Interview with Dr Susanne Bahn

susanneThe building and construction industry in WA has a poor safety record due, in the main, to the many unique challenges it faces.

Included among them are a tendency towards subcontracting, an influx of unskilled workers (which in itself has its own safety implications) and of course, working at heights.

 Dr Susanne Bahn is a Senior Lecturer (Research) in the School of Business in the Faculty of Business and Law at Edith Cowan University. Sue’s doctoral study focused on management values and safety culture. She has worked on several social research projects over the past five years and is currently completing research in Occupational Health & Safety on projects that investigate workplace culture, safety leadership and hazard awareness.

We are thrilled to have Sue join our panel discussion on Building Safety at the forthcoming Safety in Action Perth event.

In this interview, we discuss why WA has such a poor safety record; the unique challenges WA faces compared to other states; and what can be done to overcome and mitigate the risks involved.

The building & construction industry in WA has a poor safety record, why do you think that is?

The building and construction industry’s poor safety record is due to a number of issues including: its contracting nature, the levels of English language and literacy skills of the workers, the use of foreign labour on temporary visas that come from countries with poorer safety cultures, and the boom and bust cycles that place pressure on production.

What are some of the unique challenges they face in maintaining a safe working environment compared to other states?

WA is a vast state that requires work in remote locations, work across a number of environments and construction work that spans from domestic housing right up to large commercial projects such as Gorgon. The high level of skills required to construct the extreme number of resources projects that came online from 2011 placed pressure on the sector to find skilled workers; some of whom were not residing in Australia. This meant workers from overseas on temporary visas were contracted and with this came additional requirements for managers and supervisors to acclimatise these workers across many facets of Australian life as well as in the expectations we have in working to our high levels of health and safety performance.

With so many construction workers filling resources positions a major gap in skilled workers was evident in the remaining construction sectors of housing and civil whereby recruitment of workers turned to unskilled new entrants that lacked experience in the sector. This once again placed pressure on health and safety performance because these workers require higher levels of supervision. At this time workers with only a few years’ experience were taking on supervision roles with little or no training.

In 2013 we saw a slowing in the resources sector that meant a return to more normal production levels as we moved into the production phase of these projects because the construction requirements had been completed. This has seen a number of workers laid off, but also a return to a focus on training in supervision and hazard and risk management.

What are some of the safety implications attached to subcontracting?

Smaller subcontractors are often stretched financially and have time constraints that impact on their ability to be across the safety and health legislation. There is considerable work that needs to be done by the regulators to support smaller firms in this space. Subcontractors often work within a supply chain that enables the smaller firm to piggy back off the contracting firms S&H processes and structures which in some cases can assist them to improve their systems and practices, but in others allows them to work under the radar protected by the contractor.

What are some of the key issues facing the building & construction industry and its workers in WA? What can we do to step up safety in the building & construction industry? 

The key issues facing building and construction and its workers in WA are the increasing number of workers in the sector with poor English language and literacy skills. The current numbers in Australia indicate that up to 40% of workers across all sectors are only functionally literate. This is problematic when it comes to understanding and enacting S&H requirements. Under our legislation the duty of care clause focusses on a risk management approach that is underpinned by hazard identification skills.

However the assumption in the legislation is that workers have adequate skills to recognise and address workplace hazards and this is false. More needs to be done to provide training in hazard identification, but training that is pitched at the worker level and gets away from the reliance of classroom induction training. My recent research shows that induction training is ‘white noise’ and very little of the information is getting through. I am currently developing a tool that teaches and tests hazard identification see riskspotter.com.au

Your doctoral study focused on management values and safety culture, and you’re currently completing research in Occupational Health & Safety awareness, what are some of the outcomes of your research? How can we use these findings to improve the OH&S of workplaces around Australia?

The doctoral study was completed in 2008 at a time of considerable production pressures in the industry and found that although firms like to think that safety came first, production was the more important. My other research has shown that there are significant gaps in training for supervisors particularly focussed on the construction sector. I also question the impact of temporary workers on 457 visas on the S&H performance on the sector due to their differing levels of safety culture with many who have English as their second language.

Finally my work investigating hazard identification skills shows that workers suffer from risk blindness in that they often don’t recognise risk and think that workplace hazards are someone else responsibility, that it won’t affect them, or that their PPE will protect them. We are relying on induction training to teach hazard identification and this is a poor method of training whereby workers incur ‘induction deafness’ and the information is simply white noise that they have heard over and over again.

You will join a panel discussion on the topic of Building Safety at the Safety in Action event Perth, why is dialogue important? What can visitors hope to gain from attending this session?

Insight into research across the sector over the past 8 years that looks at safety values, supervision training, 457 visa workers, smaller firms and contracting, hazard identification and risk blindness – all underpinned by the changing nature of the safety and health legislative environment in Australia.

If you would like to see Susanne present then make sure you register to attend Safety in Action taking place from the 11 – 12 June 2014 at the Perth Convention Centre. Attendance is free so for more information or to register please visit http://www.safetyinaction.net.au/perth/visitor