Greg Smith

The Safety Profession’s Disconnect Between Process and Purpose

Mary Conquest talks to Greg Smith. Greg helps EHS professionals understand and manage Safety bureaucracy, processes and measurement to create workplace environments that achieve better Safety outcomes. Learn why Safety is a narrative, not a number and reconnect with it’s true purpose.

In This Episode

In this episode, Mary Conquest speaks with Greg Smith, an international award-winning author and qualified lawyer who has spent more than two decades specializing in Safety and Health management. Greg is also regarded as a leading provider of Safety training, particularly in the areas of management responsibilities and contractor safety management.

Describing himself as ‘Safety agnostic’, Greg doesn’t care how HSE professionals approach Workplace Safety - he just wants to help you be effective. However, he knows how challenging this can be and explains why Safety is a ‘wicked problem’ that is essentially unsolvable.

Gregs discusses the impact of legal frameworks on Safety Management and shares real-life examples of the unintended consequences of the criminalization of Safety.

Safety processes and measurement are the key themes of this fascinating conversation, as Greg highlights where the profession has become disconnected from its purpose and how this can be addressed.


[Mary] Hi there. Welcome to Safety Labs by Slice. Today's guest spends a lot of time thinking about what he calls the safety profession's "disconnect" between process and purpose. He's a workplace lawyer involved with serious accident investigations and an author whose books include "Paper Safe" and the upcoming "Proving Safety." I'll ask him about those, and about the one safety issue that keeps him up at night.

Greg Smith is a leading workplace lawyer with deep expertise. He provides some of Australia's largest and most significant employers with strategic advice on compliance, incident investigation management and response, safety management, and legal representation. Greg has devised and delivered comprehensive training programs and is regarded as a leading provider of safety and health training, particularly in the areas of management responsibilities and contractor safety management.

He also developed and taught the Accident Prevention Unit as part of the School of Public Health, Safety, and Environment at Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia. Greg joins us today from Perth. Welcome.

- [Greg] Thanks, Mary. Thanks for having me.

- Well, I'm excited about this one. So, let's start with quite a broad concept. You have described safety as, "an archetypal wicked problem." Archetypal.

- I say archetypal.

- All right. There you go. For anyone who hasn't encountered this concept of wicked problems, can you describe what that means and do so in the context of safety?

- I describe it from a fairly basic position. I haven't done a lot of research in it, and there are people far more qualified than me to talk about wicked problems. But fundamentally what we are talking about problem...they're problems that are beyond complex. So, if you put a man on the moon, that's a complex problem, but the solutions are known or knowable.

Whereas when you talk about a wicked problem, there are no solutions. You don't solve wicked problems. I think the lexicon about wicked problems is you tame them. So, if you think about safety, safety's not a solvable problem. It doesn't look the same every day.

And in fact, one of the issues with safety, and we are living through this right now, is depending on how you define the problem, it kind of defines what your solution might look like. So if you want to do a mathematics problem, your view on the problem doesn't change the way you solve it.

When you're looking at safety or other public policy decisions like, you know, youth crime, or homelessness, or those really difficult wicked social problems, the way you define the problem often describes how you solve it. And safety is replete at the moment with these sort of black-and-white expressives of the problem. People are the solution, they're not the problem.

You can either blame or you can learn. You can't do both. And so, depending on how you define the problem, often defines how you come to solve it. One of the other characteristics of wicked problems is that very often our solutions have unintended consequences. And I think a lot of the stuff that I see, and I have to pick up, are the unintended consequences of process.

So, we introduce an idea into the organization, and that has unintended consequences. We've seen that in the debate around things like zero harm. We've seen that in the debate with things like injury rates. And the other problem is, once you put these ideas into an organization, if they have an unintended consequence, they're notoriously difficult to remove.

And I think you had Professor Drew Rae on one of your earlier programs talking about that. We often put things in, but once they're in, trying to get them out is enormously problematic. So, they're some of the key characteristics I see of a wicked problem.

- So when we're talking about safety approaches in the vein of no one size fits all, you've observed that when people come up with new safety frameworks, we often forget about the different legal frameworks in which safety professionals also have to operate. Does that add to the wickedness?

- It certainly adds to the legal problems that we have to deal with. And look, I've had these conversations with really well-qualified safety people who are perfectly prepared to say, "I'm not a lawyer, so that's not my job to decide how this fits in." And I think that's slightly naive, you know, particularly when you're talking...board members, for example, of organizations or business owners, they've got the responsibilities to make sure they're meeting their legal requirements.

So, I think it's incumbent on the safety industry to understand how our initiatives impact on legal risk in a business, or at the very least, to recognize when our legal initiatives might increase legal risk and be conscious of that. And that's being extremely aware that legal risk management doesn't have to be, nor should it be, the primary purpose of safety management.

