Safety for safety's sake

By Wendy Cramer, Journalist
Friday, 11 August, 2006

One of Australia's leading occupational health and safety managers discusses the evolution of workplace safety in food and beverage manufacturing with What's New in Food Technology & Manufacturing.

When it comes to complying with Australia's occupational health and safety (OHS) legislation, food manufacturers do not have a choice. The legislation requires them to be safe to these minimum levels.

But there's still a big difference between an employee's safety at a compliance level and at a best practice level. Steve Jackson is an occupational heath and safety manager at one of Australia's largest food manufacturers, which is well known for its best practice safety status.

What's New in Food Technology & Manufacturing spoke with Jackson, who has more than 11 years of experience in OHS, to find out just how far Australia's food manufacturers have evolved when it comes to attitudes to safety.

The number of compensated fatalities in the manufacturing industry fell by 69% between 1996-97 and 2002-03, according to the Australian Safety and Compensation Council. In real terms, this saw the number of compensated deaths drop from 64 a year to 20.

When taking into account all compensation claims (fatality or injury), manufacturing has shown a considerable improvement with an incident rate that has decreased from 40 claims per 1000 employees in 1996-97 to 27 claims in 2002-03.

When it comes to food and beverage manufacturing specifically, the sector accounted for four deaths a year in 2002-03 (down from 13 in 1996-97) and a compensated claim incidence rate of 35.0 per 1000 employees (down from 49.7 in 1996-97).

This gives Australia's food and beverage sector the rather dubious claim to fame of having the second-highest incidence rate of compensation claims in manufacturing Australia-wide. Only the metal product sector has a higher rate.

As the statistics state, it's not all bad news and fatalities and injuries have dropped considerably over the past 10 years. So at what point do manufacturers give themselves a pat on the back for their OHS efforts and say they've reached an acceptable level of safety?

While different manufacturers may give you different responses to that question, Jackson will tell you that an acceptable level of safety is when all incidents have been eliminated.

So what's changed?

Most initial efforts at OHS programs were engineered to comply with increasing legislation and pressure from governments, and in many cases employees even saw the new safety measures as time-wasting.

But with a changing emphasis on safety, so too have people's expectations changed. Jackson believes that as safety legislation has improved, employees have gradually become more aware of their rights under that legislation.

"This change has been welcomed by some employers, and yet others have seen it as a distraction from their core business function," he says.

Whether for the right or wrong reasons, Jackson says these changing expectations and the increased risk of prosecution and public embarrassment have resulted in improved health and safety practices and conditions.

Evolving to best practice

Jackson is quietly optimistic when it comes to manufacturers going beyond compliance levels of safety to "safety for safety's sake". He says that large companies today want some kind of recognition of their safety efforts, so they go down the path of being externally certified to SafetyMAP and AS4810.

He admits, too, that when manufacturers take additional steps to ensure higher levels of safety, they see other benefits such as saving money on insurance.

"However, I also believe that the business world is becoming increasingly competitive, and so companies will only invest so much in health and safety where they believe there is some return.

"Simply complying with legislation because it is law is not good enough motivation. I believe there needs to be a real imminent threat of prosecution before some companies make the effort to change," he says.

The drivers of change

The changes that have driven some manufacturers from compliance to best practice have come from many different sectors, according to Jackson. As a Victorian-based manufacturer, he sees WorkSafe Victoria as having played a pivotal role in this evolution.

"Over the years they have significantly increased the numbers of field officers and workplace inspections. They implemented many successful initiatives, including the industry focused approach and Focus 100," he says.

"They also increased the level of guidance material and community support programs and workshops to aid those companies that wanted to improve." Jackson also believes that unions have played a part in improving safety.

Legislation, too, has certainly had an enormous impact on the evolution of OHS in manufacturing. When asked if he believed current legislation went far enough to safeguard workers in manufacturing, Jackson told What's New in Food Technology & Manufacturing: "Yes. We don't need more laws, we need our current ones to be complied with."

"I believe companies should be made to submit or publish their annual safety performance, similar to a tax return, and have it independently validated. If companies had to report on their level of compliance to legislation, they are more likely to comply."

Safety in practice

Employers can set up as many safety systems and procedures as they like, but unless they are adequately communicated to the people who will be working with them day in and day out, they are useless.

Jackson believes that employees today are much more aware of safety issues. "We hear about deaths and serious injuries more often and see the potential impact from television commercials, so I believe this has helped change people's attitudes.

"Most people have come to expect that paperwork and risk assessment are just part and parcel of the job. Some may grumble, but it is now just a fact of life that you cannot start work on a building site without completing an induction, contractors must complete a Job Safety Analysis before commencing any activity and work permits must be issued for work at heights and entering confined spaces."

To encourage employees to follow the systems and procedures set in place at his workplace, Jackson says his company's philosophy is to reinforce positive behaviour.

"Our managers/supervisors are advised to provide positive comments at a ratio of 4:1. We display posters of unsafe and safe acts around the workplace and we have site and departmental safety meetings," he says.

"We conduct regular safety inspections that include employee participation and we consult with our employees prior to workplace changes. Our strategies have been developed to ensure continuous improvement in health and safety performance."

That said, the past 10 years have definitely seen a shift in attitude from both employers and employees, with the recognition that safety is an important aspect of manufacturing, whether it is for productivity or health and well-being.

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