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Great safety expectations

Great safety expectations

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Safety should always be a priority. When it comes to apprentices, the risks are often greater. So how can businesses identify, benchmark and ultimately head off the hazards?

Anne-Maree Brown

General Manager of Content

For many, the construction industry is an interesting and challenging career choice but possibly not the safest one. Overall, it is the biggest employer of people under the age of 25, accounting for more than 17 per cent of the total Australian workforce in that age range (according to data uncovered by the icare Foundation).

Reviewing the data further reveals that these younger workers are often prone to injuries, mostly in the areas of wounds, lacerations and traumatic joint or muscular damage. Sounds painful? It is. The result is significant time off work, challenges to teams and projects, and for the injured individual, potentially life-changing effects even in the short term.

Do we need to look more closely at apprentice safety?

Zoran Durdev, HIA National Safety Manager – HIA Apprentices, says apprentices are more at risk to injuries onsite due to a combination of unique factors.

‘Typically, this is the apprentice’s first job, and there is a lot to learn, not just technically, but in terms of what is safe and what isn’t,’ Zoran says. ‘If you couple that lowered level of awareness with residential building’s dynamic fast-paced environment of tight deadlines and high pressure, then the chance for something to go wrong increases exponentially.’

Another big factor, according to Zoran, is behavioural mirroring. ‘If you think about it, we as humans tend to mimic and step in line with the pack. It’s our natural instinct,’ he explains.

‘A newer member of your team is just gaining confidence and doesn’t want to be seen to be different. The result is that they copy their colleague’s behaviour as the accepted way of doing things [even if it’s risky behaviour]. That natural inclination towards a group mentality can also influence their feelings around being empowered and raising red flags.’

Apprentices are more at risk to injuries onsite
Younger workers have to deal with emotional vulnerability

There is also what can be termed the ‘inattentiveness factor’ which Zoran says can affect young male workers in particular. ‘Imagine you’ve played football on the weekend, seen your mates, used your youthful energy to get the most out of your free time,’ he says. ‘Now you have to be onsite at 6:30am on Monday, and you’re tired, hungry and the environment is loud and full of distraction. 

'The HIA Apprentices team always try to encourage them to feel safe to talk about anything that makes them feel less than secure'
It’s potentially an explosive combination.’ Add to this other attention disruptors such as doing things in autopilot mode, rushing to get a job done and frustration, it’s no wonder inattention is in play in practically 95 per cent of incidents. 

Another important factor is considering the emotional vulnerability of younger workers. The 2020 Productivity Commission (PC) Inquiry Report noted: ‘apprentices and trainees face unique pressures that may affect their mental health. They are often new to the workforce and young, which makes them more susceptible to bullying within a hypermasculine work culture’. 

‘It can be intimidating for apprentices just starting out and the culture of “toughen up” is still evident in a lot of workplaces,’ Zoran says. ‘So, the HIA Apprentices team always try to encourage them to feel safe to talk about anything that makes them feel less than secure. Our mantra is if you don’t feel safe – stop, don’t do it, and let us know about it immediately.’

HIA provides training and pastoral care
Zoran Durdev, HIA National Safety Manager – HIA Apprentices
When fresh eyes are best

For anyone who has ever helped a young person study for their driver’s license, the experience for the teacher can be a reminder of how our habits slowly get set, often against what we were originally taught. Over time we develop our own way of doing things, which can involve behaviours that are not ‘best practice’. According to Zoran, a freshly schooled apprentice is no different when it comes to safety and the ‘teacher’ in this circumstance, the host, should consider their fresh eyes a real asset to the workplace. 

‘We help our apprentices to feel empowered that they have just been trained and are perhaps more acutely aware of risks,’ Zoran says. 

As a registered group training organisation (GTO), HIA is experienced in providing training, pastoral care and support to apprentices and their hosts. ‘We advise our hosts to create an environment that welcomes questions, both technical and about day-to-day activities, and that includes safety. We also reassure apprentices that if they don’t feel comfortable to speak up about their concerns, they can always talk to their designated HIA field officer.’ 

