Workplace Health and Safety – Is Significant Culture Change Possible?

Seven people have died in New Zealand workplaces in recent weeks.  While alarming, what do these tragedies teach us about the country’s work health and safety culture, and what role can effective business process software play in assisting workers to return home every night healthy and safe.

WorkSafe New Zealand just released an alarming report announcing seven people had died in workplace accidents in the previous fortnight. This has led the government agency to explicitly call for a culture change in the country’s workplaces.

Two of these deaths were in the construction industry that, along with farming and forestry, jockey for the dubious honour as first place in the highest workplace injury and fatality rates.

We’ve been working with construction organisations for some time, such as Trade Assist and Southbase who both have a good culture towards this responsibility and use our system to replicate the way they work.

While investigations into the accidents are just starting, and with my thoughts firstly with the family, friends and workmates of those killed, it made me think again about how interlinked workplace culture and health and safety is.

Although undeniably tragic, it’s easy to look at health and safety in extreme terms such as the ultimate workplace death data over a certain period, and make the correlation between work culture and higher accident rates as a major clarion call to action. It’s important for this to be a starting point, as the government department WorkSafe is doing, to get what is deemed ‘social marketing’ messages to New Zealanders that people can die at work and behaviours and cultures must change.

But when it comes to the lower risk businesses that are the majority operating in New Zealand, one of the biggest concerns is not death, but the affect on their bottom line through staff hours and productivity losses. This is even before ACC levy recalculations and possible litigation following workplace accidents is taken into account.

This leaves one undisputable fact – and that’s good health and safety culture, through the best systems, simply makes good business sense. But with a focus on deaths in the media and accident claims and levies, how much do the employees of most of New Zealand’s companies really take on board if they’re not on a worksite, in a forest or outside on an ATV everyday?

I recently had a chat with Jono Brent, CEO of successful contracting, logistics and engineering firm Connetics, who presents the actual definition of “work” in a fresh and interesting way in order to relay the ‘everydayness’ of health and safety.

Nothing is more important to Connetics Jono says, than the health and safety of their employees. The key focus for the company is that it is a truly safe place to work. To achieve this, they strive to be open and honest about operating in a safety-first environment, with a number of strategies to keep safety planted firmly in the minds of employees, managers and the Connetics Board of Directors.

Rather than as ‘the health and safety talk’ that might fail to grab the attention of staff, Jono talks about proactive health and safety management as being part of what successful “work” looks like.  We all do “work” and good work is work that is done efficiently, uses the right tools, produces a good result and is completed safely for all involved.

Not only does this eventually help the productivity levels and the bottom line, but it means that the whole definition of “work” is discussed in its wider context – doing a job well, efficiently, with pride, safely and to a certain standard.  So safety is just part of the culture and becomes the way “work” is done around Connetics.

So for someone running a health and safety software company, it’s a comforting thought that while we process the heart-breaking news of this month’s record workplace tragedies, culture change is already occurring throughout New Zealand’s organisations  and is becoming a fundamental priority of business leadership.

We want to help more of New Zealand’s workplaces get there.

Hamish Howard, Assura Managing Director