I was listening to the radio on my way home when a woman in Australia was being interviewed following the third flood in her house in the last two years. Her final comment was that she “did not know what normal was anymore”. The same could be applied to residents of the UK, where the thermometer topped 40 degrees for the first time ever, while at the same time severe winter storms were battering the length of New Zealand. Christchurch had the wettest July on record. Add to this a global pandemic, the twin evils of both inflation and recession, and changes to our work, family, and social lives. It is right to question what “normal” now looks like.
The word chaotic could accurately describe the state of play. Last month I mentioned Sun Tzu in his 5th Century BC book The Art of War. “In the midst of chaos, there is opportunity”. What opportunities does the current climate create for the health and safety industry?
The first opportunity would be to cement the lessons learnt from covid into our collective consciousness and procedures. Other pandemics will undoubtedly follow, and now we should be better prepared to tackle them head on rather than take a reactive approach. Our perspective here has shifted remarkably. When the first person in New Zealand died from covid, there were national headlines. Now 20 people per day are dying with hardly a mention, except as part of the daily statistics. If we had this level of acceptance at the start, would we have done anything differently?
Second would be to leverage the greater awareness of health and safety in the wider community. The language of health and safety is now well known and understood. Risk mitigation, PPE, control processes, isolation, all have a real-life context that people in the community now understand. More importantly they also understand the limitations of some of the strategies, and which ones work best and why.
Third would be the recognition that chaos creates stress, and that stress is a huge risk factor across all components of our lives. Mental and emotional stress leads onto physical stress, fatigue, and poor decision making. Stress and anxiety are some of the root causes of physical and mental illness, and this can have both short- and long-term consequences for individuals, organisations, and communities. Managing stress in the workplace is now a core component of the health and safety regime. Too often we only look at the outward expression of the stress rather than identifying and treating the root causes. These outward expressions may be increased alcohol or drug use, isolation from colleagues, anger and frustration at inconsequential things, or lack of sleep.
Construction is overrepresented in the mental health statistics in New Zealand. The reasons for this are many, but include the transient nature of the work, the competitive tendering process, the time/cost pressures in the face of inflation and supply chain shortages, and the New Zealand male culture. ‘Mates in Construction’ are doing a great job of both raising awareness and capability in the workplace for dealing with these issues. But is anybody looking at dealing with the root causes?
We all know some of these causes for mental stress in the construction industry, especially in the SME space. Much of this can be attributed to the current procurement model. The nature of the tendering process from clients to the main contractor, to the sub-contractors and then the sub-sub-contractors lends itself to a cost driven exercise. Of the $138 Million ACC spend on Construction claims each year, $88m of that is from SME’s. How much of that is due to the stresses and pressures these workers are under to get jobs done quickly and with time/cost focus?
The new normal for health and safety should be about more emphasis on identifying and dealing causes, not symptoms.
Paul Duggan, General Manager