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Safeguard Magazine

Comment—So who is the expert anyway?

Contact Energy has embraced Todd Conklin’s notion of learning teams to come up with ideas and decide which ones to implement. In which case, asks JOHN SKUDDER, where is H&S expertise located?

I recently participated in a presentation at the Safeguard conference with my boss, Tania Palmer, and keynote speaker Todd Conklin, about our safety journey. The focus of the talk was about how we have moved to Learning Teams and away from traditional methods of incident investigation.

One aspect of Learning Teams I described – the way we prioritise which actions we will take – seems to have created a bit of discussion. At the end of a Learning Team we have often created far more improvement suggestions than can realistically be delivered, so we get the participants to vote for the ones they think are the most important. We would usually do this by giving everyone three votes and asking them to go to the whiteboard and tick their choices. This generally indicates the three or four actions we should implement.

Some people at the conference referred to this as democracy in action, prompting me to reflect on our journey, our change in approach, and then on to life, the universe and everything (from a health and safety perspective).


Learning Teams are born from the notion that the real experts on work are the people that do the work, so when we have a learning opportunity the first people who are asked to participate are the work party. Then, if required, the people who organised the work may be invited to join, and then perhaps some technical expertise as appropriate. Sometimes there is a health and safety expert present, or the sessions are facilitated by a health and safety person, but often not.

I wonder if the reaction wasn’t something to do with the current H&S paradigm, in which incident investigation is a key element of any H&S management system and technical health and safety is the domain of the H&S professional.

I can see that suggesting to a room of 500+ health and safety professionals that, actually, it’s nice you’re around but we think the workers do a better job (and guess what, they get to choose what we should do) could be a challenging message to hear. Hopefully I was polite in my delivery and didn’t cause too much offence.


As health and safety professionals we are far too often working within the realms of imagination. The regulator, our boards of directors and leadership teams, and ourselves, all imagine that compliance will keep us safe.

We have built an industry around prescribing how people should work, training them to follow the process, checking that they are working correctly, counting how often they weren’t and how badly that went for them, refining the instructions and telling them how to do it all over again.

Unfortunately work doesn’t happen in the imagination, it happens in a complicated and fluid environment where workers have to respond to changing conditions, filter the messages and communications they receive, manage sometimes complex psychosocial factors and continually adapt to be successful in what they do. And almost all of the time they are successful.


What I have noticed when our workers choose the actions they want completed after a Learning Team is that they almost never vote for a more complicated procedure, retraining or greater levels of surveillance. They also rarely want a gold-plated solution. They often want better quality work instructions – simpler and easy to follow – and they usually come up with practical ways to make it easier and safer to complete the work successfully.

On top of this they have a much greater ownership of the solutions; after all, they were their ideas. The other interesting point is that even if someone’s idea wasn’t chosen it was a call made by their peers, not by a more senior person or a technical expert.

I have long considered the role of a health and safety professional to be an enabler, not an expert. I don’t mean to undervalue expertise. It’s important, but it’s about the way we use it. The problem is we have constructed a perspective of health and safety that makes it difficult for us to “enable” and a culture within our profession that says we need to provide solutions, not facilitate them. Using Learning Teams has provided us the opportunity to try a different approach and the outcomes have given us the confidence to see H&S from a different perspective.

I’m not sure where this journey will take us. So far it has been both challenging and rewarding. It is a different approach but I’m confident we won’t be less safe because of it.

John Skudder is a health & safety specialist with Contact Energy.

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