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Navigating Health & Safety in Complex Times
The world has recently been witnessing an ever-changing landscape – globally, nationally and locally in the communities and settings where we live, work and learn. The rapid change over the last three years has required many organisations, leaders, and individuals to shift, be agile, and attempt to navigate uncertain times and complex situations.
From natural disasters (bushfires, floods and other extreme weather events), to pandemics, and unrest in global settings and communities, the impact, flow on effect, and duration of all these things continues to be felt.
This impact is evident for organisations, teams, business leaders, and Health, Safety & Environment (HSE) professionals. These professionals work to ensure the protection, safeguarding and promotion of health, safety and welfare for their workers, clients, stakeholders and the broader community. Many businesses and teams have needed to shift resources and energy to navigate and urgently respond to critical issues presented in a rapid, evolving and unpredictable environment. For many business owners and operators, the focus has been primarily on survival, and attempting to position businesses to viably operate, emerging with a level of sustainable profitability and platform for growth or potential future growth.
Likewise, the need to ensure management of health and safety of workers and operations has been dictated by the economic and environmental climate. Due to the level of unpredictability, people have been doing the best they can with finite resources available.
Emerging from navigating the past three years' unpredictability in a professional and personal capacity, organisations and their leaders need to ask themselves the question of whether to simply:
- aim for stability and predictability, or
- move with the times, become adaptable and normalise the more dynamic and shifting landscape.
Through a Health & Safety lens, focus is now returning to uplifting health and safety management and performance. However, to achieve this successfully and sustainably, the focus should also account for the new opportunities and the emergent changing risk factors.
Emerging Trends in the Health & Safety Management Landscape
Businesses continue to operate in an uncertain climate that presents new and evolving risks.
The risk profile also grows from ignoring, underplaying, or not predicting the current and future risks.
There are several notable trends in the context of an uncertain and evolving risk climate, including:
Working from Home
- According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), ‘almost twice as many employed Australians worked from home one or more times a week in April 2022, compared with before COVID-19 restrictions in March 2020 (46% compared with 24%)’1. For organisations looking to continue to support a hybrid model or to accelerate a full (or partial) return to the office environment, the change to arrangements will present their own set of risks and hazards to consider and coordinate.
- In the context of working from home, employers / persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) need to identify and manage a range of risks that differ from those faced in an office based workplace. For instance, suitable workspace, lighting and ergonomics, lack of control of work environment (e.g., fire, security, cyber security, electrical safety, ventilation and air quality), psychosocial risk factors, team connectedness, avenues for consultation and engagement, and potential dangers such as family and domestic violence.
- Communities and businesses across Australia are being confronted with intense natural disaster events. These have included bushfires, cyclones, severe storm and flooding events; earthquakes, tornados, and a ‘once in a 100-year’ flooding event in Southeast Queensland in 2022 (just 11 years after the previous 2011 disaster). Efforts to recover, rebuild, re-occupy, and re-open safely continue, complicated by some of the domestic and global costs and challenges.
- As set out in the IPCC's Sixth Assessment Report2, Australia is one of the most vulnerable developed countries in the world with regards to the current and future impacts of anthropogenic climate change. The frequency and severity of drought, flood and bushfire events is increasing, and the compounding effects of these is taking a heavy toll, as seen in Southeast Queensland and New South Wales in recent months.
Recruitment and Skills Challenges
- Challenges continue to be presented with recruiting desired talent, following closed international and disrupted domestic borders which deepened existing skills shortages. Hays Salary Guide FY21/22 indicates that ‘by 30 June 2022, 64% of employers expect skills shortages to impact the effective operation of their organisation or department’3.
- Competition for attracting and retaining suitably competent, qualified and experienced health and safety personnel is not a new scenario. However, it is a challenge that businesses are needing to manage as part of the changing recruitment and business landscape.
- Another emerging trend is in relation to the workplace impact of artificial intelligence (AI), and how AI can be used to enhance physical safety at work. Distinguishing between the capabilities required by health and safety professionals vs digital/AI technologies, which can be used to enhance safety outcomes, is another consideration for businesses looking towards a sustainable talent acquisition approach.
Psychosocial Risk Management
- Efforts to ensure organisations effectively create and sustain mentally healthy workplaces is not new to the health and safety profession. Yet the changing landscape and outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic has elevated the visibility and expectation of business to effectively manage psychosocial hazards and risk factors in the workplace.
