Bureaucracy and Paperwork in OHS

by George Robotham on March 24, 2014

in George Robotham

Bureaucracy and Paperwork in OHS



I believe bureaucracy and paperwork is strangling innovation and progress in OHS. Overly complex systems are being used and people give up because it is too much like hard work.

Some examples

One organisation I was associated with employed an outside consultant to develop safe working procedures in their mechanical workshop. This was done with little consultation with the workforce. When I did an audit of the implementation of the safe working procedures typical responses were- “Safe working procedures, stuffed if I know what you are talking about mate” and “O that crap, it does not represent what we do and we just ignore it”

At one organisation the corporate safety people developed a S.W.P. for a particular task, there were good reasons for this. I was given the job of introducing it to the workers. There were 6 pages of complicated, close text and I, with a reasonable grasp of the English language, unlike some of the workers, simply could not understand it. Somehow I could not see the workers reading the document by the light of their torch or truck headlights in the middle of the night in order to carry out the task.

The corporate safety people were ropeable when I said I was not going to introduce it to the workers and it needed to be revised, they refused to revise it. Apparently I was a trouble maker. I gave the job of revising it to one of my crews.

2 pages with simple short steps and a diagram and the blokes were happy to use it because it made sense through their involvement. I had my manager on side and he forced the adoption of what our blokes developed through the whole organisation. Naturally I was not popular with the corporate safety people. The manager got the quality bloke to issue a non-conformance report on the original procedure through the quality system, that created a bit of excitement.

I started a consultancy job with an organisation and they said I should read through their policy, procedure and fatal risk protocols. I got to about page 50 of the 150 page documents before I gave up. All very thorough, well written, extremely detailed. All emotionally appealing but would it be read & implemented? Somehow I could not see the people up the sharp end wading their way through all the paperwork!

With one company I worked for most of the managers and supervisors attended a time management course, This emphasised the importance of succinct communication. We were advised to restrict routine communication to a maximum of 2 pages, preferably less.

The thing that really annoys me is the rambling OHS papers one sees in some so-called professional journals. These are often academic in nature, designed to boost the ego of the writer, usually removed from the real world of work and tell us things experienced people will have figured out for themselves a long time ago. They also take an incredible number of words to say not too much. Often an academic wank!

One organisation I worked for had a large corporate OHS team that developed large policy and procedure, when they came to train the troops the deficiencies in what they had produced were very obvious. I had over 10 years in a corporate OHS role with one employer, it is very important in these roles to keep your actions grounded in reality by spending a lot of time in the field. My experience is that many corporate OHS departments add little to the bottom line and should be trimmed or abolished.

Two government organisations I worked for were buried in policy and procedure and making even small amounts of progress was incredibly slow and difficult. If they had been in the commercial world they would have quickly gone broke. People got to accept the situation and simply stopped trying to force progress, it was too much like hard work.

Another organisation I worked for introduced an overseas commercial safety management system. Those of us with field experience quickly realised the major weaknesses of the system. Rather than accept that they had been sold a dead duck the corporate people persisted with the system with little success.

Keep it succinct

The biggest problem with written communications is its length, generally I think you must try to get your routine messages across in a maximum of 2 pages. Busy people do not have time to write more and busy people do not have the time to read more. Concentrate on the MUST KNOWS. I am sure some safety people must be paid by the word, the result is long ponderous written communications. You can be certain that if it is too much like hard work to read it will not be read.

Workforce communication

Organisations put big efforts into senior management road shows, videos and glossy publications. The reality is that many in the workforce do not trust senior management and these efforts are perceived as a bit of a management wank.

There are 3 very important principles for effective workforce communications-

Use the supervisor not management

If it is not face to face it is not communications

Focus on the local work area


I believe bureaucracy and paperwork is strangling innovation and progress in OHS. Many safety efforts are removed from the everyday reality of the workplace. Theoretical and academic approaches have a tendency to overcome practice. Long ponderous paperwork is in abundance. Some organisations engulf themselves in bureaucracy and paperwork and make progress so difficult to achieve that people give up.

George can be contacted on fgrobotham@gmail.com, he welcomes debate on the above (it would be indeed a boring world if everybody agreed with George)

George Robotham, Cert. IV T.A.E.,. Dip. Training & Assessment Systems, Diploma in Frontline Management, Bachelor of Education (Adult & Workplace Education), (Queensland University of Technology), Graduate Certificate in Management of Organisational Change, (Charles Sturt University), Graduate Diploma of Occupational Hazard Management), (Ballarat University), Accredited Workplace Health & Safety Officer (Queensland),Justice of the Peace (Queensland), Australian Defence Medal, Brisbane, Australia, fgrobotham@gmail.com, www.ohschange.com.au,07-38021516, 0421860574, My passion is the reduction of permanently life altering (Class 1 ) personal damage

  • Les Henley

    JUst a comment on the first 2 examples – if those documents were written wothout consulting the affected persons then the consultant and corparate safety people haven’t complied anyway.

  • Laurence Svirchev

    I am happy that Mr. Robotham has opened this discussion. In my view, the increase in bureaucracy and paperwork has its roots in the following:
    -regulatory requirements mean more paperwork;
    -organizations that try hard to stay in compliance with OHS regulations require the paperwork to keep themselves out of trouble with regulatory agencies. Paperwork becomes its own self-servng interest, which is not the same as safe work procedures;
    -people who are employed to write policy and procedure have a vested interest in writing increasingly complex
    documents, which are naturally not used by worker and supervisors;
    -field active OHS professionals become increasingly tied to their desk rather than inspecting, observing, and educating.
    -I cite the example of Pike River, New Zealand mine explosion. The safety manager of the mine, a good man, testified that he was so busy writing policies and reports that he had no chance to go into the mine to ensure safe procedures were being followed; he did not know that some LEL monitors were being disabled to give false readings. In the case of Pike River, there were other senior management failing which contributed to the disaster, but the lesson here is that a safety manager and his staff should have primary responsibilities in the field, not in the office.

    Mr Robatham is correct: bureacracy do not enhance safety and preserve the lives of workers.

  • Jim Loud


    Well done and well put. I’ve found that large corporate safety are generally in the way as they struggle to “do things” that justify there existence and desire to grow in numbers and importance.

    I used to refer to lengthy “kitchen sink” procedures as “feel good documents.” The authors believed that they had covered every conceivable safety aspect, now all the dumb employees had to do was check their brains at the gate and follow the procedures. End of story!

    Even complex high-consequence activities must be actively managed such that people can do the work safely. Complex tasks must be broken down into clear, simple steps that incorporate relevant human factors and allow for activity ownership by the worker. Lengthy, complex procedures inevitably lead to shortcuts and non-compliance. This is predictable even in otherwise highly disciplined organizations. The fact that a complex procedure includes every conceivable safety precaution is of small consequence if the procedure isn’t followed. The commercial nuclear industry has done an excellent job of developing procedures that are both easy to follow and that minimize human error. To arrive at this point the industry collaborated with its own oversight organization, The Institute of Nuclear Power Operations. The resulting guidelines could/should serve as a model for any organization performing complex, high-consequence operations.

Previous post:

Next post: