FARM businesses are becoming overburdened with safety compliance red tape and it’s eating into profit.
Yet it’s not delivering reductions in injuries and it’s certainly not making people happier in their job.
The reason for that: So much of what constitutes workplace health and safety policy in agriculture, like many sectors, is nonsense.
So says leading safety scientist Dr Drew Rae, who argues the answer is actually in spending less time and resources on safety initiatives.
Dr Rae is manager of the Safety Science Innovation Lab at Griffith University and he gave a rather confronting presentation at a key cattle industry event, the Australian Lotfeeders’ Association conference BeefEx, recently.
He acknowledged it takes “a lot of bravery and courage to do less in the safety space” but said that was the way agriculture should go to make its workplace environments safer.
“We have a naive idea that ‘head office’ knows what’s safe and can say, in advance, what safe looks like,” he said.
“This mindset leads to things like analysing hazards, developing registers and lists of ways things can go wrong, trying to restrict the way work happens by putting in place controls, reducing the natural variation in work and introducing things that monitor work and raise alarms when things vary.
“Basically, we’ve sought to create work cultures that encourage conformance.
“The trouble is, this model of safety comes from a world of production lines.
“If all your work could be done by robots, this is a great way to manage safety.
“But it doesn’t work when there is a high degree of variability in the work environment - when the weather changes, when livestock can move, when things can become unpredictable.”
Sounds just like the beef game.
Precisely, says Dr Rae, and that is why it is time livestock production industries ask themselves whether they are improving safety of work or just doing more safety work.
“If you suspect it seems like the amount of nonsense we have to do when it comes to safety compliance has been getting worse and worse, you’re right, it’s genuinely happening,” he said.
“The amount we are spending on compliance has been consistently going up for two decades but the amount of extra safety we are getting in return has not been going up at all.”
There is a ratchet effect going on - every time an accident or ‘incident’ occurs, there is an investigation and recommendations are made to add in more procedures or checklists.
“The auditor never says ‘ you’re doing too much, cross off ten items’,” Dr Rae said.
“Even if everyone agrees a safety measure is pointless and not worth doing, no one is willing to agree to drop it.
“The default is always to keep everything and to keep adding more in.”
It’s got to the point where safety experts now categorise the different types of nonsense, Dr Rae said.
What they call vertical duplication clutter is one of the most common and it happens where multiple systems have to be adhered to and they all cover the same procedures.
It’s not unheard of that a worker sits through two days of inductions and refreshers in order to go onsite to work for one hour, Dr Rae said.
So what genuinely creates safety at work?
Simply the same things that create productivity, Dr Rae said.
“Most comes from the environment we create for people to work in, giving people the right tools and making sure they use the right one for the job, having people confident to do the work they have and having others around them who look out for them and help,” he said.
Ineffective ‘safety clutter’ not only irritates the people working for you but “we’ve done the sums and it regularly means the difference between profit and loss,” Dr Rae said.
“It doesn’t take a lot of effort to to generate real financial returns to the business at the same time as making people happier and safer,” he said.
But it does require a big shift in thinking and the willingness to step away from the comfort zone of endless systems and procedures.
“Time and attention is better spent being curious about work,” he said.
“At the moment, the immediate likely response to a visit about safety is ‘get out of my face’. It should be ‘tell the boss we need this particularly tool.’
“If the supervisor isn’t sitting in the office filling out the safety audits they can actually be on site supervising and helping others.
“Be sensitive to operation improvement, not compliance.”
Dr Rae said progressive organisations were replacing safety departments with workplace improvement departments.