Why governance can’t ignore safety

A recent Four Corner’s report (screened 3/2/2014) on road safety and the heavy vehicle transport industry in Australia revealed the human toll of work-related accidents: 242 people killed in truck-related accidents, and many more injured, in just one year. According to Four Corners, safer work practices might have avoided many of these tragic events.

The Four Corners exposé highlights, in two interrelated ways, the fundamental importance of work health and safety (WHS) to all businesses.

truck_givewayphot1. Effective business governance includes effective governance of WHS.

The new WHS Act (enacted in all States but WA and VIC) requires all officers of a business or undertaking (PCBU) to exercise due diligence so as to ensure the health and safety of workers. The Act explicitly requires all businesses to provide safe systems of work – including safe equipment, safe processes and work methods (such as appropriate rosters, supervision, instruction etc.).

The Four Corners program drew particular attention to the potential health and safety implications of deferred maintenance. This is especially relevant to accountants, given their role in allocating budgets for maintenance programs. Moreover, recent research suggests that accountants are less likely than operational personnel such as engineers to perceive maintenance as even having been ‘deferred’.

2. Health and safety risks requirement management along the entire supply chain.

The Four Corners program also documented how a fatal incident on Sydney’s North Shore in October 2013 prompted an external safety investigation into the Cootes transport fleet. Impacting along the supply chain, this incident resulted in retail fuel shortages along the east coast while road safety checks were carried out on hundreds of Cootes vehicles. For example:

Frustrated Melbourne motorists again faced empty bowsers for some types of fuel or complete service station shutdowns today because of disrupted deliveries, with about 25 Caltex, 30 per cent of BP and a number of Shell ­outlets affected. BP spokesman Jamie Jardine said the company would have difficulty maintaining fuel supplies until all of the [Cootes] trucks were back on the road. (Herald Sun, October 10, 2013)

The vehicle checks identified more than 200 defects, many being major defects in safety critical systems such as brakes, steering and suspension. Three months on, the transport company has this week announced the loss of a major contract with Shell to distribute its fuel. The potential for safety issues to pose a risk to the well-being of workers’ and bystanders is clear. These events further demonstrate the potential for poor safety to also impact on the financial performance of both suppliers and purchasers.

Safety and Corporate Responsibility: Systemic Issues

Concerns over the role of payments, subcontracting, incentives and safety are not new. Similar issues raised by the NSW Staysafe Inquiry into Road Safety almost a decade ago, formed the basis of a research note published in the Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal in 2007 by IGAP researcher Dr Sharron O’Neill.

The pervasive nature of this problem raises serious questions, explored by Four Corners, about the sustainability of heavy transport business model and the corporate responsibility of business practices. Low wage rates for contractors and drivers coupled with increasing fuel and other transport costs were reported to still be providing incentives for long hours and excessive speed.

Four corners identified two factors motivating these unsafe behaviours.

1. Some drivers reported being directed by transport managers to meet “impossible deadlines”. Importantly, prosecutions and fines for subsequent speeding and log book infringements were falling on the drivers rather than those employers and companies who direct the systems of work. This alludes to a critical disconnect in enforcement processes that appears at odds with the legislated accountability of PCBUs under both the WHS Act (as outlined above) and the chain of responsibility legislation introduced by the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator. The latter suggests,

All parties in the road transport supply chain can be held responsible for their actions (or inactions) relating to breaches of the road transport, fatigue, speed, mass, dimension and load restraint laws.

If you consign, pack, load or receive goods as part of your business, you could be held legally liable for breaches of road transport laws even though you have no direct role in driving or operating a heavy vehicle.

2. Four Corners reported that unsustainably low wage rates lead drivers to work long hours to make a reasonable income. The Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal, established under the previous federal government in 2012, had proposed to examine pay and conditions and ensure ‘safe rates’ for heavy vehicle drivers. However, the future of ‘safe’ remuneration is already in doubt following a Federal Government review of the Tribunal which is due to be handed down by April 2014.

All in all, heavy vehicle safety is a complex problem with significant accounting and corporate social responsibility implications. We now wait to see the outcome of the government’s inquiry, and the response by the retail and transport industries to the Four Corners report. One would hope appropriate changes can be implemented before more lives are lost.

– Dr S O’Neill and Dr D Tweedie.

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