Proving Safety (1): A three-part series

June 6, 2024



Motivation, purpose and a search for meaning: An interview with Greg Smith


This is the first in a series of three in-person podcasts between Greg Smith and Dr Nippin Anand. Nippin started off interviewing Greg in his hometown Perth to find out what motivated him to choose a career path in health and safety law. Later in this series, the two will discuss Greg’s new book Proving Safety and their take on how organisations understand and address critical risks.

Further information




Greg Smith, Nippin


Nippin  00:00

Welcome to another episode of embracing differences with me. Nippin Anand, a podcast aimed at engaging with different viewpoints and perspectives about how we as human beings, learn, unlearn, recognise risk, tackle risk and become culturally sensitive. I just came back from Far East and Australia down under, and I’m a bit jet lagged trying to keep up with this new time zone. So what do I have today? Well, I’ve just done a podcast series with Greg Smith, yes, Greg. I met him in Perth in Australia, and we had lots of fun. And for those who don’t know, Greg was the author of the book Paper safe, and now recently published his book proving safety, and we thought that we would dedicate some time to understanding Greg’s motivation to write this book, and often what happens is that early days experiences can have a very profound experiences in our lives. So instead of delving straight into the topic, I always find it quite powerful to discuss what motivates people to believe in what they believe in. So in the first of these three podcasts, we will discuss what led Greg on this journey of discovery to inquire about the correlation between bureaucracy and its intended purpose. Now you have to understand that Greg takes a legal view on risk and safety, which is very important, but you have to keep that in mind as you listen to him. I’m very excited to bring this podcast to you, and I hope you enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoy creating it and stay on until the last one in this three part series, because Greg and I have an important announcement to make you.


Nippin  02:04

Well, good. Welcome back to Perth. Nippin Anand, thank you.


Greg Smith  02:07

Great to have you back. It’s been nice to have you around for a few


Nippin  02:09

days. I did two weeks in Canberra, and I’m so fortunate that on the way back, we could meet, spend some time together, because I so enjoyed being with you last time.


Greg Smith  02:19

It’s not as nice as down on the block, but, you know, it’s an office.


Nippin  02:24

It’s good. It’s good. Greg, I think a lot of people have said bespoke. Speak very highly of you for the kind of work you do, at least in my circle, in my little network, you’ve done a lot of good work around risk management and safety, particularly the last two books that you have produced. And I think it would be nice to know you little bit before we get started with the book at a very personal level, let’s ask the question, Who is Greg Smith?


Greg Smith  02:57

He did warn me you’re going to ask, and I did warn you that I’m not a sharer, but I’ll do my best. So I’m born and bred in Western Australia. Grew up on a farm and then went away to boarding school, as most people did back then in the 80s, went away to boarding school. I went and got into university and then got into law schools only I got the system was a bit different back then I got into law school. So I thought, I’ll do law and partially put myself through law school doing Army Reserve in Australia, which is like a part time army role. So that’s context. And then I started practising law. And back in the days when I started practising law, you had to do a couple of years what was called an article clerkship, and then you got admitted to practice. The system’s a little bit different nowadays. So I did my article clerkship, I got admitted to practice. I was working predominantly in commercial law. We had a rotation system through the firm that I started with and and I just, I just wasn’t enjoying it didn’t suit me. So I actually left and went and joined the regular army. And did that for about four years. Then I came back, got invited back by one of the partners who I ran into at a restaurant one night, funnily enough, got invited back. Went and did that, came back to practice and worked my way through legal practice for a while, probably for another 15 years or so, maybe a bit more. Then I went and went and joined an oil and gas company, you know, operational safety role. Because I had, I’ve been talking about lots of you couldn’t study. So when I went to law school, there was no such thing as safety law. There was safety law, but it wasn’t a thing you just didn’t do. It didn’t do employment law back then, either. And funnily enough, they’re the two pre. Dis areas I ended up in, but I got involved in lots of fatality inquiries when I came back. I was actually involved in one in the army, and then I got involved in several when I was out of the army. And that just created a real interest in this area, particularly around this disconnect. And if you go back to paper safe, this disconnect between all these processes that we have and what actually happens in practice. It’s such a long standing issue. So did that went to the oil and gas thing thinking, Oh, I can go and learn a lot about how this works in practice. That was an eye opening experience, because you go in there and you go, Oh, my God, this is all over the place. It’s, it’s not well managed at all, was my impression. So I did that for a while, got out, went back to the law, went and set, set up my own practice with another fellow. Did that for a while. Then when ran my own law practice and did a part time role in a mining services company, and now back practising law. So that’s kind of to sort of CV, I guess, for what that’s worth. But I’m married. We’ve got three kids. Got a block that you came to last time, which is nice, which we’d always wanted to get some land, particularly coming from your farm, it’s just nice to have some space. We’ve got chickens now. I think they had chickens last time you’re there. We’ve got our chickens and one of so it’s a bit odd where I find myself because I kind of wanted to be a lawyer, but almost fell into it. I didn’t know that safety existed as a thing at all, really, even even when I was in the regular army for a while, safety certainly wasn’t what you see it to be these days, which was fascinating for me, but I find my side of the safety fence quite different from what I hear from people in safety and I under, and I don’t want to sound really cold about this, but I know most people do safety, or lots of people do safety out of this genuine concern to keep people from harm. But my exposure to safety has nearly always been the managers who have been prosecuted or blamed or having to deal with the aftermath from how do I talk to the family? I mean, I still get questions, Greg, is it okay for me to go to the funeral? And I have no idea how to answer that question, because I don’t know the people or the relationships or anything like that, so you end up in this quasi counselling role. But what’s really driven my desire to interrogate safety management systems is the people who are expected to implement and oversee them. So we have a whole narrative built around the difficulty of the frontline workers to comply with them. But then there’s this whole other subset of organisations who are accountable for the implementation of those and who are really held accountable if they don’t work. My perspective of safety is very much on trying to understand it from their view of the world.


