The importance of evidence in OHS decision-making

There are a couple of actions in Australia’s OHS profession that are worth linking together.  The first is occurring outside OHS as well and that is the demand for evidence-based decision making.  The second is the push by the Safety Institute of Australia and others to establish a core body of OHS knowledge.

On the first point a recent Editorial in Elsevier’s “Policy and Safety” journal summarise the recent evolution of evidence-based decision making and evidence-based polices (EBP) which gained credence through the governments of Tony Blair particularly.  The editorial states that much of this push is a management strategy

“…based on the common-sense notion that business strategies and directions are underpinned by a solid information base will be superior to navigating without reliable charts and compass.”

In some ways this “notion” may be an assumption or an ideal.  The notion is sound, as far as it goes but, according to the editorial, evidence could be better used informing policy rather than providing the foundation.  It lists the following reasons:

“…a strong research base, with rigorous research findings on key issues, is simply not yet available in many areas of informing policy and program managers”

“…policy managers and political leaders are often motivated and influenced by many factors besides research evidence.”

“…even when reliable evidence has been documented, there is often a poor ‘fit’ between how this information has been assembled by researchers.”

“…the value of professional knowledge, as distinct from experimental research-based knowledge, is increasingly being recognised as crucial.”

“…EBP seems to have less standing and relevance in those areas where the issues are turbulent or subject to rapid change.”

The implementation of research findings echoes many of the techniques of consultation as required in Australian OHS legislation – stakeholders, inclusion etc. 

Where the editorial talks about “social evaluation literature” it seems that Australia, in particular, requires a “safety evaluation literature”; that is, an assessment of research for its safety implications or context (perthaps what this blog article is an example of).  In this way it may be possible to establish a library of safety approaches and thoughts that reflect the reality of business/OHS decision-making without the need for an extensive, formalised, costly and territorial resource such as a “body of knowloedge”.

It may be possible to apply a parallel with the recent history of encyclopaedias and wikis.  The Encyclopaedia Brittanica remains authoritative but the number of users, the reach, of Wikipedia makes it the more influential even though it is nowhere near as authoriative.  The safety profession could benefit from assessing its needs and its aims in the same context – useability v authority.  It is possibloe to build both elements but, as Britannica learnt, one would need to maintain an awareness of one’s place in the public consciousness or one can miss the technological boat.

This is not to criticise the establishment work on an OHS Core Body of Knowledge by the Safety Institute of Australia and its colleagues but the efforts only go part of the way and continue to be linked to formal academic structures.  It stays within the evidence framework and the “if you build it they will come” strategy.  Regardless of Kevin Costner’s success with dead ball players, influence comes from pushing out information/evidence in a format to which the audience is receptive.

The proliferation of technology information television shows, even cooking programs, shows that it is possible to communicate complex concepts in an engaging format, without dumbing down the evidence.  Indeed if the format and media is chosen and structured carefully it is possible to add value to the evidence.

The Editorial states that

“Policy decisions in the real world are not deduced from empirical-analytical models, but from politics and practical judgement.  There is an interplay of facts, norms and preferred courses of action.  In the real world of policy-making, what counts as ‘evidence’ is diverse and contestable.”

It goes on to identify three knowledge types that are useful in assessing the creation of evidence and ensuring that the evidence has a real relevance:

  • Political knowledge
  • Professional knowledge
  • Experiential knowledge.

By embracing these three elements, not necessarily by balancing them, it may be possible to maximise the policy influence of evidence.  Again the editorial states a reality that may be difficult for OHS academics to accept:

“Some decades of academic research about policy change, reinforced by media commentary, strongly suggest that policy and program changes are seldom generated primarily by research.  Political judgements are generally decisive.  Nevertheless, decision-makers are often reliant on advice from officials who may be well informed about research findings, evaluation reports, and their implications.”

Knowledge for knowledge’s sake is of importance but the application of knowledge is much more important, and useful.  Generate evidence but use it.  Seek answers for their application.  Share information and embrace its translation.  These are important considerations for safety professionals, researchers and decision-makers.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia
Categories consultation, design, education, evidence, OHS, safety, UncategorizedTags ,

6 thoughts on “The importance of evidence in OHS decision-making”

  1. Hi Kevin, This is a really interesting article. The interesting thing for me as a registered building surveyor who certifies Building Regulation compliance is the cross over with OH&S. The body of evidence for building designers is significant, but there seems to be an all or nothing approach by Architects and Engineers. The result is often nothing where it is hopeful reliance that the Building Regulations and Building Code of Australia will as published technical standards satisfy their duties rather than a formal risk assessment.
    Wouldn\’t it be better to do something rather than nothing? Surely the courts regard having had a go at a risk assessment better than nothing, particularly where there is so much evidence to already draw on.
    Is an \”OH&S\” have a go week overdue? Maybe it could correspond with encouragement from the Regulator? There seems to be a perception that if you don\’t do it \”100%\” you will be in trouble? Maybe some practical fact sheets with simple case studies encouraging building designers to do something and use the available body of evidence to do some simple and practical assessments rather than risk doing nothing?
    David Swinson
    BDC Building Design Compliance

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