“Suitably qualified” OHS professionals – who benefits?

For many years OHS regulators have been concerned about the quality of advice that OHS experts have been providing to businesses in Australia.  Some States have a regulated profession, others do not. Certainly there is no regime in Australia that compares to the “closed-shop” of Singapore.

I have seen no evidence of bad OHS advice to business.  Looking through legal databases doesn’t help, as cases are too difficult to find and the regulators say they have evidence but they usually don’t share.

For over thirty years, OHS legislation has stated that OHS management in a workplace is, principally, the responsibility of the employer.  This also means that an employer is responsible for any OHS decisions made based on their own assessments, which may involve advice from an external adviser.

As an OHS consultant I provide the best advice I can.  If the client needs advice in an area that I am not knowledgeable in, I contract a suitably knowledgeable colleague as part of servicing my client.  Any advice I provide is clearly specified as coming from the information provided by the client and my observations on the day.  What decision the client makes is up to them. This point is made in the WorkSafe Victoria paper mentioned below.  The paper says

“It is important to note that employing or engaging a suitably qualified person to provide OHS advice does not discharge the employer from their legal responsibilities to ensure health and safety as required under Part 3 of the OHS Act. This duty cannot be delegated”

This week WorkSafe Victoria released a position paper to clarify a section of the OHS Act.  According to the website

“This document sets out WorkSafe’s position on the meaning of section 22(2)(b) in the context of duty holders meeting their obligations under Part 3 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act).

Part 3 (sections 21 to 23) of the OHS Act places duties on employers to ensure health and safety.

Section 22(2)(b) provides that employers must, so far as is reasonably practicable, employ or engage persons who are suitably qualified in relation to occupational health and safety to provide advice to the employer concerning the health and safety of employees of the employer.”

My belief is that OHS consultants should be called in, primarily, for a second opinion.  This opinion is provided after the employer and worker representatives have “had a go” at identifying hazards.  In my experience, businesses have a fair idea of the workplace hazards present but are not sure how to prioritise the controls of those hazards, and may be unaware of new control measures.  This is where the OHS consultant comes in.

Few OHS professional associations in Australia provide their members with information on how to do your job, or how to apply your knowledge in a commercial context.  Until recently few tertiary institutions provided this service and I would like to hear of those OHS courses that now do teach business practices to graduates.

(I remember attending a Ergonomics Society conference in Sydney almost ten years ago.  It was the first time anyone had spoken on the issue of professional ethics to the ergonomists.  I would be surprised if other Australian professional associations have progressed this far)

According to the position paper, these are the elements that they consider “may” make a suitable qualified person:

  • Knowledge
  • Industry experience
  • Professional activity
  • Reputation
  • Professional association
  • Communication skills
  • Technical expertise
  • OHS legislative understanding:
  • Risk management strategies

From that basis, below is my plain English checklist for businesses to assess their OHS advisers. Comments are in brackets:

  • Knowledge: Does the professional have an educational qualification that is relevant for your needs? (I have never been asked to show my education qualifications by a client. Also, having an educational qualification does not equate to competence, in itself, no matter what the education evangelists say)
  • Industry experience: Do they know what they are talking about? (This is impossible to verify unless they have worked in an industry for a long time in a prominent role. One could ask for references but the references are always friendly to the adviser)
  • Professional activity: Can the person demonstrate recent professional activity in the relevant OHS field? (Activity does not mean that the quality of that activity was any good. A snake-oil salesman could have been in business for a decade but they still sell snake oil. This is also relevant to the educational evangelists – academic papers in peer-reviewed journals do not indicate competence in advising companies on the best hazard control measures)
  • Reputation: Have they been any good in the past? (This can be indicated by googling their full name. I recently found an OHS adviser with a criminal record and jail time for “failing to act honestly as a director of various companies”. However, an internet campaign can be used to unfairly discredit someone. The best way of checking their reputation is the talk with the adviser’s professional association, should they be in one and should that association know what it’s on about.)
  • Professional association: Do they belong to a relevant professional association? (This is a good move but many associations allow advisers to buy membership without any verification of their competence? The flaw in this criterion is the validity of the association, its disciplinary procedures and its criteria for membership. Do not over-emphasise this criterion)
  • Communication skills: Can they read and write?
  • Technical expertise: Do they know how to use their tools properly?
  • OHS legislative understanding: Do they know there is an OHS law? Have they read it? Do they understand it?
  • Risk management strategies: Does their advice control the hazard or simply reduce its impact?

 But then, this could all be tosh.  Seek a second opinion.

1 thought on ““Suitably qualified” OHS professionals – who benefits?”

  1. In this competitive environment of profit and productivity over safety, it is not uncommon for me to face clients who still think they could \”subcontract\” out their legal OHS responsibilities to the consultants; doesn’t matter if the consultants do not have day to day control over the clients\’ business operation.

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