Are you targeting surface level safety problems?

Here’s a common scenario…

Organisation problem: high rate of manual handling related injuries and musculoskeletal injury worker’s compensation claims.

Organisation solution: organise for the workforce to attend a manual handling training session on how to bend, push, pull, carry.

So, what’s wrong with this scenario?

Whilst there may be a need (at some point) to offer the workforce a level of information and training, the organisation is addressing a known surface level problem. They haven’t explored the issue beyond the statistics.

On the scale of organisational commitment to managing health and safety risks in the workplace; this approach is reflective of an organisation who sits at the grudging compliance level.  This level is typical of those organisations who identify a known problem and without exploring beyond the statistics, they seek a quick and easy solution.

Model: Organisational commitment to health and safety in the workplace

Model: Organisational commitment to health and safety in the workplace

In my experience, I have found that there are always underlying issues to what may seem to be the organisations biggest problem.

A client recently engaged me to undertake a project with the aim to reduce their big risk problem.  Their injury and compensation data were screaming ‘muscle sprains and strains’.  The first phase of the project was exploration.  Exploration involves a detailed consultation process with a cross-section of the organisation.  The phase of the project unearthed some interesting information – the problem was much larger than manual handling.

The second phase of the project was knowledge sharing, a session with the senior leadership team to present the outcomes of the exploration phase.  Below is a summary of what was presented to the senior leadership team:


The senior leadership team, both (a little) defensive and intrigued expressed their concern.  The main question raised in this meeting was ‘why aren’t the workforce reporting these concerns?’

Hypothetically, if this organisation had have jumped straight to manual handling training as their solution, it would not have been effective in reducing their big problem.

The results of the exploration and knowledge sharing phase of this project identified that the organisation had two significant deficiencies in their ability to unearth core health and safety risks:

  1. Lack of engagement and deep consultation

  2. Lack of reporting and response systems

The surface level approach seems to extend beyond the area of health and safety in an organisation.  Thomas Wedell-Wellsberg, found that with the organisations he studied,

What managers struggle with is not problem solving, but figuring out what the problems are.

In a survey of 106 C-suite executives who represented 91 private and public sector companies in 17 countries, Wedell-Wellsberg found that a full 85% strongly agreed or agreed that their organisations were bad at problem diagnosis and 87% strongly agreed that this flaw carried significant costs. 

(Are you solving the wrong problems?, Thomas Wedell-Wellsberg, Harvard Business Review)

Organisations are also struggling with figuring out what the problems area in the the world of health and safety.  Organisations do not necessarily have problems with identifying solutions to known risks, the main issue is they are targeting a problem that extends from much deeper problems.

Myotherapist and owner of Muscle Management Clinic, Hayden Green offers great insight on how a presented problem can be an extension of a much more significant one.

In Hayden Green’s practice, Muscle Management Clinic, the majority of his clients present with pain or discomfort.  They know something is not right and have not sought professional help yet or they have seen numerous practitioners, had it treated symptomatically but the problem has returned.

Green reports that approximately 80-90% of his clients believe their symptoms are purely biomechanical and majority of those think the problem is where the pain radiates from.  Green suggest that the English language separates Mind and Body, therefore majority of people tend to think musculoskeletal injuries are primarily isolated as a body problem.  The remaining 10-20% identify it may be stress related to some degree.

Green explains the relationship of psychological factors and musculoskeletal disorders; “if the brain takes on too many tasks, added pressures, traumatic life experiences or a combination of small factors compounding over years, psychological stress will manifest and can unearth in a physical way.” It’s what Green calls ‘neural wind up’.

Green states that it is true that stress causes physical issues and injuries but the reverse is also true. If the body has poor posture, is overloaded and injured, the feedback to the brain can create stress as the body tries to retain symmetry and heal. The brain attempts to unravel tight muscles and fascia, initiate inflammatory responses to poorly aligned joints and vertebrae, it struggles to realign itself as best as it can to slow the degenerative process.

Some great food for thought!

What’s your organisations approach to targeting safety problems?  Is it all tip and no iceberg or is your approach much deeper than that?

Our aim is keep our people healthy and safe. To reach our goal, we need to shift how we think and do safety.  We need to start at the top and ensure the leadership team are proactive and progressive, ensuring the company is committed and invested.