For over 40 years, the Australian State of Victoria has had several safety organisations that exist under the radar. In the 1960s the Department of Labour & Industries supported the generation of safety groups but many groups simply appeared.
These groups are, what in contemporary times would be referred to as, networking groups. The members were from a range of industries, often from a particularly industrial part of Melbourne of regional areas. The groups met usually once a month sometimes in a factory canteen to talk about safety and to see if any members could suggestion solutions to particular problems.
One group, the Western Safety Group encompasses the western suburbs of Melbourne, a zone of concentrated manufacturing plants and one which includes a major zone of chemical production. (In my youth I would try to catch lizards in the buffer zones around the plants)
A risk with any grass roots association is to reach a level of sustainability without becoming a commercial entity. WSG and the Central Safety Group have achieved this in different ways. In each WSG meeting, which usually runs for around one hour during the day, there is a 10 to 15 minute window for sellers of new OHS products and services to sell their wares. This is a pragmatic solution to the reality that an OHS network’s membership list could be lucrative.
The Central Safety Group has a different approach because it has developed a different character. The CSG, of which I am a Life Member, has conducted its meetings in the centre of Melbourne and with the decline of manufacturing and industry in the city and inner suburbs, the membership has moved from an industrial to managerial approach.
CSG does not allow for the promotion of OHS services and products and is much the better for it. Allowing commercialism into a community or networking group makes it a trade show or exhibition and defeats the purpose.
These two groups, and there are others, have had a fluid membership that has probably topped no more than about 80 members at a time but this is an advantage. Members appreciate the face-to-face discussion. Meetings have minimal formality and foster camaraderie even amongst industrial competitors.
Mostly the safety groups that have lasted have done so by maintaining an independence from the OHS regulator although most groups have at least one member who works with WorkSafe Victoria. Although some of the groups have existed for decades, there is no mention of them on the WorkSafe website although WorkSafe has made several attempts to create a safety group directory and a meeting of Safety Group secretaries almost 10 years ago began discussions with WorkSafe to establish a single webpage listing.
The groups are also, largely, independent from the larger safety organisations although those safety organisations have made moves to support safety groups. Moves that have been mostly rebuffed.
Over the last few year the Western and the Central Safety Groups have established websites (CSG’s will be functioning in December 2009) as the most efficient way to communicate with members in between the monthly meetings.
Such networking groups have huge advantages over professional associations who have such a broad range of issues to consider. The safety group “model” talks about safety and funds itself from annual membership fees of much less than $A100 in most circumstances.
In some circumstance “small is beautiful”, welcoming, professionally satisfying and productive. Victoria’s safety groups are a good example of groups of like-minded OHS professional helping each other out rather than trying to climb the greasy pole.