watching the site just for those moments when the rules get broken from the moment that the hazard is there. A lot of those things also happen completely out of site. There's no way for a regulator to know what's happening.

There are sites that we can't get to without people knowing that we’re coming. A classic example that we’ve worked with is roadside crews doing maintenance on water systems. Even the people from the business need to phone up the supervisor to find where the crew is to go and inspect them. There's no way that what's happening on that site once the supervisor arrives is what's actually happening when the supervisor is not there.

And so, because we can't directly manage those things, what most of our activities, most of our regulations, some of our legislation is directed at is regulating the safety work instead. And that’s a problem when what matters is the safety of work, what we’re regulating is the safety work and people have legitimate disagreements about what the safety work should be.

So, I'm going to hand over to Dave to continue this discussion in just a moment. But we can think of safety work at the moment as essentially pushing us away from unsafe work. It’s trying to set boundaries around that unsafe work. That’s one view of things but as you shift the view of things, we’re going to shift what we think is valuable safety work, what we don’t think is valuable safety work. David, handover to you.


Thanks, Drew. So, you might be asking the question, well, what's the problem? Because if we do all this safety work and we don’t know how all of it can relate to safety but we’re hurting less people, then let’s just keeping doing all of this safety work. And some of it helps, some of it might not help but there might be other stuff that’s creating the safety that we don’t know about.

But I think what we’re talking about now and what Sidney’s been talking about and Drew’s been talking about is we actually really need to understand this. We really need to understand where to place our resources in our organisation and what to do to give ourselves a better chance of creating the safe outcomes that we’re after every day.

So, if we move onto the next slide, I just want to draw a bit more of a practical distinction between let’s say, Safety I and Safety II or traditional safety and Safety Differently. And most of my research has been about understanding the role of safety practitioners and professionals inside organisations. And now I understand that that’s a very different role to regulators. But what I'm going to try and do now in the next little while is talk about safety practitioners, talk about safety work and the safety of work. And then talk about maybe some ideas for regulation, some may be practical, and some may be a little bit farfetched.

Traditionally what we’ve tried to do with our traditional safety approaches has been this sort of linear process. That we analyse all of the hazards, we implement the controls, we monitor the conformance with those controls, and we try to get this standardisation of safety culture, this hearts and minds and beliefs about safety. And if we get this, people thinking in the right way, we get the hazards identified, we get the hazards controlled and people are following those controls, then that’s the secret recipe for safety.

Now, we know our organisations are more complex than that but that’s still a very dominant way of thinking about safety in organisations. And I'm not here to say that that’s wrong but I'm here to say that that’s not complete, that’s not the whole picture of – remember some of the photos that Sidney put up about complex systems. So, in this environment, what are the things that safety practitioners do? So, the things that safety practitioners do is that they support this identification of risk and this is the Take 5s and the pre-starts and the risk registers and the HAZOPs.

And all of these things that need to go in place to identify hazards at a task level or at a system level then write elaborate controlled programmes around them. I've come across a 26-page method statement for how to spray weeds with non-toxic weed spray from Bunnings. And you would all have examples, I expect, as inspectors of going into an organisation and finding tens or hundreds of pages of documentation to complete quite a somewhat menial type of task.

So, it’s about specifying these behavioural and technical controls for work and then a whole lot of follow up. So, inspections and audits and certifications and when things go wrong it’s about investigating all of these things. It’s about the posters and the slogans like Sidney said and some of you might be aware that Drew and I also moonlight as weekly podcasters title the Safety of Work. And I think, Drew, it was only a week or two ago that we produced an episode where we talked about all the research that really just says posters don’t do a thing, like Sidney said. So, you can go and check that out as well.

But really, it’s this process that practitioners and their organisations follow to try to predict the future, all of the hazards associated with it and monitor the controls. And, again, like Sidney said, these things aren’t wrong. These frameworks are necessary. We’ve known for 150 years that we need to have some idea about the way that people are approaching their work. But to think that we can plan and predict for every situation and write a 26-page method statement and that the weeds are going to be sprayed that way every single time is, I think, the challenge that we’re talking about today.

So, what happens though? What happens when organisations have this belief that the rules work, and the focus is on these requirements? And I think you can think about this in the context of either an organisation safety management system or the requirements in your regulations that you regulate of industry.

