Making Sense of Risk and Safety–Interview with George Robotham

Making Sense of Risk and Safety – An Interview with George Robotham by Dr Rob Long – April 2013

Depositphotos_6463690_xsDedicated to the life and work of the late George Robotham who passed away, on Sept 11th 2013.

When Rob asked what mates would say at his Eulogy, George replies:

I would like them to say I was a good husband, a good father and a leader in my work. Yes, I questioned the status quo but for the ethic of others and their well being. I would want them to say I was a lifelong learner and cared about other people. The smartest thing I ever did was marrying my wife, Lorraine.


Readers of this blog would be very familiar with the work of Dr Robert Long and George Robotham. They agree to disagree on many issues but one thing is certain – their wisdom and passion for Risk and Safety. I have always wanted to see these two together in a room – a “meeting of minds”. Well I have great pleasure in presenting this interview with the late George Robotham by Dr Rob Long. Please take the time to read it – I promise you will enjoy it and learn a great deal from it, about the people and the subject:


Rob: George, tell me how this passion for the business of risk and safety got started, why did you get into this work?

George: I just drifted into safety but its importance was bought into focus when I was 21 and attended an accident scene where an 18 year old, female, office employee was seriously injured. I comforted her while waiting for the ambulance. As she drifted in and out of consciousness she said to me “George, please do not let me die”. What do you think that does to you?

We put her on the aerial ambulance to Rockhampton base hospital where she died the next day. I do not mind telling you I didn’t deal with my response to that event very well. This was not to be my first such devastating experience like this. People can talk about grand ideas in safety and that’s fine, but holding the hand of a dear young girl as she is dying is something that shakes you to the core. There is the motivation to help keep people safe. You don’t have to do that too many times to get a passion for safety.

This was in the days before critical incident stress debriefing was not thought of, the myth abounded to just ‘harden up’. All this attitude fostered was unhelpful denial and bottling up the issues. Little did I know I would be doing this kind of thing when I took on this passion for safety. Visiting loved ones who have lost a father, son, daughter, wife or partner, you don’t need to do that many times to know you don’t want to do it again.

The subsequent investigation revealed some issues that had not been handled well by various people, I was overcome with the unnecessary ‘waste’ of a young vibrant person.

I think this is where my passion for safety and risk really started. There was a realization about the impact of poor workplace safety, especially organisational priorities. Personal damage occurrences (Accidents) are usually very complex events with a multitude of essential factors (Causes). Many think carelessness on behalf of injured party was the main cause. Such simplistic thinking is usually not all that productive in the bigger picture of preventing personal damage.

Not long after the death of the young woman, there was an accident where a bloke was crushed between an access platform and the shoe of a dragline, he received multiple injuries and was made a paraplegic this also had a profound effect on me. It dawned upon me in this event that equipment, design, engineering, technology and policy were slow to acknowledge problems and quick to find blame. It seems everyone is in a state of fear and denial more often than they seek learning.

Rob: So you ‘drifted’ into this passion for safety. What was it about these experiences that triggered your response? Was it the idea of a life wasted or the disturbance in your empathy with humanity?

George: When serious personal damage occurs, OHS personnel tend to get caught up in the lives of victims and their loved ones. There is no more levelling an experience than having to go with the police to the house of an employee and telling them their loved one is dead. I wouldn’t wish that experience on anyone.

I have seen the waste of a person, the destruction of a beautiful life, with so much potential and future, and that loss is unbelievably distressing. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t find such experiences distressing. That is why I get so upset about bullshit and snake oil paraded as safety effectiveness. I see so much rubbish that people do in the name of safety, that is only there for cosmetics, it doesn’t save lives. Half the time, it’s about making money or covering someone’s arse, but it’s not about safety.

I remember like yesterday, in my duties as Safety Advisor, driving to an employee’s house and speaking to his wife. I remember seeing her face as she came rushing out of the house, seeing me and expecting bad news. There was a look of relief on her face when she was told her husband was injured and in hospital for a day or two but would be ok. Just imagine if I had had much worse news, you never want to experience that.

Rob: The power of those memories must be haunting and also you had no training in counselling or pastoral care, how did you manage that?

George: I still get flashbacks to an aircraft accident with 3 fatalities I attended even though it was over 30 years ago, I suspect sometimes these things never leave you. Talking the issues out with colleagues helps and sometimes it just makes you cranky with a system that gets caught up in so many safety distractions that the system actually makes things worse. So, I know psychologists and social workers are required to have professional debriefing. We don’t really do such things for safety people.