In some organizations, it can be. I think we're seeing a bit of that in Australia at the moment in some jurisdictions because we've introduced a whole range of quite over-the-top systems of retributive justice around industrial manslaughter and liability for officers. So, I think there's a fair bit of legal risk management bubbling under the surface, which sometimes gets in the way of safety initiatives.

But I think there at least has to be a recognition to say, if we are doing this, these are where the legal risks might come in and at least have the opportunity to address them.

- Yeah. Well, it is the environment in which a safety professional must operate. It may not be the primary goal, you know, let's just not get sued - Yeah. So, just imagine for a moment the role of the safety professional or the reach of a podcast like this if there was no safety legislation.

What would that look like then? I think it would look extremely different from what it looks like today. And when you look at all safety initiatives, whether consciously or unconsciously, and it's probably a bit chicken and egg, but they link back to the regulatory framework. There's a pretty simplistic common linear regulatory framework. So it may be that the ways of keeping people safe emerged first, and then from there, the regulators said, "Well, we're going to codify that into legislation."

Or it may have been that someone codified the legislation. I don't have that depth of historical knowledge about the legislation, not sort of before the '70s at least. But certainly, you know, whenever you talk about things like learning teams or the new one, the 4 D's questioning techniques, or you go back to safe act observations, or any kind of root cause analysis or safety conversations, any of those things, they all link back to the regulatory framework.

That's not to say it's done to meet the regulatory framework, but they clearly fit within it.

- When we first met, you said that continuing fatalities are what keeps you up at night. And specifically, the thought that either we aren't doing the right things to prevent these accidents, or there's a natural limit to what we actually can do to prevent accidents. Have you reached any conclusions about that, or had any further thinking?

- No, not especially. I mean, I think we might have mentioned this. As a lawyer, in particular, I'm largely safety agnostic. I don't care how you do safety, just show me that it works. That's kind of where I am. But having said that, I'm not a fan of zero harm as a mantra, for example.

I think it's problematic. And I do think there is a...I think we really oversell and we have historically oversold the capacity of organizations to influence outcomes, particularly in large organizations. So I simply don't think with the best will in the world that an organization can meaningfully ensure that accidents never happen.

I just don't think we've got the bandwidth to actually do that. I think the best we can hope for is to do everything we possibly can to create the environment where accidents don't happen. But part of my concern in that is that yes, deeply concerned about fatalities, but probably not for the reason that most people are.

So, most people get into safety because they don't want people being hurt, and/or very often they've had some sort of traumatic event in their own life, which triggers them. My experience is a bit different because I'm often left holding the hands of the workers and managers who are left behind, sometimes literally, who are personally devastated by what's occurred. And then all of a sudden they find themselves sitting in a little room with two regulators and a couple of tape recorders running, having absolutely no idea what's going on.

They've never been prepared for this sort of issue. They don't know the process. They don't understand what's going on. And I think, unfortunately, that is being compounded...and I won't speak universally, but I certainly will speak for Australia. We seem to have created this really black hat rhetoric in safety. And that is that every time somebody dies at work, it's because of this evil, recalcitrant employer who does not care about their workforce.

I think that's terribly unproductive and I think it's terribly unfair. I understand where it comes from, but I don't think that makes it right. And often the safety industry buys into this in a way, which I think is somewhat hypocritical. And it is very hard because we're talking about it such a huge spread of ideas and people, but you get this situation where we can't blame the workers because it's not their fault and everything they do is an expression of the organization.

You know, worker behavior's not the problem, it's an expression of the problem. Okay, fine. Organization suffers a fatality, it's the manager's fault, or it's the CEO's fault. And we don't recognize that everything they're doing is as much an expression of the environment that they operate in as anything else.

And I find it hypocritical that so many people will jump onto online social media platforms if a company officer is prosecuted celebrating that event as though it's good for safety. And it's not. It's just I think it misunderstands a lot.

- I had wanted to ask you about that. You'd mentioned that new view, for example, and I'm using that as a bit of a shorthand for broadly more recent thinking, is very good at trying to understand why it made sense for the worker to behave in a given way, but does not extend that reasoning to leadership, which is what you've just described.

But why do you think that is?

- That's an interesting question, the why? I think in part, because there is no customer base for that conversation. So, if I'm talking about defending, saying you are only going to prevent accidents if you fix the environment where the worker operates, there's a customer base for that. I can sell that to an organization. If I say we need to fix the environment the businesses operate in, what's my customer base?

It's governments and changing government regulation. And there's very little appetite for that from what I can see. Most commonwealth countries at least, so Canada, New Zealand, Australia, UK, and Australia, very much based on the Robbins model back in the 1970s, the report of Lord Robbins, and all the legislation still looks like that.