And this is a model that we published with also a colleague in the U.S. So, if your focus is on that work should meet the requirements or work should meet the legislation, your primary point of focus is the requirement and why work is not meeting that. And what it creates is that you will discount the reality of what's happening in terms of work as done because you're always looking to drag the work back into compliance with the requirement. Which is like the photos that Sidney showed about the fall arrest system in the confined space. And then you’ve got a comment in the chat that says, “Actually, the biomechanics of the second photo was much better from a musculoskeletal risk point of view.”.

But if you're constantly looking to make sure work pulls back then you won’t look at the way it’s currently being done if it’s being done outside of those requirements. And so what you do then is that that pressure, either overt or subtle, makes people do what we call kind of like, simulated compliance or covert work system which is what Drew was talking about earlier. The work that happens when the safety person and the regulator and the supervisor is not there is very different to the way that work happens when they are there.

And it also creates this role retreat. Because if I'm always going to get checked and criticised and punished somewhat for how I'm performing my work, then I'm only going to do the bare minimum of my job. I worked recently with an organisation around incident reporting, speaking to their guys in the field. And they said to me, “We will only ever report things that we can't hide.”. So, it was an asset management type of company. “So, unless there's a broken piece of equipment that the engineers are going to know about, anything else that happens, well, there's no way we’re telling anyone.”

Because it’s this role retreat, because it will always be about judging why work didn’t happen. And, like Sidney said earlier, so it institutionalises these learning disabilities into your organisation. You also create a lot of these double binds. Sidney mentioned that work without a fall arrest system for a shallow confined space happens two and a half times faster.

So, if you say, I want you to do the work at two and a half times the speed because that’s the way that work normally gets done so that’s what we plan a task for. And then you suddenly make people comply with something that slows it down by two and a half times without giving the extra time to do it. You're creating all these double binds of productivity and quality and safety and customer satisfaction and all of these types of things. And so, this is the thing, we can't, as regulators, as practitioners, as managers, we can't think that the requirements are the answer. We actually have to look at the work.

And so, when we come at it from a different point of view this is, I suppose, the Safety II perspective. And there was a bit in the chat earlier about tomorrow’s session, about regulations, imagine regulation is done. What we’re talking about now, as practitioners and as regulators, is our number one focus should always be the work, the work that people are doing and how it’s being performed. And what that allows us to do, if we put the dominant focus on the work, it allows us to actually be critical of our requirements. So, it allows practitioners and companies to critically reflect on the efficacy of their safety management systems and their rules.

It allows regulators to go, well, maybe this code of practice, this requirement in this code of practice, actually doesn’t quite match the reality of certain situations. So, it makes you more curious about what you think you know about the way that work happens. It also allows work to be better supported by organisations and regulators as well so long as it’s safe. And there's always that question that needs to be raised and discussed.

And I would say – and I think – and we have published and maybe some people might find this a little bit challenging – but safety is not a standard to be achieved. There's no standard for safety. Safety is a point of consensus amongst stakeholders. So, between community expectations, between regulators, between companies, between professionals and technical experts and practitioners. Safety is the point at which they all agree that something is OK. And that is different, that’s case by case and that’s context dependent.

There's not a standard, safety is not black and white, safety is never going to be black and white in my opinion. And let’s get into a debate about that at some point. So, when we focus on the work it allows us to keep pace. It allows us to act in real time. It allows us to know what's happening today and what might happen tomorrow, and it gives us an opportunity to be proactive. It allows people to take initiative.

If people know our focus of the work and our focus is on what Sidney also produced in that bell curve, if a focus is on the white space of making work successful. And if our people know that that’s our primary objective, to support them, to make their work successful in all shapes and forms including safety, then they’ll report. They’ll talk, they’ll show initiative, they’ll create innovations and they’ll raise ideas. That allows us to actually proactively get ahead of the curve and coordinate activities in the organisations which flow back into the requirements.

So, the big point here that I think when we talk about safety work versus the safety of work or and the safety of work, if our focus is the safety work. So, if, as a regulator, if our focus is about going into organisations and checking that a safety work is being done. That they’ve got their procedure, that they’ve got their Take 5, that they’ve identified their risk, they’ve got their safe work method statement. Their induction training is up to date, that’s all fine, but that’s not actually giving you any insight into how safe the work actually is being performed on that site on that day.

At best, it’s showing you the safety things that have happened in the days prior. It’s not showing you what's happening that day. The only way you find out what's happening that day is by looking at the work and talking to the people there and then about what they're doing and how they're doing it. And you would all know that in your time as field inspectors.

