Why OHS People Become Cynics

This article was written a year or so ago by the late great George Robotham but never published. There has been a lot of debate lately about whether cynicism and scepticism regarding safety is healthy or toxic (See four indicators of toxic safety culture). I think then it is time for George’s perspective to be published and I know he would love to have seen it constructively critiqued. See more of George’s articles here

Why OHS People Become Cynics

Depositphotos_16763073_xsOne definition of the term cynic is a person who believes all people are motivated by selfishness, a person whose outlook is scornfully and often habitually negative. I generally bring a positive outlook to most things I do. I have good reasons why I have succumbed to cynicism with my OHS work. It appears my safety life has been a succession of conversations with workers, supervisors, managers, union officials and regulators about getting them to make badly needed improvements to their safety game. Safety is just not on the agenda with many people and they have to be bought to the table kicking and screaming.

Someone said it is a thin line between cynicism and realism.

After a number of years in OHS I have become a real cynic, one of the reasons relates to the personal damage occurrences ( Accidents ) I have been exposed to.

A Permanently life altering, Class 1, fatal

Lorraine story

18 year old office girl drove a company car from the mine to the nearby township to do company business, on the return journey she was observed driving excessively fast. On the return trip she was driving very fast around a curve and lost control of the car, the car rolled several times and she was catapulted out through the windscreen. She was not wearing a seat belt.

I comforted her until the ambulance arrived. As she lapsed in and out of consciousness she said “George, please do not let me die” We put her on the aerial ambulance to Rockhampton Base Hospital where she died the next day.


The people who said she deserved to die did not know the full story. Subsequent investigation revealed some sensitivities about the causes. Had the organisation been more responsive to her problems and needs the incident could have been prevented.

Moura Disaster story

On the 7th August 1994 Moura underground coal mine suffered an underground explosion that saw 11 men entombed in the mine and the mine closed. If my memory serves me correctly the head of the Mining Wardens enquiry into the disaster said “What happened at Moura represents a passage of management neglect that must never be repeated in the mining industry” The people who said what happened at Moura was an enormous stuff-up are understating the situation.

What happened at Moura was about the culture of the organization and communications as much as it was about safety. A small number of the local management team came under intensive criticism at the Warden’s enquiry. It is important to realize that the culture imposed by senior management and the expectations of senior management impacted on decisions made locally.


There was a massive investigation effort after Moura and much chest thumping about implementing the lessons learnt. While I only have media reports to go by an incident in a New Zealand underground coal mine where a number of men were killed said to me some of the lessons from Moura had not been implemented.

B Permanently life altering, Class 1, non-fatal

Tom story

Tom was cleaning inside a dragline and was overcome by solvent fumes. He squatted on the shoe of a dragline to clear his head and get his breath back and was crushed between the shoe and a walking platform when the dragline walked.

Most major bones in his body were broken and he received a punctured lung, he was made a paraplegic and had shortened life expectancy.


It was clearly a design fault in the dragline that was reluctantly recognised by the manufacturer. I would not be surprised if draglines are currently being constructed around the world with the same design fault. My later attempts to intervene to change the design on draglines built in my company met with resistance.

Access to earthmoving equipment story

A number of serious incidents had occurred during access to earthmoving equipment. A project I led was the Access to Earthmoving Equipment project. Work required included:

v Carrying out a literature review;

v Thorough statistical analysis of company accident data

v Developing a check-list to assess access systems;

v Field assessment of access systems

v Discussing access requirements with maintenance and operational personnel;

v Designing and installing prototype access modifications;

v Assessing the adequacy of the prototype modifications;

v Developing access purchasing specifications and maintenance guidelines; and

v Providing written guidance on desired characteristics of access systems.

v Presenting to industry forums in Qld. W.A. & N.S.W.


Through the employer association we successfully applied for Federal Government funding to extend the original research work. Thorough statistical analysis of Qld mining industry accident data was the starting point. This work provided significant input into the writing of an Australian Standard for “Access to Earthmoving Equipment”.