Rob: I understand you do some work with high-risk kids, what do they teach you about yourself and risk?

George: One of my lessons from working with high risk kids is that the traditional education system fails quite a number of young people who want to learn, but are not helped by the way the system works. Young people in society face significant challenges and I am not sure the current school system prepares them well for it. Sometimes the school system seems to favor the successful and attractive people and lets those who don’t fit slide to the wayside.

Whilst recognizing the excellent efforts of parents, the reality is that some young people come off the rails because they do not have a significant role model in their lives. Young blokes need old blokes to mentor and model for them, how to make good decisions and balanced judgments in life. I have come to realize how fragile interpersonal relationships can be. People who parade about with ideas about safety as if it’s all about numbers, counting and regulations have no idea. Safety is about people and relationships.

I have learnt a lot from working with at-risk kids. I have learnt the need to be patient and ramp up my communication efforts. A lot of the reasons why young people indulge in at-risk behavior is that they do not have adequate support systems or models or mentors. Unfortunately, the school system and aspects of our society seems to alienate the kids who don’t seem to fit, then the kids get blamed rather than us having a better look at the system that has created the problem. We tend to blame the individual rather than the environment that created the problem, I think it works like that in the safety industry too.

Adventure-based learning is a great way of learning. Experiential learning helps to get messages about things such as lifestyle, leadership and teambuilding across to young people. Some kids just don’t find book learning helpful. Some kids don’t find the rigid models of learning helpful. I have a great deal of empathy for those kids because some styles of learning don’t suit me either. One size does not fit all.

At-risk youth have also taught me that risk is in the eye of the beholder and, the individual’s unique perception of risk is what determines their behaviour. The safety industry and regulators could learn a lot from working with at-risk kids.

Rob: When many people think about high risk, they think it is about choice and trade off with uncertainty. What do these young people teach you about that?

George: I believe safety should be about Change For The Future, Not Blame For The Past. At-risk youth certainly make choices about indulging in high risk behaviors but often from their perspective, there are good reasons for these choices. I know one young person who was not achieving at school and hated going to school. The school environment didn’t seem to be interested in helping, perhaps they didn’t know how to help. His escape was marijuana where he found a great social circle, the acceptance he was calling out for, where he could forget his troubles at school. Unfortunately his heavy use of the drug and the THC in it led to severe mental health problems.

It is easy to get sanctimonious and ‘holier than thou’ about the choices others make, but we haven’t walked in their shoes. It is easy to sit back and condemn a risk trade off, but such an approach simply shows that there is little understanding to help, guess what? More blame and alienation for the young person. Then the cycle continues.

The challenge is not to blame but acceptance and, help do something positive to change the situation.

Rob: You write a lot and give advice and consult, if there was only one thing you could tell someone about risk and safety, what would that be?

George: Build your communication and interpersonal skills and show you care about others.

Rob: So, if this is real safety, what do we do with all the legislation and regulation focus pushed by so many safety people?

George: Society says regulation and legislation is important in safety. Personally I think the seat belt, drink driving and weapons legislation in Australia has had a good impact, I am not so sure about the effectiveness of general industrial safety legislation. Certainly in the 13 fatalities and numerous serious injuries I have been associated with, breaches of legislation had such a minor part to play.

I remember a discussion on a Canadian OHS forum that came to the conclusion you would be lucky to prevent 20% of your accidents if all you did was comply with legislation.

I believe it is important to comply with legislation but there is considerably more to effective safety than merely complying with legislation.

Rob: One of the great things about your approach is that you openly declare you have a mentor and that you are continually learning. Tell us about your mentor and what you think your next steps in learning might be in risk and safety.

George: My mentor for many years has been Geoff McDonald, Geoff is the smartest bloke I know and has made an outstanding contribution to safety. His expertise and contribution is not recognized sufficiently by the safety establishment. Then again, the safety establishment seem more interested in ego than making a contribution to the spirit of safety. If what you are doing in safety isn’t making a difference and just producing more of the same, then I would suggest you give it up. Some of the best people in safety don’t join associations and clubs, they are not that interested in all that fake ‘back slapping’.

Geoff is an outstandingly clear thinker about safety and challenges the status quo. He is writing a book about safety that will be ground breaking. Geoff is a Mechanical Engineer with Psychology training which gives him a unique approach to safety.

