The number of people killed at work in Australia has been decreasing each year for the last decade, but the evolution of ever better workplace health and safety comes with its own challenges.
October is National Work Safety month, which is always a bit of a strange one, as work safety is a year-round priority for most HR professionals. Nevertheless, it’s a good excuse to highlight this most important of issues.
Minister for Employment, Senator the Hon Michaelia Cash, who officially launched National Safe Work Month 2017, reminded Australians that safe workplaces happen when everyone shares their knowledge and experience about what makes work safe.
“Australia is one of the safest places in the world to work, but also a time when we all commit to building even safer workplaces. We should be proud that our convictions pay off – the number of Australians killed at work each year has been steadily declining for a decade. But we cannot afford to be complacent. In fact, safety is an integral part of doing business,” said Cash.
Anyone who subscribes to OHSAlert, as I’m sure many in the HR field do, will be aware that there is still a long way to go. The Health and Safety e-newsletter offers a litany of failures and workplace accidents. Just looking quickly now, it includes workers overcome by fumes in confined-spaces, a crane operator fined for power line shocks, to more commonplace problems, like the failure to investigate workplace bullying. It makes for uneasy reading.
But there are also some really positive examples. Yarra Valley Water, has just announced that a major workplace safety overhaul has led to zero lost-time injuries in the last financial year.
One of their innovations was to create “safety action squads”, which challenged teams across the business to look at different ways of talking about safety. Teams presented talks, film clips and activities to their colleagues in the canteen during lunch, to show what safety meant in different parts of the organisation. For example, treatment workers talked about working at height and the different chemicals they come in contact with, while call-centre workers talked about mental health issues and repetitive strain injuries.
So how have organisations response to WH&S evolved in the past 10 years or more?
KINNECT is a National Occupational Health company specialising in Injury Prevention, Injury Management, Health and Medical services to the mining, energy resources, transport and logistics, government and HR sectors. It’s CEO, Kevin Conlon, says that in his 20 years’ of experience, he has seen a definite change in people becoming more risk averse and wanting to manage risk even more tightly at an individualised level.
“With so much access to communications and the ability to communicate with a large audience – everyone has a camera on their phone, for example – it’s apparent that businesses are more risk averse.
“Companies have never wanted people to leave work in a worse condition than when they arrived, but roles are rapidly changing, and now organisations are proactively trying to work out how to leverage their greatest resource, their people, to ensure they are the healthiest they can be. And when an event does occur, to try and manage that to get the best possible outcome,” says Conlon.
The future of workplace health and safety
Looking towards the future for health and safety at work, Conlon says these are exciting times for his industry.
“AI and augmented reality is going to play a valuable role in the healthcare space not only from a training perspective. We are using wearable technology and asking how can we leverage that.”
Conlon says health and safety is very data driven and although KINNECT has always utilised analytics, today it’s not just about taking a snapshot of a moment in time, such as when a company does a pre-employment medical assessment, but overlaying that data with data captured more proactively.
“It might be around preventing injuries, for example. If you have people who work in remote mining sites where the camps have great food, you might have issues around weight gain. So an employer might issue wearables for people to better collect information and manage their health themselves,” says Conlon.
And while workplace surveillance, AI and wearable technology will no doubt be part of our future, they come with their own challenges. As HRM has written about before, technology that tracks employee movements with cameras and ever-watchful AI has to walk the line between optimising safety, and not impinging on privacy – which is something even top developers like Microsoft are worried about.
As for wearable tech, HRM reported just recently on how safety would most likely be the best legal argument for mandatory microchipping, as the law currently stands.
Regardless of how we negotiate the future of technology, the current approach as outlined by Conlon underlines Senator Cash’s point. Health and safety is no longer something that is “done” by an employer for an employee.
WH&S is based on the gathering and sharing of knowledge. It’s a little like the shift that has happened in training, where now individuals are expected to take responsibility for their own personal development. There is now the sense that health and safety isn’t one size fits all, particularly in preventative injuries. Instead, it need to be tailored towards personal requirements with individuals taking their share of responsibility for their own health and wellbeing.