- This expectation and requirement to safeguard, protect and ideally promote psychosocial health and wellbeing has been strengthened by recent targeted action by regulators and leading commentators. This has included amendments to the Model Work Health and Safety laws, release of new Codes of Practice, toolkits and guidance material, as well as international best practice standard ISO 45003:2021 Occupational health and safety management — Psychological health and safety at work — Guidelines for managing psychosocial risks. These changes and additional content have the shared goal of seeking to improve how the multideterminant factors of mental health can be identified and effectively managed.
When confronted with complex challenges, uncertain times or unpredictable scenarios, it is also important that businesses seek to identify and understand the following (taking the time to plan, adjust and inform their approach accordingly):
- The nature of the arising issue, or alternatively,
- What is to be achieved.
Not all problems are created equal. There is value in understanding the context, what is known and unknown about the problem / hazard / issue, and the difference between each issue.
Leading theorists and experts in the field of complexity science suggest we can successfully navigate situations by adjusting the approach (and decision making) to align with the context in which the business is operating. One approach is the Cynefin Framework (pronounced Ku-nev-in) shown in Figure 1 below, developed by Dave Snowden and colleagues4.
Understanding the Cynefin Framework is worth exploration as it can be useful to apply such a decision-making tool in a health and safety context.
Figure 1 - Cynefin Framework (David Snowden et al)4
Each domain can be loosely described as summarised in Table 1:
The fifth domain, Disorder, applies when it is unclear which of the other four predominates5. When faced with this scenario, the advice is to break the situation down into basic parts, then assign each to one of the above four domains. This then enables decisions and actions to be made and taken to navigate the situation appropriately.
The Cynefin framework seeks to assist leaders and decision makers make better decisions in summary, by:
- Seeing the situation or event(s) from a new perspective
- Rapidly understanding the context at hand
- Adjusting decision making and approach, based on the needs of the situation
- Responding in a contextually appropriate way.
It can also enhance the communication process, and others in the team or organisation, in understanding the climate and navigating associated challenges and opportunities presented.
Making the Complex Simple
When the time is taken to shift the view of a situation, the business can learn how to ask different questions, and to see multiple perspectives. A better understanding of the context is then gained, such as addressing the issues at hand and how to appropriately respond.
What is critical (from a health and safety perspective) to successfully navigate the situation is:
- taking the time to understand the setting, context and background of the issue (be it hazard, risk, performance gap or desired standard)
- developing and applying simple, contextualised solutions.
It may be useful to apply decision-making tools, such as the Cynefin framework, in a health and safety context. It prompts businesses and individuals to reflect, improves the capacity and capability to identify, and then to apply a suitable approach when things are predictable or unpredictable.
How Greencap can help
The current climate is creating an increased demand for support in navigating and meeting health and safety requirements, areas of desired improvement, and considered solutions. The impact of not effectively doing so can be dire, e.g., workplace injury, regulatory action or prosecution. Health and safety hazards and risks require a nimble and agile response by businesses, with well thought-out pragmatic solutions to effectively navigate the current climate of complexity and uncertainty.
Greencap supports clients when navigating a range of health and safety hazards, risks and situations that initially seem daunting and complex. Taking the time to listen, understand the issue (as well as the local or organisational context), and design a bespoke methodology to navigate the issue or need accordingly – Greencap’s team of highly-experienced management consultants seek to make the complex seem simple.
Greencap support extends across the spectrum of health and safety including:
- basic health and safety compliance
- specialist advice
- building or enhancing safety management systems and performance (considering all elements, levers and enablers)
- monitoring health and safety performance
- coaching workers and supervisors
- auditing against legislation
- enhancing the management of contractors
- ensuring psychosocial hazards have been considered and addressed in the workplace.
Supporting clients across a spectrum of industries and markets– through the Simple, Complicated, Complex and at times Chaotic situations, Greencap take the time to ensure the context is understood, so that the right approach can be applied ensuring an appropriate response, in step with health and safety management requirements and the current state.
2. IPCC, 2022: Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [H.-O. Pörtner, D.C. Roberts, M. Tignor, E.S. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, A. Alegría, M. Craig, S. Langsdorf, S. Löschke, V. Möller, A. Okem, B. Rama (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press. In Press.
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