The toughest safety assignment I have had
By the late George Robotham
George gets a call from a management consultant, can I commit a bit of time to review a company’s Safety Management System? Said yes and was told 2 of the company directors want to meet me before going ahead. I think they must take safety seriously if the directors want to meet me, big mistake!
Am there a week or so and they present me with 5 Prohibition Notices and about 32 Improvement Notices, these are overdue for a response to the regulator. About 20 of the Improvement notices are about confined space work, they build big steel tanks.
I discovered the management style of the organisation was very autocratic. The workers were expected to follow the orders of management without question or discussion. The organisation had massive turnover, what happens when you treat your people like crap.
I look at the relevant legislation and relevant Australian Standard, work with the health & safety representative, talk to the blokes, observe practice and do an audit. They have confined space working procedures that cover possibly 50% of the requirements but even these are not being followed. In talking to the blokes who do the work I hear stories of blokes being overcome by fume and having to be dragged out of the confined space.
My audit report detailed the many areas where practice was not meeting legislative and Australian Standard requirements. In my innocence I thought my audit would galvanise management into action. When I realised my audit had little impact I convinced the director in charge of the workshop to get an outside consultant to do an audit. They did a very thorough job and as expected slammed the organisation. There was grudging acceptance from management that there was possibly a need for minor work. The reality was that a major overhaul was required.
I came under a fair bit of pressure from management to pull my head in and back off on the matter.
Meantime the Managing Director comes back from overseas and is aghast that I have spent a few grand on an external audit. I suspect he is getting a filtered version of events from the directors who do not wish to admit what a mess things are in.
We have a safety committee meeting where I report on the consultant’s audit. The Managing Director fought me every inch of the way and tried to get me to back down. He got quite angry because he was not used to people sticking to their guns when he opposed them. I advised the M.D. to talk to his solicitors and he would find out I was right. After the meeting one of the safety officers said he had never seen anyone stand up to the Managing Director the way I did.
Deadly silence for a couple of weeks and then the M.D. bounces into my office all keen to make the changes, we all reckoned he had been to see his solicitors. One of the directors said it was the biggest turnaround he had ever seen in the M.D.
I got the approval to make the required changes but it was like pulling teeth because of management reluctance. I finally got something reasonably acceptable but hell it was hard work. I was later told I was a bit of a hero to the workers as they had been trying to get the changes made for a couple of years.
Between a number of Improvement Notices, a review of legislation, a review of the relevant Australian Standard, my audit and an external audit I have never been on firmer grounds to make safety recommendations. I was lied to, treated like an idiot and pressure was applied to make me back down. It would have been very easy to walk away but that would continue to put the workers at risk.
For the first time in many years as an OHS professional I found it necessary to speak to the regulator about my experiences. I am aware the company has been the subject of 2 Enforceable Undertakings since I left