Dr Kirsten Olsen is a senior lecturer at Massey University's School of Public Health, whose research interests include the efficient management and improvement of occupational health and safety.
What are some of the issues small business owners face in understanding what's required of them in terms of their health and safety practices?
There are differences with this from industry to industry, but one challenge can arise in family businesses, where people grow up in an industry working in the family business and then take it over. In those situations what a business owner knows about health and safety is often passed down by experience and culture. While no employer wants to harm anyone, the default position for owners in this situation is often 'I'm about average when it comes to health and safety'. So they don't have any awareness that perhaps they need to seek out any information or to try things another way.
Education and industry training is another means by which people can gain an understanding of what's required of them, but that's reliant on the institution being up to scratch with both the practices they're teaching, and the equipment that they're teaching students on.
A lot of small business owners also listen to their peers, so when they're exposed to positive examples of health and safety practices through their industry associations, for example, that can influence their understanding of these issues. And while online resources are helpful sources of information, again owners are only going to proactively seek those out if they're aware that's something they should be doing.
One focus of the new legislation seems to be getting everyone in a business proactively working together to improve health and safety. What works best for actually engaging workers in these conversations?
I think generally business owners want to be seen as good employers who want to share information with workers, but when it comes to making decisions they often think they know best because it's their operation. But workers need to feel and see that they're being listened to and that their views are taken seriously and acted on. And if their suggestions in any instance aren't acted on, they at least need to get feedback on why a particular action hasn't been taken. If that's done consistently, that improves worker engagement, but if workers don't feel listened to they'll think 'nothing I say makes a difference, so why bother?'
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And obviously a certain amount of trust needs to exist between workers and the owners in the business; if that isn't present then workers don't really want to engage.
What advice do you have for small businesses wanting to create a positive health and safety culture?
The first point is to lead from the front. Others will only follow if you practice what you preach in terms of health and safety. The other thing I'd suggest is to just focus on getting your practices right: focus on identifying the hazards and the risks, and engage workers in how to best control them. It's about integrating good health and safety practices into the way you work, as opposed to applying health and safety as an add-on. Focusing on compliance will lead to just doing the minimum, so identifying risks and how best to control them is key to creating a positive culture change.