But it poses a challenge because the things that we are, or I am, now encouraging professionals to do, look very different to some of those traditional tasks. Remember it talked about identifying hazards and risks and specifying controls and doing audits and doing incident investigations and putting up the posters and the slogans and communicating and standardising the safety culture. That’s all kind of top down pressure.

What we’re encouraging professionals to do is very much more bottom up and work focused. So professionals need to explore every day work. They need to understand how that work is being done and revise their management systems to suit and support that work more effectively. They need to support local practices; they need to understand how crews are actually working and what extra support they need. Not just in a management system sense but resources and time and equipment to satisfy their varied and competing job demands.

They need to generate action to reduce goal conflict. Goal conflict in organisations I think has been talked about superficially somewhat in safety for 40 or 50 years. But hasn’t really been as rigorously researched as I think it needs to be. Because what we know is that it’s these pressures, intentions and conflicts that are involved and at the heart of a lot of safety incidents. You can solve any safety problem if you have enough time and enough resources and enough knowledge. You will be able to solve anything.

And that’s why safety critical situations like in a cockpit where you’ve got three minutes until the plane crashes into a mountain, you don’t have time. You might have knowledge; you might have lots of resources, but you don’t have time. So that’s why, when we talk about these three dimensions of things to solve safety problems, when you become limited on time or on knowledge or on resources then safety margins start being constrained. And [Rasmussen] described this perfectly with this dynamic risk modelling paper I think in late seventies or in the early eighties.

So, this idea that we need to be balancing goal conflicts and it’s a test for people to maybe reflect on now. It’s think about if you're crossing the street, you'll wait for the green man or woman before you cross the street. And you will do that. Now, if you're five minutes late to an important meeting with your managing director five levels up in the organisation from you and you hit a street and the man or woman is red you're more likely to cross than if you don’t have that time pressure. And the same is true for workers every single day in their role.

So, we’re sort of encouraging safety professionals to understand those pressures and conflicts and take action to alleviate them. And then a whole range of other activities that are about learning, that are about open communication in the organisation, about generating future operational scenarios and all these things that are as opaque as the complex systems that they're trying to manage.

And it’s very hard for organisations to adjust, to safety professionals performing these more general and exploratory type of activities. Because they don’t fit that traditional model of my safety person gives me a report every week. They go and do an audit every month, they investigate the incidents that happen, and they make sure that our risk registers are up-to-date. That’s really easy for an organisation to manage but less valuable than some of these other ways.

So, if we go now to think about your roles as regulators, it becomes even more complicated to think about the role that you perform. Because of political and societal expectations of what you will do and how you will approach your role and what will be the ways that you will try to generate compliance through education and enforcement. It becomes very hard to think about – and this is probably a good chance for people to put in the chat from the conversation this morning and some of our conversations just now. Is, what are some of the alternative activities that you can perform as inspectors to get closer to the heart of whether an operation or a company is acting safely?

Now, whether that flows into how you approach enforcement is kind of a secondary conversation like Drew said, let’s talk about the activities of inspectors. And I think this is something that I've been talking to a lot of companies about. Not so much with, I think, the company, the agencies that are on this call, but particularly with the Office of the Federal Safety Commissioner. I think they, as regulators, have a very negative perception amongst industry for their sole and extensive focus on safety work and a complete, let’s say, dismissal of the need to look underneath the documentation.

And so, I think what – I might hand back to Drew now to start to create some questioning and some debate about how we might think about the role of regulators.


So, for the rest of this talk we would very much welcome you to start asking questions and making comments in the chat. We don’t want to sort of have us talking and then have a very abrupt transition to question time. So do feel free to start putting in your own ideas, comments and questions as we’re going through these last couple of slides.

Why I'd like to try expressing the challenging is that I think that Safety I makes things very easy for the regulator. And that’s one reason why it is very tempting to want to regulate the way we currently do because it creates these nice clear bright lines. So, if you fully embrace Safety I and you reject all of the criticisms that Safety II and Safety Differently operate then you're free to think that it works something like this.

We create regulations, those regulations create work for the regulator to do and for the inspectors to do. That causes organisations to do work to demonstrate their safety to the regulator, to the inspectors. In doing that work that then causes organisations to have functioning safety management systems, to have administrative safety. Those safety management systems then, in turn, cause physical changes to the way work is performed. They cause changes in procedures, changes in processes, changes in equipment, changes in environment and work gets safer.

