The challenge of workplace safety in the 21st century

By Eugene Clark and Reynaldo Yeo
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, May 7, 2016
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April 28 is World Health and Safety Day at work. This day was first proposed by the United Nations International Labor Organization (ILO) in 2003. The day highlights the fact that many workers are injured and many needless deaths occur each day because of unhealthy or unsafe workplaces. Readers should know that around the world these kind of injuries and deaths are especially high in some developing countries. Workplace health and safety is a serious problem that will be with us for a long time as a result of poor building standards, a lack of training, inadequate supervision, insufficient laws and failure to enforce laws and regulations related to workplace health and safety.

There is a popular saying that culture trumps compliance every day of the week. While much of the HR and Legal Literature focuses on the law and the potentially terrible outcomes of a legal breach, it is as important, and perhaps more so, to focus on creating a "culture of safety." In this way organizations are more likely to avoid a legal beach to begin with. Of course, legal compliance is important too, but without a genuine culture of compliance, legal risk management alone is likely to be insufficient and very expensive in more ways than one.

To many people, safety is a tedious set of tasks designed to cover your ass ("CYA").

Safety is best viewed in stages. According to Patrick Hudson's cultural maturity model, safety cultures can be pathological, reactive, calculative or proactive, and sometimes even generative.

Safety tends to be a "CYA" exercise for people experiencing safety in pathological and reactive cultures. This is because the value of safety within their organization is limited. They undervalue it. This is usually because there is a need to make profit before everything else.

People working in reactive and calculative cultures often view safety as a complicated web of systems, procedures, templates and forms that are hard to follow -- it is important and makes sense, but it is still tedious and time consuming.

Those experiencing safety in proactive and generative cultures (though few examples abound of proactive cultures) experience safety as part of their normal working environment. It is not inconvenient or disruptive; instead, it sets the tone for productivity. This is because all systems, procedures, templates and forms have become consolidated into the daily work environment.

A safer workplace is one that encourages brainstorming, dialogue and consultation with key stakeholders, leading to positive steps to solve workplace health and safety challenges. A safe workplace is one that has executed processes and identified foreseeable hazards and risks, assessed them, controlled them and constantly checks to ensure they are controlled. This should be viewed as a safety transaction. For example, in order to justify why a control should be in place, you need to show that you have assessed the risk(s). In order to assess the risk(s), you need to calculate (at minimum) the likelihood and probability of the risk occurring. By doing this, you can justify why you have chosen one set of actions over another.

Safety professionals appreciate safety as a strategic and cultural motivator -- it provides an impetus for positive change and reform. At a time when all organizations, public and private, are being encouraged to be innovative, safety should also be seen in terms of strengthening creativity and enabling people to hold constructive dialogue leading to more productive and innovative workplaces while dramatically reducing needless injuries and deaths. Robust safety systems and procedures are actually simple in design and operation. At their best, safety systems are user-friendly and encourage positive actions and outcomes.

Reynaldo Yeo is an occupational health and safety advisor and can be reached at

Eugene Clark is a columnist with For more information please visit:

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors only, not necessarily those of

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