WHS Reporting and Due Diligence: Some practical thoughts

by Dave Collins on March 20, 2017

in Due Diligence,Safety Statistics



clip_image002_thumbBy Greg Smith, WHS Lawyer. First published here

Quote from the article:

If two people die in an electrical incident at your workplace, nobody cares what your last safety culture survey reveals. You need to demonstrate how the risk of electrocution was managed in your organisation, and whether it was managed effectively. No one cares what your TRIFR rate is, no one cares how many action items have been closed out, no one cares how many safety interactions your managers have, no one cares how many hazards have been reported, no one cares how many pre-start meetings you have conducted ….

WHS Reporting and Due Diligence: Some practical thoughts

My social media feeds have been abuzz recently following the release of Safe Work Australia’s report, Measuring and Reporting on Work Health & Safety. In part (or perhaps wholly) it is my fault for suggesting the report focussed on activity over assurance and could be problematic in that regard.  (see for example LinkedIn, Measuring and Reporting on Work Health & Safety, Everything is Green: The delusion of health and safety reporting).

In several comments and emails, I have been asked to provide some “practical” examples. While it is difficult to provide something that will satisfy everyone, below I offer a few questions that might be useful to interrogate the efficacy of health and safety reporting in your organisation.

I would preface the example below with an observation on due diligence.

Despite what several commentators and marketing campaigns might have you believe, due diligence cannot be satisfied with a checklist, or by attending a WHS training session. The concept of due diligence existed long before WHS legislation, and it has been examined by courts and tribunal in many areas of business. One of the underpinning concepts of due diligence is “independent thought”.

It is incumbent on an individual who is charged with exercising due diligence to exercise a level of independence to understand the “thing” they are required to be diligent about. If that thing is safety, due diligence requires more than passively accepting a monthly WHS report. Due diligence requires independent thought and challenge to understand what you need to know about health and safety and whether the report is informing you about what you need to know.

So, in the spirit of that inquiry, what questions might you ask?

What is the purpose of health and safety reporting?

It might seem trite, but I think it is a legitimate question to start with. After all, if we do not start with a purpose, how to we judge effectiveness?

To many, the purpose of health and safety reporting might seem obvious, but if the history of workplace health and safety has taught us nothing else in the last 30 years, it has taught us about the dangers of assumptions. Do not assume to know the purpose of anything in health and safety – actually know the purpose and test against that purpose.

In many organisations, health and safety reporting is sold as a legal requirement, so in keeping with that theme, perhaps the purpose of health and safety reporting might be

To demonstrate the extent to which our health and safety risks are managed so far as reasonably practicable.

But before the comments start flowing about legal expectations being our minimum standards (sigh!), perhaps we can agree on something like:

To demonstrate the extent to which our health and safety risks are managed.

For those of you who aspire to “zero”, I will leave it to you to come up with your own purpose statement for health and safety reporting. Good luck.

What is the purpose and relevance of an element of health and safety reporting?

Health and safety reports might be filled with all sorts of statements and data. But what purpose do they serve?

A very popular health and safety reporting metric is the number (or percentage) of corrective actions closed out following an incident investigation.

On its face, that statistic is nothing more than a measure of activity – how many things have been done against how many things should have been done. On its face, and at its highest, it might be a measure of “operating discipline” – we are good at doing the things we said we would.

But if the purpose of health and safety reporting is to demonstrate the extent to which our health and safety risks are managed, it does not seem to add much value at all.

Another way to think about a statistical set of action items being closed out is to consider them as an indicator of the effectiveness of incident investigations. After all, the quality of incident investigations is very important to the overall quality of health and safety management and something that inquiries are likely to look at in the event of an accident (See for example Everything is Green: The delusion of health and safety reporting)

Perhaps if people had spent more time asking this question about injury rate data over the past 25 years, it would not have pride of place in safety management today.

What assumption do we have to make if an element of health and safety reporting is going to have value?

If we argue that the number (or percentage) of corrective actions closed out following an incident investigation tells us something about the quality of incident investigations, what assumptions do we have to make?

If 100% of corrective actions from incident investigations have been closed out, and I have a sense of comfort from that, I am making several assumptions. I am making assumptions:

  • About the quality of the incident investigations;
  • About the strength of the reasoning and analysis leading to the findings;
  • That the corrective actions have a strong, logical relevance to the findings;
  • That the corrective actions will be effective to address the issues identified in the incident investigation;
  • That the corrective actions have been closed out, as opposed to ticked off in a data base;
  • That the corrective actions have been well implemented; and
  • That the corrective actions are effective to address the issues identified in the incident investigation.

None of these issues are revealed by the number (or percentage) of corrective actions closed out following an incident investigation.

Indeed, if a health and safety report could show 100% of corrective actions from incident investigations have been closed out without any of the assumptions above being true.

