Of Sausages and Onions

There has been a recent outcry across the health and safety community, and others I suspect, about the recent decision of a chain of hardware stores, Bunnings.


If you are reading this outside of Australia, you might not appreciate the full cultural significance of what is happening. For many people, Bunnings is more than a hardware store, it is a Saturday morning ritual, and an important part of that ritual is buying a sausage on piece of white bread, with onions and tomato sauce. Proceeds from this “sausage sizzle” go to charity, and both my daughter and sister-in-law have participated in this fundraising exercise. Having spent the last three decades in various stages of home renovations and handyman projects, I have made a pretty significant contribution to the sausage sizzle myself.


The Bunnings directive to volunteers who man the sausage sizzle has been to place the onions underneath the sausage, not on top of them, for ostensibly occupational safety and health reasons. Bunnings chief operating officer has been quoted in the press as saying they want onions placed underneath the sausage to prevent them falling out and creating a slip hazard.


(See: Bunnings onion directive)


The directive was accompanied by reports of a visitor to Bunnings who slipped on an onion, fell back and hit his head three years ago. The matter was apparently settled out of court and subject to a nondisclosure agreement. This in itself is ironic, because if “safety is always our number one priority” (see the article above) why does Bunnings need to cover up the incident with a nondisclosure agreement, rather than share it? Surely other organisations are confronted with the threat of onion related disasters at sporting events every weekend – what was done to inform them of the risk, in pursuit of this most important “priority”?


In my recent book, Paper Safe: the triumph of bureaucracy in safety management, I wrote about rules, and how many rules in the name of health and safety are seen as trivial and can work to undermine the importance of health and safety in organisations. This certainly seems to be the overwhelming reaction to the Bunnings onion directive – a stupid, unnecessary rule which demeans health and safety and calls it into ridicule.


I certainly think there is room for this type of criticism. I pity the poor health and safety officer who is going to be asked questions about onion safety at every workplace barbecue for years to come.


But there is another side to this conversation. In Paper Safe, I also wrote about “the Handrail Conundrum”.


People falling down stairs at work represents a potential threat to the organisation – at the very least injured workers be entitled to workers compensation. In the same way, people slipping and falling at a business premises represents a threat – there is a very real likelihood of someone seeking legal redress and damages if they are injured.


It is not the risk that is in question here - it is the response to it.


I do not think we can argue there is no risk from the onions, but there is certainly a conversation to be had about an appropriate response to the risk.


I think the most cringeworthy aspect of the story is the silly response - the statement "safety is our number one priority". Safety is our number one priority just seems like a platitude. We have all heard it said so often and know it is not true in practice. I do not pretend to know Bunning’s real stance on safety, but I cringe every time I hear it said by a corporate spokesperson because it smacks of corporate dishonesty - especially when accompanied by a nondisclosure agreement.


But the real problem with dressing the onion directive up as some sort of “caring” safety response is, in isolation, the onion directive is meaningless.


I mean, is there really evidence that onions underneath the sausage are less likely to fall out than onions on top? Not in my experience of eating them. I would love to know the research that went into this decision-making, or whether somebody just thought it was a good idea without any basis.


Even if there was empirical data to support the onion placement strategy, the strategy is, itself, all but unenforceable. Is there a realistic expectation of being able to enforce compliance with the onion placement directive across the thousands of volunteers who rotate through Bunnings stores across the country every weekend? Perhaps we could appoint the 15-year-old who stands sentry at the main entrance as the onion monitor? I can just imagine the range of conversations they would have to endure, with everyone from hassled tradies running late to get to a job, to frazzled fathers dashing between Saturday morning sporting events with half the team in tow looking for the “right” reticulation head. And yes that is a real thing!


Anyway, fixing the onion risk does not address the problem. The problem is the slip resistance of the floors. Go and walk around Bunnings on a Saturday and see if you can find any other potential risk factors, over and above the onions. What might you find? Bits of sausage itself? Splotches of tomato sauce, mustard or other condiments? Splashes of meat pie filling or bits of crust? God only knows what, being thrown out of prams and strollers by recalcitrant toddlers who do not really want to be at Bunnings – apple slices, rusks, juice, bits of toast – the list goes on.


Perhaps there is some commercially available product that could be pained on floors to improve their slip resistance. I wonder where you might find something like that ... Oh, wait ...


I am not critical of Bunning for being concerned about customers falling over in their stores. I understand that. It is a real problem. But I cannot help but feel that if safety really was their number one priority, the response might have been different.


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