The Leadership Video Series profiles Australian IR, HR and Safety leaders discussing key issues in the world of work. The aim is to connect our clients to the latest thinking on issues such as innovation, digital disruption, how work is changing, and the impact on IR and safety systems and management. 

LATEST VIDEO: Richard Coleman on “Safety – can we do better?”

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In this video Richard Coleman, General Manager, Safety at Asciano offers insights on:

  • the need to reconsider the traditional approach to thinking about safety management and performance;
  • innovative measures workplaces are adopting to reduce the incidence of work-related injuries and deaths.

He outlines the need for safety managers to understand the health status of the whole population, and put in place interventions based on ‘the four principles of wellness’.

 Richard Coleman | General Manager | Asciano

I think the biggest opportunity for the health and safety profession is not in the safety space I think it is in the health space.

I’ll tell you a story, both my grandfathers were coal miners and I remember in the UK, in the 50s, 60s and 70s that is when they worked and I remember being a young child and going to see my father’s father in hospital after he had had quite a traumatic injury, he had been riding a conveyor belt out of the mine, one of those tasks, sorry, one of those activities that is forbidden but everybody does it, and for whatever reason I don’t remember the reasons, he ended up being quite badly smashed up, broken pelvis, broken leg, a whole range of issues and I remember thinking in that hospital it’s not right that people get hurt at work, and while it probably didn’t consciously stay with me it clearly did stay with me.  But reflecting now, both those grandfathers died of health related conditions that were associated with mining, they weren’t – they died of lung disease – they were both smokers, so smoking plus coal dust increases your risk of lung cancer astronomically, and if I reflect on that I have always thought about the safety risks in work, not necessarily the health risks, and I wonder why that is and I think if I have done that and what I see about the safety profession I think we’ve all done that to an extent.  The safety stuff is so much more immediate, so much more – it captures the attention so much more, whereas I think the opportunity is in thinking about how we influence health.

I think the traditional approach to health and safety measure performance has very much focused it on safety.  So let’s think about the health numbers for a second.  Every year in Australia 200 odd people die from traumatic work related injury - that’s according to Safe Work Australia.  Two thousand people die of suicide, 8,000 people of working age die from cardio vascular disease, who knows how many die from cancer associated with work and I think we have spent an inordinate amount of time trying to deal with that 212 causes of harm and people suffering intensely and in ways that are unimaginable to us when we need to do that, but we forgot about the ninety per cent of issues here and the reasons for that are complex but that’s no excuse for us not to be thinking about that much more effectively in a much more organisationally aware way and in ways that actually meaningfully start to address those numbers.

Jane I think the first way is for us to actually understand it.  We spend a very large amount of time trying to understand the safety risks in all of our businesses and I don’t think we spend anywhere near enough time trying to understand the health risks.  When we do we tend to do things that are essentially compliance based.  So we’ll do a whole range of statutory medicals on people which really – they don’t measure health, they measure whether or not somebody is actually safe to operate a piece of plant.  It’s a kind of binary decision either I’m too fat to drive a train or I’m not too fat to drive a train, either my blood pressure is okay to drive a train or it’s not and what we’re not doing is actually understanding the health status of the whole population because all of us exist on a continuum from, unfortunately, dead through to extremely unwell through to fantastically healthy and likely to be on the lifestyle channel hosting our own health and well being show and we’re all somewhere between on that continuum and what we don’t know today is where our people in any given organisation are and how we help individuals to move so our first thing is gaining better data.

Jane I think what’s next is actually understanding and putting in place interventions that think about really four components of wellness.  Traditionally we think about diet and exercise, and that’s important, that’s the kind of physical component of wellness, but there is also psychological wellness, how people are dealing with the work organisation, the pressures of work, the levels of autonomy that they may or may not have.  There’s social wellness, how connected are people to their community.  What are we doing to make sure that work is not causing people to be completely disconnected?  How are we using work as a vehicle to increase connectivity?  Then finally there is an issue about intellectual wellness.  So people need to be growing and learning in order to be well – the research is really clear about it – it’s not just physical wellness, there are four key components and the interventions that we put in place need to think about all of those.

There are a number of organisations that are really great things and they are connecting their employees into wider aspects of society but focused on particular issues of well being.  I know one organisation that’s connected with quite a famous celebrity chef and then he’ll do some work with issues to do with food and grow your own food out into primary schools and other places.  My own organisation has connected very strongly with the RU OK group and using our work with RU OK to build our own psychological wellness within our business and I think this opportunity to say “how do we connect specific issues that relate to our workforce and our people with broader societal good is one where there is real opportunity”.  Just giving somebody a gym membership or handing out some EAP brochures is not the same as actually getting people actively involved and often caring about others as the way in to think about their own well being.

Jane I think safety professionals have a whole range of different strengths and one of them that I really admire generally is Rigour.  They are very good at thinking through things in a structured and planned way.  For example, risk registers in a given workplace are often extremely well structured, there’s a clarity to it, there is a methodology to it.  Unfortunately when it gets down to the health risks it tends to be one line – health risks.  The opportunity for me is to expand the thinking around those health risks.  Understand what they are in much greater depth, start connecting to the broader groups in the organisation to understand what the current and proposed controls are for those things.  Much more connection into HR and understanding how job design, job planning, restructuring, shift work – all those issues play out in terms of health outcomes rather than just saying – health risks from platters, gym memberships.

The standard answer to what are the benefits of increased focus and wellbeing is you will get a better safety outcome because more fit people will have less musculoskeletal type injuries and the like.  That’s true, that’s undoubtedly true but I think it’s really narrow.  I think the absolutely massively untapped benefit, if you think about everybody being on this continuum of wellness, is if you shift everybody up – if you shift everbody to a point where they are much closer to being the best them that they can be, you get massive increases in engagement, productivity, general happiness in the workplace.  Now I know it is kind of a “fluffy” concept happiness but we want happy, engaged, productive people, that’s where our competitive advantage lies and its not something that safety people traditionally thought about.