As part of the project I visited a major earthmoving equipment supplier who expressed contempt that we would dare to question the safety of their equipment.

The project gathered a fair head of steam at the time and changes were made. I note examples now of where the lessons learnt are not being applied in the Australian mining industry. The report and recommendations were never fully utilised as the recommendations have a lot of applicability to access on smaller earthmoving equipment used in the construction industry, trucks and a wide range of general equipment used in industry.


Good research was carried out that should have set the scene for major change, the report never fulfilled its potential.

Anne story

Anne was a female secretary who was being harassed and bullied by a female supervisor. The manager decided to manage the situation himself without help from the people trained to work with these matters and he attempted to keep the matter under wraps because of the senior and sensitive position of the supervisor. By the time I became involved as a rehabilitation coordinator Anne had a certificate for 3 months off work with a stress-related condition, her lawyers had commenced legal action against the company in the Anti-Discrimination Commission and all parties involved were bitter & twisted. It was interesting to see how some in management closed ranks and made Anne out to be the problem.


I emerged from this matter pretty disgusted about how Anne had been treated by a company that made a lot of noise about their commitment to health and safety.

C Should have been permanently life altering except for luck

Oxy-acetylene equipment story

When I worked in the mining industry the industry experienced a number of potentially fatal explosions in oxy-acetylene equipment gauges and regulators. Investigations revealed coal dust was accumulating in the equipment through faulty design.


It was a major task to get the equipment manufacturers to acknowledge there was a problem and change their design.

The Toyota Hilux story

I think it was the early 1980’s when the company I worked for replaced Toyota Landcruiser utes with the newly released Toyota Hilux utes in many applications. The early Hiluxes had a high centre of gravity, stiff suspension and a marked tendency to roll over. I got to dread the combination of apprentice, wet road and a Hilux

Safety construction management plans story

When started with X road and bridge construction, noise barrier, earthwork , concrete construction organisation the senior OHS person explained to me that an important part of my duties was to prepare safety management plans for the start of every construction project. The organisation had a big template safety management plan and the idea was that one should identify the type of work being done eg confined space, trenching, manual handling etc. and put the required safety precautions for this type of work from the template into the safety plan. Basically the safety precautions in the template were based on the statutory requirements for the particular class of work (assumes of course the legislation was right and catered for varying circumstances). I did a few safety plans and noted the expectation was these be done in the office. There was no inspecting the site or discussion with the workforce and only limited communication from those in charge of the project.

About a month after I started I got a call that an excavator had hit a power line on a road construction job and I go over to investigate. After interviewing the excavator operator and the supervisor I go to the project office and ask the Project Manager for the safety management plan so I can check out what is said in the plan about operating equipment near powerlines (The safety management plan had been prepared by the senior safety person) Much scrambling in filing cabinets and cries of “ It is here somewhere” Finally the safety management plan was located and I noted there was nothing on it about operating equipment near powerlines. I talk to various workers and it rapidly became obvious none of them were aware a safety management plan existed.

From then on I tried to ensure the development of the plan included input from workers, involved a walkthrough of the site and input from the project manager and supervisor. Prior to each new project being started I would endeavour to have a safety induction that included discussion about the safety management plan. There was a fair bit of resistance to the foregoing approach from, particularly, project supervisors .

This incident was the start of about 5 incidents over 6 months where equipment struck power lines. Fortunately the electrical protection in the system blew and there were no injuries. There were issues about how adequately insulated the operators were from the cab of their equipment. There were many meetings and discussions about the topic and eventually a set of procedures were developed to be included in the safety management plans. The thing that made the most sense to me was the fitting of “tiger tails” on the power lines in the area where equipment was operating to improve visibility of the power lines (operators in the various incidents said they simply did not see the powerlines) A senior member of management held a series of meetings with the workers and supervisors to explain the new procedures.