Nippin  08:26

There’s so much to draw from. But you gave me so many moments to open up this conversation, Greg, what was that? You know you mentioned a couple of times. It was an OH MY GOD moment when you were when you were still very new to this, even once you were in the operational role, operational safety role. What were that? Oh, my God, moments which led you to believe that this is something I want to explore further.


Greg Smith  08:55

I was just so I had a boss immediately above me. And so I first arrived, and I was this lawyer who specialised in the area, and I was seen as a bit novel around town, and I suppose, and he took me to a meeting with the CEO at the CEO’s house. So it was one of those, you know, very personal sort of come and meet the CEO, and these are all the connections. And I remember having this conversation, and I think I was doomed from the start with the organisation. Unfortunately, subtly is intact, not my strong point. And my boss asked the CEO, and he said to the CEO, what keeps you awake at night? Because this was meant to be my learning part of the journey, I suppose. And he leaned forward, and he had quite an accent, and he said to me, hand injuries. And I kind of leant back in my seat, and I probably. We wouldn’t do this today, but I recall saying, Are you serious? And both of them looked at me, and I said, Aren’t you concerned about these facilities blowing up and hundreds of people dying? Wouldn’t isn’t that and and that’s and the comment, and I got rushed out of the room reasonably quickly after that, and that’s what really and it still continues to strike me to this day that this was an organisation that was investing millions of dollars in safety, not just in safety departments, but technical safety and risk and assurance and oversight and all of those sorts of things. And the idea that the person who’s sitting at the top of that organisation will be concerned about hand injuries and injuries are important. I’m not minimising the impact they can have on people’s lives, but surely, if there’s something that’s going to keep you awake at night, it’s got to be that catastrophic event in that kind of industry. And that sort of got me on a little bit of a journey of exploration and discovery about how odd this this was, and it was a bit eye opening, because then once you start going down that path in one area, you realise, or hang on, it’s it’s not, it’s not limited to safety. If you go and start really picking apart the HR function in an organisation, it seems counter intuitive when the HR department is, you know, is the HR Department concerned about the human resources or protecting the organisation from the Human Resources? Is the environmental Department concerned about protecting the environment or protecting the green credentials of the organisation? And I don’t none of that’s meant to be critical or pejorative. Organisations have got to survive and respond and deal with the world where they find themselves and and you know, organisations that get critical, criticised for environmental damage, often have reasonably good environmental credentials, but you have one issue, and all of a sudden you’re an environmental vandal. In the same way if you’re an organisation, you have one fatality, then you don’t care about safety. And so there’s a whole narrative that plays around it, but I was just really fascinated in the way these systems work and what they’re designed to do.


Nippin  12:21

What I take away from that story that you just narrated is this that I think you probably had one view about how risk should be managed in a big organisation like that, but through your education, through your background, through your expectations. But as I understand it, what you felt in that moment was that how could something, maybe not trivial, but something as little as just hand injury, could be the focus of somebody who’s sitting at such this position of power in autonomy? Am I? Yeah.


Greg Smith  12:52

And it got even more surreal than that, because they bought a they bought a consultant. I can’t remember the reason why they were bought in Yeah. Were bought in, and I just wonder if these things are connected. But they bought a consultant in from a US company quite well known in the safety industry, extraordinary rates they were paying, looking at the invoice, and so that’s just extraordinary. And the Mate, I’m sure, I’m sure there were other findings that came out of this, but they came to one of the gas plants and did an inspection and review. And the finding that I that resonates with me the most, and I’ve never forgotten, it was a recommendation that somebody should dress up in an alligator suit. And he used the word alligator, and that stood, stood out to me as well, instead of crocodiles. But anyway, alligator suit at the at the front entry to the facility, repeatedly going, snap, snap, mind, your hands. I really felt like I was in a bad episode of Play School, and that that really sort of and that has stuck with me for a long while. I think


Nippin  14:04

often the first experiences don’t go away so so quickly. Sometimes they have a very, very large impact on who you are as a person. But So how has this experience shaped your understanding and your motivations as we move forward, now that we have somewhere close to where you are in your career right now.