You know, we call it this new legislation and we've tweaked a few things and we've made sure we've got Uber know, Uber food deliveries brought into the mix. But at the end of the day, it's the same criminal legislation and nobody's ever stopped and said, is there a different way to do this? And we actually in truth, we keep doubling down on it. We say, well, it's not working, so let's move the fines, you know, in Australia's WA's case, at least let's move the fines to $10 million.

Okay, based on what? There's no empirical evidence that says significantly increasing these fines will improve safety outcomes. So, it's an odd situation we find ourselves in. And to be completely cynical, if the real beneficiaries, and if you look across Australia and say, well, who are the real beneficiaries of this move to retributive justice and heavy criminalization and personal liability?

Well, you know, one of the beneficiaries of the lawyers. It's hasn't been bad for business. And if the beneficiaries of your legislation are the lawyers, I think there's a big question mark that sits against it.

- I was going to ask you specifically about the criminalization of safety with jail time and terms like industrial manslaughter, and ask you whether this is the best way to create accountability. So, spoiler alert, you've just said no.

- I don't think it is.

- Yeah. Are there any potential benefits of it? And maybe what are some of the unintended consequences of that kind of a move?

- So, I find this interesting, and I don't want to be a complete, you know, wanker and say, "I told you so." But back in must have been 2022 when the legislation first came into WA. So, we had this legislation across Australia, most jurisdictions picked it up in 2011, 2012. WA waited until 2022.

But I was doing a podcast with James MacPherson, who I think you've also had on the show. And I was saying, look, one of the unintended consequences of this that we're seeing straight away is we're moving from safety risk management to legal risk management. People aren't sharing lessons. People are locking information down. They're becoming more concerned about their interactions with the regulator.

And then just this year, we finalized an inquiry into the high fatality rates in the agricultural industry in Western Australia. And one of the key findings of that was that the agricultural industry was not prepared to engage with the regulator. They weren't reporting things, they weren't raising issues, they weren't seeking help. And one of the key motivators for that was the idea of industrial manslaughter because that's how the regulator and the government led the legislation with industrial manslaughter, you'll go to jail, yada, yada, yada.

And so if you are a person who advocates a no-blame culture in an organization for the reasons that people aren't prepared to raise concerns or share or seek help or report, those things, all you are seeing is the same reflection of that at a macro level when you have a system of retributive justice in the legislation.

The other difficulty is I don't think it was disingenuous, but it was always going to happen, was that the entire history, again, talking in Australian context, at least, the entire history of the prosecution of company officers... So I'll take a step back. So, the legislation introduced this new positive due diligence obligation on company officers, so company directors, secretaries, CEOs, very senior people.

It attached very significant fines of up to $5 million and very significant fines of like 20 years in jail. Slightly different in each jurisdiction, but very significant. Yet the entire history of the prosecution of managers and officers in Australia, even pre-WHS legislation, there was power to do it, has always been small business owners with hands-on day-to-day close involvement with the business.

And even with this new legislation, this positive duty, that's all we've seen. And yet I think the popular perception of this legislation was, all of these chief executives of major mining companies sitting in tall offices in capital cities are all suddenly now vulnerable to prosecution. And they're simply as a matter of practical application of the law, they're not.

So, I think it's all been a little bit...again, I hesitate to use the word disingenuous, but I just don't see that it was ever going to achieve the objectives it was designed to achieve.

- It's funny because there's so much...speaking about the unintended consequences of zero harm, this is the exact same unintended consequence of not reporting, not engaging with regulations, that sort of thing. And also, it speaks to what you said about this view of the owner, the leader, the manager being, you know, a Disney villain.

- Yeah, it almost is at that level. Now, look, I'm not so naive as to suggest that there aren't business owners and managers out there who exploit people, okay? I fully accept that. I fully accept that. But if you have a system of regulation, which is kind of all or nothing, then I'm not sure you create the best opportunity.

So, one of the issues, for example, with the inquiry into the agricultural fatalities is, at the time I was sitting, I think, on five agricultural fatalities, and they're all pretty horrific. But fundamentally, what they involved was the deaths of typically husbands or sons or brothers, male workers. And so then you're in a real pinch as a regulator, particularly as an investigator...

And I had a chat with an investigator, I really respect her, and she was saying, you know, if I was asked to take this matter any further, this was one where a son had been killed in front of his father, if I was being asked to go and interview the mother in relation to a work health and safety breach, I'd resign.

And so you've got this real dilemma in that industry, at least, where the legislation's just wholly unfit for purpose. Because even if you get hold of that family and you stick them in front of a court, magistrate's going to have a fair bit of sympathy in terms of where we end up with...the idea of retributive justice is kind of lost, but we don't really have a middle ground.

