Skip to Content, Skip to Navigation

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard Magazine

Speaking up for safety

LANCE WIGGS urges health and safety people to be leaders who fearlessly intervene wherever they see unsafe behaviour or conditions.

A year ago I pulled up to an Auckland intersection just seconds after a man, John Tangiia, received fatal injuries when he hit a truck while riding his bicycle. I was motorcycling and wearing hi-viz, so I helped out by directing traffic. Later I felt compelled to write about it, and did so in an article on my own website. I wrote:

The sight of a person lying motionless in the street with mangled bicycle in the background is chilling enough. The sounds of grief-stricken people comforting each other, the shock on the face of the woman in the car stuck in full view of the scene, the general feeling of despair – these things are not easy to portray. All of us were changed today.”

The accident was at the bottom of Parnell Rise, and like all accidents it was easily preventable. There were, of course, failed defences such as the likely poor brakes on the older bicycle and the lack of side protection on the truck that fatally dragged John Tangiia down Stanley Street. John had several children, and was trying to get fit so he could be more help for his disabled youngest son. That didn’t stop commentators attacking his actions as the bicycle rider, and while the bike itself may have been unfit for purpose and there was a red light, the dreadful environmental conditions for cycling on Parnell Rise were intrinsically unsafe.

On a worksite we would find it unacceptable if an identified fatal risk had not been removed prior to a fatality. We would also, I trust, all ensure that that we fixed the underlying fatal risk issues as soon as practical after a fatality, with a quick fix in place before work resumed.

However when I went back to Parnell Rise in January, a year later, nothing had changed. The environmental factors on Parnell Rise still conspire to place cyclists at the bottom of the steep hill, riding at full speed, and in the middle of the road. And if your braking isn’t as good as you expect, as new cyclists on old bikes often find, then loose gravel awaits in the last metre before hitting the line of crossing traffic. The intersection remains intrinsically unsafe.

As evidence, while I was there taking photos a double decker tourist bus sped around the corner, through a red light the entire way, and straight past the ghost bike left there as memory to John Tangiia, the man who died there a year ago.

I can accept that on a worksite we may not be very good at identifying hazards, that the resulting actions may not as robust as we would like, and that actions take longer than they should to be implemented. That’s all normal, and we are all striving to do better. However we can also all agree that it’s completely unacceptable to see no physical evidence of change 12 months after a fatality – can’t we?

If Parnell Rise was your worksite, would the leadership team still be in place? And if they were in place, would their behaviour have changed? And if the leadership team and their behaviour had not changed – would you still be working there?

We have a long way to go in New Zealand, but it’s just unacceptable that no action has taken place for this, and for countless other incidents on the roads, at work and in the home. It’s unacceptable for the family of John Tangiia, it’s unacceptable for the people and visitors to Auckland, and it’s unacceptable for NZTA, Auckland Transport and Auckland Council.

And it’s unacceptable for us, the people who care about health and safety in New Zealand. We should – we must – do something about this. I argue that as safety leaders we are collectively and individually responsible to lead the national change in mindset required, and to help develop more and more health and safety leaders. These leaders don’t have to be health and safety practitioners, but they do need to understand and live the safety value. In 2015 we have a golden opportunity to train the next generation of leaders, as we will require, under the forthcoming new law, directors and officers to accept responsibility.

An early highlight on my own safety journey was meeting the leadership team at Du Pont on an MBA school visit, when it was clear that their commitment to safety was all-consuming. But it was the more than two years I spent working inside BHP Billiton plants that really taught me the safety value. I was lucky to work with two general managers who later became two of BHP Billiton’s most senior safety leaders, and they lifted the standard for all of us.

We are all on a journey to zero harm, but while we may think we are not close to where we need to be, I’ve learned over the last few years that we all have a lot to contribute. So why not bring the high health and safety standards that we have at work, and take personal responsibility, each of us, for the safety of all people on all New Zealand worksites?

Let’s be unafraid of performing Safe Act Observations in public, even if it’s an informal “well done” and perhaps a safety conversation with a tradesman. For fatal risks we need to do more, as I did when I intervened to stop work after seeing several fatal risks present during the assembly and mounting of the giant Santa at Whitcoulls on Queen Street late last year, or earlier with the scaffolders creating the stage for the 2013 Laneways Festival. I’ve never been particularly comfortable with Safe Act Observations, but my background and safety values simply didn’t allow me to let a fatal risk go by without intervention. My polite actions paused the work, but the behaviour didn’t really shift, so I followed up by writing articles, complete with photos.

Our challenge is to be unafraid of helping everyone get safer. Let’s make it obvious that we are all looking out for each other here in New Zealand.

However there are countless issues, like Parnell Rise, that need to be addressed, and we cannot hope to work on all of them. We need to inspire others to help, and for that we need to go public.

Let’s start by celebrating our own business leaders who live the values of health and safety, and help them become more vocal. Let’s encourage them to set a public example for the host of directors and officers who are trying to grasp the implications of the Health and Safety Reform Bill. As I’ve seen, leadership in health and safety is the precursor to leadership in business, so let’s showcase leaders who deliver lower TRIFR and higher shareholder return.

Sadly it’s easier to get press after a tragedy, and so we need to be ready with our stories for the right moment. Let our safety values guide us as we consider responses to make after incidents within and outside our own organisations or those of our clients.

I’m doing my bit. The article I wrote about the cycling fatality was picked up by several major media organisations, and attracted hundreds of comments. I appeared on radio, and have done so again talking about the vexed issue of safety at Lyttelton Port of Christchurch. I’m increasingly unafraid of calling it as I see it, and encouraging directors and leaders to take personal responsibility. When it comes to fatal risks it’s easy to do the right thing. I have been encouraged by the responses from a number of organisations, such as Z Energy, to these and other articles I have written, and will continue to write, speak and discuss.

But we have lots of work to do. Last year I completed a governance course for senior directors. During that course it was recommended that if you suspected, as a director, that by lifting a rock you would see things that under the new legislation you would be obliged to do something about, then you should leave the rock unlifted. It was a shocking moment which provoked good conversation and, eventually, the right responses, but to even hear this advice to directors was extraordinarily concerning. Take this as a warning – this may be happening within your board.

Do you have any unlifted rocks? It’s common to have buried secrets, and we sometimes cannot uncover them alone, or perhaps we lack internal power. If you haven’t done so already, consider arranging visits by outside experts, or perhaps a series of exchange visits by GMs and managers to and from other sites in related and unrelated industries. I would be surprised if you didn’t learn a lot, and I know you’ll accept the challenge of identifying fatal risks on other sites. If you are worried about what an external observer might see then perhaps that’s a sign as well, so get the visitors in, and then use them to help you fight any political battles required.

It’s a thankless job at times, but my thanks to all of you who read this magazine. By definition you are our health and safety leaders. Please continue to sharpen your intolerance for fatal risks, extend your reach to other worksites and your messages to the public, and let’s change New Zealand so that we can all safely go home each night to our loved ones.

Lance Wiggs is the principal of Punakaiki Fund Limited and a director of several companies. Earlier, he worked in BHP Billiton plants in South Africa and Australia co-leading a team on projects to deliver substantial safety, production and cost improvements.

comments powered by Disqus

From Safeguard Magazine

Table of Contents