Lessons learnt from my safety jobs

by George Robotham on May 17, 2014 · 1 comment

in George Robotham

Lessons learnt from my safety jobs

George Robotham

George was a Legend in the Safety World who passed away in Sept 2013 but left us with a great legacy
Lessons learnt from my safety jobs

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Lessons learnt from my safety jobs
I have worked in OHS for most of my working life, many years in the mining industry including over 10 years in a corporate OHS role with BHP. Since leaving the mining industry I have worked in a variety of safety roles with a variety of employers, large & small, in a variety of industries.I was associated with my first workplace fatality at age 21, the girl involved was young, intelligent, vivacious and friendly. Such a waste! I was the first on the scene and tried to comfort her and tend to her injuries. She said to me “George, please do not let me die” We put her on the aerial ambulance to Rockhampton base hospital where she died the next day. I do not mind telling you that knocked me around for awhile.Since then I have helped my employers cope with the aftermath of 12 fatalities and 2 other life-altering events. The section "Why do Occupational Health & Safety" provides further detail but in summary, poor safety is simply very expensive and also has a massive humanitarian cost.My qualifications include a certificate I.V. in Workplace Training and Assessment, a Diploma in Frontline Management, a Diploma in Training & Assessment Systems, a Bachelor of Education (Adult & Workplace Education) , a Grad. Cert. in Management of Organisational Change and a Graduate Diploma in Occupational Hazard Management. I am currently studying towards a Masters in Business Leadership.Up until recently I had been a Chartered Fellow of the Safety Institute of Australia for 10 years and a member for about 30 years.My interest is in non-traditional methods of driving organisational change in OHS and I have what I believe is a healthy dis-respect for many common approaches to OHS Management and OHS Training. I hold what I believe is a well-founded perception that many of the things safety people and management do in safety are “displacement activities” (Displacement activities are things we do, things we put a lot of energy into, but which when we examine them closely there is no valid reason for doing them).My managerial and leadership roles in OHS have exposed me to a range of management techniques that are relevant to Business Improvement. In particular I am a strong supporter of continuous improvement and quality management approaches to business. I believe leadership is the often forgotten key to excellence in most aspects of life.I hold the Australian Defence Medal and am a J.P.(Qualified).I have many fond memories of my time playing Rugby Union when I was a young bloke.


Lessons learnt from my safety jobs

Reflection by the late George Robotham 

In my 38 years in OHS I have helped my employers cope with the aftermath of 13 fatalities, one case of paraplegia, one major stress case and a very serious burns case. Speaking from personal experience the most devastating thing that can happen to a company and its workers is to have an employee killed or seriously injured. The financial and more importantly humanitarian costs are immense.OHS is a joint responsibility of management and employees. My focus is the prevention of permanently life altering person damage.

My first safety related job was in1973 I think as a Training Assistant in the training department of the National Safety Council of Australia. I did all the hack work to organise the various courses and gradually got experience running short training sessions. My 2 bosses were ex-Army, superb trainers and leaders. The Senior Training Officer, Tim Wilson, O.B.E., took me under his wing and tried to teach me about safety and training. Tim was one of the best leaders I have experienced, demanded high standards, showed his appreciation when his standards were met and was passionate about the best interest of his staff. Safety was very much in its infancy in those days and some of the things we taught would be unacceptable now. Much of my later tertiary learning in adult and workplace education was reminiscent of what I learnt with N.S.C.A. N.S.C.A. instilled in me the importance of planning, preparation and rehearsal in training.

In 1975 I moved to the position of Assistant Safety Adviser at Utah Development Company Blackwater open-cut coal mine. It was a very hands on job with lots of training, accident investigation, tool-box talks and safety inspections .A motor vehicle accident occurred where the driver died, I do not want to go into details but it emphasised the importance of the psycho-social side of safety. An employee was crushed between a walking platform and the shoe of a dragline and made a paraplegic, this was my first introduction to the reluctance of manufacturers to change the design of their equipment in the name of safety. I was introduced to the Analysis Reference Tree Trunk method of accident investigation which I still believe is the best despite recent advances.

In those days we used to use gangs of ethnic workers for wash plant maintenance shutdowns, most of them were not proper tradesmen or could understand English. We had a lot of problems with these blokes.

In early 1979 I moved to the position of Safety Adviser for the construction and start up of Utah Development Company Norwich Park mine. It was a big job for one so young and I struggled initially. It was a very production oriented environment and safety was frequently regarded as getting in the way. There were a number of tough minded managers and supervisors and in my inexperience I was often unsuccessful in getting them on side. As the result of serious burns to an electrician we introduced a critical incident recall process in the electrical department. I have written elsewhere about the work that was done but it was extremely successful and I would recommend the technique. I completed the Graduate Diploma in Occupational Hazard Management at Ballarat University. This was to prove to be a personal and professional turning point.

