Australia needs a sound and credible OHS organisation

Any organisation that claims to be “considered by Industry and Governments to be the premier membership based organisation for the Safety Professional” establishes very high expectations in the community and its members.

At the end of November 2010 the Safety Institute of Australia (SIA) concluded what could be described as its annus horribilis with its 2010 Annual General Meeting in Melbourne.

2010 has been busy for the SIA on the home front with its Western Australia Division morphing into a new OHS organisation (with a loss of 4,000 members according to the National President’s report in the Annual Report), a National Secretary being suspended, a Fellow being accused of contempt of the National Board, legal action continuing over SIA-related matters and special general meetings occurring, or being organised by longstanding and disgruntled members.

The various ructions in the last 12 months have been described in the SIA Annual Report [not available publicly online] by the outgoing National President, as “ill-informed” and reflective of “a suburban tennis club”.

The National President also briefly discusses breaches of ethics.  It is good to see, in one way, that “most [ethical breaches] were dismissed as frivolous or vexatious”, but the fact that the perceived breaches were even lodged should indicate that the SIA needs to devote a great deal more resources into educating its membership on due process in this area, or in reviewing the administration of the Code of Conduct.

Annual General Meetings are an important element of corporate and organisational accountability.  Indeed, a quick description of AGMs says that

“An AGM is held every year to elect the Board of Directors and inform their members of previous and future activities.  It is an opportunity for the shareholders and partners to receive copies of the company’s accounts as well as reviewing fiscal information for the past year and asking any questions regarding the directions the business will take in the future.”

It was with this in mind that I submitted the following questions to the SIA before the deadline and in line with due process, (receipt confirmed by SIA).

  • “What was the Board’s expenditure on legal advice in the 2008/2009 and 2009/2010 financial years?
  • How does this compare to the previous four years?
  • What legal issues were the most recent years’ expenditure concerning?
  • Will the Board provide the members an itemised list of the legal fees paid to lawyers, consultants, and contractors?
  • Will the Board provide the members a list of the person in the SIA who authorised the legal expenditures?
  • Will the Board provide the members a detailed list of payments (all travel and accommodation-related expenses) to National Board on (sic) Management members, the Dean (and Acting Dean) of College of Fellows, Acting Dean of the College of Fellows, and the CEO?  The latter figure should exclude the base salary figure?
  • Will the Board provide the SIA members with the full details of all costs, and who approved these costs, in relation to the independent reviews related to the conduct of Phillip Kamay?” [link added]

Many of the questions about legal fees were an attempt to determine what level of member funds was being used to cover the cost of internal disputation.  None of the questions were voiced by the Board at the AGM even though questions were able to be submitted way back in August 2010.  Many of the questions could be answered with a simple, yes or no.

One member, to whom the questions were emailed several days ago, was able to put one of the questions up in general business but, according to some members who attended, the AGM was abruptly ended.

The SIA stated on 25 November 2010 that many of the questions were answered in the general questioning of the financial reports presented at the AGM but this cannot be verified as the minutes of the meeting will take weeks to prepare.  The National Treasurer informed me that all the questions were answered through general financial questions.  I asked whether she could paraphrase those answers and was referred to a previous committee member and a non-committee member of the audience for further information.  Both were contacted and stated that the answers to the questions above were not provided.

The National Treasurer’s Report presented at the 24 November 2010 AGM states that:

“Whilst there have been some critics of expenditure in relation to legal and consulting fees over the past 12 months, the Institute has had a number of significantly important issues which required resolution and the provision of independent legal advice.  I make no apology for this expense…………..”
The 2009/10 financial statements of the SIA have been made available to SIA members.  The item for “Legal Costs” in the financial statement shows that expenses have undergone an almost ten-fold increase in 12 months.  Such an increase, even from a low base, on any accounting item would be a matter of concern and could indicate organisational problems that require greater investigation.
So What?
But what does all this questioning, tension and argy-bargy mean?  What is the purpose?
The questioning goes to the matter of credibility, to verifying that any claim of importance and position, as in the first paragraph above, is justified.
There are several criteria that can, or should be, applied to any organisation that claims a certain status:
  • The largest number of members in a certain profession, discipline or region.
  • The greatest level of influence on government or other significant decision-makers.
  • The strongest and cleanest reputation in a particular field.  In other words, an exemplar.
  • The most ethical structure, highest degree of transparency or accountability…
  • Perhaps, even, the greatest level of community awareness, however this can be achieved through clever marketing.
Any professional organisation requires legitimacy and, in the area of workplace safety, a professional organisation needs to combine, balance or even juggle differing elements.  Below are the elements that I look for in my member organisations:
  • Transparency – if I have a question, I expect a reply and an answer
  • Accountability – I don’t expect everyone to do the right thing all the time, but I do expect mistakes to be acknowledged and genuine apologies provided.
  • Soundness – an ethical stability that allows me to trust my representatives.
  • Advocacy – organisations must develop and increase their level of influence on the relevant decision-makers
  • Communication –  organisations must keep members informed of decisions and actions.
  • Engagement – Communications travel in two directions, at least, and an organisation must listen to its members and provide many opportunities for all members to be engaged in decision making and policy setting.
As stated in the SafetyAtWorkBlog elsewhere, the Safety Institute of Australia is broadcasting signals of hope but it has considerable organisational hurdles to overcome before it can confidently claim to be “Australia’s professional body for health & safety professionals”.  The SIA will have a much greater chance of achieving its goal, and do it more quickly, if it increases its willingness to self-analysis and to face up to the mistakes of the past and the previous mishandling of issues.  Australia needs a sound, strong and respected organisation to support the safety profession.
Note: Kevin Jones is a Fellow of the Safety Institute of Australia and, some years ago, held a position on the Victoria Division Committee of the SIA.
reservoir, victoria, australia
Categories Leadership, OHS, politics, Professional standards, safety, UncategorizedTags , , , ,

4 thoughts on “Australia needs a sound and credible OHS organisation”

  1. Kevin, this is a very sad commentary and it mirrors a lot of the reasons why I did not join the SIA when invited to do so some 20 years ago. The organisation was not particularly well focused then and I don\’t think much has changed.

    My view at the moment is, the \”profession\” is still very fragmented and is not focused on the greater good but more on political posturing and jockeying for position in the organisational credibility stakes. Maybe the Western Australians have the right idea.

    1. Tony, the SIA has a very good base of safety professionals and I encourage everyone to become a member for at least one year to decide for themselves whether the SIA is an organization that meets their particular professional needs.

  2. As a member of the SIA and one that was unable to asttend the AGM due to the fact that it was moved from Sydney to Victoria, I find the fact that the National Management Team did not supply up front answers to the basic questions asked by Kevin Jones (listed at the start of his article) to be a very negative advertisement to true transparency.

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