Following a workplace incident it is usually part of the investigation process to review safety rules to determine how the process/system failed resulting in the injury.
Whilst this can be a good prompt to review safety rules there must be an ongoing continuous review/audit regardless of incident occurrence as the University of NSW found in the industrial court recently.
In July 2009, nine University of NSW students were travelling on a university owned zodiac (a rigid hull inflatable boat) during a recent field trip around Sydney Harbour, during the trip one of the students was injured.
The NSW Industrial Court heard that all passengers were directed to sit upon buoyancy tubes, rather than on the seats or floor of the zodiac. They were also told where the life jackets were, but were told they didn’t have to wear them – which they didn’t.
As the driver made a sharp turn three passengers were flung into the water, the hull of the vessel then struck one of the students in the water injuring her.
Whilst the University had a comprehensive safety management system that was audited yearly by WorkCover, and employed six full-time and three part-time safety coordinators they did not own a copy of the operating manual for the zodiac. The manual stated all passengers must sit in seats or on the floor in rough water or during sharp turns, and must wear life jackets.
Following the incident, UNSW bought the operating manual, implemented safe work procedures for the boat, and required all boat users to wear life jackets. It also updated its boat induction course and training for its drivers, and worked with NSW Maritime to prepare a specific safety management system for the boat.
Justice Wayne Haylen said UNSW had a good overall safety record, with only one prior conviction, but the case showed “the most detailed safety rules can fail and that [UNSW] should be encouraged to continually scrutinise those rules to ensure their effectiveness”.
The University pleaded guilty to breaching s8(2) of the State OHS Act and was fined $100,000, after a 15 per cent discount for its guilty plea, cooperation and contrition, and ordered to pay $35,000 in costs.
The message all employers should take on board from this case is that if you are only reviewing your safety rules following incidents you are not doing enough, and likely not meeting your legislative obligations.
All good safety systems should include a positive focus on system review. Audits should seek to interrogate existing procedures to confirm the effectiveness of those rules, auditing should be planned and systematic with a set schedule. In complex safety systems it may not be possible to audit all system requirements in a year. In these cases a risk approach should be taken with each of the policies being assessed on likelihood and degree of harm to determine what to audit.
Being proactive is about acting before an incident. Think about the last time you implemented a risk control in your workplace, ask yourself one question, ‘was the control a result of an incident?’. If the answer is yes get to work on auditing your rules now before someone gets hurt.