I got the job of organising the state mining rescue competition. I put a lot of work into the planning and it was a big success. I was later to discover the benefits of project planning software to assist in the planning of such events.

I took up a safety training job with another organisation. I learnt that safety is often watered down by industrial relations considerations and public moneys are not always spent as intended. I also discovered the safety materials government regulators produce can leave a fair bit to be desired

Later in 1986 I took up the position of Senior Safety Adviser with Utah, Brisbane corporate office. Utah underwent numerous name changes to become BHP-Coal by the time I left. I learnt, despite sophisticated recruitment and selection procedures, you can end up with some duds working for you. The people at the mines used to refer to those of us in Brisbane office as “Seagulls” They said we would fly up, crap all over them and then fly away. I learnt in a strategic role you had to frequently get out in the field to maintain your perspective. I also learnt that well structured and planned project teams are a great way to drive safety change. I saw the introduction of 18 internal standards of OHS excellence make a big difference. Training in job safety analysis proved to be a good precursor to the development of safe working procedures.

I started my Bachelor of Education (Adult & Workplace Education), it was an excellent course and revolutionised my approach to learning. The importance of action and experiential learning models, learning by doing and making learning interactive was emphasised. I led the introduction of the N.O.S.A. safety management system in the 350 person corporate office. The safety committee developed a simple yet thorough approach and with good leadership it worked well. A 4 hour training course on hazard identification / risk assessment /hazard control that I developed saw widespread adoption.

One thing that came to me was that OHS people need a broad range of skills over and above their OHS technical skills. Attend short course learning on leadership, organisational change, communications skills, interpersonal skills, project management, quality management, basic human resource management, teambuilding, critical thinking and basic marketing.

I saw the outstanding effect on safety that a senior manager designated as the Safety Champion can have. The importance of learning by doing, avoiding lecture style presentations and making training highly interactive was evident.

While with B.H.P. I worked with Professor T.J. Larkin of Harvard University analysing safety communications in the company. There were 3 main messages to come out of this research-

  • Use face-to-face communications,
  • Use the supervisor to communicate and
  • Frame messages relevant to the immediate work area.

In 1994 the Moura disaster occurred with 11 men entombed in the mine. Andrew Hopkins wrote a book called Managing Major Hazards about Moura which I think is essential reading for all OHS personnel. The Moura disaster emphasises the role of safety culture.

BHP Minerals undertook a major safety benchmarking effort after Moura, the report makes great reading. In what was not the best decision BHP Minerals introduced a particular commercial safety management system from overseas worldwide. The commercial system was culturally unsuited to Australia, people reported having difficulty relating to the auditors, the training was hopeless and at the end of the day the system was not all that clever.

In 1996 I took up the position of Workplace Health and Safety Coordinator with the Beaudesert Shire Council. They were a shock to me and I was a shock to them. They had never has a safety person before me and were quiet backward in their safety approach. Some in supervisor and manager positions were very resistant to the needed safety changes. I developed a very basic safety management plan which they committed to after I left. It was not a high performance culture and after working for BHP I did not fit in well with a slow, ponderous organisation. To a certain extent I was suckered into the job by a smooth talking HR Manager who had delusions of grandeur about what I would be able to achieve. I resolved to check out prospective employers more carefully in the future.

In 1997 I took up the position of Principal Consultant Safety Training and Auditing with A.C.I.R.L.

I learnt a lot about risk management and how exacting it is to manage safety in underground coal mines. The importance of having detailed hazard management plans and safety management plans was made clear as was the importance of piloting new training programs.

In 1999 I took up the position as WHS Coordinator with the Qld Main Roads Department. The organisation was buried in bureaucracy and paperwork and it was so hard to get anything done, they would not survive in the commercial world. A lot of the supervisors had been there for ages and were very set in their ways. I developed and piloted a risk assessment course with the latest methods. When it got to the supervisors they rejected it because they preferred a superseded method they had been trained in previously. Some of the safety staff left a lot to be desired.

I started out thinking I could make some changes but after a couple of years gave it up as a lost cause. From where I stood it appeared to be an organisation let down by its leadership.

In 2001 my role as OHS Project Manager with Ergon Energy on the “Safety Essentials Management Systems” project saw me leading a team of safety personnel and employees developing control plans and learning programs for 21 high-risk activities which revolutionised the way safety is managed in the business. This was the biggest test of my leadership and teambuilding skills and I learnt a lot from being thrown in the deep end. It was a highly organised project from a project management and change management perspective and I learnt a lot about project planning.

I started my own safety consultancy company in 2002 and have had good and bad experiences. There was the organisation that had several improvement notices about confined space work, my audit revealed major deficiencies, an audit by an outside consultant slammed them but they still refused to act. There was the organisation that made lots of promises but after I audited their organisation and developed a safety management plan decided it was all too much like hard work. There was the OHS Project Manager contract where we did what I thought was a good job on the project. The senior manager who requested the project fell on his political sword and left the organisation. The project was shelved.

