Workers want evidence of safety | IMPAC health and safety

10 July, 2018  |  News

Dr Andrew Rae told the 2018 Safeguard conference that safety systems can actually reduce trust and undermine health and safety engagement.

He elaborated by saying that when workers don’t comply with safety systems, it’s because they just want evidence that what they’re being asked to do will make them safer – not that they don’t care about being safe.

He went on to say that the problem is that for a lot of safety practices, such evidence does not exist: “we don’t have it for safe work management systems, for Take-5s, for critical control observations, for Golden Rules. These are all things we do, and ask other people to do, and we don’t know if they make a difference to operational work.”


drew raeDr Andrew Rae speaking at the 2018 Safeguard conference in Auckland. Photo from


The difference between safety work and the safety of work

To understand how safety systems can reduce trust and undermine health and safety engagement, Rae said it’s important to first understand the difference between safety work and the safety of work.

The safety of work is the health and safety practitioner’s key objective, yet for the most part it arises out of operational decisions about tools, equipment, and training: “most of those things aren’t managed by safety teams. Safety is ultimately an operational outcome.”

In contrast, the safety practitioner’s role – safety work – creates paperwork that others fill out. If workers can’t see the point of the paperwork they do, said Rae, they are likely to resent it, and their managers may see this opposition as a lack of commitment to safety.

According to Safeguard, Rae claims the solution is to get rid of safety clutter – the duplications and time-consuming procedures that remain in place, even though no one believes they improve safety outcomes. However: “You can’t just get rid of it. Anytime you say let’s get rid of forms and procedures, the next time there’s an accident or incident the forms and procedures come back.”


Effective solutions need to be “radical”

Safeguard reports that Rae pointed to a project his lab has been involved in to show what can be achieved: a major Australian supermarket chain decided to get rid of all safety rules, other than those required by legislation, at 20 of its stores.

“The most surprising thing was how little difference it made to workers on the ground, because the rules didn’t have any connection to the way people were doing their work anyway."

Rae said the safety team stopped thinking about safety responsibility as a model where the stores were accountable to them, to one where they were accountable to operations: “When you don’t have rules, people adjust and adapt to make the work safe.”  


Key take-away messages

Rae said there were a few take-away messages from the project: genuine worker ownership of safety, improved oversight, and increased productivity. But the bottom line lesson is not to trust people just because it might be good for safety or reduces costs.

“We need to trust because what we’re doing now is not working. Systems based on top-down imposition of risk assessment are not penetrating to the workforce, so the only option we have is to trust.”