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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard Magazine

Better conversations

They arrived curious and cautious and they left energised and enabled. PETER BATEMAN reports on the 2017 Safeguard conference.

The theme of this year’s Safeguard National Health & Safety Conference was “Better Conversations”, a motif taken up enthusiastically by speakers, attendees and sponsors.

For the third year running we cracked the 500 delegate mark, cementing the Safeguard conference as comfortably the biggest and best in Australia and New Zealand. This year, for the first time, we used two levels of the SkyCity Convention Centre, devoting the lower level to sponsor stands and delegate refreshments – a development which produced a huge buzz of enquiries and networking at every break. The vibe was loud, convivial and focused on sharing experience.

Also loud and convivial (as always) was MC David Nottage (left), who wasted no time in challenging each table to use the word of the hour, covfefe, in a sentence. (Answers shouted out might have included “When building a wall make sure the scaffolding is fully covfefe with the regulations”, or “Before laying hands on a glowing orb make sure that it is electrically covfefe”, but it was hard to be sure over the hubbub. It might have been fake news.)

As it happens the first keynote speaker was also from the Land of the Free. Todd Conklin told us his first book was the world’s best-selling volume on safety – it had sold 48 copies, and his mother had bought ten of them.

Having won over the audience with the kind of wit and self-deprecation sadly vanished from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, he went on to challenge the notion that safety was the absence of accidents. Instead, he focused on enabling the presence of defences, “so that workers may fail safely and gracefully”.

Workers, he said, are as safe as they need to be, without being too safe, in order to be productive. “It’s really hard to tell a system is safe enough when you are in the system.”

He recalled watching the 110m hurdlers at the Rio Olympics and figuring out they only faced one hazard – the hurdles. Yet instead of making sure they leapt well clear of each hazard, they tried to clear it by the smallest possible margin – in order to maximise their efficiency and hence their speed.

Conklin warned that when something does go wrong – an accident, a near miss – the typical line of questioning from investigators isn’t the most productive.

“We send a lot of time asking why – even five times! – but ‘why?’ is always going to take us to consequences. The question ‘How?’ is much richer because it forces you to think about context.”

WorkSafe New Zealand chief executive Nicole Rosie said that when she asks employers if they have good forums for engaging their workers in health and safety, they invariably say yes. She always follows up with a pointed question: how do you know? That is, how do you know your people understand the critical risks and the controls required to mitigate them?

A key role for health and safety practitioners, she said, is to get the message out to company boards about critical risks. “We are shifting our focus to risk. That will change the dialogue.”

She said there remains a large proportion of businesses which are still at the compliance stage of their health and safety maturity journey. “The challenge for all of us is that we are not going to regulate our way to best practice.”

Minter Ellison partner Stacey Shortall noted there had been 38 sentencing decisions under the previous legislation in the past year, and that they were largely serious outcome cases aligned with WorkSafe’s stated areas of focus – good news, she said, as it indicates the regulator is doing what it said it would.

Regarding the significantly increased penalty provisions of the new legislation, she said she wasn’t expecting a sudden uplift in fines when the first sentencing decisions come through in the next few months. “I have no reason to believe we are suddenly going to have fines of $1.5 million. That’s not what the Aussies have done.”

Hillary Bennett, director of consultancy Leading Safety, drew a distinction between the science of officers’ due diligence and the art of due diligence. The science, she said, was the data on health and safety typically received by boards: audit results, alerts, reviews, statistics. The art, on the other hand, requires board members “to get their feet wet and to use their mouths”.

“The art of due diligence is around observation and conversation,” said Bennett, and these cannot be done at a distance – directors need to be in the forest, to be out on the boats.

Boards need to reflect on where their focus is – on compliance, or on engagement with staff – and formulate questions accordingly. Compliance questions focus on rules while engagement questions demonstrate care for people. Both are worthwhile.

Another challenge for boards: do their conversations with workers focus only on safety, or do they include questions to help them understand health exposures, including mental health?

A final challenge: are your questions reactive (focusing on what has already happened), or do they look always to the future, to possibilities?

“Do we focus on numbers or do we look for stories? The statistics are important but stories give us a sense of how work is done.”

The next session featured a trio from Frucor, winners of the engagement category at last year’s awards, who spoke about the development of the company’s “See It. Sort It. Safe As” health and safety brand. Andy Cook, national H&S manager, said it was never about compliance or legislation. “It was about heart and mana. Six little words have changed our culture dramatically.”

Storeman Louie Patii said it was about getting to know each other and making an emotional connection, “about how mates look after mates at Frucor”.

But the show was well and truly stolen by senior operator Sulia Ngungutau, who greeted us in Tongan and said the brand “was decided by our people and it is owned by our people”.