But the moment you start to be sceptical about any of those steps then the regulator’s role becomes much more complicated. What is a regulator meant to do if an organisation says, well, we don’t actually think our safety management system is what keeps people safe. We only maintain a safety management system because the regulator and the auditors ask for it. Our real safety is when we get out and talk to people. Regulate that please, regulate whether we’re getting out and talking to people.

Or our real safety is in the amount of trust we put into our field teams. Because we trust them, because we don’t micromanage them, that’s what keeps them safe. So regulate that trust please. That’s much, much harder for a regulator. What's a regulator meant to do if an organisation sincerely and legitimately believes that giving their work teams freedom keeps those teams safe? The regulator now can't demand documents because documents don’t keep the teams safe. In fact, documents, in this case, would be a sign of distrust in the teams.

So, the biggest comment we’ve had in the chat so far is the idea that well, a regulator has to focus on requirements because legislation is pretty much black and white. And that’s the first point where – and David, feel free to jump in here – I'm going to start pushing back. Because I don’t believe that the legislation is black and white. I think the legislation, as opposed to regulation, as opposed to code of practice, the legislation is very much about outcomes. We make it black and white when we insist that there are only certain ways in which those outcomes can be achieved.

So, a classic example here is there is a clear requirement for a workplace to understand the risks in that workplace. The risks need to be understood by the person in charge, the risks need to be understood by the workers. That requirement in no way says that anyone has to do a risk assessment. It just says that they have to understand the risks. We turn it into a black and white requirement when we say well, not only do you have to do a risk assessment. But you’ve got to write the risk assessment down and that’s what we’re going to ask for if there's an accident.

But the moment we start conducting an investigation or an inspection and we ask for a written risk assessment that’s the point at which we have made it black and white. That’s not in the legislation and it’s very limited even in the regulations with a few specific exceptions. So, I think we can sort of ask, what are the options where we could start to change the role of the regulator?

One of the options is we basically keep things as they are now, but we focus on different safety work. So instead of focusing on inductions, inspections, audits, we focus on those things that people should be doing under Safety II. We start focusing on measuring what organisations are doing in providing foresight, measuring what organisations are doing in providing communication.

The second thing we can do is we can just basically split the regulatory role between Safety I and Safety II. We can say what a regulator does is about enforcing clear black and white standards, about identification of hazards, protection against those hazards, checking that the controls are in in place. And some of what the regulator does is about promoting these other things that are important for safety. But we’re going to promote them rather than regulate them. So, we sort of embrace a promotion role for the regulator and say that Safety II belongs in that promotion role, it doesn’t belong in the regulatory role.

So, we’re never going to prosecute someone for failing to do something that they should be doing under Safety II but we certainly might prosecute someone for failing to do something that they should do under Safety I.

The third option is that we essentially back off as a regulator. So, we stop demanding certain things from organisations and, in particular, we stop demanding specific types of evidence for things. So, we say we want you to understand your workplace risks but we’re not going to demand a written risk assessment. We would accept the fact that we can go onto a site and if we ask a worker what the risks are, and they can tell us we’d consider that suitable evidence. Or if you’ve got an app that records conversations that workers have about risk; we would consider that acceptable evidence that you are doing things to encourage workplace risk.

And so, the regulator stops being specific about what they ask for and focuses much more just on tell us what you are doing to achieve. And changes it to a tell us what you are doing rather than show us a particular document, a particular activity. So, I don’t want to be naïve though. The reality is that we’re actually going to have to do some degree of all three of these because all three of these approaches have real limitations and problems and we’ve already begun to see some of those challenges.

David, I'm not able to follow the chats here so feel free to sort of jump in and start answering a question that’s appeared in the chat if appropriate.


Yeah. I might, Drew, I might just jump in now because there are these comments about this being black and white. And your comment, Drew, about legislation being outcomes based and I agree with. And then a comment about the regulations. And I just want to say we’re not being Machiavellian about this, there is very much a need for certain risk controls to be in place when people are exposed to that risk.

