While injury prevention strategies are generally effective, safety management systems need to be more resilient in the face of external factors such as COVID-19, according to recent research.
Australian organisations have fairly resilient injury prevention strategies in place, as seen by the low injury rates experienced over the last decade – particularly when compared to other countries such as the US and the UK, said Tanya Jenke, general manager for EHSQ software provider Cority Australia.
However, she noted that OHS professionals saw 144 occupational fatalities in 2018 across Australia, at a cost of $62 billion dollars annually (or 4 per cent of Australian’s Gross Domestic Product).
“The asymptote of the injury curve indicates that prevention strategies have been effective, however there is room for improvement, specifically when looking at maintaining an effective safety management system that is resilient to changes in external factors such as COVID 19,” said Jenke, who was speaking ahead the 2021 AIHS National Health & Safety Conference, which will be held online from 18-20 May 2021.
As part of Jenke’s current PhD research investigation, she found a relationship between organisational safety performance and external factors including GDP.
She explained that organisations need to determine if their safety management systems are resilient enough to account for the influence of economic changes.
“This study demonstrates that there is more to injury prevention than just organisational culture but also external factors such as the economy must be considered,” she said.
She noted Dekker and Pitzer (2016) suggest that the asymptote for safety performance is due to safety systems no longer being adequate to control risks and that the plateauing of performance results in many organisations being surprised by fatal accidents that are seemingly unconnected to the measured and monitored risks.
ISO 31000 Risk Management: Guidelines also highlight the importance of an organisation being dynamic and also references the importance of examining external factors when designing a framework for risk management.
“The economic environment influences the availability of manpower and a change in the economy will impact organisations,” said Jenke.
“Making sure organisations can cope with change is important as the number of people in the workforce will change the risk.
“The expectation of workplace health and safety regulations is that workplaces are a safe place of work at all times. Organisations may be surprised as they are not considering the influence of economic cycles on safety performance.”
Research indicates that injury prevention strategies in the manufacturing industry in Western Australia are not as effective during an economic downturn, such as the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, and Jenke said the COVID-19 pandemic shows that economic downturn trends are not one-off.
“Manufacturing in Western Australia was the most sensitive to any changes in economic cycles when compared to mining, construction, and agriculture,” said Jenke.
“This may be due to the size of manufacturing organisations in Australia which are smaller than the larger mining and construction industries which would have large resources to remain stable and resilient to external changes.”
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been widespread and permeated into all facets of life, according to Jenke, who said one of the impacts of COVID-19 is the impact to the economy, more specifically the unemployment rate.
“During a recession there are less workers employed in high-risk industries such as mining and construction,” she said.
“If high-risk industries lay off more employees during a recession this will lead to lower accident rates.”
Jenke observed some researchers suggest the phenomena of a “natural selection,” whereby older, more skilled workers are maintained and thus are less likely to be injured.
As organisations are increasing the number of employees that are being laid off or made redundant in response to a drop in GDP, she said many workers fear losing their job and may not report an occupational injury.
From studies on the impact of occupational injury rates in the US post the GFC, as many as 20 per cent of workers fear harassment and risk of dismissal when reporting occupational injuries during periods of recession, she said.
Furthermore, as many as 21 per cent of injured employees lost their job after filing an occupational injury claim during a recession and 25 per cent of employees were discouraged by their employer to submit a claim.
“If workers do not feel safe in reporting occupational injuries this can result in providing organisations with a false sense of security in their actual safety statistics resulting in them being surprised when injuries occur,” she said.
“Research has shown economic cycles can influence safety performance by the acute removal of funds from an organisation’s income during economic recession,” said Jenke.
“As a reduction in resources result in the removal of people from the workforce during a recession period, organisations that are reliant on administrative controls, PPE, and supervisors to control risk will be putting their workforce at an increased level of risk.” Reductions in safety performance have the potential to significantly add to an organisation’s liability, said Jenke, and in particular there are high penalties associated with non-compliance to managing workforce risk in Australia.
Based on the research Jenke conducted on 577,778 occupational injuries reported to WorkCover in Western Australia from 2003–2019, she said the data indicates that Western Australia follows a procyclical trend for injuries.
This means that as the economy grows, occupational injuries increase and as the economy moves into recession, injuries decrease.
“Why? During economic growth there is more work being done which increases the likelihood of injuries,” she said.
“Additionally, increased hiring of new, unskilled workers and increased demand for goods and services leads to less maintenance of equipment which can lead to an increase in the risk of injuries.
“As the pace of work is slower during recession there is more time to train and upskill workers during employment which decreases the risk of injury.”
Four main industries were studied in Jenke’s research: mining, manufacturing, construction, and agriculture, and of these four the manufacturing industry showed more sensitivity to economic changes.
Jenke said there are a number of important implications for OHS professionals, and Jenke said they should create workplace environments where workers are safe to report occupational injuries.
Additionally, if the level of risk has changed due to an economic recession, she said it is even more important for people to accurately report occupational injuries in order to determine the actual risk given the current work environment.
“Working in an environment with reduced manpower is stressful and can have an impact on safety reporting culture,” said Jenke.
“If employees are feeling vulnerable, they may fail to report an occupational injury for fear of dismissal. Providing easy technology that can engage workers to report injuries in a confidential manner is important.
“As OHS professionals it is our responsibility to ensure that injury prevention controls maintain a safe workplace at all times,” she said.
Jenke will be speaking at the 2021 AIHS National Health & Safety Conference, which will be held online from 18-20 May 2021. For more information call (03) 8336 1995, email email@example.com or visit the conference website.