Geoff talks about displacement activities, a displacement activity is something we do, something we put a lot of energy into but which there is no valid reason for doing. Geoff maintains traditional safety is full of displacement activities, I agree.

Rob: So, a ‘displacement’ activity is an activity that is unhelpful? That is, it is something we do for some habitual reason but it actually doesn’t add any value to the quest to manage risk and safety? Have you got some examples of some displacement activities, and why are they a waste of time?

George: One example of a displacement activity in safety I can think of is the language and philosophy of zero harm. Lots of companies use it, some government departments promote it, some safety people argue passionately for it. If you took it away, nothing would change.

I was approached by a senior manager of a large Qld organization to help him prepare a presentation to the board to get rid of zero harm, he was going to tell the board zero harm was doing more harm than good. It was clear the employees thought noise about zero harm was garbage and management propaganda. The employees thought the goal was unrealistic and unachievable and that it had driven accident reporting was being driven underground. It has become clear that the organization had lost its focus on serious risk and safety issues and was expending excessive resources on inconsequential things.

There you go, that’s a displacement activity. If you want to work out what a displacement activity is, just take it out of the equation and see if it makes any difference. If there’s no difference than whatever that activity is, it’s probably a waste of time.

Rob: You spoke earlier about ways of learning and at-risk young people yet you have studied quite a bit. Tell me about that journey.

George: Despite the fact that I have some pretty unique experiences in health and safety I set out to attain tertiary qualifications in OHS, Management of Organisational Change and Adult & Workplace Education. This may look like an unusual mix but the more I think about it, the more I believe that this kind of mix of study are needed to be effective in safety.

I believe this mix has been much more useful to me than going down the traditional route of getting an OHS Masters. I think sometimes the orthodox approach to safety simply views expertise in safety as ‘more of the same’. It is a crazy idea to think that safety is just getting more detailed knowledge about legislation and systems, when most of the time the accidents I have been a part of were far more determined by failures in things like communications, organisation and belief.

I have been searching around to do a little bit more learning before I retire, and I have realized that Organisational or Social Psychology is very important. I am interested in the kind of stuff you do Rob, so maybe I will do some study in that field.

Rob: So you are a very down to earth practical, a no nonsense person yet you see a place for research and study. Is there a balance between study and practice that sometimes people miss?

George: I actually started a Masters in OHS. With both of the subjects I enrolled in I found the knowledge of the topics from the course coordinators was under-developed and conflicted with my personal experience. I just felt like I was wasting my time and would get no value from completing the course. Rightly or wrongly I tell myself my many years of practical experience in safety has taught me more than that academic qualification. I have gone on a journey of learning about leadership and have found this very useful and practical. At the end of the day there is much more to risk and safety than just OHS technical skills and study. I think we need to be more holistic about how we perceive the problems in safety. I think sometimes people even misunderstand me but it’s a careful balance but also a matter of doing other study and having other experiences, like working with at-risk kids, that make someone a better safety person.

Rob: You are not afraid to upset people with your views, but it seems they have been formed through some pretty hard lessons. What lessons in life have driven this passion for risk and safety?

George: I have helped my employers cope with the aftermath of 13 fatalities, 1 case of paraplegia, 1 serious burns case and 1 major stress episode. I have seen the financial cost and the pain and suffering of victims, friends and relations. The most devastating thing that can happen to any person or organization is to have one of its members receive life altering personal damage.

Rob: You mention ‘damage’, what does that mean. Having all these experiences, tell me about the flow on effect of one of these incidents.

George: My mentor Geoff McDonald used the term ‘personal damage occurrence’ instead of the term ‘accident’, because accident is often an emotive term and infers blame. Using the term ‘damage’ tends to take the emotion out of the situation and allows for better analysis

At one location an electrician was seriously burnt in a 425 volt switchboard explosion, excellent first aid at the time was credited with saving his life. He had severe burns to a considerable area of his body, lots of pain and suffering , extensive skin grafts, psychological damage (common in severe burns apparently) lost his girlfriend to another bloke and considerable disfigurement. He had about 18 months off work and had difficulty to adjusting back to work. There was damage at so many levels: physical, emotional, relationships, future work, disfigurement (and depression), social dislocation, community distress, organisational problems and so many flow on effects. I think sometimes people just watch the ambulance take someone from work away and then they have no idea just what goes on. The dimensions of the damage are hard to believe.

Rob: So it seems to me, what really drives your passion for risk and safety is your ethics and empathy with people. Is that it?