Australian safety researcher Geoff McDonald has been my advisor/coach/mentor /guide in my safety career. Geoff McDonald has a system of classifying personal damage occurrences (“Accidents “) that goes something like this-

Class 1-Permanently alters the future of the individual

Class 2-Temporarily alters the future of the individual

Class 3 –Inconveniences the individual

Geoff has investigated many thousand Class 1 damage occurrences in his career and maintains the most effective way to make meaningful progress in safety is by focusing on the class 1 phenomena. I have been involved in 3 projects with Geoff where we have either analysed critical incidents or personal damage occurrence experience and I found the results very impressive, the analysis of the critical incidents and personal damage occurrences really targeted control actions in an appropriate manner.



I completed a Graduate Certificate in Management of Organisational Change by distance education, I really struggled with distance education and found I prefer the interaction of attending lectures. From my studies I use the motto “When initiating change, remember, people support what they create” you have to involve those affected by the change process in the change process if you are to have any success.

My interest in leadership was heightened by attending a presentation on the topic by General Norman Schwarzkopf. This led me to carry out extensive research into leadership generally and safety leadership specifically. A highlight of this was being invited to facilitate a Safety Leadership workshop in a National forum in Canada. I have since worked with clients to develop leadership approaches. I believe leadership is the often forgotten key to excellence in organisations.

I have been fortunate to work with 3 excellent leaders and have reflected upon and learnt from their approaches.

One of the techniques I learnt on my education degree was force field analysis. I have written on this elsewhere but I find it very useful when developing or revising safety management systems. Another technique worthy of consideration when developing controls is Haddon’s 10 countermeasures. My education degree strongly emphasised the need for learning needs analysis as a precursor to developing learning programs. This is not done well in industry.

With one contract I helped recruit and select new OHS staff. I facilitated 2×1 day teambuilding workshops for safety staff and their supervisors and managers, everyone commented how this helped them to fit into the new team. Teambuilding is an important skill for OHS personnel.

An important fact is the life of an OHS person is very difficult if there is not significant management commitment and leadership from the top management.

Over the years I have used and trained many people in various risk assessment techniques, risk assessment is the cornerstone of many organisations safety approach. The more I see of risk assessment the more I think it is not a valid and reliable technique.

My paper What Makes A Safety Management System Fly,  has been a work in progress for about 20 years. As I have had safety management system experiences I have added to the paper. The paper was published by the American Safety Engineering Society in an international safety best-practice publication.

There are lessons to be learnt from personal damage occurrences, the reality is that these lessons are often not widely communicated and acted upon. We do not have a National system for reporting, recording and analysing permanently life altering personal damage occurrences, this seems to me to be a priority if we are serious about managing OHS. Taxonomies of industry personal damage occurrence experience are a fertile avenue for improvement.

As a consultant it is always a quandary for do you quote to do a really good job or quote for an average job just to get the work. In my experience many clients do not want a very good job and will go with the cheapest quote. Of course this lowers professional standards.

Something to finish up with

  • Thank others for their input and celebrate success
  • Resolve to being a lifelong learner and read widely
  • There is not much sense in taking on a battle you have little chance of winning
  • Deal with the issue not the person
  • I used to make the mistake of letting issues become personal, gives you a lot of aggravation and achieves little
  • Often it is the relationships you build not your technical skills that determines success
  • My mentor, Geoff McDonald talks about displacement activities. A displacement activity is something we do, something we put a lot of energy into but which there is little logical reason for doing it. Geoff says safety is full of displacement activity. Just be sure what you are doing is not a displacement activity.
  • Management focus is the key to quality safety performance. Like all other management functions highly effective leadership is essential in OHS.
  • Learn the context, culture and past before trying to make changes. Unless a crisis situation is apparent realise effective change requires a lot of effort and time.
  • Kotter speaks of 8 steps for successful large scale change- Increase urgency, Build the guiding team, Get the vision right, Communicate for buy-in, Empower action, Create short-term wins, Do not let up, Make change stick.
  • People judge you by what they see you doing not by what you say you are doing.
  • Learn the skills of reflective listening and appropriate self-disclosure, will help with interpersonal relationships.
  • A major sin in business is long, overly complicated policy, procedure and other written documentation. Busy people do not have time to write it and busy people do not have time to read it. Keep it simple and ask yourself if it is too much like hard work to read. Use 1 page max. for routine correspondence.
  • Have huge but realistic goals.
  • Do the simplest thing that will work.
  • Remember the 6 P rule-Prior Preparation and Planning Prevents Poor Performance.
  • Ask for and give regular feedback.
  • Communicate your expectations.
  • Good amounts of quality time for you, family and friends is essential for high performance at work.
  • Concentrate on the things that give the biggest bang for your buck.
  • Eifion Peters-Hughes

    Thoroughly enjoyed the article and as a senior HSE professional I have realised you are never too old to learn something new.
    I have also had the privilege to work for BHP and the experience was immense.

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