We’re not, for a minute, saying let’s give people a choice of whether they wear a harness when they're five metres off the ground. Or let’s give people a choice about whether they test an atmosphere before they go into a potentially kind of like, explosive confined space or something like that. Or whether they should shore a three-metre-deep excavation. So, these things that are in some of these regulations are very much there because this comment said, they're written in blood, there's lots of experience in behind them and lots of good reason to be doing them. And I don’t think any Safety Differently or Safety II person would say stop doing those things. Those things are obvious.

But those things are a small subset of things that organisations have created to try to comply with regulation. And if those are the things that you are looking for compliance on while you're inspecting, then I'd say that’s absolutely that, maintaining that enforcement role. It’s when a regulator or inspector might ask, why don’t you have a procedure for managing visitors in the workplace or something? Or, for an example, or other things that goes beyond some of those really clear and deliberate controls for high risk activities that we probably say things become less black and white very quickly.

Drew:   So, I might jump in here. We’ve got a couple of comments in the chat about the need for PCBUs to prove that they have met certain requirements. And this is why we promote Safety Differently to inspectors. Because once you understand that organisations do stuff to demonstrate safety to the regulator and that that may, in fact, be totally divorced from what organisations do to create safety in the workplace, then, hopefully, it’s possible to recognise that, the regulator, by asking for certain things, is, in fact, directly distracting organisations from making things safer at the coalface.

So, there's a comment in the chat here that paperwork tends to be what we ask for if we have concerns that risk isn't assessed. Yeah, how can a PCBU prove this to us if they can't verbalise it or have it written down? Now, this, I recognise, is very challenging from a regulatory mindset. The PCBU’s job is not to prove to you that they are managing the risk, the PCBU’s job is to manage the risk. Now, if proving it to you increases the chance that they're managing it well then, it’s a very positive thing to demand that they prove it to you.

But if demanding that they prove it to you, in fact, distracts them or leads them away from things that help with managing the risk then you may get the proof and actually have hurt safety. And so that’s why we be really clear about the efficacy of the things that we are demanding. If there's no evidence that a written risk assessment increases the management of risk, then demanding a written risk assessment is a damaging thing to do.

If there's no evidence that being audited against a particular standard improves safety then encouraging people and rewarding them if they can show that they’ve got an audited safety management system may, in fact, be harming safety rather than helping it.

So, let’s have a look at a few of the things that can go wrong. So, one of the real risks, I think – and this is the real trap for new ideas in safety – is that we end up using our existing ways of thinking about regulation to deal with new ideas in safety. So, we’ve already seen in aerospace, for example and in nuclear, people start regulating safety culture. Actually, regulators demanding that organisations have safety culture programmes, have safety assessments and show those to the regulator. Which, when you think about it, is the precise opposite of what a safety culture is, is doing a safety culture survey in order to appease the regulator. But that’s what happens.

And I know we’ll have gone too far when we start having Safety II audits. I'm already a bit worried that we have Safety Differently accident investigations. That just sort of tells me that we’re taking the new ideas and corrupting them back into the old space. I also think – and this, I think, is a little bit more positive about the role of the regulator – I really think there is a genuine space for the regulator still.

Because what we see when we reduce the role of the regulator is we see an increase in audit and standardisation bodies. So, in other words, if we don’t regulate then business will start demanding that someone else regulates them and they’ll do an even worse job. I think, in construction, we certainly see this where audits to get government contracts are stricter than what the state regulators demand for construction. And not stricter in ways that increase safety, just stricter in ways that increase bureaucracy.

The most common comment we have when a construction company tells us that they think that an activity is a waste of time they will say we have to keep doing it because of the FSC. And that is just really discouraging when it comes to safety is people know what they need to improve. And cannot improve because they have to pass an audit. But then the third risk is just that if we don’t do something to start addressing Safety Differently and Safety II movement ideas is the regulator just becomes increasingly irrelevant for safety.

Organisations have one set of activities that they do because the regulator asked them to and there's a totally separate set of activities that they do in order to keep themselves safe. We already see that in design orientated industries where we have one set of safety practitioners whose job is to manage compliance and another set of safety professionals whose job is to manage safety. And they work in two different teams because the organisation has recognised that they're just totally two separate objectives.

So, it’s a dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t. There is no sort of perfect approach here that’s going to fix the problem. But I do think that we need to recognise that this is a genuine problem and that not doing something is a choice just as much as doing something is a choice.


I think, Drew, if I step in, just some of the chat comments and there's a few things about political independence and that. And that’s not a space that I think I can comment knowledgeably about how to maintain political independence in your role as a regulator. So, apologies for not answering that question. So, look, safety management systems are process orientated which requires a lot of checks and balances. And, as a result, creates lots of plans and assessments and audits.

