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Improve your Workplace Health and Safety Performance: Safety Myths, Culture, Training, Interactivity

Improve EHS Performance Safety Myths, Culture, Training, Interactivity

How do you improve EHS performance? Keeping with the theme of the past month we are providing a further summary post of key articles and reports that we have published in the last 12 months. The aim was to collect the key points and present them in the one post as an easy reference, linking back to the original posts and to the founding research. This post brings together research that calls out six workplace safety myths for what they are, discusses safety culture in the context of business size, knowledge and resources and provides in-field research on the effectiveness of safety training using the safety induction as an example. This post concludes with a look at interactive training and tech advances as a way forward to improve EHS performance and reduce workplace fatalities and injuries.

Workplace Safety Myths
There are a number of myths surrounding the best way to improve EHS performance.

1. Human error is the largest single cause of accidents and incidents

Heinrich first introduced the concept of human error in 1931 and it remains the focus of many accident investigations today. Because work is subject to constraints that are imposed by managers, the authors argue that we consider ‘human error’ as an artefact of a traditional engineering view, which treats humans as if they were (fallible) machines and overlooks how performance adjustments are used to match activities to working conditions.

2. Systems will be safe if people comply with the procedures they are given

The safety myth is that safety can be ensured by procedure compliance and conversely that safety is jeopardised by non-compliance. There is an entrenched belief in the correctness of engineering design, work specifications and procedures. When any of these fail, the explanation is typically found to be ‘human error’ or noncompliance. The authors suggest that actual working situations usually differ from what the procedures assume and strict compliance may be detrimental to both safety and efficiency. Procedures should be used carefully and intelligently.

3. Safety can be improved by barriers and protection; increasing these leads to higher safety

Safety can be achieved either by eliminating risks or by protecting against their effects. However, the weaker the link between risk exposure and consequences, the less likely it is that protection will be used. Protection will be used when the feedback from not being protected is negative. The writers argue that technology is not value neutral. Additional protection changes behaviour so that the intended safety improvements might not be obtained. When introducing new barriers for protection the unintended effects should be carefully considered.

“Why do these myths still exist? In our opinion, one reason is that they simply do not get questioned.”

4. Root cause analysis can identify why mishaps happen in complex socio-technical systems

Root Cause Analysis of an accident or incident sets out to determine what happened and why it happened to find ways to reduce the possibility that it will happen again. However, the analysis only sees the failure and fails to recognise that things go right and wrong for the same reasons. The authors suggest we change this thinking to understand that human performance cannot be described as if it was bimodal. In socio-technical systems, things that go wrong happen in the same way as things that go right.

5. Accident investigation is the logical and rational identification of causes based on facts

When undertaking accident investigations the aim is to discover the causes of unexpected and adverse outcomes, but these can be numerous and therefore impossible to investigate all of them. Hollnagel (2009) argues that the management of the investigation then becomes a trade-off between what can be done and what should be done: a trade-off between efficiency and thoroughness. Therefore the authors suggest that accident investigation is a social process, where causes are constructed rather than found.

6. Safety always has the highest priority and will never be compromised

The assumption is that safety is an absolute priority in the sense that it cannot be compromised. However, safety has financial implications, whereas the benefits are potential and distant in time. Safety performance is often measured by the number of accidents and incidents, rather than measuring an increase in the number of situations where things go right or positive safety performance indicators such as training. This means that there is less and less to measure as safety improves which can then be interpreted to mean that the process is under control, when in actual fact the opposite might be the case. Besnard & Hollnagel ask us to revise our message to:

“Safety will be as high as affordable – from a financial and ethical perspective”.

Impact of Safety Culture on EHS Performance
RMIT’s Centre for Construction Work Health and Safety Research released a final report on the ACT construction sector in September 2017 with an in-depth look at their safety culture in an effort to help organisations improve their EHS performance.

Key findings were that stakeholders working in small organisations (less than 200 staff) reported significantly less positive perceptions in relation to safety climate when compared to practices in large firms. Those working in medium-sized companies reported limited influence over sub-contracted workers and they failed to use the informal and personalised management processes which exist in smaller organisations and are perceived to be effective. As the stratum of the business was unpicked it revealed that upper level managers had more positive perceptions of the safety climate than lower level managers, cascading to lower level managers who had more positive perceptions of the safety climate than frontline workers. The findings suggest that:

“There is a ‘disconnect’ between the way that workers at different levels perceive the emphasis placed on WHS and the quality of WHS management in construction organisations”.

