Should OHS regulators be involved in the competence of professionals?

WorkSafe and the Safety Institute of Australia are at the forefront of pushing for a defined level of competence for the safety professional.  WorkSafe identified this need many years ago and has been working on establishing alliances with safety professions since then to achieve its aims.

Significantly similar issues have been discussed in the United Kingdom over a similar period however, in that process the WorkSafe equivalent, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), have chosen not to participate.  According to a recent article in HEALTH AND SAFETY AT WORK, the HSE has stated its position

“Speaking at IOSH’s recent conference, HSE chief executive Geoffrey Podger was adamant that the general description of competence in the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 (MHSW) Approved Code of Practice (ACoP) is sufficient. “I don’t think it helps the whole health and safety system if HSE tries to over-define the area,” he said, adding that there is still a “huge opportunity” for the professional bodies to work on their own definition.”

This position is considerably different from that in Australia where WorkSafe is now closely working (some would say too closely) with the SIA in developing standards and protocols that it and its partners want to operate nationally. Its aim seems to be similar to one the HSE and Health & Safety Commission established in 2007 – “Mapping Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Professional Body Activities in Scotland”.  It is worth looking at the page to see the list of safety professional bodies who are listed, the services offered and the membership databases.

Pages from externalproviders[1]A crucial HSE document is the “HSE statement to the external providers of health and safety assistance”.  Its statement that competence should be a goal rather than a benchmark should worry the Australian competence lobbyists.  In the Ponting article above, IOSH calls for more clarity but, as discussed elsewhere in SafetyAtWorkBlog, OHS legislation clearly states it is the employers’ ultimate responsibility to establish a safe and healthy work environment.  They may choose assistance from competent people but why should it be the regulator that establishes this?  The professional bodies such as IOSH and SIA have existed for decades.  Have they not determined levels of competency for their own members by now?

Geoff Hooke of the British Safety Industry Federation says

“when you ask how you measure competence, the simple answer is: with great difficulty”.

In general, shouldn’t the response from OHS professional associations be along the lines of

“we believe that all members of the XXX Association are competent within their fields and we would not hesitate in recommending our professional members in providing competent advice to companies…”?

These organizations who are calling for a clear definition are often the same organizations that are in support of “as far as is reasonably practicable”, a vague management concept that can be defined and re-defined depending on which judge hears which OHS prosecution. – the antithesis to the prevention principles of OHS.  One cannot call for certainty in one area while advocating flexibility in another.

The UK Works and Pensions Committee was right in saying that more control is required on external consultants and clearly lobbed the responsibility on the professional bodies.

Ponting’s article concludes that it is the job of the professional bodies to organize accreditation and the maintenance of that accreditation but acknowledges that it is politically fraught.  That is not enough reason to look to the regulator to solve the problem as it only makes the regulator the target of criticism over the process and the results.  The professional bodies themselves must work to a commonality of purpose and relinquish years of demarcation and, sometimes, schism.

The Australian safety professions would ultimately gain far more credibility for themselves and their professions if they too took it upon themselves to define accreditation, audit their members’ competencies and assist in the maintenance of skills.  In that way Australia may gain a safety profession of which everyone can be proud.

Kevin Jones

6 thoughts on “Should OHS regulators be involved in the competence of professionals?”

  1. Yang

    The point I was making was that as far as OHS law is concerned whether expert technical advisors saw themselves as OHS professionals or not misses the point. They were experts who made judgements and decisions that were intended to affect management\’s decision-making on OHS. Look at the Coroner\’s report and the independent inquiry – these people believed (quite reasonably) that their judgements should be treated seriously and these judgements related to safety at the mine. In my view any professional or expert who makes such judgements is making themselves an OHS professional in those areas and I would suggest to you that OHS legislation and inspectorates would also see it this way (ie once you enter the terrain you become a dutyholder – see the broad wording of who are dutyholders under the general duty provisions). All those who enter the area of safety advice – be that geotechnical or whatever – should be aware of this.

    OHS professions might want to define their competencies rather more broadly than a specific area of expertise. Geotechnical experts might not want to view themselves as OHS professionals. But under the OHS legislation the provision of safety-related advice however configured carries with it legal obligations. All parties need to be aware of this. Again, I would suggest evidence presented at the Beaconsfield inquest is extremely pertinent in this regard.

