A radicalised OHS profession may meet future social needs

The Australasian Faculty of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (AFOEM) has uploaded to the internet an hour-long discussion of their Position Statement on “Realising the Health Benefits of Work“.

Firstly  AFOEM should be congratulated for sharing such a resource.  Although the paper itself was launched in May 2010, to have access in July 2010 is a great achievement and an indication of the openness of the organisation and the importance the organisation places on the document.

Dr Robin Chase, President of AFOEM, says in his launch introduction that the dominant social perspective is that work is somehow bad for one’s health.  This is a perspective that OHS professionals will struggle to counter as they are always on the look-out for hazard, the potential for harm, risks.  Similarly HR people often are seen as providing services to assist workers in coping with workloads and workplace issues.

Dr Chase’s comments are not a simple Pollyanna “glad game” and is supported by UK and European research, probably most manifested noticeably by the work of Dame Carol Black (yes she gets mentioned again).

Professor Sir Mansel Aylward makes the excellent point that a medical assessment model is not able to be applied to psychosocial issues because the diagnostic tools and approach are too narrow.  He talks about the risk of medicalising a worker’s illness and condition rather than understanding and treating the underlying cause.

The position statement itself says:

“Research shows that long‐term work absence, work disability and unemployment are harmful to physical and mental health and wellbeing.

Moreover, the negative impacts of remaining away from work do not only affect the absent worker; families, including the children of parents out of work, suffer consequences including poorer physical and mental health, decreased educational opportunities and reduced long term employment prospects.”

AFOEM seems to have a good amount of influence in Australia and can certainly claim very prominent academics, researchers and practitioners.

Much of the position statement content occurs post-injury and so many OHS professionals may be out of their comfort zone.  The challenge is for OHS professionals to assess the evidence and determine strategies that close the worker loop and that prevent the need for rehabilitation.  This is not just a focus on safety or injury prevention and leaving the failures to be handled by others.  The challenge is to understand the life of the worker in the often turbulent life path of work, injury, rehabilitation, return-to-work, work.

AFOEM has developed a webpage around the position statement and the issues raised through the research.  The page includes audio interviews with subject matter experts in Australia and New Zealand – Dr Mary Wyatt and Dr David Beaumont, respectively.

It is depressing to see how far behind Australia’s safety profession is on the social context of work and the social impacts of work injury, indeed, also on the social role of the OHS profession.  As an OHS professional educated through engineering and risk management, I get excited about revolutionary thoughts, concepts and applications in worker safety.

The sad reality is that I need to look beyond my professional OHS associations for inspiration.  In this week I have been energised by applied psychology and now by occupational medicine, even though my time is being dominated by civil construction safety projects.

To the OHS professionals who read this blog I encourage you to dive into issues and associations outside your experience.  To those who are already participating in the cutting edge of workplace health and safety, I implore you to continue to communicate beyond your associations as there are others listening and, some of us, learning.

Kevin Jones

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