The commercial/industrial building sector of the industry showed the lowest in terms of safety climate. Issues that impacted included the intensification of work and challenges with management of subcontractors by principal contractors. The Getting Home Safely Report suggested areas in need of improvement that the focus groups determined had not been adequately addressed:

● the quality, effectiveness and consistency of WHS training,
● the effectiveness of WHS management systems, and
● the effectiveness with which principal contractors manage subcontractors’ WHS.

Effectiveness of Safety Induction Training
An in-depth study into the Australian construction industry reveals some very interesting results about WHS training that encapsulates anecdotal evidence from those working closely with the sector, as well as building on previous research. The study findings can be used to provide parallel areas of concern across other high-risk sectors in an effort to improve EHS performance across industry. This is important as workers may float in and out of high risk industries and a lift in overall performance is a genuine win for all. The study placed a significant focus on safety culture and climate, investigating organisational commitment, leadership, safety behaviour, engagement, reporting, learning and resources. The report is detailed and extensive and in the interests of brevity we have distilled some of the findings around training and competency development.

Participants commented that site-specific WHS inductions are typically very long and not engaging and often delivered as ‘death by Powerpoint’. They suggested that because a number of construction workers have low levels of literacy and may not be proficient in English, a more visual means of communicating important WHS information is needed and is likely to be more effective than training via written materials. As one participant explained:

“…Apart from the fact that they can’t understand, it’s how the message is conveyed …people have got literacy, numeracy and language problems. So has got to be visual…you’ve got to be comfortable that people… working on the job have actually taken that in.”

The quality of training programmes and trainers was also identified as being important to the effectiveness of WHS training. For the construction sector, classroom training was believed to be less effective than practical training because practical training reinforced how to work safely.

The extent to which principal contractors actively manage the EHS performance of their sub-contractors emerged in the study. As one participant explained:

“I don’t believe the principal contractors manage subcontractors very well. I think a lot of subcontractors are left to their own devices because the guys are too busy doing something else.”

Participants suggested that WHS risk is passed down to subcontractors with minimal support from principal contractors who only get involved if something goes wrong.  There was an evidenced disconnect between principal contractors’ legal duties and documented procedures and safe systems of work with the way things are managed in practice.

Interactivity and Knowledge Retention
WorkSafe is demanding business step up to improve their work health and safety performance. Heavy penalties including fines and goal terms are in place for those proved to be in breach.  Research shows that where workers develop a stronger sense of the risks associated with their job, that is more likely to lead to improved EHS performance with lower rates of injuries and fatalities. Mobile technologies such as iPads, phones and tablets are entering the education arena as a successful method to deliver training at the workplace. Training delivered via mobile technologies offers individual and personalised experiences. Peters (2007) explained that mobile devices offer individuals

“Unique scaffolding that can be customised to the individual’s path of investigation”.

This is enhanced when the training content is customized to specific topics and themes.

In a recent Israeli study exploring road safety training, the training was provided using tablets. Several key findings emerged:

1. Multimedia enjoyment and a more active experience played a crucial role in learning outcomes to improve performance.
2. Users are attracted to innovative mobile technologies and this is an opportunity to promote their learning.
3.  A tablet’s capability to present high-quality multimedia is a factor that can attract users to the road safety training programme.


Dr. Susanne Bahn, Director and CEO, Tap into Safety

With over 11 years’ consultancy and 9 years’ research including more than 50 published journal articles, Sue knows her way around safety in hazardous workplaces. Her specific expertise focuses on induction deafness, risk blindness and risk management. A passionate individual, Sue is on a mission to lift the safety standard across Australia and internationally. Her qualifications include a PhD (Business – Health and Safety Management), a Masters in Human Resource Management, a Bachelor of Education and a Graduate Certificate in Higher Education. In July 2017 Sue was appointed as a panel member of the Reserve Bank of Australia’s Small Business Finance Advisory Panel. This appointment is an exciting opportunity to provide the Bank with valuable information on the financial and economic conditions faced by small businesses throughout Australia.

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Originally published on Tap into Safety


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