So, we don't have a capacity to inquire into workplace accidents in a systematic way. I mean, you've got coroner's inquest, but they're a bit hit and miss in terms of when they occur to actually inquire into and to learn something. Retributive legislation is really anti-learning in the same way that discipline and punishment in a workplace is anti-learning.

And yet we can't seem to equate those two things.

- I'm going to pull us back a little bit, but we're going to come back to inquiry-based issues. So, I'd like to discuss some of the ideas that you introduced in "Paper Safe," because there's sort of an evolution here. Let's talk about everyone's favorite word, bureaucracy. How do you define it, and why is it important to understand?

We're just kind of starting with basics, so I can...

- Yeah. I defined it in the book as a disconnect between process and purpose. And we see it all the time in...and it's not just safety initiatives. And if you think about performance reviews in a HR context, you know, you've got this performance review that's designed to achieve an outcome. And typically at the end of the day, it's like, "Okay, we haven't seen each other for six months. What do you think?"

Yeah, righto, tick, tick, tick. You're happy with that? Yeah, it's done. Let's move on. And it never gets revisited again. So, disconnect between process and purpose. And as I say in the book, the purpose becomes the process.

The reason I'm doing this activity is not to achieve the outcome of you bettering yourself in this workplace, I'm doing it because if I don't, the bloody HR manager's going to be emailing me and asking for these things. I've got to get it done. And I see that almost universally in safety. And I am prepared to concede that most of the time when I'm looking at the process, it's because something's gone wrong, which probably makes it more likely that there's a disconnect.

But I do often get asked to do investigations when things have not gone wrong. I do get asked to look at processes when things have not gone wrong. And that same disconnect exists when accidents are not happening.

- Well, and you're certainly not the only guest to be talking about this by any means, right? So, it's not as though your context of usually looking at investigations afterwards is really blinding you to this. It's there.

It's there.

- And it's decades, decades old. And, again, it's not just in safety. We have this routine, regular, and consistent disconnect between the processes we describe and what they're meant to be achieving for us.

- So, when we talked about it last time, you said're not saying that you want to get rid of all paperwork, but you did talk about this kind of paperwork in terms of the evidence. Can you expand on that, like, evidence of activity as opposed to...?

- The difficulty, I think, is the way that we measure safety. And interestingly, just before I jumped on here, I was listening to had a podcast on measuring safety, and you had [inaudible 00:22:13]. It's one of the things that fascinates me. You know, we'll probably come to it, but it's kind of what the new book's about. But the way we measure safety is we measure activity.

So, a classic measure of safety is the number of corrective actions closed out within an allocated time. And what we are saying is because we've conducted this activity and closed out these corrective actions, that somehow gives us a green box on the report, and it somehow magically contributes to safety.

But there's an enormous number of assumptions that underpin that. So whether the investigation or the audit was done well, whether the right corrective actions have been done. It's as simple as, have they actually been implemented? And I say that because I don't know how many times I've had this conversation where somebody says, you know, they have to be closed out before the end of the month, 24 hours before the cutoff period, someone gets an email that says, "You've got 14 outstanding action items."

And then somehow magically, some sort of Harry Potter crap happens, and 24 hours later, everything's closed out. And you see that in everything that we measure in safety. So, leave aside the whole injury rate stuff, that's got its own issues, everything that we measure in safety is fundamentally a measure of activity. It's not a measure of quality.

It's not a measure of efficacy. It doesn't measure contribution to safety outcome. I think the safest...or the best way, I think, to think about measures of safety is they're not a full stop, they're a question mark. They should be pointing us in the direction of where do we go and ask more questions. Where do we go and seek more information?

Because this idea that we can somehow measure the number of take fives that have been done by workers, you know, the little personal risk assessments and say that that is somehow evidence of effectiveness of safety in our organization is just nonsense. It's just capital N Nonsense.

- Yeah. There's a lack of qualitative flavor. Yeah.

- There's not even a pretense of efficacy. In the "Paper Safe" book, there's a case I refer to involved the Queensland coroner, where a worker was killed by a faulty track maintenance machine. And the worker said, you know, that the checklist was too time-consuming, so they basically was just tick and flick. And the coroner described it as tick and flick.

Okay. So, no one's checking the machinery. So, when I talk about...and I know you've had Dave Provan on talking about safety clutter, and there's a few people who now use that terminology. For me, it's a case of saying, if you are not prepared to invest the time and effort to understand if your process works, what value does the process add? And I guess that's the real challenge I'd say to people.

