Do OHS workshops work?

Years ago I was invited to speak at a safety conference and to conduct a workshop.  I cocked up the workshop and realised that my conference presentation would need considerable reworking.  This experience made me shy of speaking engagements for a while but has provided me with a lasting suspicion on conference workshops.

At several conferences recently what was promoted as a presentation by a subject matter expert turned into a workshop where the presenter seeks the wisdom of the audience, the inverse of what should have occurred.  Some enjoy the participation of others in this format but I find better networking and brainstorming occurs in a less formal setting.  My advice is if you enter an auditorium and there is butcher’s paper anywhere in the room, leave.

However, practical workshops linked to safety conferences seem to be gaining in popularity, perhaps because they are easy to administer and promise little more than a “learning experience” where learning is often optional.  The organisers of the October 2011 Safety Conference in Sydney Australia have issued a brief survey that indicates that practical workshops are going to be expanded this year.  But looking at the categories of the workshops they offer indicates that the agenda of conference organisers is a little odd.  The categories are:

  • Standardising Safety Indicators
  • Consultation and the HSR
  • Risk Management (based on the new COP)
  • Due Diligence
  • Coordinating OHS Obligations
  • PCBU’s and Officers
  • Health and Wellness
  • OHS Consultants and Trainers now a PCBU
  • Role of the Regulator and Inspectors
  • Safety Leadership
  • Gap Analysis
  • Transitional Arrangements
  • New Codes of Practice

Many of these categories are, understandably, related to the new national OHS laws due for introduction in January 2011 but there is a notable low priority given to psychosocial hazards.  “Health and Wellness” is an unfortunate catch-all phrase that encompasses indoor plants in an office, the colour choice for hospital walls, and feng shui as well as medical health checks, exercise, tackling depression and other issues.  The organisers could have made the workshops more topical and attractive if more specific and contemporary issues were listed, such as:

  • Initiating cultural change in the construction industry
  • Addressing psychosocial issues through a combined HR/OHS strategy
  • The importance of safe design in vehicles
  • Determining the cost value of safety interventions
  • The business traps of OHS consulting
  • An analysis of WorkSafe advertising – why it works, why it doesn’t and what it says about community perceptions of OHS
  • Safety in project design

Too many of the Sydney conference workshop options are vague or too familiar to the safety professional and practitioners that attend such conferences.  Conferences should be a blend of informing new entrants in a profession and progressing the OHS debate.  There seems to be little progress in the options provided above.

One could also question the need for conference organisers to ask strangers for input on the structure of a conference or workshops.  Interaction with a potential audience is a positive move but it can also indicate an organisation struggling for ideas.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia
Categories business, conference, OHS, psychiatric, research, safety, Uncategorized, workplaceTags , , , ,

11 thoughts on “Do OHS workshops work?”

  1. Kevin … I couldn\’t agree with you more! Let\’s have some workshops that challenge current paradigms, promote lateral thinking, provide the basis for evidence-based practice and/or facilitate discourse that allows us to establish a community of practice that collectively takes the profession, and our professional practice, forward! Workshops like these improve professional practitioner skills at any stage of their career … most of all, let\’s stimulate thinking and problem solving i.e. \’turn people on\’ to observe and think about all aspects of their practice every day!

  2. Hear hear Yossi and Les. Those \”trigger\” questions for a workshop are exactly how I\’d expect the ordinary punter would expect \’em to be couched. \”How the did it happen and what would be the smart way or ways to make sure it don\’t happen again?\” For mine, although a blunt approach, it goes to the guts of what any punter wants to find out. (And, to be truthful, away from \”tisking\” ears, this is the style of the communication that happens amongst my colleagues. Sure, we might subsequently do evaluation of any risk assessments done and fiddle about with how the SMS (if there is one) may or may have not anticipated the thing going wrong – but there is no way you\’d go through all that on walk-throughs or chatting about prevention measures with a punter out on the workshop floor. A workshop that has punch is one that would simulate the walk-throughs and the shopfloor chats.

  3. Hi Col,
    Yeah, I realise that \’dumbing down\’ is not a good phrase. As my examples showed and as you wrote, I was really intending it to mean – let\’s cut the jargon and make ohs accessible by modifying our language.
    Even the concept of an \’OHS lexicon\’ leaves me cold; as much as an \’IT lexicon\’ confuses me. I\’d like for us OHS pro\’s to use plainer language all the time, to assist in making OHS part of everyday language for the rank and file.
    I guess that\’s one of the problems I\’ve seen with OHS conferences and workshops – who\’s the target audience in the end?

    1. Les, I think the target audience issue is crucial to this issue.
      Many OHS conferences have a trade exhibition associated with them and within these trade shows, many service and product providers provide workshops at no charge. Previous confernece organisers have split the audience of the trade show as OHS practitioners with conference-goers as OHS professionals.
      I am not sure about this split as I am more comfortable with a \”practicing professional\” because I believe this keeps the \”academic\” in touch with workplace reality and generates better advice..

  4. What about workshops that work around specific and current OHS failures?

    1. \”Worker was crushed by falling crane, serious condition, here are
    the known facts. Exactly what would you\’ve done to prevent it?\”

    2. \”Worker killed by unguarded conveyor belt in Qld. Here are the
    known facts. Exactly what would you have done to prevent it?\”

    3. \”Worker\’s fingers amputated in machine on long night roster. Here
    are the known facts. Exactly what would you have done to prevent

    4. \”Worker may lose arm as a result of horror incident. Here are the
    known facts. Exactly what would you have done to prevent it?\”

    5. \”Worker killed in mining-related incident – yet again. Here are the
    known facts. Without using terms like \’culture change
    attitudes\’, \’risk assessment\’, \’hazard identification\’…. and
    other linguistic viruses, exactly what would you have done to
    prevent it?\”

    Could such an approach provoke some practical responses, effective debate and related learning with a capacity to be immediately applied at work?