A week later I go to a road construction job with earthmoving equipment, tip-trucks and excavators operating under power lines. No “tiger tails” The project supervisor ( who had attended one of the sessions with the senior manager) got offended when I suggested, in a caring and gentle way, that he should lift his game. When I complained to the manager he said he was not surprised as supervisor x was pretty slack on most things including safety, this was just accepted and there were no disciplinary actions.

Confined space work-story

Started with this company with the remit to review the Safety Management System.

Was there a week and they came to me and said, by the way we have these and presented me with 32 Improvement Notices and 5 Prohibition Notices. Has to be a record for one visit from a safety inspector. These were overdue for a response to Workplace Health & Safety Qld.

A number of the Prohibition notices were about confined space work. The company made water tank bodies for mining haul trucks, large mixing bowls for concrete mixers and some other confined space work.

Got on talking to the workers and got a few war stories about people being partially overcome by fume in the confined spaces and having had to be assisted out. The workers said they had been trying to get management to improve confined space work procedures in the workshop but the management ignored them.

Some of the problems I discovered were no confined space risk assessments, no confined space entry permit, the fume extraction was not effective particularly in the large water tanks with many baffles, there was no pre-entry test of the atmosphere, there was no continuous monitoring of the atmosphere, there was no off-sider to ensure the worker inside the confined space was safe, there were no emergency procedures, the respiratory protective equipment being worn was inappropriate, there had been no training in confined space work and what procedures that existed were not being followed.

All in all the biggest stuff-up in safety I have ever seen, particularly when you consider we are talking about something that can make a real difference to the workers lives.

Rapidly became obvious management was not interested in my findings or making changes so I got an outside organisation to audit the organisations confined space work. The auditors report was very damning as I knew it would be.

George goes about implementing the auditors recommendations and eventually the General Manager becomes aware of what is going on and tries to stop the process. He & I had what could be described as a forthright expression of views at a safety committee meeting where he tried to browbeat me into submission. I told him he should get advice from his solicitors on the matter and reminded him this came about because of an Improvement Notice from the government safety inspectorate.

A couple of days later major transformation from the General Manager, I am guessing he saw the solicitors, very keen to see the changes completed.

New gear was bought and other changes made. The union rep. came up to me & said he had been trying for 2 years to get the confined space work changed and I was a bit of a hero to a number of the workers.


As a safety person I was treated like crap by the management team, the same as the way they treated the workers.

Since then I have noted the company has been the subject of 2 Enforceable Undertakings with the Qld Government. Not a surprise to me, slackest outfit on safety I have ever come across.

Lessons learnt

Many are quick to blame the careless worker but often there are Machine, Environment and System essential factors as well as Person essential factors. Blaming people is often not all that productive in the bigger picture of preventing personal damage at work.

Many in management are unaware of or ignore their safety responsibilities under both statue and common law. Some in management engage in innovative rear-end covering after the occurrence of personal damage. Equipment manufacturers are often very slow in recognizing and rectifying faults in their equipment. The OHS person often has to be very determined to ensure needed safety change is carried out.


As a young mine-site Safety Advisor one of my managers used to say I was like a mongrel terrier dog, I used to chew away on his ear about safety issues and most times he would do what I wanted him to do, sometimes it was because I had convinced him I was right but sometimes just to get rid of me.

It would seem that at an early age I had adopted strategies to deal with my cynical environment.

General causes of cynicism

Some of the general causes about cynicism include-

An overreliance on compliance with legislation as a panacea for safety problems.

Having safety management systems without solid management commitment and leadership

Training programs that are not interactive and guided by needs analysis

An overreliance on risk assessment

An overreliance on B.B.S and Zero Harm approaches

Overly detailed paperwork that is not read, understood or used.

Lack of face to face communications and framing messages relevant to the workplace of the receiver.

Attempts to dumb down what people do in safety

All things being equal the human being will prefer to do things in the least time, least effort way, attempts to disrupt this principle will lead to cynicism.

Managers who do not do what they say they will do

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