The world we used to call ‘white collar’ is the new frontier of safety and wellness at work, and despite a plethora of brown bag lunches, we have a feeling we’re hopelessly underprepared.

The Mount Kembla Mining Disaster 

As a kid, I knew the Mount Kembla’s Mining Disaster as a story my Grandfather told.

On 31 July 1902, 93 men and boys in the mine, and 2 rescuers, were killed in a massive gas explosion that was heard all the way into Town, where that very day there was an inquiry at the Wollongong Courthouse into mine safety. One other man would die from his injuries two painful years later, bringing the total to 96. My Grandfather was a ‘Pit Pony Boy’ at the time, and as the gas exploded, he and another young kid were out of the mine and would survive.

33 women lost husbands, and 120 children were left without fathers.

It remains the worst mining disaster in Australian history. Hopefully, it will remain so forever.

I never quite knew whether that was the whole story or the pieces he could bare telling. What I do know is that the story stayed with him his whole life. At 95 years old, not long before he died after a long and otherwise happy life, he asked my Nanna to phone ‘that bastard historian that has bugged me for 50 years, and tell him I’m ready to talk’. And he told his story. Over many hours. The recollections of an old man, through the eyes of the 11-year-old boy he had been that day. For a man who longest conversations were about his roses in the garden, or reciting a Banjo Patterson poem, it was a long soliloquy, 84 years in the making. It was told with equal parts tears and determination.

When you come from a steel town, or a mining town, (and they usually go together), safety is a given.

It’s the story of whether parents come home from work, or not. It’s in the stories whispered about ‘bad bosses’ who run the plant, mine or factory too hard, without regard for the people who work it.

‘Can we achieve Zero Harm – in physical as well as mental wellbeing?

So, fast forward to this week where we’re asked to speak about merging ‘safety’ from purely physical to emotional and mental as well. It’s a topic we’re passionate about. The open question is ‘can we achieve Zero Harm – in physical as well as mental wellbeing?

Zero Harm is pretty much encapsulated in “Everyone has the right to go to work, and everyone has the right to return safely home”.

It’s an easy enough statement to sign up too. Add to that the idea that ‘budgeting for injuries has got to be an outrageous concept’, and it’s easy to forget that there is even a debate of whether Zero Harm is a good idea.

The Debate

Two things –

Firstly, is Zero Harm even possible? By definition and their very nature, don’t accidents just happen? Especially in tough industries, with heavy machinery or lifting or other ‘work has to be done regardless’ hazards.

Secondly, does Zero Harm mean being so knitted to the rules that we can’t even run the business or organisation? For example, to keep an emergency services person at zero harm, can you still fight fires, lift hospital patients, and keep the community safe?

And now, we’ve opened a third debate, and it’s a doozy, way beyond mining and big machines. What if zero harm meant mental well-being as well?

Interestingly mining, and quarrying, and other heavy industries are way down the track of Zero Harm. They have whole conferences dedicated to sharing ideas about getting everyone home safe. They also fully appreciate that people carry the emotional and mental scars of poor safety years … generations … after an accident. They are way past compliance and totally ‘get’ that a culture of caring and looking out for each other is critical. They understand shortcuts and work hard to have open discussions about conflicts that put people at risk.

Now, as we mature our understanding of ‘harm at work’, and add mental and emotional safety to our Zero Harm expectations, there are some enormous challenges coming our way, and they are absolutely not isolated to heavy industry. In fact, the world we used to call ‘white collar’ is the new frontier of safety and wellness at work, and despite a plethora of brown bag lunches, we have a feeling we are all  hopelessly underprepared.

We’re not suggesting that white-collar industries don’t keep safety stats and report on LTIFRs. They do. Regularly.

Our Suggestion 

What we are suggesting is that over-work, stress, unrealistic targets and extraordinarily long hours are now epidemic, and not yet being fully appreciated as part of a safe culture and workplace of well-being. Going to the gym, riding a bike, or a lunch-and-learn on positive psychology doesn’t negate midnight texts, emails all weekend, or a constant reduction in team size. ‘Happened at work’ statistics are not capturing self-medication, depression, anxiety or even suicide, yet the corridor conversations (and maybe even the hotline numbers) know exactly who the bullies are.

Are there enough conversations embracing how connected culture and safety really are? If you talk Zero Harm, even with the best intentions, do you create another competitive target to be gamed and used to silence the conversation, or are you genuinely opening up the systems conversation that is already so well progressed in heavy industry?

Zero Harm will continue its march from physical to mental, as it should. Maybe the ‘white-collars’ could ask the ‘blues’ to give them a catch-up lesson in what they’ve learned since 1902.

P.S. My grandfather went on to become a mine manager. He was a tough man, and I’ve no doubt a tough boss, but the last line in his story – He never lost a man on his watch. And roses aside, there was nothing he was more proud of.