Work health and safety professionals pursue many common goals and comply with similar rules. Whether you are a business owner, a PCBU, a Site Safety Officer, or part of my Occupational Safety Solutions team, we have certain topics we often deal with, as well as things we rarely discuss. It’s those underlying things that I want to focus on today.
Sadly, my father died three weeks ago, and beyond the grief and sorrow, his passing has me thinking outside the boxes we usually live in. He was a good man, and I would've liked him to have had more time to invest in my boys and myself, but that's not how it played out. He had a long innings, and he batted with strategic singles, notable boundaries and even had some "smacked out of the grounds for six" moments. But death, and specifically his death, has got me thinking about deeper issues.
We live in complex and very deceptive times. In the midst of this, the burdens being placed on employers are increasing, not only demanding more of our resources, but also increasingly demanding compliance to frameworks of thinking we and our workers might not always agree with. We're being forced off the well-worn paths, tracks and trails we're used to, and onto side-roads and goat trails and into uncertain terrain.
Do you identify with any of these feelings? Do you as a busy person, as I do, wrestle with balancing work, staff, family and friends? Do you also find it hard at times to think beyond the obvious and the essentials? If so, and you also find these to be challenging days, I thought I'd offer some insights from my off-the-beaten-track thinking. I hope they help!
Three Ways of Describing WHS
The WHS role can be described plainly, dramatically or with street-level bluntness:
Stated plainly … work health and safety is about foreseeing what can go wrong, Strategising to avoid it happening, and helping keep people safe.
Stated more dramatically … I can metaphorically talk about the snakes of tragedy that are loose in a workplace. Most people run from snakes, but safety professionals act differently. WHS requires us to anticipate the snake, keep it in view, know how to respond, train others to do likewise, keep unnecessary snakes out, manage the snakes that are already inside, and plan for the ones that are birthed every day. It's a big job!
Stated bluntly … work health and safety activities are about helping business owners cover their arse, comply with the law and keep their people safe.
But these are the WHS components that are obvious. Let's talk about three topics that don't get given much time.
Some WHS Aspects We Don't Tend to Talk About
At a surface level, we see standards, protocols, checks and balances. Beneath these surface behaviours, guiding principles are at work, with duty of care and due diligence leading the way. If we look even deeper, we see an extended variety of factors, concepts, philosophies and motivations, of which, there are three I'd like to touch on:
- Ethical awareness,
- Wrestling with morality, and
- Allowing and managing emotion,
Think of them as trail guides to help you navigate when government, circumstances, or your people force you off the well-worn paths that you are used to.
Work Health and Safety Incorporates Ethics
If you've read this far, you probably already have an operating ethical compass. However, you might not have thought much about its application in the safety context. 'Application' is what ethics is about. Ethics is the application of morality in a given situation. In other words, morality is a system that tells us what is right and wrong, and ethics is the application of those rights and wrongs in a given situation. It can be reasonably argued that ethics change over time, but morality is constant.
Where does this fit in the WHS context? Ethics is like a trail guide that tells you to pick up the pace, slow down, or step carefully. The virtue or morality is in reaching the destination; ethics is exercised in getting there appropriately.
For example, while most workers believe it is right to comment on dangerous situations (morality), but not all do (ethics). Most also know it is right for them to correct a supervisor who is directing them to do something dangerous (morality), but many would not follow through on this conviction (ethics). There is often a gap between morality and ethics and I have a strong suspicion that gap was narrower in my father’s day.
The take-away: don't assume that morality is enough, or that the ethical behaviour seen in one work domain will also be evidenced in another. Effective work health and safety isn't just about what is right; it's also about creating a workspace where ethical behaviour is the norm. Some of the tips that follow will help.
Work Health and Safety is Unapologetically Moral
We've already pointed out that morality is the art of knowing the difference between right and wrong, even when the right thing is less beneficial. Unfortunately, different workers have differing concepts of right and wrong. Nowadays, we also encounter many who believe the only right that matters is 'their right. It's the moral equivalent of having 'a personal truth' - and in a workplace safety situation, that is a disaster waiting to happen.
My old man taught me that right is right and wrong is wrong. Even when it hurts, right stays right, and wrong stays wrong. Our workers may disagree on how right and wrong is decided, but workers need to come together when it comes to work health and safety. It's okay for a worker to know that their opinions and their morality have value, but when it comes to safety decisions, in all but the most exceptional of cases, the moral thing to do is what the legislation says to do.
But what if a supervisor, a fellow worker or government authority acts, demands or manoeuvres in an immoral way? Clearly, there are times when what is legal is also immoral; for example, both before and during World War Two the Nazi SS rounded up Jewish, Polish and homosexual people for destruction. They did this within the law. In fact, it could be argued they were compelled by it. But was it moral?
The take-away for me, and perhaps for you, is that something doesn't become moral or immoral because the crowd or the law says it is. These days, I am aware that personal morality varies profoundly from person to person - perhaps more than ever before. That brings a challenge to my workplace because I need to wrestle with the implications of a morally ambiguous reality. Clear communication and decisions will help - but sticking my head in the sand won't.
Morality gives none of us a free pass, and I reckon my Dad's generation understood that better than we do.
Work Health and Safety Involves Emotion
When it comes to emotions, there are two groups (or extremes) that tend to dominate. One emotional group is passive, while the other is reactive or proactive. The first group, the passive emotions, tend to include fear or uncertainty. These emotions cause hesitancy and trepidation, leading workers to not speak when they should. The second group is marked by emotions like greed, over-confidence, arrogance and anger. These emotions get in the way of effective communication, shut down open conversation and increase the likelihood of errors and hazards occurring.
What are we to do? The workplace needs all types of personalities, so all these emotions will make an appearance. We need to find a way to deal with emotional extremes.
My father's generation was big on personal responsibility and just "getting shit done". There was a clear expectation that the individual would bend. Depressions and world wars will do that to you. My generation was more interested in self-esteem and understanding ourselves within a team-oriented context. However, today's young people seem to think the world revolves around their wants, their needs, and their truth. It's a dilemma, and an extremely frustrating one at that.
Maybe there's a winning balance to be found in between, and I reckon honesty is a good place to start. For example, a team leader can show the way by prefacing his comments to encourage emotional awareness and self-management. For example:
- "I feel a little nervous raising this, but I'm going to …"
- "Wait! Give me a minute. I'm too f'n angry and I'm gonna say something we'll both regret."
- "I don't mind if you do 'you' at home. Heck, I do 'me' at home. But when we're here, we do 'us'! Do you understand that?"
What's the Take-Away?
Whatever the specifics of your work health and safety role, being aware of these three underpinning issues will definitely help your outcomes. It seems to me that there is little to lose and much to gain. Ethical awareness, the willingness to wrestle with morality, and emotional responsiveness are all areas of investment, not expense.
As we close, you might have noted that I haven't even mentioned a product - and I'm not going to. Today, my product silence is my way of walking the talk. What I've shared with you is so foundational it deserves an undistracted focus.
If you would like to purchase or inspect the products, please browse the site, request a callback or call directly on 1800 304 336. My hope is that the importance of work health and safety will grip your workers. As I said, Dad's passing got me thinking beyond the norm'; I hope this hike off the beaten track served you well.