Are your WHS policies ‘as useless as a chocolate teapot’?

Are your WHS policies ‘as useless as a chocolate teapot’?

By Gaby Grammeno on 15 October 2018 Many people who’ve worked in large organisations will recognise the scenario where the wording of mission statements, vision statements, fine-sounding policies and formulations of ‘Our Values’ are laboriously thrashed out and argued over, then filed away and never heard of again, while everyone continues with business-as-usual.

This is a classic flaw in numerous WHS management policies and systems generally – they may look good on paper, but in practice they may be focused on the wrong things, implemented officiously in ways that unreasonably impede or impose on staff, or routinely ignored or flouted.

Focusing on the wrong issues

The disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 was a ‘how-not-to-do-it’ lesson in policy and systems development.

The operators of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig were widely criticised for their policy orientation and safety management system that focused on indicators that measured personal safety (eg the use of personal protective equipment), rather than indicators of the safety of the offshore drilling process.

Policies or procedures relating to precursors or warning signs of a well-head blowout – such as ‘well kicks’, well cementing failures or dangerous concentrations of vent gas – were lacking or inadequate.

On the morning of the catastrophic explosion and fire that killed 11 men and caused widespread long term environmental, social and public health devastation, a management team had been on the rig celebrating what they believed was an excellent safety record of seven years with no lost time injuries.

Officious implementation

A central reason for the often-encountered scoffing, exasperation and rolling of eyes whenever ‘health and safety’ is mentioned is the unfortunate tendency for over-elaborate, unreasonable constraints to be imposed on people in the name of WHS.

Whether this arises from individuals with an excessively pedantic, obstructive approach, or from other individuals’ dismissive attitude towards real risks – from inadequate supervisor training or a combination of all of the above with other factors – WHS policies and procedures can inadvertently manifest as infuriating, time-wasting impediments to getting the job done. Care must be taken to ensure that both the policies and their implementation are reasonable.

Policies unknown, ignored or flouted

WHS policies that staff don’t know about are ‘as useless as a chocolate teapot’, as the saying goes. The need for policies to be properly communicated to staff was brought home by a case in which a court held that employees were not bound to comply with a policy of which they were unaware because it had not been properly disseminated.

In other cases, courts have found that in relation to particular accidents and incidents, organisations were not following their own policies, or the practical guidance documents were sitting unread in a drawer.

The role of supervisors is particularly import in this regard. All health and safety professionals are aware of cases in which training has been provided, workers have sat through the training, then supervisors have said ‘Forget all that’, and proceeded to revert to the time-honoured (unsafe) ways of working.

A policy is clearly pointless if it ignores key risks, creates unnecessary obstacles to efficient working, or if it is merely written up to sound good and tick a box.

Employers’ obligations

To be useful, policies need to focus on the most significant risks, they need to be realistic and they need to be promoted so that staff know about them and are repeatedly reminded of them. 

Moreover, management and supervisors need to walk the talk, implementing the policies consistently, fairly and reasonably. This is particularly important if the employer may rely on the policy requirements for the purposes of disciplinary action or dismissal.

While there is no legal requirement for most employers under WHS laws or the corresponding laws in Victoria or Western Australia to have a WHS policy, it can be useful to engage workers in formulating a WHS policy in order to promote ‘ownership’ and involvement in positive efforts to manage risks. It is of course essential that management backs up the policy with a genuine, demonstrated commitment to a safe and healthy workplace.

Employees and contractors have a legal obligation to co-operate with any reasonable health and safety policy or procedure established by an employer, as long as the workers have been informed of the policy or procedure.

Policies should be reviewed regularly, and revised if necessary, whenever work systems, tasks and processes of the organisation change in ways that could affect health or safety.



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