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Workplace systems to blame for road accidents, not just drivers, says researcher

By Amanda Silliker

While it might be easy to point the finger on employees for driving accidents, broader workplace system around occupational driving must be considered to determine the reasons and find solutions, according to Sharon Newnam, a researcher from the Monash University Accident Research Centre in Australia.

“Traditionally, intervention research has focused on the role of the driver: ‘What’s wrong with the driver? Lets blame the driver if they have had a crash,’” she said. “(But) there’s such a bigger system that’s involve in this and we have to identify what are the mechanisms within that system influencing work-related road traffic injury and death.”

Road accidents are the leading cause of work-related death, said Newnam, speaking at a plenary session hosted by the Institute for Work & Health in Toronto.

In Australia, 30 per cent of registered vehicles are work-related, and this is on par with other jurisdictions as well, she said.

Supervisors and line managers play a crucial role in workers driving safely on the job, said Newnam, but they are faced with significant challenges. One of the biggest struggles is the management structure within an organization, and a lack of clarity around whether or not the supervisor is responsible for the worker once he leaves the work site.

“In many organizations… supervisors are only responsible for the worker when they are working within the physical boundaries of the organization, and then a fleet manager, the person that gives them the keys, generally is considered to be the one, although not actually in their job description, responsible for that person when they go out.”

Fleet managers are responsible for making sure the vehicle is safe and possibly whether or not the driver has a license, but they are not focused on the drivers’ behaviours.

This lack of clarity, which is widespread among organizations, shines light on the fact that work-related driving needs to be better integrated into occupational health and safety, said Newnam.

To improve driving safety, supervisors need to increase communication with their workers. Their safety messages should be context-specific and tailored to the particular organization. Newnam’s research has found an increased number of safety-related discussions between a manager and driver leads to improved safe driving behaviour, as well as improved relationships.

“Communication can (demonstrate) concern for health and well-being. If you have good communicative relationship with your supervisor, there’s a level of respect there, there’s a level of trust and there comes a certain perception of health investment, so that supervisor is actually caring for the health and well-being of a worker,” said Newnam.

While on the road, if workers know their supervisors are advocating for safe driving behaviours, they are more likely to align their actions, attitudes and behaviours to those of their supervisors.

In this respect, Newnam considers supervisors to be the gatekeepers within the organization. They can understand the driver and their safety capabilities, which can translate into effective policies and procedures in the organization.

Senior management also has a role to play. It needs to make sure safety is a core value within the organization, that the organization itself has safety goals and that individuals also have safety goals themselves.

“If senior-level management aren’t aware of the safety capabilities of the drivers (and) the challenges and strengths with developing the safety skills of the supervisors, how can they develop effective safety practices and procedures?” said Newnam.

Senior managers are often focused on risk management. To this end, they can ensure the organization has an effective crash database system in place that allows the company to look at crashes and learn from them.

They also need to make sure they are hiring the right people for the job, such as looking at crash history and checking if they’ve got a valid driver’s license.

“All of these things that seem to be so simple but many organizations don’t even have these simple procedures in place. That’s critical to being able to develop that foundation to where safety is perceived to be valued within the organization,” said Newnam.  “They can adopt unsafe driving practices if they don’t think safety is valued.”

But the drivers don’t get off scot-free.  The safety capabilities, attitudes, beliefs and behaviours of drivers do play a strong role in safe driving. The four most common dangerous behaviours of work-related drivers are speeding, driving while tired, distracted driving and using cellphones.  When asked to describe the reasons why they engage in these behaviours, workers often admit to not having a very good reason at all, found Newnam.

However, other times they do point to system factors, such as not much time to get from one client to the next or the priority given to productivity over safety in the organization itself, said Newnam.

“The concept of culture and climate, looking at the priority given to safety in the organization plays such a important role.”

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