Australia: A conversation with Ben Wilson, Managing Director of Global Safety Index (GSI) about workplace safety

Ben Wilson is passionate about safety and has dedicated most of his working life to helping businesses develop the strategies, capabilities and behaviours required to build a high performing safety culture. As Managing Director of Global Safety Index (GSI), the world's first global safety benchmarking and data research organisation, Ben works with executive leadership teams of companies, including Westpac, Woolworths and DHL, to understand their current safety performance, culture and leadership capability.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about GSI and how you came up with the idea for the organisation?

I've been working in the industry, helping organisations build high performance safety cultures, for more than 15 years. During this time, the conversation about what organisations should be measuring and how they should be measuring safety performance has really progressed. One of the key questions we kept coming across was: "Why isn't there a global benchmark for safety as there is for everything else?"

So, three years ago we set out to develop an integrated global benchmark for safety that would allow organisations around the world to compare and contrast their safety performance, considering both inputs (safety leadership and safety culture) and the delivered outputs (lead and lag indicators) to truly understand their organisation's safety performance.

Q: What are your plans or priorities for GSI over the next few years?

GSI's key focus at the moment is to expand our global community of members. We need the global data and insights to get a true global understanding of what effective organisational safety culture and safety leadership that delivers high performance results looks like. Once we have this, we can better determine how organisations compare and contrast relative strengths and weaknesses to promote learning.

Q: What were some of the key trends in safety performance in 2013?

Statistically, there is little shift in output performance indicators in Australian-based organisations. Many of the leaders, traditionally mining, oil and gas, and heavy manufacturing, had very little performance improvement.

The performance of medium-sized organisations, especially in the service-based industry is encouraging. This may be due to an increase in expectations from the organisations they service. The most alarming statistics relate to safety culture and safety leadership performance. The average safety culture index score within Australia sits just above 39 out of a possible 100. When you consider that high performance organisations have safety culture index scores around the high 70-80 range, there is significant opportunity for improvement.

With regard to safety leadership, over 50% of GSI members, when assessing their own safety leadership competence and capability, rated themselves as a novice or developing. When you consider that leadership drives culture and culture drives safety performance results, it's concerning to see that only half of our organisations' leaders feel that they understand what's required of them, and have the skills required of a safety leader.

Q: What is the outlook for the next couple of years? Do you see a shift occurring in how companies are measuring and performing safety?

Yes, absolutely. We think there will be a big shift towards a holistic, real time approach to measuring safety performance, which will deliver greater understanding and ability to plan for performance improvement at the executive table.

Boards and the executives are asking for greater visibility of safety performance, demonstrated trends and proactive indicators versus reactive performance.

Looking ahead, we believe executive teams will begin to ask for real-time data, direct from the front line that accurately reflects not only current performance, but also indicates the climate within an organisation. This increased awareness will improve risk awareness, proactive intervention and targeted resource planning.

Another shift will be in terms of what gets measured on the executive balanced scorecard. We think companies will begin to move towards measuring safety culture and safety leadership (in addition to measuring the traditional lag indicators).

Q: What are some of the challenges to workplace safety faced by Australian employers at the moment? Where are the opportunities?

In terms of challenges, companies generally still need to do more work to embed safety into their work environments and organisational culture. We know an engaged workforce is generally more productive and safe, however, our performance management systems tend to focus entirely on the "negative" and feedback is often focused on unsafe performance. This is reflected in the data.

Safety rules and procedures, which measure views on the efficacy and necessity of company rules and procedures, also scored low. We've become very process or systems oriented, but have forgotten to consider an individual's ability to receive and understand information, and behave accordingly. There's a real opportunity for us to look at the current safety management system frameworks and improve how these are being interpreted and executed by the average employee.

Developing a capability to collect data in an unfiltered way is one of the biggest opportunities for employers. Consider a company that has 52 operating sites in 20 countries. Imagine if leaders had the ability to collect data from all those facilities, in real time. This would enable executives, senior leaders and HSE professionals to spot a trend in safety culture before it becomes an organisational risk.

When an incident occurs and the investigation process kicks in, think about all of the "why" questions that the executives ask. Great questions to be asking, wrong time to be asking them!

Collection and analysis of unfiltered data will enable us to flip this on its head and start asking the questions proactively and hopefully prevent harm more effectively.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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