A ship is safe in the harbor…

A ship is safe in the harbor, but that is not what ships are built for.” (John Augustus Shedd; 1928).

Sailing ship in a stormy ocean

Just as a ship must take calculated risks to be productive, workplaces must also manage risks effectively to be productive.

So what is the difference between good risk management and negligence?

The key lies in effective consultation with workers to identify hazards, particularly before they cause harm, implement appropriate controls and review those controls for effectiveness.

Assessing the likelihood and severity of harm for each identified hazard will also help workplaces to manage multiple risks, prioritising them and directing resources to those that may cause higher levels of harm.

Safer workplaces are achievable. Ask us how.

What Does a WHS Management System Look Like?


Like any business system, a WHS (Work Health and Safety) management system is an organised way to coordinate resources and activities to achieve business objectives.

WHS objectives relate to the elimination or minimisation of health and safety risks to workers.  Success here can also reduce business costs, enhance productivity and protect businesses and senior leaders from prosecution under health and safety legislation.

An effective WHS management system will demonstrate the following characteristics;

  • A public and consistent commitment from senior leaders
  • A planned approach to health and safety, including policies and procedures and other system documents
  • A range of programmed activities, such as;
    • workplace inspections
    • training
    • consultation
    • internal audits
    • …and many more!
  • Performance indicators and measurable targets, which are measured and monitored, and
  • Management review of the system, through data from many sources, including;
    • performance against targets
    • consultation activity
    • hazard, near-miss and injury reports
    • workplace inspections
    • various registers (e.g. plant; chemical etc.)

Effective management review leads to improvements across the system.  This cycle is what people refer to as “continuous improvement”.

A WHS management system is described through a number of “controlled” documents.  In other words, these documents are officially approved, subject to regular consultation and review and their next review dates clearly recorded.  This gives workers confidence in the reliability of the documents.

WHS System DocumentsDiagram 1 shows the types of documents that you will find in a WHS management system.  The lead WHS Policy is where senior leaders describe the commitment to the health and safety of workers.

The next layer of documents (especially in larger organisations) is typically procedural.  General principles for managing hazards and processes are described in these documents.  This is where you might read for example, about general principles for managing chemicals, equipment, risk of occupational violence or first aid and emergency requirements.

The next layer of documents are Safe Operating procedures (SOP), Job Safety Analyses (JSA) and other similar documents.  These documents provide step-by-step guidance for undertaking tasks and are usually task or location specific.  Some explicitly include a risk assessment of each step and specify controls.  Other documents, such as SOPs, do not necessarily describe the risk assessment activity within the document.

System documents require some “outputs”.  Outputs might be;

  • behavioural (e.g. how duty holders fulfill their roles and responsibilities)
  • system processes (e.g. hazard and incident reporting processes, identifying training needs etc.)
  • registers (e.g. hazard; chemical; plant; asbestos and other registers where relevant)
  • forms (e.g. procurement; risk assessment; vehicle use approval forms etc.)
  • checklists (e.g. work site inspection checklists; pre-start checklists etc)
  • records of implementation activity (e.g. induction, training and other activities) documentation.

These outputs are also useful as evidence that an organisation is managing WHS effectively.  External/certification audits and health and safety prosecutions are scenarios where good quality evidence is critical.

Tips to make your WHS system effective

  • Understand the kinds of hazards and risks that might arise in day to day operations.  Consult with workers.  They are usually very aware of workplace risks.
  • Use straightforward language in system documents.  Apart from varying levels of literacy, workers may be fatigued or preoccupied; so keep it simple.
  • Don’t make policy commitments unless you are committed.  Broken commitments from leadership undermines workplace trust and productivity.
  • Where documents describe responsibilities, make sure there are mechanisms to support them and make sure there are mechanisms to confirm responsibilities are being met.
  • Set a positive tone for hazard and incident reporting.  Where workers have confidence in leadership, they will help you identify and fix gaps in your system.
  • Give credit for input and effort that results in any health and safety improvements.
  • Most of all, maintain the joint effort.  Health and safety will progress from theory to embedded practice with some open consultation and maybe a bit of reward and recognition.

Remote and Isolated Work


The Work Health and Safety Act (2012) and the related regulations require a “person conducting a business or undertaking” (PCBU) to manage the risks of remote and isolated work.  The two specific requirements are to provide;

  1. safe systems of work, and
  2. effective communications with the worker

Interestingly, the relevant code of practice recognises you can be isolated when working with a member of the public.  Read more on the subject here.

Occupational Health and Safety Leadership


Leadership is doing the right things; management is doing things right.” (Peter Drucker)

Thanks Peter! Truly successful health and safety systems reflect a bit of the “art” and the “science” of management. Senior people in most organisations, when talking about leadership and management, will use words and phrases like;

  • Leadership / management commitment
  • Strategic management
  • Operating environment / context
  • Clear roles, goals and objectives, and
  • Compliance focus

Why is it then, that “people-focussed” functions (including work health and safety) attract such variable attention in many organisations? Ask most HR professionals and they will roll their eyes about inconsistent implementation of good HR practices.

Management functions must be underpinned by sound values and principles. Otherwise, managers will find themselves engaged in “tick a box” compliance activity. In terms of workplace health and safety, senior people need to be just as concerned with the human impact of accidents as the economic impacts.

Many large organisations (particularly in the construction and manufacturing industries) carefully monitor the “Lost Time Injury Frequency Rate” (LTIFR) across their operations. This is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. However, the LTIFR simply counts how many injuries (resulting in 1 or more lost shifts) occur in a period of time and convert this into a rate per million hours worked. This means that most of the lost time injuries are typically at the lower end of the severity spectrum. Collectively, they are expensive and economically worth addressing.

Because the LTIFR is skewed toward the frequency of injury, rather than the severity of injury, senior management should have other processes to support those less frequent, but much higher impact incidents. Sometimes it is difficult to get the team “on board” with managing the less likely risks. For example;

The Texas City Refinery explosion occurred on March 23, 2005, when a hydrocarbon vapor cloud exploded at the ISOM isomerization process unit at BP’s Texas City refinery in Texas City, Texas, killing 15 workers and injuring more than 170 others.” (Source: Wikipedia)

When investigators tracked back through company data, they identified multiple near-misses over several years, any of which should have initiated a proactive risk management response. Systemic complacency meant the risks were not effectively managed, resulting in tremendous human loss and suffering. The economic impact was also felt nationwide.

There are many examples of organisations planning for the known, routine risks and being caught out by disaster from a different direction. When reviewing your workplace health and safety system or strategy, certainly take into account what your hazard and incident data is telling you. But also remember the key to leadership is “doing the right things”.

Talk, listen, consult formally and informally with those who have a stake, and identify the less obvious “right things” to do.