    Some inspectorates are now exploring a code of ethics in this regard and I would suggest to you that it is only a matter of time before an expert (however they define themselves) will be prosecuted under OHS law for the advice they provide. So while it may be good to separate debate about what constitutes an OHS professional from the legislation itself (in terms of accreditation) even those who claim not to be OHS professionals should be aware of their obligations under OHS legislation.

    Finally, in relation to Kevin\’s point I agree totally. If Safework Australia was serious about national enhancement OHS the funding and promotion of quality tertiary programs to train OHS professionals (and also provide guidance to allied professions and experts) would be a priority. In my maybe naive view a number of professional bodies would support this.

    Regards

    Michael

  2. Kevin:

    Very valuable points.
    Here in Canada the OHS person is not a regulated profession. As you know, we have the ISR or “Internal Responsibility Systems” that is the philosophy behind the OHS regulations. In a few words is a “system within an organization, where everyone has direct responsibility for health and safety as an essential part of his or her job”.
    The term “EVERYONE” includes, in the acts & regulations in Canada: the health and safety committee and its members, employer, supervisor, worker, owner and constructor.
    My point is and, with my 20 years of experience in H&S, a good Safety Professional has more influence in the prevention than the rest of the previous stakeholders.
    In my opinion, it is unrealistic to have a good IRS without a competent safety professional. And, the competencies, accreditation, and maintenance of skills of the safety professionals must be defined by their own members.

  3. Interesting discussion. I think we have to acknowledge that OSH professionals are poorly defined. For e.g. are the consultants in Beaconsfield accident consider OSH professionals? Most probably not. They are geotechnical or mining consultants.

    The lack of a clear definition of the profession makes it hard to define the necessary competence. The complexity is compounded by the fact that OSH professionals are in a wide range of industries and the necessary competence for each industry is different. In a way, OSH professionals are meant to know everything, but nothing in depth! Perhaps the only competence that ties all OSH professionals together is the ability to facilitate risk management process in the OSH context.

    Yang

  4. Michael

    I share your concerns about the competence of OHS professionals, they can be improved through formal tertiary education but many of the professional associations are very poor in supporting continuous professional development.

    There will always be incompetent advisers in any profession but business relies on the profession to police itself. If OHS associations have been around for over 40 years and incompetent professionals persist, serious questions are warranted.

    I think the OHS profession is looking for the government to do the work for them because, in some instances, self-examination would be too confronting.

    A major weakness in the OHS profession is that the professional associations are often poor in enforcing competency standards (whatever exists), have very little accountability, poor transparency, and lax entrance requirements.

    For any association that argues against accreditation, one would have to ask whether that organization has its own accreditation process and whether the process is independently assessed. For only when a professional competency process is valid will that profession gain the necessary public (and governmental) trust.

  5. Kevin

    Valuable comment. I think accreditation is a potentially useful idea if it is linked to appropriate standards. I am not sure whether this should be linked to law but it ought to relate to a code of practice for OHS professionals. Of course without the link many professionals without accreditation will continue to practice.

    In the UK a consultant was prosecuted under OHS legislation. Although this is the only case I know I think the role undertraken by OHS professionals will get greater scrutiny. The use of consultants and their role received considerable attention in the Beaconsfield gold mine inquiry and coronial inquest. I think there is much to be learned from this regarding

    1) the appointment and scoping of tasks for OHS professionals
    2) How OHS professionals should undetake their tasks (and what information and contacts they should require)
    3) How management should evaluate and respond to the information provided by experts, including circumstances where there are conflictng views

    At the end of the day it will never be a question of just competence. Bluntly some OHS professionals will always be better at their job than others. Moreover, some accepted \’theories\’ or practices like BBS are in my view flawed – so what happens when the approach used is the problem? Nonetheless, I think there are some basics about undertaking risk assessment and the like (some of which is already covered in legislation/regulation) that should be abided by and if need be enforced. Further, there are areas that a good OHS professional simply ought to know. For example in investigating a major incident they should ask for a full history of similar events and near misses as part of the assessment process. How, otherwise, are they to make a fully informed judgement about past and future trends? Yet when I speak to my colleagues a number are emphatic that not all OHS consultants do this…hmmmm.

    Regards

    Michael

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