Safety managers have existed for over 30 years in some organisations.
Like many jobs, the role has changed significantly over time due to technology changes, knowledge of injuries and their treatment, the type of work we do and the legislation and compliance around workplace safety.
A Worksafe Australia report Health and Safety Management Systems – An Analysis of System Types and Effectiveness gives us an insight into what it was like to be a safety manager 25 years ago. The study was conducted between 1994 and 1996 and demonstrates how far the industry and society have come regarding workplace health and safety.
Management Support for Safety Manager Role
The 1990’s report identified that some safety managers didn’t have the support of management when it came to WHS (workplace health and safety).
The report stated some of the barriers to improved health and safety include:
- ‘Over-reliance on health and safety specialists to drive health and safety activity without sufficient management involvement and support.’
- A limited and reactive role for the health and safety supervisor.
- The lack of knowledge by senior managers of health and safety principles, legislation and management systems.
The limited management support would have meant there was limited employee support for health and safety as well. Some safety managers must have felt they were losing the battle.
Companies have to comply with far more legislation, regulation and codes of practice than they did 25 years ago. The onus of workplace safety compliance is on management and directors, so they have no choice but to be involved and take workplace safety seriously.
Companies and directors can be taken to court and, if found guilty, fined for not providing a safe workplace. Companies can be fined on multiple occasions if they fail to improve their practices.
Today a safety manager’s role involves far more time spent on preventative measures than the reactive tasks of 25 years ago.
Further financial implications in the form of workers’ compensation ensures management attention. All businesses need to take out a workers’ compensation insurance policy to ensure their employees can access compensation and medical expense costs. The more claims the company’s employees make, the higher the cost of insurance.
Given the implications of safety on an organisation’s bottom line and reputation, the safety manager is more likely to be part of the senior management team.
Rehabilitation & Compensation for Injured Employees
In the 1980s workers’ compensation costs had risen 260 per cent in five years and injured workers had to wait on average 24 months to have their case heard, and benefits provided to them. Reform began to take place in all states and territories to improve the financial and medical situation of injured workers.
Back then, there was limited opportunity to change job roles or duties following an injury. You were either fit to work in your role or not.
Workers compensation claims today are dealt with quickly as prompt treatment assists with rehabilitation and workers can return to work sooner. A safety manager deals with compensation claims for injured workers and ensures they get the treatment they need.
A safety manager is now far more likely to assist a worker’s return to work on light or different duties following an injury.
Australia now has more physiotherapists and occupational therapists available for rehabilitating injured workers. Knowledge in the area of soft tissue injuries has improved over the years, so the long-term outcome for injured workers is far better.
Type of Workplace Injuries
A safety manager would have been most concerned with the risk of physical injuries resulting in a permanent disability 25 years ago. The focus was on high risk occupations that involved heavy machinery. The WorkSafe report from 1994 – 1996 concentrated on manufacturing roles and industries where the majority of workers undertook high-risk tasks. There was little consideration for workers in perceived low-risk jobs.
Awareness of soft tissue injuries caused by repetitive tasks amongst office workers was only just beginning. Education of the population in ergonomic work practices and the risk of repetitive strain injuries had also started.
With a large percentage of the workforce now employed in office environments, there’s a significant focus on the health and safety of these workers. Office equipment has improved to reduce the risk of strains and trip hazards are routinely identified and rectified in workplaces.
As well as workers’ physical health, today’s safety manager has to be concerned about the mental health and wellbeing of employees. Each year 7,500 Australians receive compensation for work-related mental disorders, also known as psychological injuries. Far more employees are taking sick leave due to workplace stress.
The stigma of mental health has been lifted and it is common for workplaces to talk about a problem that is impacting thousands of Australians every year.
The Future for Safety Managers
The role of the safety manager will continue to evolve – we’re already seeing TRIFR calculations disappear. But with advances in technology, the way we work will change and with that will come new risks of injury. New equipment will be designed to reduce the risks.
There may be fewer fatalities and permanent disabilities in workplaces today, but the role of the safety manager isn’t any less important. In fact, the improved safety record demonstrates the importance of keeping safety a priority in all workplaces.
If you need a hand with health and safety at your workplace, drop us a line and we’ll be happy to help.