How to create a safer workplace

December 15, 2017

Forestry companies spend millions of Rands each year on reducing accidents at the workplace. The modern economy demands low accident frequency rates and constantly improving safety records.

by Andrew McEwan

Managing safety is a very complex issue. In forestry we are often operating high risk equipment on high risk locations – and then we still have to include the organisational and human aspects and all their complexities.

A recent report by the International Transport Forum examined safety management systems and safety culture. A safety management system should be the framework whereby safety is integrated into the operations of an organisation. The system should include the following aspects:
• Setting of policy and allocation of management responsibilities
• Goal setting and the monitoring of safety performance
• Hazard identification and risk assessment
• Comprehensive risk awareness (understanding of the hazards and risk)
• Organisation, resource and workload
• Competence and fitness management
• Management of external factors (e.g. the interfaces with contractors and other organisations)
• Information needed for safety management
• Audit and review of safety control measures
• Management of technical change
• Management of organisational change
• Deriving safety learning from the reporting, investigation and analysis of accidents and incidents
• Regulatory regime
• Promotion of good safety culture

Good safety management systems have proven to improve safety. To achieve this, the safety management systems needs to be part of the organisation’s culture. Safety non-compliances indicate that the organisational safety culture has not yet been fully achieved. The reasons for the non-compliances need to be carefully investigated, because improper root cause analysis can degrade the organisational safety culture further, instead of enhancing it.

The root cause could be one, or a combination, of the bullet items mentioned above. Safety investigations must naturally be very thorough and follow a documented procedure to ensure that the correct conclusions are reached and appropriate management actions taken. There can be nothing more frustrating for operational personnel than safety/risk managers introducing inappropriate safety control measures after an incident.

The International Transport Forum indicates that a good investigation will thoroughly analyse each organisational factor. While doing this, any safety culture issues will also be identified. It does occur that some investigations ‘relocate’ the problem and place blame on management without fully understanding why certain decisions are made. The influence of organisational factors in accidents must be recognised, because safety culture is part of the wider organisational culture. The International Transport Forum report indicates that depending on the answers to the five key questions shown below, it is possible that the safety management system may have been a factor in causing the accident:
1. What were the relevant control measures defined in the safety management system? How were they documented, understood and applied?
2. To what extent were the hazards and risks understood?
3. What mechanisms were in place to monitor and review the efficacy of the safety management system?
4. How did the organisation learn from previous experience, and then use that experience to improve its safety arrangements?
5. How did the prevalent attitudes and behaviours within the organisation contribute to the accident/incident?

Accident investigations
Accident investigators have a critical role to play to ensure that their results contribute to both an improved safety management system and improved safety culture. They need to focus on the organisational factors that are ‘identifiable and assessable’. Good recommendations can be hugely successful in improving the safety management system of an organisation. However, to achieve this effect, the recommendations of the investigator must meet the following key criteria:
• They must be properly supported by evidence.
• They must be capable of producing a tangible improvement to safety.
• They must be proportionate to the risk they are addressing.
• They should target the area of proven deficiency.
• They should not propose a definitive solution to the safety issue identified. This is the role of the risk manager and not the safety investigator.

Because part of the business of CMO is to assess operational compliance to the control measures identified during accident investigations, we often see overly simplistic conclusions to the investigation and the inclination to introduce additional, unnecessary control measures. This is counterproductive and erodes the safety culture through despondency by operational staff.

We need to apply our accident investigation skills very carefully and ensure that we come up with recommendations that are holistic in improving the safety management system. To read more on this interesting article, please refer to the International Transport Forum’s Discussion Paper 20 of 2017, titled ‘The Investigation of Safety Management Systems and Safety Culture’.

*First published in SA Forestry magazine, Dec 2017

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