Australian and New Zealand Communication Association
School of Arts and Humanities
Recent calls for organisation studies to embrace ‘the practice turn’ (Whittington, 2011) have expanded into an understanding of the potential for ethnographic research in occupational health and safety (OHS) research (Pink et al., 2016). The ethnographic project described here, with fieldwork conducted between 2008 and 2010, is one element of this growing appreciation of the potential for qualitative research in industrial settings. Ethnographies have not often been used in OHS settings, and ‘much practicebased knowledge remains undocumented, informal, unspoken and thus unaccounted for’ (Pink et al., 2016, p. 27). This study was motivated by an aim to make explicit the tacit safety knowledge understood and practised by a public service workforce subject to high injury rates. The research team, with Teague as field-based ethnographer, undertook a detailed investigation with customer-facing, frontline staff in a transport organisation. The article uses Teague’s ethnography to argue that new insights into improved safety practices are accessible via investigation of the everyday challenges and responses practised by frontline staff. It demonstrates the value of ethnographic research in opening up new avenues for understandings that can inform OHS policy development and the implementation of OHS procedures within complex organisations. In the context of this particular frontline customer service workforce, staff are positioned in an us-and-them relationship to members of the public through being required to work in pairs. The safety culture relies heavily upon partners looking out for each other, which can create social and emotional distance from the members of the public they are employed to serve. At the same time, the role appeals to people who have experience in security-based shiftwork, including former defence force personnel, firefighters and police. The physical fitness requirements of the role, and reliance on teamwork, complicate the communicative context when engaging with members of the public. This is particularly so when customers are verbally aggressive and/or impacted by alcohol or drugs.
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