Are Safety Managers Only Performing Busy Work?

safety managers

Safety is big business and many organisations place considerable pressure on their safety managers to ensure a safe working environment.

Safety managers organise and engage in numerous safety programmes and activities including preparing safe operating procedures, safe work method statements, job safety analyses, risk assessments, audits, observations, toolbox talks, safety moments, HAZOP analyses, Take-5 and other pre-task risk assessments, etc, etc, etc.

In 2019, a paper was published in Safety Science by Andrew Rae and David Provan, that questions whether the activities of safety managers contribute to keeping people safe or simply get in the way of safe operational work. The authors argue that very few safety activities have a proven capability to measure or reduce the likelihood of workplace accidents and that these activities have become routine and ritualised to make organisations feel safe or appear safe.

The paper is a complex read and introduces the concept of ‘safety work’ as opposed to the safety of work and this may be significantly confronting for safety managers. For this article, we provide the key concepts in the paper that underpin the authors’ development of a new conceptual model of organisational safety.

5 Aspects of ‘Safety Work’

Most organisations and most safety managers will argue that operational safety is their primary focus. However, all types of safety work are important and interrelated as they influence the safety outcomes of operational work. There are 5 aspects of the work managed by safety managers.

  1. Social safety is aimed at maintaining safety as a value and the organisation’s belief in itself as a champion of safety.
  2. Demonstrated safety is outward-facing showing that the organisation is meeting its safety obligations.
  3. Administrative safety provides a mechanism for safety concerns to influence operational work.
  4. Physical safety is work that directly transforms the work environment in the interest of safety.
  5. Operational safety is the absence of harm arising from operational work.

The authors argue that unless organisations can differentiate between the five aspects of safety work, safety managers may be performing institutional safety work without achieving operational safety.  There is the danger that when an organisation measures against their total safety performance, rather than each aspect separately, a strong performance in one aspect can conceal poor performances in another.

All five aspects should work together and equally. For example, allocating more resources to demonstrate safety so that the organisation looks good to those outside of the business, may lead to the physical safety aspect under-performing, leaving the work environment exposed to increased accidents.

Social Safety is Symbolic and Ritualistic

Social safety is the collective commitment to the well-being of everyone involved with the organisation’s operations. But because an organisation needs to operate, social safety is constantly in a state of tension and trade-off with other values and goals of the organisation. Social safety may conflict with operational work and it is here that the safety narrative is required to reinforce the value that organisations place on the importance of working safely. Social safety is symbolic and ritualistic and examples include posters and slogans like “Safety First” and “Zero Harm” that demonstrate a commitment to safety and an indication of the safety culture.

Demonstrated Safety Tells External Stakeholders How You Are Performing

External stakeholders such as regulators, communities and customers require organisations to demonstrate that their level of safety meets legislative and bench-marked requirements. Organisations must demonstrate safety to an acceptable standard, or face an external conclusion that they are unsafe. Demonstrated safety is measured by the achievement and maintenance of regulatory approvals and third-party certifications. An example of demonstrated safety is the safety case that requires hazard analysis, design modelling, risk assessment, software testing and human-error prediction.

Administrative Safety is Evidence of Measurable Outcomes

Administrative safety includes definitions, standards, rules, accountability, system boundaries and role requirements. Goals and values are translated into practices that can be performed in a standardised way. Administrative safety is measured through internal compliance and external accreditation audits. A typical example of administrative safety is a Take-5 risk assessment. Administrative safety activities are usually inputted into Safety Management Systems. Administrative safety provides repeatable processes that are important for organisations to function effectively, and to manage their own performance.

Physical Safety Structures Protect the Working Environment

Physical safety measures include barriers, alarms, machine guards, signs, personal protective equipment, atmospheric testing monitors, etc. Physical safety measures directly affect operational work. Physical safety discusses hazards and control measures and addresses these according to the safety hierarchy of controls. Physical safety takes on a preventative intent to reduce and prevent unsafe actions to ensure a safe working environment for workers to operate within.

How do Organisations Measure Operational Safety?

Operational safety is dependent on the other four aspects of safety. Operational safety is measured by:

  • Risk assessments, which are usually demonstrated and administrative safety;
  • Compliance, which is usually measured by physical and administrative safety;
  • Leading indicators, which are usually measures of administrative and social safety;
  • Lagging indicators, which are operational safety measures interpreted through administrative safety work; and
  • Safety culture surveys, that are a measure of social safety.

Operational safety is influenced by psychological safety, where the prevention of an accident relies on employees who share ideas, express opinions, raise concerns and provide warning of where there may be safety problems or the likelihood of emerging safety issues.

See our article on how to develop your organisation’s reporting culture.

Implications for Safety Managers

This research questions whether the work that safety managers do each day makes a difference to safety events such as incidents and accidents. Much of the paper is provocative where the conclusions are drawn that safety work may impede safety performance and get in the way of safe work practices. However, the authors acknowledge that rituals and prescribed practices and the management of safety do provide direction and assist with safety goal setting. What does this mean for the safety profession in the future? Time will tell.

See our article on what can be learned from the safest organisations.

How Can Tap into Safety Help?

The Tap into Safety Integrated eLearning Platform uses an organisations existing workplace health and safety data to build an individualised, interactive and immersive hazard perception training content. It complements existing workplace training via a simple URL integration on existing training platforms.

The reporting features in the Platform drill down to show knowledge of workplace hazards situated within the employee’s work context and provide detailed gaps in their understanding of the control and critical control measures required to keep them safe. This level of detail clearly demonstrates an employee’s knowledge and ongoing competence. Our simple API integration fits into the organisation’s learning management systems and training record repositories. This immediately ensures ongoing documentation is stored within the employee’s training records.

More Information

For more information regarding Tap into Safety and the services we have available to assist your business to better implement its WHS training, feel free to contact us today. We also offer an obligation free demo of our platform, so why not try it for yourself?

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