I think you do need some level of documentation. Different jurisdictions are a bit different about what they mandate, the documents that you must have. But if you must have documents, or if you as an organization say, we need a process, don't duplicate the process.

So, don't have five or six different ways for workers to assess tasks, just give them one. And then it'd be really robust about making sure it's achieving the outcome you want it to achieve.

- It's so simple, but...

- It is when you say it fast. But the problem, again, Mary, without sort of wanting to divert too much, I strongly suspect you put it under the umbrella of safety differently, I strongly suspect we're going the same way in however we describe safety differently. Everything I've seen about safety differently is fundamentally we are talking about the same mechanics with different philosophies.

So, over the last 30 years, I don't know how many different evolutions I've seen of some kind of safety conversation of managers and others going in having conversations with the workers. Fundamentally, we talk about this work as imagined and work as done, that's 30, 40 years old. It's not new.

We've labeled it differently, but there's always been that purpose to go and have the conversations, what are the workers on about? How do they feel? And every single one of them, you can find case law in relation to all of these different processes, safe act observations, management walkarounds, leader observations, all differently titled, all done slightly differently, all with slightly different forms, and they all end up being a counting of the number of interactions, not anything about efficacy or contribution to safety or anything like that.

- Do you think that's inherent in the frameworks, or is it just the way they're implemented?

- I think it is inherent in the corruption of process in organizations. When you put a process into an organization, it is inherently susceptible to corruption in the sense of, I need to do this because somebody wants to look at it.

- There's like a systemic tendency, if you want to call it that.

- Yeah, I think so. And I think it's greater or lesser in different organizations. Even in pockets of organizations, you'll find areas where processes are done well and areas where processes are not done well. And look, there's differences. So, I was listening to something the other Jeff Lyth, I don't know if you've had Jeff on your program.

He talks about micro-experiments and Trojan mice where you come in and you do these little things. I think you had Elisa Lynch on your program talking about how when she tried to introduce safety differently and she made a complete hash of it going to the board, but just went and softly, softly spoke it, and it sort of brought it into life. So, I think that makes sense to me, but it doesn't sort of add value to me as a lawyer, you know, how do we then aggregate these little micro-experiments?

And then the other end of the spectrum, when you bring it in as a program and say, you know, again, 4 D's seems to be one of the newer versions of this, which on its face makes sense. And you talk to somebody like Josh Bryant and the work he's doing in a smaller organization, it seems to make sense.

But, you know, there's a product that goes along with the 4 D's, which is as I understand it, a form that you can use to capture these conversations. And it's not a big leap for an organization to say, we are adopting 4 D's. You will do 3, 4 D conversations a month, and we are going to boom, boom, boom, and straight away you get corruption of purpose.

That's, I think, what we see. I was just going to say, similar, we see a process that's been put out that's called the due diligence index. if you have a look at the due diligence index...I'm doing some work on that at the moment. I'll publish on that soon, hopefully. But again, it strikes me that all of the measures in there are kind of measures of activity, again, so we're running into the same problems.

- So, it sounds like it's not necessarily inherent in the framework so much as inherent in the nature of organizations and how they tend to implement any framework maybe.

- Yeah. I think we saw it with safety culture as well. So, you know, we had safety culture into the lexicon in about '86, and then we end up getting safety culture curves and safety culture programs and safety culture this and safety culture that, and I think the productization and commercialization of safety culture became a really good excuse not to do the hard work of understanding if our risks were being managed.

Because we could develop all these programs and do all these safety culture surveys and do a whole lot of stuff, but no one's physically doing the hard work necessary. The boots on the ground, the constant grind, the boring grunt work and safety, safety at its core is really boring, grunt work about talking to people, understanding risk, understanding if our processes are effective to manage it.

It's not sexy, it's not attractive, it's just grunt work. And I think we've lost some of that in the conversations along the way.

- Do you think that that's due to a commoditization of safety framework?

- Oh, in part, yeah. In part, I would suspect so. And you know, the commoditization of safety...and I don't mean this in a pejorative sense, but it really suits upper management. Because I can bring this organization in, I can run this program, they will push it down through the workforce, and I don't have to change my outlooks, or views, or behaviors, or anything like that.

And again, that's, that's not intended to be pejorative in any way because that's how a lot of things work in organizations. So, why would safety be any different?

- So, when we were talking about the trend towards criminalization of safety and saying that it won't necessarily ultimately improve safety, what is an inquiry-based model? How would you define that, and how does it contrast with this sort of this criminalization?

- So, my view, and I've written about this before, but I kind of... I'll take a step back. So, I acted in a matter in Western Australia, it was the first time a person was sent to jail for breach of health and safety legislation. Small business owner doing work on a roof, workers fell off the roof. One of them died, one of them was seriously injured.

