Australian OHS Awards need a review to stay relevant

Australia’s OHS awards season has concluded with many of the same challenges it had in 2009.

Most States have harmonised their awards categories so that the national OHS awards in March 2011 are fairer but the worth of some categories, listed below,  remains in question.

“Category 1: Best Workplace Health and Safety Management System

a. Private Sector

b. Public Sector

Category 2: Best Solution to an Identified Workplace Health and Safety Issue

Category 3: Best Workplace Health and Safety practice/s in Small Business

Category 4: Best Individual Contribution to Workplace Health and Safety

An employee, such as a health and safety representative

An outstanding contribution by an OHS manager or a person with responsibility for work health and safety as part of their duties”

The category of most concern is “Best OHS Management System”.  For several years many OHS and media people have asked “why should a company receive an award for what they should already be doing?” Awards are supposed to be a recognition of effort or achievements that go beyond what is usually expected.  But to acknowledge the extraordinary achievements of companies and people, it would be necessary to establish benchmarks and the OHS sector is famous for its struggle to achieve universally accepted and useful performance indicators.

OHS professionals rally against the subjectivity of risk assessments but are willing to accept a subjective analysis of organisations that could attain the title of the “Best Workplace Health and Safety Management System” in Australia.

The award categories above can be summarised as

  • Best OHS system
  • Best OHS solution
  • Best OHS effort in small business
  • Best personal effort.

In other words the categories are, excluding the first , a thing, a small business effort and personal effort.  These categories are relatively easy to understand – an item that reduces potential harm, an encouragement award for small businesses and a personal best on OHS.  But management of OHS………?

What can easily be understood is the use of things, and this year’s safety award had some very useful solutions and some curious ones.  The curious was the Victorian winner of the Best OHS Solution in Manufacturing, Logistics and Agriculture, a robotic wheelie-bin cleaner.  As WorkSafe Victoria stated

FreshBins has developed the world’s first Class 3 3D robot collects bins, sterilises them with ozone-impregnated water and returns them to position in about 20 seconds. It’s vapour-free, lifting-free, and the driver is kept away from the area where the work is being done. The device is aimed at the domestic market but has industrial applications.” [link added]

The engineering, research and development of this solution was impressive but the audience on the night seemed confused about the need.  The video that helped explain the device was shown to be cleaning domestic wheelie-bins.  Is this an OHS issue? Doubtful.  Are smelly bins a public health hazard? Not to our knowledge.  The discussion around our table at the awards dinner centred on the practice of swilling out a smelly bin with a garden hose, if absolutely necessary.  Some admitted to using large rubbish bags as liners to their wheelie bins to maintain cleanliness.

The confusion is most likely to have come from the video showing the use of the robotic cleaning van in a domestic street.  If there are industries that create foetid wheelie-bins then the need for such a device can be seen, perhaps on environmental grounds but it could be argued that the relevance of this device to occupational health and safety is thinner than some of the other finalists.

For instance, here is WorkSafe’s comments on the category of Best OHS Solution in Construction and Utilities

“Tenix (Melbourne) has develop a device that allows large rolls of conduit to be safely handled by eliminating the release of stored energy in the large coils of conduit used for underground cabling. The coils can weigh 450kgs, are difficult to handle and store and can flick out of control when being unwound. Coliban Water (Bendigo) was highly commended for developing a Confined Space Entry Workbox which provides safe access to underground drains and pumping station. The unit looks similar to the device by which the Chilean miners were rescued.” [links added]

The safety benefits of these two solutions are much easier to digest but this may be reflective of the “old-guard” engineering approach to OHS (“boys and their toys”).

What seems to be a major omission from Australian safety award processes is control measures for psychosocial hazards.  It could be argued that the Best OHS Management System should cover this workplace hazard but the management system criteria is so much broader.  Where are the safety awards for stress reduction?  Where are the awards for the eradication of workplace bullying?

The questions circle back to the difficulty of measuring and benchmarking OHS performance.

There is no easy answer to awards for controlling psychosocial hazards, in particular, but the omission of an award on this increasingly important OHS category is becoming noticeable.  This category also goes to the heart of keeping OHS award ceremonies of interest and relevance.

Award ceremonies often peak and trough but they also plateau on media response, participant enthusiasm and the degree of support from the OHS regulators and award organisers.

After the OHS awards season each year, there should be a coordinated debrief involving the State OHS regulators and Safe Work Australia.  The debrief should share experiences, discuss challenges and, hopefully, coordinate a media strategy for the national press and online media.  It must build on the new and emerging communication platforms because unless the community knows that awards have been earned and given, the awards themselves risk becoming no more than glorified bottle openers, a comparison made by the host of the Victorian WorkSafe award night, Cal Wilson.

Kevin Jones

2 thoughts on “Australian OHS Awards need a review to stay relevant”

  1. Who are the judges? and what qualifications do they bring to the table. What is the criteria for judging and who decides it. Is this just another award night for the sake of an award night, so the pollies and other safety luminaries can get a bit more exposure???????????

    Given the state of OHSW management in Australia I would have thought they would be ashamed to expose themselves. The figures don\’t lie and they are certainly not very pretty reading.

    we can spend money on these somewhat useless functions and feel good programs but we don\’t seem to be able to get the money to where it actually can do some good, like on the shop floor.

    1. In most circumstances the judging panels are tripartite and I don\’t have too much concern over that. I am reassured on the process by some States such as NSW who publish the judging criteria.

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