Zero harm? Dream on…

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Imagine the headline: “New Zealand businesses did not have one fatality in a single year – world first!”

I can imagine the author of such an article stating “from the land that gave us fantasy characters like hobbits and goblins came a statistic that made the world take notice”. Is this a fantasy? Just a pipe dream perhaps? I don’t think so. I believe that we have the basics in place to surprise even ourselves.

Whenever I speak to business owners about health and safety, I invariably get a neutral to negative response. Maybe it is emotional adjustment to the new Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA). The fact is, the HSWA is the first step needed in our journey to zero harm. It is built on a model that has worked for other countries to decrease injury and fatality rates. So, our first step would be for compliance to the HSWA to become as Kiwi as Pavlova (it is ours after all).

Compliance is certainly the first step, but to drive safety that is truly sustainable, with injury rates approaching zero, a mature safety culture is needed. In the health and safety field, we use the DuPont Bradley Curve to help companies understand the development of an effective safety culture. The Bradley Curve identifies four distinct stages.

•    The first stage is reactive where employers rely on “natural instincts” to ensure safety. A typical remark during this stage is “Why do I have to tell my employees to be safe? Everyone knows a stove is hot!” This stage is further characterised by one person being given responsibility for safety and precious little involvement from management.

•    The second stage is the dependent stage. During this stage, the focus shifts to the supervisor. Safety is driven by compliance, becomes a condition of employment and is driven by rules and procedures. Safety training and induction is provided.  Management becomes more involved in safety. The typical remark during this stage is “We have rules in place, employees should just follow them!” Stage two is therefore where one would find most employers in New Zealand as they respond to the HSWA’s implementation.

•    As the company’s safety culture becomes more mature, the focus is on “self”. Employees have internalised safety values which now also coincides with personal values. Individuals take responsibility for their own safety. They believe they can make a difference to safety through their own actions. This reduces accidents further. A typical remark during this stage is “I have done a proper risk assessment”.

•    The mature safety culture becomes more effective when moving to the fourth stage. During the Interdependent stage, zero harm becomes a reality in the workplace. Teams of employees take ownership for safety, and responsibility for themselves and others. Low safety standards and risk-taking behaviours are not accepted. Engagement is high and safety becomes a source of organisational pride. One notices teams of employees actively engaging with each other, and even visitors on site, about safety.

How can an organisation develop a mature and effective safety culture? The answer lies in the development of effective safety habits. Behaviour-based safety focuses on identifying the critical behaviours at all levels of the organisation that drive unsafe behaviour. It follows a top down, bottom up approach by actively engaging management on one hand, and employees on the other, in identifying their own critical behaviours. This process builds a strong, collaborative and mature safety culture that has proven effective in massively reducing injuries and fatalities, if not eliminating them altogether.

While New Zealand starts taking the first steps towards improving its safety culture by complying with the HSWA, it is worth keeping in mind the ultimate dream is to reach the reality of zero harm. Behaviour-based safety is the vehicle that will take us to that reality. The headlines may be a while away yet, but that shouldn’t stop us from dreaming!

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Hennie Peters

Organisational Consultant, Everest Group Limited. Everest Group, Creating Exceptional Workplaces, www,everestgroup.co.nz

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