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News 30 June 2020

Preventing Workplace Fatalities - Employers must adopt "bad news hazard reporting"

Many organisations are failing to embrace “bad news reporting” systems and are letting common warning signs like anomalies and process deviations slip through the cracks, missing chances to prevent major accidents and fatalities, according to a world renowned Australian WHS expert.

Australian National University Emeritus Professor Andrew Hopkins told the Australian Institute of Health and Safety’s virtual conference that being alert to warning signs is a characteristic of “high reliability organisations” (HROs). HROs are aware that success breeds complacency and employ highly sceptical forms of auditing that assume things are going poorly unless they are demonstrably going well.

Key to becoming a HRO is understanding that before every major incident there were ignored warning signs that would have prevented the incident had they been addressed, Hopkins said.

“Unfortunately, most organisations fall short because workers ask the wrong question when deciding whether to report an incident. That is, is this something I’m required to report? If it’s not, I won’t record it.

“This is absolutely the wrong question. From my point of view the question they should be asking is, is this something that might be worth reporting? If so, I will report it.”

A major report on workplace fatalities and safety laws in Queensland recommends employers apply the principles of high reliability organisational theory and seek out “near miss signals,” to prevent a drift into complacency and safety failure.

Hopkins was an expert witness at the Royal Commission into the 1998 Esso Longford gas plant explosion in Victoria’s Gippsland region that killed two workers and injured eight.

He said this was an example of a system where workers were aware things were going wrong but hadn’t been encouraged to report “bad news,” and such reporting wasn’t facilitated by the reporting processes.

“Many organisations’ reporting systems fall short because they focus on injuries and near misses, which implicitly discourage workers from reporting issues that fall outside these events.

“Commonly missed warning signs include process deviations, deferred maintenance, corrosion, isolation failures, inappropriate processes, poor ergonomic design and most importantly, anomalies.

“These are what HROs are focused on; getting all these kinds of things reported. We need a “bad news” reporting system which is broad enough to pick up these kinds of things,” Hopkins said.

Encourage workers to make courageous reports

Hopkins urges organisations to encourage, celebrate and reward workers for making helpful and courageous reports, which includes reporting something they did, even if it might make them appear careless or ’stupid.’

For example, Hopkins states a worker should report that they accidentally left a tool somewhere where it could pose a safety risk, and not hide the fact.

“It is important in designing a bad news reporting system to make reporting easier; currently the simplest thing is to have an app on a smart phone or tablet device that workers can use freeform (without compulsory fields).

“Employers need to ensure reports reach an appropriate level in the organisation to elicit a proper response, and respond to the worker who made the report.

“Crucially, they need to encourage workers to make reports, and steer them in the direction of the most helpful way to prevent an accident or fatality,” Hopkins said.

How we can assist

For more information and support for this area of HSW consulting, training and other support, please contact us on 03 8662 5333 or hsw@victorianchamber.com.au to discuss your needs.

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