Client pleaded guilty, and there was no sort of detailed examination of the systems of work or anything like that. And indeed, in the magistrate's decision, she said, neither the prosecution nor the defendant could explain to me why the work was performed the way it was on the day. And if you think about that comment, that's what we want to understand, why did a small business owner with 30 years experience building sheds in the southwest of WA, how did their systems of work get to this position?

What's the role of the regulator? What's the role of the building industry in this? How does this happen? And there's no scope to do that in an inquiry, particularly if the defendant pleads guilty. And none of that happens. So if you had an inquiry-based model, and there's any number of ways you can do it, but where you say, well...and again, one of the other benefits here when we talk about chief executive officers or particularly larger organizations, you can say, "Well, if we're having an inquiry-based model, the chief executive officer gets to show up, or is mandated to show up and face some public scrutiny, which is probably more problematic than for many company officers and other forms of inquiry.

But my view is it's a public inquiry. You'd have to set the rules, and obviously, there's ways to think about it, but the company involved would have to contribute financially to it. So, it's not a no-consequence event for them. The findings have to be produced within a very short period of time. I'm talking months, not years.

So, the prosecution process takes years to play out. You can have an inquiry model if you're prepared to resource it and invest in it, where the findings and the learnings come out very quickly and get shared and made publicly available. You have to have rules that say none of the findings of the inquiry can be used in any other proceedings, so they can't be used in commercial lawsuits or anything like that.

And ultimately, I think you do have to have a mechanic whereby the inquiry, similar to what some coroners can in Australia, but not all, but a mechanic where the inquiry can then refer parties to prosecution. You can say, hang on, this has been such an egregious breach and you haven't cooperated with this inquiry and you've sought to mislead the inquiry or whatever it might be.

So we think this is a case that warrants retributive justice, or at least a prosecution.

- So, you're asking the question before you get the answer in terms of instead of just jumping straight to retributive justice, you are asking the question, does this warrant it? Asking all the questions that then lead to whether it's warranted.

- Yes. But first and foremost, you are saying, "Is there something we can learn from this event that will help improve safety?" I think that's our primary goal. And it's not the primary goal...

- Not the punishment. Yeah.

- Yeah. It's not the primary goal at the moment, but I recognize that we do need some mechanic somewhere to punish the truly recalcitrant employers.

- You have used the phrase before, "safety is a narrative, not a number," how does that apply to this kind of inquiry-based model?

- I've used that comment in the terms of, people say to me, "Oh, Greg, if lead and lag indicators are not appropriate, what's the metric for measuring safety?" And to me, there is not one. And without wanting to be too sort of naval gazing on this, lawyers have been looking at occupational safety and health breaches for decades, trying to advise our clients, how do you demonstrate that you are meeting your legal requirements to have a safe workplace?

If there was a number, all right, if there was a metric, if there was something that we could put in front of the court and say, your honor, here's the answer, we kind of would've shared it by now. And there isn't. Just it doesn't exist. I think at best, as I said earlier, the numbers we generate through our organizational safety management systems, at best, they tell us where to go to ask questions.

So, when I say it's a narrative, it's who in the organization is standing in front of the leaders of the organization saying, in the last reporting period, these are the activities that we have undertaken to try and work out if our system is operating effectively if it's achieving the outcomes it's designed to achieve?

And based on those inquiries, this is what we believe. I think that's what it looks like.

- I'm just curious, is the due diligence index an attempt to create that magic number that you were talking about? Is that...I'm not familiar with it.

- Yes, it is. It creates a series of numbers that go onto sort of pressure gauges. But everything that I've looked at in the context of that as an indicator of safety, looks exactly has exactly the same assumptions, complexities, and pitfalls as every other lead indicator in my view that we've tried to establish.

Now, where do I think...and even here, it's problematic. So, people say, "oh, we have lead indicators in process safety, where we go and we check valves and we measure whatever. We check pressures and we check corrosion levels. Okay.

And they say, "Greg, that's objective, and we can test it." Fine. Go back to the BP Texas City refinery explosion. So whenever that was, March 2005, Texas City blew up, however many people killed, huge numbers of injuries. As part of that process before they restarted the raffinate splitter tower, the worker had to go around and check all the pressure gauges.

Objective measures and complete a checklist. And a supervisor came up and said, we haven't got time to complete that before the start-up. And ticked everything off as complete and signed it. And some of the valves and the gauges were directly contributing causes to the overflow of the raffinate splitter tower.

Every process is corruptible in that way. Every process. And the question for the organization becomes, "How much time, effort, and energy do we need to put into making sure the process works?" Checking the checkers, so to speak.

- Is a narrative, or more as you were discussing, is just said every process is potentially corruptible, is a narrative impervious to that?