The HIA Apprentices team ensures they support apprentices all the way through their apprenticeship, with safety in the workplace discussed in ways young workers can easily relate to. ‘We remind them that an injury isn’t just time off work, it’s time away from their personal life, their time with mates, sport and it limits their freedom to just enjoy their life,’ Zoran says. ‘We use positive reinforcement, congratulating apprentices on having the right boots, vest and PPE, but maybe remind them that they also need protective eyewear if they are working on certain equipment. It’s important to remember they are learning and need encouragement not criticism.’ 

HIA Apprentices also provides tools to apprentices and hosts to ensure useful safety information is accessible and understandable from the start.

While these tools are important, so are role models. In fact, the ability to observe, identify and manage risks is also a sign of future building business leaders. Brayden Burgess, the 2022 HIA 

Jim Brookes Australian Apprentice (partnered by Stratco) winner is one such individual. Noted by his host Paul Blowes and the judges as a keen communicator and leader, Paul often lets Brayden oversee other apprentices knowing they will be safe in his hands. Paul says: ‘His communication skills, work ethic and attitude have made him an asset to PB Quality Constructions. I never have to worry about Brayden working safely or being less than a great role model for others on the team.’ 

Everyone in the industry has a responsibility to take safety seriously
How should a business benchmark safety? 

In the building industry, traditionally the benchmarks on safety have been around reporting lost time injury frequency rates (LTIFR). This is measured against volume of activity, by site and the type of injury that occurs. However, as it is based on reporting the injury rather than risk avoidance, is this way of reviewing safety performance limiting the real picture? 

The icare Foundation noted in its research that the top four kinds of injuries apprentices experienced are caused primarily by untidy worksites, working with heights without proper clearances, untagged electrical equipment and being left unsupervised. If we heightened awareness to these more regular risks, could we  see real gains in the safety of our industry’s more inexperienced workers? 

For HIA, the association recognises the value of a continuous improvement approach to safety, where a culture of education, support and open communication contributes towards the prevention of incidents in the workplace. Monitoring and reporting through a series of lead indicators, such as recognising hazards and responding to near misses and issues identified in audits, help to target improvement activities. 

Zoran says praising the observation of potential risks and celebrating avoidance is an important shift to just focusing on injuries or near misses. ‘We have had some members who have moved from “zero tolerance” to a strong emphasis and culture around education and consultation,’ he explains, ‘and others that note the loss of lag time to reporting as their KPI.’ 

Best practice then could be for businesses to set their own KPI’s and compare their performance over time and not against others in the industry. ‘Maybe ask yourselves – are your initiatives working? Is everyone on the team performing at best practice and feeling comfortable to report potential hazards?’ Zoran says. ‘That change of focus would surely make an apprentice more comfortable in speaking up and have a flow-on effect to their approach to safety onsite for years to come.’ 

For Zoran, everyone in the industry has a responsibility to take safety seriously. ‘I’ve seen in my career before joining HIA some truly tragic outcomes from the lack of focus on apprentice safety. We all should want the same thing, to have everyone, especially those whose loved ones have entrusted us to look after them, to come home at the end of the day in the same shape they arrived at work.’ 

October is National Safe Work Month so find out how HIA can help you manage your safety.

Brayden Burgess, the 2022 HIA Jim Brookes Australian Apprentice winner, with Andrew Staff, Strat
Built Different 
HIA is currently launching Built Different through TAFE roadshows. Built Different will be the go-to community in Australia for anyone wanting to grow their career in the home building industry. In fact, Built Different members are those who want to do more, be better and reach new levels in building and construction. 
All emerging building tradespeople are welcome to join Built Different. Whether you’re a first-year apprentice or are fully qualified, Built Different is the place to meet like-minded people, share your experiences and learn from others. Join the conversation and build your future together. 
To learn more and register to be part of this new network go to: www.apprentices.hia.com.au/builtdifferent

For more information, visit HIA Apprentices.

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