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How to improve WHS through better safety communication systems

The following article is a news item provided for the benefit of members. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety.
Date: 
Wednesday, 7 July, 2021 - 11:00
Category: 
Industry news
Location: 
National News

Poor communication is an internal barrier that often undermines a systems-based approach to managing WHS and this can lead to dire safety consequences, according to an expert in the field.

Good communication is not given the same attention as many other areas in business, said Amanda Karpeles, CEO of Raise DM Pty Ltd.

“Things go wrong and when they do the loss of control is almost immediate. The first thing to break down is communication,” said Karpeles.

“My review of hundreds of workplaces over the years has shown me, time and time again that poor communication is an internal barrier that undermines a systems-based approach to managing WHS. This can have devastating consequences.

“There are tensions between operations and HR, the worker and WHS. These workplace processes occur in silos and information does not flow across to the other areas quickly nor effectively,” said Karpeles, who was speaking ahead of SAFEfest for 2021: Health & Safety in a Changing World, which will be held online and in-person from 24-26 August 2021.

There are many channels people use within organisations to communicate and they are becoming increasingly sophisticated, Karpeles said.

However, problems occur when these systems are not integrated, meaning not all communication is going through the right channel when needed, so important messages can be missed.

Similarly, there are times when channels become clogged with irrelevant communication, which is an issue when an emergency or incident is being managed.

Another challenge is that responsible executives or PCBUs sometimes get left out of the communication, so they are not able to adequately discharge their duties.

“Our working environments have changed rapidly in the past 18 months, which is having a big impact on how businesses operate,” said Karpeles.

“Financial, legal and cyber risks are increasing as we move to a decentralised model of working. This heightens the responsibilities and duties of PCBUs as risk get harder to manage and insurance companies reduce the level of cover they are prepared to provide.”

Karpeles explained OHS professionals need to consider such heightened risks and an integrated approach to new solutions to manage such risks.

“Now, with COVID-19 extracting a severe toll on our workplaces and as we enter the new normal; now more than ever before we need good communication,” she said.

Karpeles observed a pre-requisite to effective WHS is education, to assist with situational awareness in staying safe.

“We have a strong understanding that workers possess important information about their job, and so to educate, we commonly use large group discussions, brainstorming, case studies, discovery exercises, hands-on training and reporting back,” she said.

“However, these approaches assume that people will know what to do when under pressure and will actually be able to follow those learnings without error when it matters most.”

This also assumes they will participate and share openly, and then remember what they have learned. “Often, they are told how to do something or which approach is acceptable,” said Karpeles.

“They also have to remember in the context of the activity they are undertaking, in that moment – despite operational requirements, time constraints and distractions. Then they have to continue to do so despite other factors such as frequency, fatigue, home stresses and issues in the workplace and the passage of time. It is also assumed that following this agreed process will keep them safe.”

These assumptions continue despite research showing these learnings are situationally dependent, according to Karpeles, who said that as soon as something goes wrong or multiple things go wrong, the error rate increases.

The probability of this occurring has culminated in the theory of James Reason’s ‘Swiss cheese model’, she said.

“In those moments, businesses need better, more reliable safety-related communication. The communication needs to be personalised and contextually relevant.”

Karpeles said this is as critical to situational awareness as a systems-based approach is to risk assessment and control. “The problem is that we are not making effective use of communication in our traditional approaches,” she said.

“Effective communication has the ability to deliver insights into safety behaviours to help understand when and why things break down … to give us understanding, to allow learnings that help us to anticipate and predict, with the hope we can break that chain of causation.”

Karpeles said it is time for all levels of business to reshape each aspect of their processes from operations, HR, safety and work, to have built within them a systems-based approach to communication.

“Until businesses change their approach to communication, they will only get the information they are looking for [and] not the information they need,” she said.

“Communication needs to be an overarching umbrella, better integrated with all other areas. It also needs to be a matrix, top-down, bottom-up, but also laterally.

“It needs to be contextually correct for the individual at their level and role and it needs to cross traditional barriers around those silos of operations, HR, WHS and the workers.”

Karpeles said future-focused organisations should be implementing a safety communication system and process that is dedicated, secure and yet is both integrated and accessible via other currently siloed channels.

 

Karpeles will be speaking at SAFEfest for 2021: Health & Safety in a Changing World. The Victorian, New South Wales, Tasmania and ACT branches of the AIHS will convene a hybrid event from 24-26 August 2021 with virtual sessions as well as face-to-face sessions in NSW, ACT, VIC and TAS. For more information email events@aihs.org.au or visit the event website.