- Nope. Equally corruptible. I think it's got less lines of failure. So, if you are the person who has to come and stand in front of us as an executive leadership group, and say, this is what we've done. This is what we've looked at. This is what we believe. Here's my signature.

I think there's an accountability and less potential corruptibility around that. Whereas if you say, we are going to assume that the number of corrective actions closed out is a measure of safety, there's a lot more potential...there's a lot more assumptions that underpin that. Whereas there's one assumption that you are competent and you are honestly coming here, exercising your best endeavors to give us information.

And again, it's not perfect. It is by no means perfect, but I think it will give...I think it helps to create at least a better understanding of the state of safety than their current sort of measures do.

- I think it's more inherently understandable, too. Humans understand narrative, and people often pretend that they understand metrics or whatever, you know, even ones that they use all the time.

- Oh, yeah. And safety literacy particularly at an executive level, I think is really lacking. And again, that's not meant to be pejorative or critical, it just is... Very, very few people make their way to senior executive roles in organizations via health and safety pathway.

They get there typically through engineering, or finance, or something like that, maybe HR sometimes. But the way I liken it, and particularly in Australia where we have these new due diligence obligations, and I sit on some boards and I'm an officer in my own right, in other ways, I had to go and do the Australian Institute of Company directors how to read a financial report course.

So, I didn't know how to do that. I didn't know how to...numbers are not my things, apart from, you know, as a lawyer, six-minute increments. But beyond that, numbers are not my thing, right? So, because I have a positive onerous obligation to understand the financial records of the organization to be able to question, and challenge, and understand.

That's no different from an officer's obligations in relation to safety in the organization, but we don't give them that skillset to question and challenge and understand. And I've said this publicly before, I think if officers gave the same level or brought the same level of acumen and the same level of diligence to safety as they do to financial reporting of the organization, health and safety reports could not look like they do.

They couldn't be based on injury rate data, because anybody who turns their mind to injury rate data for the shortest of periods would recognize it tells them nothing about the efficacy of safety management. Now, there's a role for injury rate data. I think it can highlight trends and issues in an organization.

So I don't have a problem with it as a tool, but it's not a tool that tells us our organization is safe or that our systems work. That's just what I tend to say.

- More a tool saying like, okay, we need to ask some questions, and what questions should we ask?

- Yeah, I think so.

- So, last time we spoke, you said that if "Paper Safe" was a book about problems, "Proving Safety," the upcoming one is hopefully going to be a book about, if not solutions, at least directions. Can you tell us more about what to expect?

- So, what I'm trying to do in "Paper Safe," I did talk about some of the limits on current systems of reporting. I just want to expand a bit on that. I do want to dive into the idea of, and really pull apart the idea of safety as a wicked problem and what that talks about. I do want to then line up and say, try and draw a line in the sand and say, look, organizationally, we are never going to prevent all accidents.

And again, at least in Australia, but I think this is mirrored in many places, we have a model of legislation that says, actually, it's not your job to prevent all accidents. It's your job to do everything reasonably practicable to ensure that people are not exposed to harms. And so it's about saying, even if you say to me, Greg...and, you know, safety loves to occupy the high moral ground on this compared to lawyers.

And they say safety legal compliance is our minimum standard. And that's fine. I don't have a problem with that, although I do have a problem with the way that compliance is framed. Compliance is not ticking a form on a paper. Compliance is making sure the process achieves the outcome. That's what compliance is.

So, I think there's a misnomer there, but that's fine. But can we at least have a discussion about how we would frame up safety reporting and conversations in a way that would give us real comfort that what we have done in our organization to manage safety is everything reasonably possible to create a safe environment? And if we can do that, instead of trying to micromanage and control every action that takes place in the workplace because we think we have to prevent everything that goes wrong, maybe we've got a better chance of creating an environment to achieve better outcomes.

It's kind of moving that conversation. And in part, Mary, it's describing what we talked about before, what is the narrative that replaces the number if we are prepared to do that? And also, how do we use the numbers to ask better questions?

- And I would think too, as well, how to refocus on purpose when you're talking about process and purpose.

- Yes. For me, I've probably gotten to the point where I probably do need to be explicit about that, but that's kind of inherent. In everything that I'm talking about when it comes to my own views on safety and my own views on legal risk management, it's always that connection of purpose. So, we've got a process, it should be designed to do two things.

One, to achieve its specific outcomes at a micro level. So, take five is the simplest one. The personal risk assessment tool that we often ask workers to fill out before they start a job, does that tool ensure that the workers understand the hazards associated with their work. Okay.