And if these assumptions are not valid, and if a major accident happens, and if it is found that incident have never been properly investigated[1], how can it be said that an organisation and its management was serious about health and safety and exercising due diligence?

I have always believed, at its core, health and safety management is about controlling health and safety hazards.

To some extent, I do not care how organisations say they manage health and safety – safety 1, safety 2, safety differently, visible felt leadership, rules, procedures, prescription, discretion, people are the problem, people are the solution etc., etc., etc. – prove to me that it works. Prove to me that what you do controls the health and safety hazards in your business.

If two people die in an electrical incident at your workplace, nobody cares what your last safety culture survey reveals. You need to demonstrate how the risk of electrocution was managed in your organisation, and whether it was managed effectively.

No one cares what your TRIFR rate is, no one cares how many action items have been closed out, no one cares how many safety interactions your managers have, no one cares how many hazards have been reported, no one cares how many pre-start meetings you have conducted ….

The relevant issue is whether health and safety hazards have been effectively managed.

The things we do in the name of health and safety only matter to the extent that they have a role to play in managing health and safety hazards.

If the number of action items closed out after an incident investigation is important to how hazards are managed, we should be able to explain how and demonstrate the relationship.

Health and safety reporting only matters if it gives us an insight into how well we manage health and safety.

What does your health and safety reporting really tell you?

[1] See for example the Royal Commission into the Pike River tragedy.

  • Bernard Corden

    What I find most amazing is how middle management think directors speak differently. Middle management conversations are often littered with pseudo intellectual phrases such as space, moving forward, reaching out, leverage etc. George Orwell would be turning in his grave. The language at board level is even more brutal than on a construction site.

  • Bernard Corden

    I mentioned Michael Foot previously, he once quoted……” Men of power claim they have no time to read; yet men who do not read are unfit for power”
    This begs the question how many senior executives bother reading safety reports. If they do not read them, they will not learn.

    • Dave collins

      It was always fun to start taking stuff out of those reports or even inserting ridiculous furphies to see what happened – usually nothing did

  • Rob Long

    If reporting is not about learning then I would wonder why one would report at all.

  • Bernard Corden

    Here is an interesting article from the University of Pennsylvania Regblog.org site:

    http://www.regblog.org/2011/07/20/the-dangers-of-indicators/

  • Bernard Corden

    Corporate bilge and turgid sludge masquerading as leadership.
    Organisations are an anthropomorphic fallacy. They have no memory, soul to save or body to incarcerate.
    BMA Broadmeadow representatives had to be summoned to appear before a recent Queensland parliament public inquiry into coal workers’ pneumoconiosis and they talk about good governance and corporate social responsibility. They are socially autistic mercenaries.

  • Tony Cartwright

    Read the recent NSW Department of Industry investigation report of the fatality at the Ridgeway Mine. Critical controls for a catastrophic risk inconsistently applied, large gaps between work as specified & work as performed, lofty corporate statements about safety performance goals. Reading the mining company’s 2016 Annual Report, the MD states, “……..the hundreds of positive safety interventions and completion of safety actions and initiatives taking place among teams every day.”
    The Boards & senior management teams are that far away from the pointy end that they are unable to see how well their critical systems are working & the feedback that they are receiving through their reporting systems only tell them how busy people are, while catastrophic events continue to happen on their watch.

  • Bernard Corden

    Once again, like many problems, it is a matter of balance. We could move to a laissez faire approach and deregulation but the 2007 GFC is good example of what can happen if the market is left unfettered.
    Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein have recently promoted nudge theory, which embraces a choice architecture and libertarian paternalism philosophy.

    • Yes, when we make comments about more laws and more enforcement not being the only answer we get the binary thinkers accuse us of advocating anarchy – the need for laws is yet another example of why common sense doesn’t exist

  • Bernard Corden

    Several more pertinent quotes include:

    Rules and models destroy genius and art – William Hazlitt
    More law, less justice – Tullius Cicero

    Michael Foot who was the architect of OHS legislative reform following the Aberfan disaster in 1966 was an acolyte of Hazlitt, hence the move from prescriptive legislation to performance based. Alf Robens received most of the credit but the real brains behind the social reform was Michael Foot.

  • Bernard Corden

    The loose legal philosophy of the late Justice Thurgood Marshall is most appropriate…….” You do what you think is right and let the law catch up”
    He was nominated by LBJ and became the first Afro-American justice appointed to the US Supreme Court.

    • What a great quote! How many limit themselves, their imagination, their progress etc by focusing on compliance – the law will always be many years behind, has to be a compromise, is not always safe and has by-products! Laws, I guess, are for those who are not motivated to do the right/ethical thing but many see them as the instruction manual – then wayyyy over interpret them or use them to cover up poor leadership

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