Australian Football’s corporate approach to OHS

Recently the CEO of the Australian Football League (AFL), Andrew Demetriou addressed a breakfast gathering in Melbourne on the issue of “OHS in the AFL”.  He spoke almost entirely about policy initiatives without specifically addressing occupational health and safety but after a while we came to understand he was speaking of OHS from his senior executive perspective rather than the level where traditional control measures are implemented.

This was a legitimate approach to OHS but one that is rarely heard, perhaps because the AFL is a unique sporting body.  There was no mention of concepts dear to the hearts of CEOs such as Zero Harm or Safety Culture.  In fact there was hardly even a mention of Leadership.

The AFL controls the game of Australian Football.  It makes the rules; it sets out the specific minimum requirements on everything from off-field player behaviour to the conditions of the playing surface.  The AFL has a Rules Committee that runs the game but has an important role in minimising harm to players.

As an example, there have been many head clashes over the last few years which generate the question of whether helmets are required in Australian Football.  It is an understandable question as other football codes have helmets as a minimum requirement and, following head clashes in AFL, players frequently wear protective helmets.  But, if applying the Hierarchy of Controls to the risk control of players, the personal protective equipment of helmets is far less effective than the control measure devised by the AFL Rules Committee, changing player movements to reduce head contact.

It could be argued that in any professional sport Administrative Controls are the highest control measure in the Hierarchy that can be expected.

The Rules Committee has no comparison in the corporate world because it can change the structure of the game (the product), the behaviour of the participants and the enforcement policies to a much greater extent than OHS policies.

It was clear from Demetriou’s presentation that risk management and insurance costs were the major motivators for change on issues of safety.  This is a legitimate approach but one that should have a short lifespan as it needs to evolve into a genuine culture of caring for people as much as it is caring for costs.

Some fans may decry that some of the “fun” has been removed from the game.  Many of the actions of players in the past, the “biffo”, could not be tolerated now in the professional sporting world and the world of risk management and law suits but football fans should not necessarily blame the AFL for this change.

AFL games at major sporting grounds established a crowd tradition of “kick-to-kick” on the sporting field after the end of a match.  Demetriou acknowledged this was an important part of the spectacle where children, in particular, could kick a football on a ground they may never play real football on.  However the tradition became expensive with many spectators trying to emulate spectacular aerial marks, falling to the ground, injuring themselves and then claiming costs from the AFL.  This became to expensive a cost at all but one football ground in Australia and the practice was, firstly controlled better, and then banned.  Spectators may bemoan the passing of this spectator tradition but the complaints are not due to the actions of the AFL.  The behaviour of the spectators led to the removal of the kick-to-kick privilege.

The spectator complaints illustrate a major issue that occupational health and safety needs to address or, at least, acknowledge.  The fun, the risk, is often removed from an activity not because the insurance premiums become exorbitant.  The premium increases are resulting from the actions of injured parties seeking recompense from injuries caused, predominantly, by their own actions.  In many cases this recompense is sought by a minority of people but which has a major impact on risk management.

People often transfer the cost of their own reckless behaviour onto others.  In the case of the kick-to-kick, injury costs are sought from the AFL, usually under public liability insurance.  Increased claims lead to increased premiums.  Increased premiums lead to a reassessment of costs which lead to the control of the cause of the insurance claims and fun/risk opportunities and activities are curtailed.

Demetriou is clearly trying to keep the best elements of the game at the same time as controlling costs.  He realises that the sustainability of the important spectator element of the sport is generated through promoting the family element of the spectacle.  Rule changes that make the game safer also make the sport more attractive at junior levels where the “safer” sport of soccer is making inroads.

SafetyAtWorkBlog had an opportunity to ask a question of Demetriou at the breakfast presentation.  Was there any conflict of interest related to WorkSafe, the OHS regulator in Victoria, also being a sponsor of one football club and rural football events?  Clearly it would be embarrassing to experience a WorkSafe OHS investigation of an organisation that WorkSafe sponsors.  Demetriou answered that he had never considered the matter before.  He believed that a conflict did not exist but that, if it did, the AFL has a strong management system for dealing with such conflicts.

What Demetriou displayed was the confidence of a CEO who was comfortable in the role because he had strong support from a robust corporate management structure.  What was on display was not a presentation about OHS but a presentation about this corporate management structure that encompasses OHS.  The audience could not but be impressed by Demetriou’s display of confidence in the due diligence of the AFL, a quality that the new Model WHS Act in Australia will be requiring all companies to develop and use.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

5 thoughts on “Australian Football’s corporate approach to OHS”

  1. I appreciate your bringing this to light. The NFL in the U.S. is finally addressing the severity and long term debilitating factors of head injuries. While many people believe pro-athletes are overpaid, as I do, all the money in the world is not worth how repeated head injuries will affect the rest of their lives. Glad to see the issue being addressed in a larger number of sprots.

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