And the second thing we need to understand is, does it make a contribution to the broader outcome of a safe workplace. And how does it do that? And most of what I've seen in safety is not very good at being overt about the purpose of what we do. And indeed, I've had lots of conversations, and I think a lot of your listeners will appreciate this, where the purpose can come...literally, the purpose can come later.

So, again, hazard reporting. You talk to people, say, we need to introduce the system of hazard reporting. We are going to mandate that people report three hazards a shift. And you say, "Okay, but what about the quality?" And say, "Oh, we want to get them into the habit of doing it, and then we'll work on the quality." And it's just all bullshit, you won't.

The quality will never come. It will always be metrics counting, activity counting process. And so I think we're very poor at both describing and testing and assuring purpose. Does it do what we want it to do?

- Okay. Well, it has come to the time in the interview where I ask you the questions that I ask everyone. And so here we go. If you were to design training in sort of interpersonal skills for tomorrow's safety professional, where would you focus?

- Interpersonal skills, not my strong suit, I have to say. It comes from too many years as a lawyer. I think it's got to be empathy and curiosity. I think it's being curious about what's happening about your own processes about what people are dealing with, and being empathetic to that.

That seems to make sense to me. If nothing else, that's what I'd like to be on the receiving end of.

- That's a good way to frame it. If you could go back in time to the beginning of your career, is there one piece of advice that you might give to young Greg?

- It's not professional, it's personal, and it's don't lose contact with friends so easily. You get so caught up in what you're doing and where you go and you look back and you think there's lots of really good people along the way that you've kind of just drifted apart from. And you sort of think, "Yeah, it'd be really nice if that hadn't have happened."

- That's a good thing to keep in mind. I've been thinking about that myself recently.

- It's a product of aging, Mary, I'm sure.

- Yeah. Yeah, it's for me too. How can our listeners learn more about the topics on our discussion? So, clearly, the books, "Paper Safe" and upcoming "Proving Safety," but are there websites or books that you particularly recommend?

- Oh in terms of what I...well, without wanting to blow smoke, as I said to you at the start, the two areas I go to for most of my safety information are yourself, this podcast because I think you have a terrific range of speakers. I also like, I mean, really like top of the list is the "Safety of Work" with Drew and David.

I think that's such a resource. I'm talking to somebody, I'm actually thinking we should do something similar from a legal safety perspective. The sort of podcast of case analysis might be interesting. Anyway, that's down the track. I also like the stuff...I like listening to Elisa Lynch's stuff, her and Crystal Danbury. I enjoy what they do.

James MacPherson I think does good stuff, so I listen to all of those. I think they're really useful. They're primary sources. There's a subscription service in Australia called OSH Alert, O-S-H Alert. I think that's a really good source of information about case law and changes to legislation and updates. I think if you're going to subscribe to a service, I think that's a good paid subscription service.

Not affiliated in any way, though. I jump on very quickly there. Yeah. That's some of my main... Oh, and LinkedIn, Ben Hutchinson on LinkedIn. I think he's doing his PhD at the moment. And I was just looking at some stuff this morning, he posted some interesting excerpts from coroner's inquest.

So, he's very similar to what Drew and David do in terms of research, but he does it on LinkedIn through articles. That's a brilliant resource as well. I'd recommend that to anybody interested in these areas.

- Good, thank you. and where can our listeners find you on the web should they wish to reach out?

- LinkedIn's the easiest, I think. LinkedIn's the easiest.

- Well, that is the end of today's episode. Thanks so much for joining me, Greg.

- Thank you for having me.

- Yeah, it was really enjoyable. And thanks to our listeners and those who take the time to comment on LinkedIn and YouTube, you put the pep in our step. Our collectively the "Safety Labs by Slice" team, who I would also like to thank. They put their heart and soul into every episode. Bye for now.

Greg Smith

Greg is an international award-winning author and qualified lawyer who has spent more than three decades specialising in safety and health management. Greg works with clients helping them to understand their responsibility for safety and health and develop processes to discharge those responsibilities. In addition to being a lawyer, Greg has worked as the Principal Safety Advisor for a major oil and gas company and General Manager Health and Safety in a transport and mining services company. Greg holds various board positions and taught the Accident Prevention unit at Curtin University in Western Australia. Greg is the author of, Management Obligations for Safety and Health and Paper Safe: The triumph of bureaucracy and safety management, co-author of, Risky Conversations: The Law, Social Psychology and Risk and the editor of Contractor Safety Management, which won the 2014 World Safety Organisation’s Educational Award.

Greg’s highly acclaimed book: Paper Safe

Greg recommends the following podcasts:

Safety Labs by Slice

The Safety of Work


Rebranding Safety

Also this subscription service: OHS Alert | Premium Workplace health and safety news

And Ben Hutchinson’s research: Ben Hutchinson | LinkedIn