Occupational health and safety is supposed to be a skill that anyone can obtain and apply but it is often complicated by experts. This is not to say that OHS is “common sense”. The notion of common sense is a nonsense.
Several years ago, Laurie Anderson performed in Melbourne, Australia. Her show was “Homeland” and the song that I most remember from her performance was “Only an expert“. There is a wisdom in the song that remains as topical as much now as it did when I heard it at the start of the international banking crisis and the US home lending crash. Anderson has been able to update the lyrics of the song to include the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
Anderson says that Americans focus on the solution whether it be concerning pets or sushi. Companies are established to solve problems by claiming an expertise but Americans also sometimes need a problem in order to create an interest or even a notoriety. Sometimes the “enjoyment” comes from the problem rather than the solution and this can manifest itself, in my opinion, in “OHS junkies” and “accident junkies” and “risk junkies”. Sometimes these junkies can become the worst type of OHS professionals by becoming safety fundamentalists.
Anderson says that the big question is “how do I get control?” and that the person seeking control is only several weeks away from poverty. She illustrates economic fragility – a situation that many OHS professionals face. Once consultants gain a taste of the lucrative potential of their profession it is highly likely that they, and their families, want that level of income to be maintained. This is understandable but will the threat of economic fragility vary the information that a consultant provides? Is it possible that the consultant sees an opportunity for economic stability and structures their advice to make themselves indispensable to the client? Perhaps it is not control that the consultant seeks but a continuing influence and the economic benefits that result.
“Only an Expert” discusses expertise in light of the global financial crisis and global warming and tells of the potential power of the expert to enlighten but also equally to obfuscate and misdirect. Anderson says that “only an expert can deal with the problem because only an expert can see the problem”. This is not how workplace heath and safety is supposed to work because the laws, the concepts and their application are intended (or were intended) to be understood by the layperson. Governments and OHS professionals around the world have continued to “refine” OHS so that it is an area of expertise, a profession, when safety and health should, perhaps, be seen in the context of a human right. In many ways it is this human right that many translate as “common sense” because, unconsciously, if OHS is seen as a human right, it cannot be shunted to a lower business priority. OHS could, and should, be seen as a moral imperative rather than a “nice to have” but OHS professionals and some labour lawyers have crafted OHS to be a “nice to have ….. at a price ….. and only available from us”. It is this manipulation of a law, a right, into a profession and an area of expertise that Anderson is singing about.
The harmonisation of Australia’s OHS laws is part of the process of “expertism”, an unconscious expertism certainly but the creation of a profession from “common sense” laws and concepts nevertheless. To counter this process, people need to be re-empowered with the ability and the confidence that they can be responsible for, and control, their own safety at work and their own health. When something happens at work, one’s first response should not be to call the expert lawyer (as one prominent Australian labour lawyer continues to advocate) but to fix the problem. The solutions are more often than not already present in the workplace. What is missing is the confidence to apply them.
One’s health and safety should not be controlled by experts. We should not abrogate the responsibility for our own actions to experts because we are the experts of our bodies, minds, actions and decision. No one knows our needs, desires and weaknesses better than ourselves and we should only call on experts after we have applied our own expertise to the situation. It is this action that underpins the move to increase consultation within workplaces in Australia, for the experts are already onsite, an untapped resource of common sense.
Laurie Anderson is right when she sings “only an expert can deal with the problem”. What we must realise is that we are all experts.