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Wrestling with Workers, Rights and Risk Control

Posted by Andrew Watters on

Risk control relies on workers being responsibility-minded, but culture trains them to be rights-oriented. How can we counter this? How should we understand and respond to the rights versus responsibility struggle? Can leadership and management break the pervasive hold of a defiant rights focus? How do you put something better in its place? Today, we'll explore these questions and more. We'll show you how to cultivate a 'responsibility mindset'? 

Specifically, we'll take a look at:

  1. The way responsibility and rights struggle to co-exist 
  2. How a rights-mentality impairs effective risk control. 
  3. When worker rights become wrongs.
  4. Risk control using roles, responsibility and resources.

Responsibility and Rights Struggle to Co-Exist 

The inspiration for this article came from a Safe Work Australia email. I am constantly reading industry updates, but this one caught my eye for an interesting reason.

It reminded me of the annual April 28 "Workers' Memorial Day" and "World Day for Safety and Health at Work". That was nothing new, but I noticed a clash of bottom-up and top-down worlds this time, and I saw a workplace parallel we all have to deal with: it's not always easy for management and workers to get along.

Firstly, these two separate days are organised by two different organisations. In 1989 the 'Worker's Memorial Day' was initiated by a worker-driven organisation. The day grew into an international event and gathered steam. Four years later (in 2003), the second 'Safety Day' was started by the government, business and globalist driven United Nations. In other words, in 1989, a bottom-up remembrance for fallen workers was initiated, and in 2003 a top-down refocus of the day was enacted. Call me a cynic, but it seemed like an attempted coup.

The difference between the two groups was also driven home by the themes they chose for 2022. The worker initiated theme was, "Make safe and healthy work a fundamental right. It's a no-brainer.” This has a fist-shaking and defiant feel. It is rights-focused and says, "Others must do while I watch.' As Darryl Kerrigan (from The Castle) would say, the' vibe' is all wrong. 

There are also two errors in thinking - or at least I think there are. "Safe and healthy work" can not be a "fundamental right", nor is the issue a "no-brainer". Absolute safety and health simply isn’t possible for every worker, in every role, all of the time. Accidents happen, and sometimes jobs are simply risky - ask a police officer or a soldier to use two obvious examples. This means it can't be legislated as a universal human right. Secondly, risk control specifically, and WHS in general, is NOT "a no-brainer". It's complicated, complex, and a YES-brainer'. If Darryl Kerrigan heard this one, he'd probably say, "Tell him he's dreaming!"

Contrast this to the UN initiated theme. It reads, “Act together to build a positive safety and health culture.”  This theme is in stark contrast to the first. It's cohesive and collaborative in both goal and word choice. It says, "WE must do." It does not say, "YOU must do."

Now, I'm not saying the first theme is wrong; I'm just saying I noticed the difference. Perhaps that's because it's a reality I wrestle with frequently when developing resources or working with clients.

Is it possible to respectfully and responsively remember workers who have died AND proactively work to prevent occupational deaths, injuries and illnesses? Absolutely! 

But conflict and contrast exist, internationally and in our workspaces. Most PCBU's have:

  • At least some workers with a rights mindset, 
  • A majority of workers who have a responsibility mindset (thankfully),
  • Complex and uniquely structured circumstances,
  • Personalities and personal histories in play, 
  • Competing interests and agendas, and
  • Power imbalances.

How do we control risk while keeping all these balls in the air? 

Risk Control and a Rights-Mentality Don't Mix 

As already stated, one theme encourages cohesion and unified action, while the other is rights-oriented and responsibility shifting. It's the difference between a mum, dad and the kids cooking dinner together, with everyone helping, versus all but one of them sitting in front of the television while shouting, "I'm hungry. Hurry up. Bring me my dinner."  

The rights-mentality doesn't work in the home. Nor does it work in the workplace. A rights mentality says, "You do it", "That's not my job", and "That doesn't concern me." The second says, "We're in this together, so we'll do this together."

