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Whats the matter with us?

Well, not all of us, and at least, not all the time. Though at some time or other we probably all have done something that could, or perhaps did, contribute in some way to an accident. Such acts are usually categorised as errors or violations, and have a variety of causes. So assuming we have been guilty of some act or omission ( because failing to do the right thing can be just as damaging as actively doing the wrong thing) let’s also assume that we were lucky, and the incident turned out to be a near miss.

Let’s agree to call all of these various acts and omissions “ Unsafe Acts”. It’s no coincidence that the HSWA s7 requires employees to take care of their own or others’ safety as affected by their ‘acts or omissions’. In addition to Unsafe Acts, ‘Unsafe Conditions’ are also recognised, such as a fragile roof, or cracked fuel pipe, though these are generally ( but not always ) outside the immediate control of individual workers

In the last year or so there have been many incidents resulting from Unsafe Acts, and regrettably, they were not all near misses, in fact many of them resulted in injury. Some of them resulted in a fatality, or even multiple fatality. In some of these incidents the person to be harmed was the person who was responsible for the Unsafe Act, and in other cases the person harmed did not perform any Unsafe Act, they were in fact, completely blameless.

Some definitions of Unsafe Act place the emphasis on deliberate breach of rules, such as speeding, taking shortcuts, using unauthorised equipment, modifying or abusing equipment, but many Unsafe Acts can also result from fatigue, disability, lack of training, or memory lapse. Some of these Unsafe Acts attract much more blame than others, they are seen to be more culpable. Memory lapse, though resulting in potentially very serious outcomes, is looked upon as a more forgivable fault than deliberate abuse of equipment.

This apportionment of blame is often reflected in who is being put at risk. Most people probably accept that ‘dangerous’ sports such as caving and rock-climbing are morally acceptable because they tend to place only the willing participants at risk. Even rescue teams are willing and highly aware of the dangers. Other dangerous activities such as driving at speed in towns are morally less acceptable since those at greatest risk of injury are usually not willing participants. But this is a black and white comparison, and often the risk will be much less apparent to those committing Unsafe Acts in the workplace.

Probably, the most important aspect of this is the question – ‘Why do people commit Unsafe Acts?’ Unsurprisingly the answer is going to be complex, but a clue might be found in a term that is familiar to us all – “ Workplace Culture”.

It’s often defined as the “ individual and collective attitudes, values, and competences” - or something very similar. It’s fairly easy to see how individual and collective attitudes might affect the incidence of violations, and then we might look at why negative attitudes exist in the workplace. The usual culprits probably come into view, with lack of supervision, lack of leadership, and poor working arrangements among the most likely. However, this is not to take away the fact that we are responsible for our actions, and also to remember that we are all human, and fallible.

When we look at other sort of Unsafe Acts, e.g. errors and omissions, then we can see how these might be related to competence. Individuals who lack training will often lack in competence, and organisations with inadequately or incompetently prepared risk assessments and safe systems of work will often find problems in the way work is done, with errors and omissions practically built into the job.

And lastly, values; this covers a lot of things such as belief that the workforce matter as people, and that the job is fundamentally of value. That rather familiar old definition of workplace culture turns out to be tied pretty closely to the way people behave. So, can we make any use of this connection?

If there are a lot of Unsafe Acts then there is a good chance that there will be plenty of loss incidents such as near misses and accidents. Whichever way a company defines Unsafe Acts, they can be observed and recorded, classified as errors or violations, and the relevant elements of the workplace culture considered. For example, frequent shortcuts by pedestrians across a traffic only zone are clearly violations and put the spotlight on workplace attitudes, whereas a high incidence of overloading of hand-trucks, wheelbarrows, etc. indicate errors caused by lack of training. The process is not entirely ‘scientific’ but it may be helpful as a practical way to get to grips with a problematic workplace culture.Whats

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