Common sense and Compliance, two sides of the same coin

This month I’ve been engaged in several machine safety jobs, and it’s got me thinking on how we are at a pivotal point for Health and Safety in New Zealand. Next month, the Health and Safety Reform bill will become the Health and Safety at Work Act, bringing with it an obligation for business to step up it’s Health and Safety game. Many businesses are taking a proactive approach and are engaging us to help with machine, workshop and site safety in advance of the law change.

When we’re talking with our clients about their requirements, it typically boils down to a question of confidence, how do you know that you have done enough, that the safety measures you have in place will be adequate if Worksafe comes knocking. We can help with certainty and confidence around these questions with independent risk assessment and verification reports to the appropriate standard or code of practice. Recently we’ve been doing workshop and manufacturing assessments,  machine guarding and interlock design and mobile machinery assessments for agriculture.

However, it needs to be acknowledged that health and safety is one area where you can’t expect a black and white answer. Most working environments are dynamic places where things change constantly and unless workers are also thinking about and adapting to changes, no amount of policies, procedures or compliance certificates will create a 100% safe environment. Workers need to think about what they are doing as environments change, and managers need to keep adapting their systems and procedures to match. In short, a good dose of pragmatic common sense needs to be included in a H&S system to make it work.

What gets tricky is that, having acknowledged that thinking and common sense is an important part of workplace safety, it is then essential to acknowledge that compliance and procedures can work to destroy common sense. The more signs, safety switches and SOP’s are put around a task, the less a worker will think independently and the more they will make sure they are doing things the “right” way. This is accentuated when there are penalties associated with not wearing your safety glasses or filling in the right check-list, for example.

On the other hand, there is no way that common sense alone would be adequate. For starters, common sense is just not that common. We also need a certain amount of compliance. The trick then, is to make sure that the balance is right between common sense and compliance, that there is adequate compliance to ensure consistent practice without destroying or hindering people’s ability to think and adapt.

I find it’s helpful to think about common sense and compliance as two sides of the same coin. When you’re looking at the compliance side, you can’t see the common sense side, and vice-versa. The only way to achieve that is by “spinning” the coin, and creating a dynamic equilibrium where the focus is equally and instantaneously on both sides. But the coin doesn’t keep spinning by itself, and you need to keep intervening to ensure that the coin doesn’t fall down on one side or the other.

I feel that is where New Zealand is now in regards to H&S, we are spinning the coin and it seems to be landing on the compliance side a lot at the moment. If we look at our cousin countries in Australia and the UK, we can see where a compliance focus takes us. Not that it’s a bad thing right now, I tend to think we are a bit light on the compliance side. However we don’t want to overshoot, as they have arguably done in the UK. We’ve an opportunity in NZ to treat the new legislation as a way to both increase our safety practices and also create a more pragmatic and common-sense H&S regime. I hope we make the most of that opportunity.