Communications consultant Frances Martin said people like her were usually “people of the shadows” rather than out front doing the speaking. She went on to practise what she preached as she explained how there are three elements you should decide when designing any piece of communication: to focus on your audience, to be clear about what you want to tell them, and to tell stories. And that’s just what she did.

Concluding day one, a panel of Tania Palmer and John Skudder from Contact Energy were joined by keynote speaker Todd Conklin, who has worked with the company over the last couple of years. Palmer said one of the first things Conklin had done was to challenge the company’s leaders by asking: after an event, do you blame and punish, or do you learn and improve? Workers were consulted, and they were clear: blame and punish.

In response, the company has abandoned “police-style” ICAM investigations and has moved to form learning teams, as advocated by Conklin.

Skudder said a team might come up with a dozen or more possible actions, but team democracy required a vote to select the top three. “It’s democracy and it’s a bit scary. But we ask: if we had done these three things, would the event have happened?”

Opening day two with an address from the minister, Michael Woodhouse formally announced that the work done under the banner Safety Star Rating will be officially launched in September as a workplace H&S performance improvement toolkit, including resources and an on-site assessment by people to be trained as assessors.

Australian keynote speaker Daniel Hummerdal challenged us to look for solutions from within our existing workforce. “I find it insulting that we can’t even trust our own people. You turn your people into a problem by trying to impose something from outside.”

He advocated a strength-based model rather than the traditional deficit-based model, and said it’s a lot easier to engage with people when nothing has gone wrong.

“See a deviation as a gateway for you to understand what is going on. If you only go out to impose knowledge you are not going to have good conversations.”

WorkSafe’s Chris Jones and Z Energy’s Chris Eastham presented a double-bill on work-related health risks, with Jones revisiting Andrew Hopkins’ notion of “chronic unease” to challenge leaders who think they already have health covered.

This was picked up by Eastham, who said the Z board became uneasy when they realised their board reports consisted of pages and pages on safety, and only one final page on health – usually a slide on that month’s wellness initiative.

Mental Health Foundation chief executive Shaun Robinson asked us whether we would rather have employees who were flourishing or languishing? He said a focus on trying to move people along this axis – from languishing towards flourishing – is a more effective way of improving workplace mental health than focusing on mental illness in itself.

The Five Ways to Wellbeing – a handout was on every table – was a great way to start this process. “Man, I wish someone had shown me that when I was 16.”

Australian keynote Andrew Harris had been briefed to scare us about the future and did just that, with great good humour. He put up a slide. “This is slime mould. It exists to eat and reproduce. I grew up on the Gold Coast. We have a lot in common.”

He then ran through half a dozen disruptive innovations about to emerge from the labs (or already in use), prompting one question from the audience: are you from the future? After describing how valuable it is to promote innovation and give permission to fail, another question: how to persuade a conservative company to go down this route?

“By hiring the best people and giving them intellectual stimulation and creativity. Because having the best people you always win.”

Then it was a complete change in pace courtesy Fanie Nel from Viridian Glass, who played a worker engagement video used by the company and based on the song “Dumb Ways to Die”. Not exactly politically correct but by the end he had the crowd singing along.

After lunch ACC’s Paul Gimblett told us about the work being done to develop a new workplace safety incentive scheme and invited everyone to take part, because ACC has now adopted a customer-centric design process.

“Our test is: are we meeting the challenge the Taskforce gave us? That [the incentive] lifts the health and safety system and gets business to be continuously improving.”

Fulton Hogan’s Leeanne Walters talked about the “abysmal failure” of the company’s first attempts to collaborate internally and in partnership with others, saying people were reluctant to share information – even internally – and were found not to share the same goals.

Knocked back, the company regrouped and realised it needed to do things differently. In doing so – successfully this time – four questions were asked: what do we want to achieve? What did others want to achieve? Are we ready to work in partnership? And are we ready to collaborate?

“The lesson was between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset,” she said. “Do we want to grow, or stay where we are? A growth mindset has enabled us to work in partnership and collaborate.”

It has become a conference tradition to close with a speaker from well outside the world of health and safety, and this year the slot was ably filled by All Blacks mental skills coach Gilbert Enoka. To move from good to great, he said, you need to aim high to create an uncomfortable gap between where you are now and where you aspire to be.

“Nothing in life is ever achieved within your comfort zone. If you want to create something great you’ve got to have a gap that makes you uncomfortable.”

In tackling the gap it is important to have the right mindset, by which he meant: is your default position below the line or above the line? Sometimes the mere mention of health and safety, he said, drove people below the line: defensive, closed, committed to being “right”.

People whose mindset tended to be above the line were open, curious, and committed to learning.

“You don’t have to be your best every day; only when the best is needed.”

And there the conference ended – with new ideas disseminated, new connections made, and energy levels revitalised. As for the conference organisers, we are taking a couple of days off before we starting plotting the 2018 event.

Naturally, our thinking will be above the line with a growth mindset. Conference organisers can learn too.


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