  5. Col, it may be relevant to note that the soon-to-be corporatised Safety Institute of Australia (SIA) has again raised the possibility of creating a commercial arm for the institute that can provide training and other services to members and the community.
    This has been mooted before but the not-for-profit status of the SIA made the move too complex.
    The SIA is emboldened by its expanding portfolio of OHS conferences, perhaps, the workshops discussed above are a foretaste of the SIA\’s strategy?

  6. One reader has taken me to task off-line for criticising the conference organisers over their survey. The reader pointed out that asking the potential audience for input is a significant change from previous approaches that I would descriobe as \”cloistered\”, and that the organisers should be congratulated.

  7. Scrambles to find crucifix, bunches of garlic and smoking gum tree branch! Holds up and waves it all about at seeing \”dumbing down the language\”! I dig what ya saying Les, but that abominable phrase has to be expunged from the OHS lexicon.

    For mine making OHS language accessible and easily understood by the punters is the antithesis of \”dumbing down\”. It\’s in fact much harder/expensive/demanding to write up and use accessible, universally understandable language.

    I\’d add that we need to be conscious of the fact that when that awful phrase gets seen it\’s not unreasonable for the punters to conclude they really aren\’t part of the solutions by virtue of them not really understanding all the obtuse stuff in OHS – an all round bad result. But talking about difficulties and stuff being harder is a segue to workshops.

    For mine the best workshops are the ones potentially scariest for the mediator/facilitator. And they are the ones where participants bring their specific safety problem to the table and the group works through the possible solutions. In a sense, this type of workshop is just a more public version of what happens all the time when we are out doing on-site risk assessments and quickly working through some immediate solutions with the client. Yep, slip-ups happen, but as long as the group can be guided eventually into the right direction I think results and the lessons from the exercise are more readily absorbed.

    I\’m inclined to think that lessons are more powerful when ya hit a glitch and participants are able to see practical examples of how OHS decision-making can be used to make your way through a solutions dilemma. When that solutions dilemma is a real example I think the lessons hit the target.

  8. Hi Kevin,

    I have to say that I share your stated suspicions about OHS Conferences.

    I attended a WorkCover Conference once – when it was in it\’s infancy.
    As a relative newcomer to the OHS professional scene at the time, I was disappointed with the scope and content of the \’workshops\’ I attended that time. This has resulted in me being very wary of spending precious time at subsequent conferences.

    Some years ago I also attended a seminar/workshop organised jointly between WorkCover, Aus Standards and the SIA to review the approach to Managing Safe Entry to Confined Spaces based in AS2865. I had been at that time spending considerable time training and consulting in that very area and had hoped to get some valuable insights on a topic that was undergoing significant development at the time. I was agog to find that my training approach was already ahead of the developments that were being discussed and came away somewhat disappointed with the time cost providing so little return. I am aware that sometimes these workshops require us to give as much as we desire to gain. But we shoul dbe able to gain something surely?

    On the other hand I am currently a member of a Disability Sevices Industry OHS group (NDS) and a not-for-profit group OHS forum.
    The quarterly and bi-monthly (respectively) meetings I attend in each of these contexts have been of significanty more value due to the opportunity to share knowledge and experience with other professionals in similar work settings experiencing similar issues.

    A signifcant difference in each of these cases, over the OHS industry conferences, is the opportunity to agree on the agenda items and to bring current knowledge and experience to be shared with peers on contemporary issues.

    Maybe the OHS (WHS) industry needs to consider the issues being faced by businesses rather than setting an agenda that provides limited learning opportunity for non-OHS personnel.

    For instance how many SMBs are in a financial position to spend much time, let alone other resources, on \’health and wellness\’ strategies, when they don\’t even have adequate resouces to do OHS at its most basic.

    I believe we need to open up the invitations to get not just OHS professionals but CEOs and managers along. I know for a fact that many run leary of attending conferences that use OHS Jargon in the topic titles. \'(Yawn) Let the OHS professionals do their thing and come back and tell us what we need to do\’.

    Let\’s make OHS accessible to the people who are responsible for managing it rather than keeping it close to our chests in order to sustain our positions (often undeservedly) as \’experts\’.

    I would even go so far as to \’dumb down\’ the language in the topic list that you suggest and use language that makes better sense to rank and file managers rather than using language that might just appeal to OHS \’experts\’.

    For instance
    *For \’Initiating cultural change in the construction industry\’ can I suggest \’Leading Due Diligence from the Top\’
    *For \’Addressing psychosocial issues through a combined HR/OHS strategy\’ can I suggest \’Managing Safety through Interpersonal Relationships\’.
    * For \’The importance of safe design in vehicles\’ can I suggest \’Ensuring plant is safe and fit for purpose\’.

    Anyway, just my thoughts.

    *For \’safe design in vehiscles\’ can I suggest \’Ensuring plant is safe and fit for purpose\’.

    1. Les, I have learnt most from those OHS and HR professionals who understand the \”issues being faced by businesses\”, who see OHS in the business context. The challenge is to underhand this context but without losing the humanitarian aims of workplace safety.
      Some OHS conferences have indeed included CEOs as specialist speakers but too often the CEOs speak their own jargon that, mostly, reflects their latest management seminar, or parrots the latest training course undertaken by their safety adviser.
      I have yet to meet a corporate CEO who values worker safety above all other business concerns. However, I have met many small business owners who do.

  9. Too many are all Sales pitches!! Look at me, look at me! and if you want it call 1800 blah blah blah….and you get some free steak knives too!

    Rather than experts showing and passing on knowledge so we can evolve!

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