In conversation with Professor Niki Ellis
In December last year I came before the last meeting of Safe Work Australia (SWA) chaired by Ann Sherry who was completing her term in that office. Dressed in a pinkish pant suit she left an indelible impression on me as she zeroed in on the weaknesses in my presentation.
Of-course this became a badge of honour as I regaled my friends over the Christmas holidays with the story of how I had been done over by the woman the Australian Financial Review considers to be the most influential in Australia.
As I lay on the beach I wondered what she had made of her three years in Workplace Health & Safety (WHS)’s top job? What she might say in an exit interview? So I rang her up and asked her.
‘Enlightened self-interest’ a driver for change
Sherry said before she took up the role, as someone who had run national businesses, she thought WHS was unduly complex and procedural. However, she had also observed significant cultural change over the past 10-20 years. She described the major drivers inside businesses for this improvement as enlightened self-interest.
“Getting good people is a challenge. You can’t run good sustainable businesses and sacrifice the people who work for you. […] You don’t want your business reputation marred by poor workplace health and safety. Investors are more active now and consider safety within the broader risk framework. You don’t want to be named and shamed.”
On the whole, her impressions on arriving in the role were that WHS had failed to keep pace with the changes to work and workplaces. I asked her if she agreed with Dame Carol Black’s comments that WHS was not fit for purpose in the 21st century.
“I think it is a fair comment. I used to work in OHS in the 80s, when I came back into it, it felt very similar. The 21st century is a very different place. There needs to be better communication, it is not about ‘gotcha’ and doing stuff after problems happen.”
Balancing compliance with persuasion & support
Recognising that WHS authorities have two roles: compliance through the inspectorate and persuasion and other support, Sherry considers we have not yet sufficiently considered how best to use government resources.
“There seems to be more focus on inspectors [by WHS authorities]. Clearly inspectors still have a role, but it has not changed much over time and there may be better and different roles.”
Our federated system of government doesn’t make it easy. “I came to appreciate the complexity of the national policy position. State Ministers are fundamentally concerned about the situation in their States,” she said.
“When I first came in as Chair the focus was on writing guidelines. We were not talking about the bigger picture. What is our ranking in the world? Was it where we want to be? What were the other influences? Who else might we work with? Did our work reflect the fact that work had changed? People who were employees in the past were now self-employed in small businesses. The structure of work had changed, were we keeping up? We started to have more strategic conversations.”
To be able to answer such questions we are going to need better national performance data. “We can easily kid ourselves [we are doing OK] if you don’t measure well. We have to be careful not to pat ourselves on the back for getting micro tasks done while ignoring the macro.”
Granular data needed to understand workplace variety
What is clear to Sherry from the data that is available it is that the work-related death rate has dropped in Australia, as have rates of injury. However, there is great variety in workplaces and we need greater granularity of data to help focus enforcement and support.
“We have some very sophisticated big businesses and we are burying small business in paper work. We need to have a better understanding of injury rates by industry”, according to Sherry.
Opening dialogues & harnessing technology
I asked Sherry which of the achievements of SWA during her Chairmanship she was most proud. Communication loomed large in her response.
“Education, ideas sharing and communication have developed in the 21st century. Governments in general are struggling to get their messages to business, they are still working with paper. It is good to set national standards, but what are we doing about implementation?”
Sherry considers the changes made to SWA’s awards program a good start.
“We used to have these awards where a handful of people came to have their achievements recognised. Now we have a seminar series online where we reach thousands of people not dozens and can host discussion through Twitter or online.”
Departments working together
Another area of satisfaction Sherry (above) identified was opening up dialogue with other portfolios across government who work with employers, such as departments of environment, taxation, and industry, to ensure that messages are aligned and to obtain leverage off their incentives and programs. According to Sherry these overtures have been welcomed.
As a final question I asked for her advice to WHS as she leaves this leadership post.
“The 21st century is such a different environment for communication. We need to harness the technology faster. We need to be clearer on what we are trying to achieve and produce what people are going to use, not what we think people need. We need to look forward more, to the new industries emerging. We need to consider the health impacts of these earlier. Remember [Repetitive Strain Injury].”
Outcome-oriented, strategic, forthright, efficient, quick – I bet she listened to Blondie when she was younger: “One way or another I am gonna to win ya, I am gonna getcha, getcha, getcha, getcha”.
Ann Sherry, for the time you gave us in WHS your attention, thank you.
First published in Inside OHS 094, 5/04/2016.
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