When Worker Rights Become Wrongs

Risk control is about managing tensions: between profit and project safety, speed and quality, collaboration and autocracy, and others. We also need to address the perceived rights of an individual and their willingness to do what is right. When workers think they can be passive with risk control, or any aspect of work health and safety, we have a problem. It's hands-on for everybody!

A quick look at risk control demonstrates this point. Risks can be:

  • Accepted, 
  • Avoided, 
  • Mitigated, 
  • Transferred, or 
  • Deferred. 

EVERY one of these options normally involves responsible input and action by many people. EACH one also affects predictable and cohesive behaviour. EACH one has little or no provision for spectators.

Sure, workers have rights, employers have rights, and even site visitors have rights. These are defined and enshrined within the many laws and regulations that seem, at times, to suffocate. But a right to safety in the workplace, as defined by law, does not leave the worker without responsibilities. 

So, how can we effectively expose, confront and counter the rights-mentality in our teams?

Risk Control Using Roles, Responsibility and Resources

You can effectively expose, confront and counter a rights mentality. Strategies include:

  1. Understanding the issue.
  2. Giving your workers a voice.
  3. Clearly defining and communicating responsibilities.
  4. Systematically checking on performance.

Understanding the Issue

The process begins with understanding, so we've laboured the explanations a little. It's essential that you can identify, explain and correct a rights mentality when you encounter it.  

Giving Your Workers a Voice 

Workers have a right to speak up when they see issues of concern and when they believe you're not meeting your legal responsibilities, but that's not where you want to stop. If you proactively communicate appreciation of their voice, and an expectation for it, workers are more likely to lose their fist-shaking combativeness. 

When I followed up on the newsletter I mentioned earlier, I found a video by the International Labour Organisation (UN). They shared figures stating that workplaces with "higher worker engagement" had 64% fewer safety incidences and 58% fewer hospitalisations (at 02:39 mins). Those are good numbers! I'm not sure where those figures came from, but they don't sound unrealistic. 

Workers who embrace communication and responsibility tend to be less 'rights-focused. 

Defining and Communicating Responsibilities

Clearly defining and communicating responsibilities is challenging. You will do your best work via induction, demonstrations, instructions, leadership style, the policies they sign off on, and the documentation they encounter on a day-to-day basis. These will help you establish standards and communicate expectations. 

Two products are relevant here. 

  • The first is the Key Roles and Responsibilities Register. A reference resource, this is commonly posted on worksite noticeboards. It provides clarity regarding responsibilities, who to contact and how to do so. 
  • The more extensive document is our seven-page Roles and Responsibilities Register. This is more oriented to use across your whole organisation  and is far more comprehensive in its information. 

Both documents are included within our macro-level WHS Management System and our project-specific WHS Management Plans. If you're not ready for a complete system or plan and want to explore these strategies further, the first two resources are a great place to start. 

Systematically Checking on Performance

Regularly checking and assessing work performance is also critical. Remember the adage: "If it isn't checked, it isn't done". Our resources reference and support each other to help you run appropriate checks. Of course, you need to follow the processes provided, but they work! 

Maybe, I'll write about that in the future. 

In conclusion, when you understand the rights versus responsibilities issue, give your workers a voice, clearly define and communicate responsibilities, and systematically check on performance, you can break the grip of rights-oriented thinking. All of our resources contribute to this larger goal, but these are particularly worthy of mention and were explained:

When it comes to helping workers adopt the right attitudes to risk control and responsiveness, these are a starting point, not an endpoint. Put another way, they are a platform on which we stand and build, not the ceiling we reach for. 

We understand PCBU realities and accountabilities. That's why we have no division between Sales and Support. When you call, there is no machine asking if you're a new customer with a credit card in hand or a previous customer seeking support. Your call comes straight through, and the same people answer either way. I guess you could say we have a 'responsibilities mindset'. Call 1800 304 336, and we'll give you service that’s so good, Darryl would declare it goes "straight to the pool room."


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