George: Yes, I think it is about ethics and empathy. Sometimes I think the people that die are the lucky ones. I don’t mean that to sound disrespectful but you only have to be a part of the extensive suffering of a disabling event to know just how everything flows on and on in distress and problems. Those that die do not have to spend the rest of their lives living with the excruciating suffering other may have to.

Rob: George, I think some people read your stuff and just think you can’t follow authority but your stint in the army dispels that notion. Why is it that you back some trends in orthodoxy and yet are highly critical of some certain safety activities and concepts?

George: I do not think I generally back trends in orthodoxy and I just question the status quo against the priority of people. Having said that I believe a well run professional association that focuses on member needs will add a lot of value. Many would see me as a stirrer and some in authority see me as a pain in the rear end. As far as safety professional organizations are concerned the focus must be on identifying and satisfying the needs of people. If you are not careful these organizations can end up being just about promoting the ego or the career ambitions of those in charge.

Rob: So, it’s about the focus on ego not on others that is the real driver of your resistance to poor management? Then what does good leadership look like? Who have you worked with that inspired you to risk and safety?

George: I have worked with some lousy managers who are fully certified in looking after their own self interest. In every decision it was clear they did not really care about the workforce. I have had no hesitation in explaining to those managers the implications of their ego driven schemes. Sometimes this has not been a career enhancing move for me but when people come first, then there is real leadership.

I have written extensively about leadership but in summary I think leaders question the status quo, are highly ethical, do what they say they will do, look after and develop their people and do the right thing no matter what others think

The most inspirational leader I have worked with was John Grubb from BHP-Coal. John used to spend a lot of time in the field observing how work was done and talking to the workers. He had very high safety expectations, communicated those expectations and reacted when his expectations were and were not met. He used to give the employees his mobile number and tell them to ring him when a safety issue was not resolved to their satisfaction. Did not happen often but there was some action when it did. John used simple approaches, questioned the status quo and opened lines of communication. Local managers did not always appreciate his approach because he knew more about the business than them and kept them honest.

Rob: I know you have seen some pretty bad things in your life and been involved in investigations and various inquiries, what have these taught you about what the focus on safety and risk should be?

George: My motto is ‘When initiating change, Remember, People support what they create’.

It is the relationships you build as well as your technical skills that determines success.

Rob: These are very profound statements with some strong implications. Does this mean that if people don’t participate in a decision or are not motivated by a decision, that they are not likely to own it?

George: One of the things I have seen happen many times over the years is that management and safety people develop safety approaches and habits without appropriate consultation, communication and involvement of the workforce. Such approaches usually fail miserably. When you want to introduce safety change, it makes sense to ask the people doing the job. Far too much of what is paraded as ‘safety’ is: academic, theoretical, buried in bureaucracy and strangled by paperwork. You can have all the paperwork in the world but does it save lives? Does all this paperwork help supervision, observation and consultation? How can the mature and most experienced be out coaching and mentoring in the field if their heads are submerged in computers, paper, checklists and reports. Talking to the worker often gets a real world approach happening. Involving the workforce in decision making gets buy in and ownership.

Rob: Tell me about the George outside of occupation and passion for safety. What do you do for fun and pleasure, hobbies and relaxation?

George: I used to ride horses a lot, you can learn a great deal through build a good relationship with a horse. More recently I enjoy camping and 4 wheel driving with my boys. I had Australian cattle dogs for many years, you can also learn a great deal about relationships with animals. My current red cattle dog Rusty is very affectionate and smarter than most people I know!

Rob: So, even when we have a hobby or a relationship with a horse, it’s all about learning and maturity. That suggests to me that your passion is also about change and giving?

George: Someone said that the only constant in business is change. Safety is about change so, safety people should have skills in management of change. I do not know what to say about the giving side of things other than to say often when you give you get a lot more back. I guess you are right, real leadership is about vision and giving. There are too many freeloaders and takers, snake oil salesman, ego builders and self serving heroes in the safety sector. We don’t need them. Half of them don’t have a pair of steel cap boots and don’t walk the talk.

Rob: Just one last question. If you best friends were to speak a eulogy for you, what would you want them to say?

George: I would like them to say I was a good husband, a good father and a leader in my work. Yes, I questioned the status quo but for the ethic of others and their well being. I would want them to say I was a lifelong learner and cared about other people. The smartest thing I ever did was marrying my wife, Lorraine.

Rob: Thanks George and I trust this interview has been helpful for those in the risk and safety sector. I know it has been helpful for me.

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