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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters



Safeguard Magazine

Comment—Speaking truth to power

Drectors will soon have positive duties to enquire about health and safety, but will they hear the truth? A safety rep argues that reps are uniquely placed to speak truth to power – if only power would ask.

I work as a registered nurse and for the past few years I’ve undertaken the health and safety role for my department in the public health care delivery area. At the end of May I attended the Safeguard National Health and Safety Conference in Auckland.

My workplace’s funding of my attendance extended only to three days’ study leave. I personally paid the remaining amount, including conference fees, travel expenses and accommodation – around $1500 – as I believed this investment would give me further grounding in how OHS management works in New Zealand and internationally. I was not disappointed, with speakers and topics proving to be appropriate, interesting and varied.

I have come to very much enjoy the role of safety rep. I have undertaken the National Certificate in OHS, and now I am part way through the Southern Institute of Technology’s National Diploma in OHS. I am hugely enjoying the challenge and knowledge acquisition that my study affords and feel privileged to be able to pick the brains of SIT’s tutors, people of such calibre as Mark Devantier and Dr John Wallaart, who are contributing admirably to the knowledge base of our future OHS specialists.

As a safety representative I feel I have an advantage over those who are paid to be OHS advisors. Even though I’m undertaking full OHS management duties in my department, I feel free from any obligation to tick the boxes. I feel liberated to tell it like it is. In other words, the security of my job does not depend on a favourable report from me on the state of OHS in my department.

Such honest feedback from safety reps is a massive untapped resource in the battle for safer workplaces, and one that many workplaces may covertly or even overtly attempt to restrict as they look for an easy way to meet their OHS compliance obligations. The risk is that in doing so, more emphasis can be placed on creating the appearance of compliance when, in fact, the OHS situation at grass roots level is far from satisfactory. It is entirely possible for organisations to do this under the current specified audit and inspectorate conditions.

As pressure on the financial bottom line increases, managers can be tempted to implement subtle measures to ensure a favourable OHS result is achieved while minimising any risk of a leak of information which would reflect negatively on the state of OHS in the workplace.

Unfortunately some people who are specifically employed in OHS roles in a business, and therefore charged with mitigating OHS risks, are also effective at mitigating risks associated with the leaking of facts surrounding negative workplace OHS circumstances. This often comes under the guise of maintaining confidentiality, and with emphasis placed on employees’ obligation and loyalty to the employer. This can occur in the following ways:

  • • 
    Restricted feedback to safety reps about incidents/accidents in the workplace;
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    Failure to consult safety reps when conducting workplace audits;
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    Restricting the role of safety reps to those tasks that merely demonstrate OHS systems are in place (and not that these systems are effective and give a true picture of OHS in the workplace).

Organisations such as Fonterra and Refining NZ, as evidenced by their Safeguard conference presentations detailing their honest, open, transparent and innovative OHS programmes, have fully addressed and enthusiastically embraced the workplace health and safety message.

Unfortunately this is not so of all organisations. Persecution of those who tell the truth in the workplace is rife throughout the world. Most readers will know that Bradley Manning, for example, has been convicted under the US Espionage Act for revealing and publicising atrocities perpetrated by the US Government itself.

Just recently, in its submission on the Health and Safety (Pike River Implementation) Bill, Oceana Gold submitted that proposed improvements to mining health and safety should not apply to mines that are above ground and are not coal mines, in part because it would be disruptive if safety reps would be able to give notice of suspension of mining.

Such twisted thinking is everywhere. Increasingly, organisations are employing recent migrants, many of whom originate from countries where it would be viewed as shameful to complain about pay or working conditions. Some organisations will take advantage of the excellent work ethic and good nature of these migrants. Meanwhile, the Government is attempting to further restrict employees’ rights – and therefore their voice – by proposing changes to our employment relations law which will play into the hands of these same profit-obsessed companies.

If we are to reduce the work-place serious incident and fatality figures by 25% by 2020 then a good place to start is by accessing the opinions of grass roots employees such as safety reps, by ensuring protection for whistleblowers, and by ensuring audits are not pumped full of performance enhancing data by organisations which have become masters of the art of illusion when it comes to giving regulators what they want to see.

The author works as a registered nurse at a District Health Board in the North Island.

Thomson Reuters

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