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MARCH 2012
Middle managers can make or break safety initiatives: ANU study

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Mining companies and other industry employers looking to improve OHS outcomes must back middle management as a key player in fostering workplace trust, according to a new report from the Australian National University.

Building a co-operative relationship between middle management and the workforce to obtain worker "buy-in" to safety initiatives is crucial, the report, Building Trust, says.

From interviews with miners and managers at 10 mine sites owned by three different companies, authors Neil Gunningham and Darren Sinclair found that without trust workers treat almost all corporate management safety initiatives with suspicion.

"Unless the mistrust of the workforce can be overcome then even the most well-intentioned and sophisticated management initiatives will be treated with cynicism and undermined," they say.

Mistrust is "the most significant impediment" to improving safety.

According to Gunningham and Sinclair, the "level of safety that a mine achieves, is in very large part the level that the [visible] 'boss' wants".

Managers' perceived integrity, how they interpret corporate directions and their day-to-day judgments on safety issues make the greatest impression "at the coalface".

Workers, they say, express a strong preference for mine managers who adopt an "open and communicative style of management".

"We found that at higher OHS performing mines the mine manager usually sets a positive tone, often by creating opportunities for both informal and formal engagement, taking advantage of shift changes and the normal course of daily activities to engage directly with the workforce."

Poor safety linked to reluctance to halt production

But the most compelling demonstration of a manager's commitment to safety is "almost universally" regarded by workers as a willingness to halt production if safety is seriously compromised.

In contrast, poor performing mines, both in safety and productivity, are the most reluctant to halt production.

The report also shows that middle managers often view senior management's delegation of OHS responsibilities down the line as a strategy to "protect their own arses".

Such resentment can "morph" into active resistance, and make safety initiatives seem like "just another extra burden that makes their job harder".

"Such a 'blockage' at middle management level is not confined to the mining industry and seems to be a common and substantial challenge to building trust across a range of organisations, particularly where line managers are distracted by their own accountability and the pressure to meet performance criteria," the authors say.

The say to overcome such "deep-seated and long-lasting" mistrust, employers must:

- make high-quality training with OHS as a core feature a priority for middle management;

- include OHS as a central feature of middle management duties and not just an "add on" to their "real" role. Senior managers should "back middle management to make OHS decisions even where this may lead to a loss of production in the short term";

- provide middle managers with adequate time and resources to devote to the workload generated by OHS obligations. "A key issue here is to avoid a 'tick the boxes' approach to OHS duties which risks being seen as a meaningless 'numbers game'";

- be consistent in their approach to OHS. "Consistency of message and approach provides middle management with greater confidence that corporate management is in 'for the long haul' and makes it less likely they will avoid committing to OHS initiatives by simply waiting for the next corporate management scheme or, indeed, change in senior management itself"; and

- identify line managers as part of the management structure instead of treating them as "part of the crew".

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