So, what does a safety management system look like under Safety II? Now, I think it’s in that question there that safety management systems are process orientated when what we do in safety should always be outcome orientated like Drew said. It’s not about producing the risk assessment; it’s about understanding and managing the risks. So, I think systems in Safety II that are more outcomes focused and clear on what those very specific outcomes are, not just reducing incidents.

So, the outcome for risk would be that all workers on site understand the hazards and risks associated with their work. That’s part of the management system. Now, how a site delivers that understanding is something that can be context or something quite dependent. But what we know from some of the social psychology work is that as soon as you become process focused that people focus on the process not the outcome. And we see it with things like Take 5s.

If you have a requirement to write it down, then the task actually becomes completing the form. The task doesn’t become taking 5 to assess the risk at sites. The task is completing the Take 5 form. So, the process becomes the objective rather than the outcome that the process is trying to deliver. And that’s why the apprentice will sit in the truck and fill out the Take 5 while the rest of the team, guys and girls, are setting up the job. And then the apprentice will jump out and go finished, everyone initial here please and put it back in the truck then get on and do their work.

So, we’ve got to be really careful that when the process becomes the objective rather than the outcome becomes the objective. And I think our safety management systems aren’t geared around delivering outcomes, they're geared around completing processes.


So, there's an interesting comment in the chat, challenging the idea or at least questioning the idea that demonstrating safety compliance can be harmful for safety rather than perhaps neutral or a positive for safety. So, I just want to take a moment to spell out that rationale.

Organisations have limited resources to spend on safety. That attention happens at all levels. It happens in terms of safety professionals and it happens in terms of supervisors. They're the two people who most get affected by safety clutter and paperwork. In terms of safety professionals, they can very quickly have all of their time taken up with direct administrative concerns rather than going out and finding what the most important problems are or even addressing things that they know to be problems.

And we can have some people talking about industrial manslaughter, so I don’t want to get too much into that. But I'll throw that in as a key example. That the moment you have a change in legislation like industrial manslaughter, the entire job of the safety team becomes how is the organisation responding to making sure that we’ve got things properly documented to deal with industrial manslaughter. And all of those people are no longer managing safety, they're all now demonstrating safety compliance in a new way.

For supervisors it’s even more direct. Supervision is really important for safety. I hope no one disagrees with that. And you can see this directly just in the amount of time that a supervisor spends in the office versus the time that a supervisor spends with their team. And we've seen supervisors go from spending their entire time supervising to spending half the day preparing the paperwork for the next day. So literally the supervisor’s job has gone from 100% supervision to 50% paperwork, 50% supervision. And a large portion of that 50% paperwork is safety paperwork. So that’s the rationale for how demonstrating safety compliance harms safety is it’s a zero-sum game.

The resource just has to be directed in one direction or the other. But it also has a real cultural affect in the sort of climate that it creates for frontline workers about safety. If you give people lots and lots of stuff that they know is just being done to cover people’s arses and then tell them, hold on, this thing is really important for safety, they don’t believe you. But, of course, they know that that’s what safety is, safety is about covering your back. It’s not about safety. And so that attitude then gets this separation between the stuff that is important for safety and that isn't important for safety. It just all gets lumped in a very cynical bin.


Thank you. Just a couple of the other questions that we’re not going to have time to answer specifically. But I think some of the other questions about surely the role of a safety management system is to create processes to generate outcomes. And that the role of, clearly, the PCBUs must manage workplace health and safety risks. These ideals and mindsets are absolutely true.

But I would call them ideals and you would all see how real organisations operate when you go out to them and in all of my career’s been on, you know, not on a regulator side of the fence, but on the organisational side of the fence. And those ideals don’t really survive contact with organisations. So, it does become more about the process than the outcome. These things that we say that surely it should be like this. What I'd probably be at the centre of what we’re doing and what our research has done at the lab when we’ve been following organisations and safety professionals for six months and 12 months.

And following companies that have one group doing Take 5s and have another group not doing Take 5s and observing how the work changes. A lot of those ideals that we think as truisms really quickly disappear when we go and look at them in a research kind of practitioner context. And that’s why we need to be – maybe your role as a regulator should always be cynical but I'd probably say you need to be extra cynical about anything that gets shown to you on a piece of paper inside an organisation. Which I'm sure you already are. So, I don’t know how much time we’ve got left, Andrew or where we want to go from here but thanks everyone for the invitation and the time.