Greg Smith  14:23

Well, I guess not long after that, and not long before I resigned, to be honest, but not long after that, I sat down with one of the executive vice presidents of the facility, because I this had kind of blow me that we’re spending all this time and money on it and and I really admired her, and just want to test some ideas with her. And I think at the time it might have been eight or 10 or 12, I can’t remember, but she had an accountability for a reasonably large number of producing facilities, and I got the monthly health and safety reports from all of those facilities and put them on a desk in front of her because she’d asked what I’d asked her some questions. And. She said, What are you going on about Gregor? I said, Can I meet you? And we picked the time. I had the reports laid out in front of her, and I said, here are all your monthly reports in any of these, Where is the evidence that you know your critical risks are being managed. Where is it? And there was a bit of an O moment from her as well. So okay, it’s not there. And you know, you mentioned sort of my writing, but that that kind of idea of, how do you actually know what’s going on, sits a little bit at the heart of what I’m doing at the moment.


Nippin  15:44

Yeah, and I see in your writings that hasn’t changed so much in so many years.


Greg Smith  15:51

No, no, I don’t. I don’t think it has. I think, um, we, um, we’ve invested my and I haven’t, obviously, haven’t seen everything, and don’t know everything that’s going on, but I feel like we, we want to say we, the risk and safety sort of industry has invested quite heavily in how to have better conversations, how to write better procedures that are more suitable for the front line. I’m not saying we’re doing it well, but I think if we say, what do we focus on? There’s a lot of noise around that, you know, more recently, psychosocial, psychologically safe workplaces and trust and that are really very, very prominent. But we still have a fundamental issue in understanding what it tells us and whether it works, and the measures, the traditional measures that we have, still don’t answer those questions. So I think we’ve changed a lot of what we do at a micro level, at least at a macro level, I still think it looks the same. We’ve tried to shift some of the underlying philosophies about why we do the things we do, but I’m not sure we are any better placed to understand if it tells us what we need to know and


Nippin  17:18

and I think that sums up your motivation so well, because where you started off from Greg was that here’s an organisation that has lost sight of what risk really means by being so focused, so single mindedly focused on hand injuries. I’m


Greg Smith  17:37

curious if they’d lost sight of that, or if institutionally So, without wanting pick on that organisation, but whether institutionally, we ever understood that, because it strikes me as being so pervasive, the lack of attention to criticality seems to Be really pervasive across most industries. So there’s something deeper going on. I don’t know what it is, but I think there’s something deeper there.


Nippin  18:07

And if you delve little bit deeper at a very personal level, why does it bother you so much, this disconnect between the critical risk and and what we need to do about it. Why does it trouble you so much at a very deeper level? Oh,


Greg Smith  18:24

don’t it irritates me. I know if it troubles me, it irritates me. I just, I find hypocritical. Is not even the right word. I probably don’t even know the word for it, nippin, but it’s, there’s something disingenuine about investing so much time and effort and so much sort of public facing rhetoric about concern for safety when we’re just not doing the work to understand if Our organisations are safe, I think. And it’s not, I mean, I think I spent like, the first 20, 2015, to 20 years of my career, sort of sitting. I felt like I was sitting in a room going, am I the only one who sees this? Because I would look around and everybody’s doing, I think. And I really didn’t want to say anything, because I thought I must be the idiot in the room, whereas everybody is doing all of this stuff thinking it’s telling them something. And I kind of got over that after a while, particularly as I got more experience and spent more time in courtrooms. That’s an interesting place, because in courtrooms, your opinions count, and you have to say what you think, and you have to back it up by evidence. And I thought, well, perhaps if I took some of that thinking and started taking my opinions and putting them out there and backing them up with the evidence behind it, we can move. We can perhaps. If the dial a little bit on those things


Nippin  20:02

great. And I think that’s a really nice ending to this, to this episode, at least, to this session, getting to know you your motivations and why you do. Why do you believe in what you believe in? And maybe we can stop it unless you have some


Greg Smith  20:20

that’s fine. Thanks. Nippin Anand, okay, great. If


Nippin  20:26

you enjoyed listening to this podcast, many more podcasts are available on our website, novellas, dot solutions, forwardstroke, knowledge space, the podcast embracing differences is available on Spotify, podbean, Apple podcasts and anchor. You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel team novellus, that way, every time we publish a new podcast, you will get to know you want to find out more about our work, visit us at novellus.solutions, or simply write to us at support@novellus.solutions. Thank you for wanting to learn more than you knew yesterday and until we meet again. Goodbye and have fun.