A number of years ago, after being asked to speak at the Queensland Safety Conference, John Toomey was struck by what he saw.
Walking around the trade show, the chief executive of Global Wellness, a firm that runs programs to improve the health and well-being of workers, found the entire focus revolved around lifting devices and other mechanical aids.
Coming from a football background, where there are no mechanical aids to stop players from sustaining injury, Toomey reflected on the factors that lead to workers getting hurt.
Certainly, he says, mishaps while lifting – perhaps through poor technique or musculoskeletal weakness – are key causes of injury, and he does not dispute the role of mechanical aids and equipment in improving safety.
However, Toomey feels excessive focus upon mechanical aids can lead to a neglect of an equally important consideration: awareness on the part of workers about their immediate surroundings. At any given time, he says, any lack of worker awareness as to what is going on around them can lead to collisions, falls, errors in judgement, mistakes, physical contact with dangerous devices and objects, slips and missed opportunities to alert others about potential danger.
“I think it is fair to say, following some things I hear, that we have become almost pedantic about the environment, without doing anything significant to sharpen a person’s awareness of their environment,” Toomey says. “Personal awareness is the key that allows us to notice things, to hear our own intuition, to open up our ‘sixth sense.’”
Because of this, Toomey has developed a program about ‘wellness’ and is pushing for its implementation in the mining, transport and construction industries.
Why is this so?
Asked why such a bias toward mechanised solutions exists, Toomey says a number of factors are at play.
“First, I think there is an attitude around political correctness that says you cannot make people do things….like eat good food or exercise,” he says. “Second, if I point the finger at you and tell you that you have to get healthy and lose weight, the onus is then on me to do the same. So, some leaders avoid the issue. Third, I think there is a belief that the body cannot really be protected from injury to much extent.”
How can we lift awareness?
Toomey believes there are a number of factors which either diminish or expand workers’ awareness of their environment and ability to recognise potential hazards. Factors such as boredom, dehydration, low fitness and energy levels, drugs and alcohol, anger, depression and unresolved problems and conflicts can dull a person’s awareness levels, he says. By contrast, happiness, good health, a physically active lifestyle and a sense of shared purpose and responsibility have the opposite effect.
So how do we raise awareness? Asked whether arranging team sporting events can help, Toomey says these are wonderful in terms of fostering connection and camaraderie as well as helping to improve general fitness, but a probably not a first step.
Most importantly, he says, you need somebody to switch on the ‘inspiration’ and get workers inspired and involved. A good example is a seminar he regularly gives about hydration, which he says gets ‘huge buy in’ from seminar participants, resulting in drinking water in optimum quantities becoming a focus of attention in the workplace.
Another crucial area relates to awareness of the risk of sudden death from things like heart and vascular disease, an area which highlights the importance of practical steps and initiatives such as workplace health checks.
“Sudden death due to degenerative health does not have to occur,” Toomey says.
A holistic approach
Mechanical aids are and will always be integral to workplace safety, but to make our workplaces as safe as possible, we must go further and foster a broader culture of health, fitness and awareness across the entire work force.