No worries. You guys, you’ve probably got about another five minutes if you wanted to take another few questions. If there's something in there that speaks to you.


Look, I think there's – sorry, Drew, you go mate.


Sorry. I was just going to jump in on David’s previous comment. Because I think David is being very generous about the ideals of safety management systems. And if you doubt that then look at the resume or the LinkedIn profile of any safety professional who has been responsible for implementing a safety management system. And you will see clearly that their claim that they make is that they have successfully implemented a safety management system to a particular standard or to the satisfaction of a particular customer. That is the practical goal of a safety management system is to achieve accreditation.

We hope that the side effect of that direct goal and the ideal of the side effect of that direct goal is that it achieves some sort of desired outcome. But that’s not what we measure. What we measure is achieved accreditation.


Yeah, Drew and the faster the better. There's a comment – a lot of people obviously logged in under anonymous so we can't address by name, but Alan has done a thing saying, “Been an inspector for 23 years. And when I first started there were a lot less regulations. So, to show compliance to the Act you actually needed to have a conversation with the PCBU about how they manage safety and apply that practical judgment and experience to the situation.”.

But now, with the current legislation, I suppose and some of the earlier career inspectors, organisations have gotten better over the last 23 years at being able to have the answers for the questions that the inspectors ask with documentation. That it’s like, here's an answer that I prepared earlier and here's an answer that I prepared earlier. And maybe the inspectors aren’t either able to or having some of those more deeper and richer conversations and observations.

So maybe that’s a reflection for your agencies is, you know, what are skills and capabilities that you look for and develop in your inspectors? And how do you then have inspection processes that lets them or expects them to or helps them to utilise those skills and capabilities when they're actually doing their inspections? And I think that’s critical where the rubber hits the road.


So, there's a phenomenon that David touched on earlier when it came to the problems with Safety, I called role retreat. Which is where someone reduces the discretionary activity that they can do right down to those things that they absolutely have to do and that they can easily defend. And I think that’s particularly one of the things that regulators and inspectors are vulnerable to when there is excessive political pressure and where there is a lack of training and experience available is people role retreat.

So, they only find violations that they can document, they only criticise things that they can document, and they ask for documents in return. Because that minimum structure of the role is really easy to defend what you're doing. You can point to a particular line in the legislation, you can point to a particular document that you ask for. There's no judgment call that needs to be made.

And I don’t express that as a criticism, I express that as a burden that we impose on frontline inspectors. That we often sort of force them into this role retreat by the way that we act when they apply discretion. When they start stepping out beyond that role to really care about safety. That increases the risk of getting slapped down, of having the company complain. Because companies like to make it nice and certain with that role retreated thing where we just talk about the documents as well.


Drew, just before Andrew cuts us off, I'm going to give you a chance to just fire up one last time. Because there's a chat in there about – I will just read the question. What's your opinion on safety cases for major hazard facilities? And I know there's a PhD project at the moment called On Fantasy Plans. And you’ve just supervised a masters’ project looking specifically at safety in design and safety engineering on construction projects. So what's your opinion on safety cases?


I agree that in the case of safety cases the regulations and requirements for documents are black and white. So I think this is one where the regulations very clearly restrict what the regulators and inspectorates can do. Although this is a matter of personal opinion but backed up by some pretty solid research. A lot of the things that we require in those documents are directly asking people to either lie to us or apply pseudoscientific practices. In particular, risk assessments included in safety cases for major hazard facilities.

There is no research that suggests that those practices actually improve the quality of the facilities or, indeed, that those risk assessments are adequate at assessing the risk. But I do agree, absolutely, that’s a case where the regulations are black and white, that unless the regulations and the legislation are changed that we are locked into a particular mode and mechanism of regulating.


Thanks Drew. Thanks Andrew.


Thank you, Doctors Dave Provan and Drew Rae, for being the dynamic doctorate duo of safety and for such an interesting and thought-provoking session.

Page last reviewed: 16 February 2021
Get updates from us
Subscribe to Comcare eNews to receive information from the national work health and safety authority.

GPO Box 9905, Canberra, ACT 2601
1300 366 979 | www.comcare.gov.au

Date printed 02 Dec 2021