OHS reviews need to leap forward to relevance

Several times recently people have suggested that common sense is an adequate control measure for some workplace hazards.  The United Kingdom’s politicians have been talking about common sense and OHS for several months but perhaps we can apply the broad concept of commonality, implicit in the UK’s advocacy of “common sense”, to OHS information so that people and businesses feel empowered to educate themselves on how to work safety and without risks to health.

Australia’s (seemingly) derailed review of OHS legislation is based on removing red tape but a major focus of OHS reviews in England is

“…putting common sense back at the heart of Britain’s health and safety system…”

Even though reducing bureaucracy is part of the UK review, common sense is certainly the political mantra being applied to the review, being under taken by Professor Ragnar E Löfstedt for the Department of Work and Pensions, as seen by a recent speech by Prime Minister David Cameron to the Conservative Party conference, when discussing the empowerment of local councils:

“…one of the biggest things holding people back is the shadow of health and safety.  I was told recently about a school that wanted to buy a set of highlighter pens. But with the pens came a warning.  Not so fast – make sure you comply with the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002.  Including plenty of fresh air and hand and eye protection.  Try highlighting in all that.”

According to an audio interview with one of the members of the Löfstedt review, Andrew Bridgen MP, the report is due to go to the Minister, Chris Grayling, at the end of October 2011.

In the interview, Bridgen states that people:

“…use health and safety as an excuse not to do things they don’t want to do.”

But the UK is struggling with what to do in response.  There has been a strong campaign by the OHS regulator, Health and Safety Executive, to tackle the “elf ‘n’ safety” myths but this will take a long concerted effort and is likely never to succeed completely.  Many in the media like reporting about seemingly silly local government and regulatory decisions.  This helps depict government as the “fun vampires“.

However the current situation in England, and its echoes in Australia, illustrates the importance of planning for the long term.  OHS regulators have been successful in increasing the community awareness of legislative health and safety obligations.  Increasingly business owners and OHS professionals will summarise their OHS intentions as “making sure all workers go home in the same condition they arrived” or words to that effect. (I have often wondered how this applies to workers who come to work drunk)

That phrase states the aim but does not explain, or acknowledge, the process needed to achieve the aim.  The lack of procedural and management detail has also been missing from the promotional messages of OHS regulators.  Outside of, perhaps, trade apprenticeships and unions, workplace health and safety is poorly understood.

Many OHS professionals, particularly those in academia bleat about the need to have OHS in the high school curriculum so that students are aware of their duties and rights before starting work.  This is an ideal that is mentioned in the Bridgen interview but one that has been repeated for decades without any success.  The education departments acknowledge the argument but, usually, state that there is no room for OHS instruction in an already full curriculum.  Some would argue that it is inappropriate to have a curriculum affected by lobby groups, of which the OHS advocates are one.  If OHS is “let in” then so could a whole range of single issue advocates.

Unless the Löfstedt recommends time in the curriculum for an adequate level of OHS information and the government accepts the recommendation, the UK OHS regulators and profession will need to look at alternate processes to “educate” the community about health and safety.

The technological world seems to be providing the tools necessary to reach a large number of people in the quickest time at the littlest cost.  Regulators and government are in the initial stages of using this technology but they are still seeing the technology as a replacement of existing communications methods rather than a new language that needs new rules.

It is noted that the Safety Institute of Australia (SIA) is experimenting with “30 Days of OHS“,  a

“…campaign aims to engage the health and safety industry to share their knowledge, experience and expertise to engage with the broader community.

A wonderful opportunity for a community of like-minded individuals to come together, collaborate, network and share resources without having to show up at the same time and place physically.”

The SIA does not  have a good reputation for using new technologies well, the website was messy, the discussion forums are clunky and the register of OHS professionals seems little used and poorly known outside the SIA.

A more sustainable web strategy would be to establish a SafetyWiki, a concept that SafetyAtWorkBlog mentioned in 2010 and have advocated publicly elsewhere.  The SIA has sufficient links with international OHS organisations such as IOSH and ASSE to establish a SafetyWiki and have members contribute to an OHS resource that is available to everyone.  If WikiMedia Foundation can establish the Wikipedia through a non-profit status, it should be possible to build a wiki in the niche category of occupational health and safety.

If OHS regulators and professions are trying to engage the younger members of society in OHS, they must apply the tools with which this demographic are most familiar.

It is standard practice for OHS regulators to make OHS information, forms and processes freely available.  This is a fundamental tenet of OHS, one that is very compatible with the Creative Commons movement but has yet to be integrated formally into the “copyleft” philosophy.  OHS professionals are strongly critical of Standards organisations that do not make OHS-related Standards freely available.  Those individuals are, unknowingly, applying the copyleft philosophy to the common good.

Perhaps it is possible for the UK government to apply a futurist perspective (as Australia’s ISCRR seems to be doing) to the recommendations of the Löfstedt review and revolutionise the access to safety knowledge.  Perhaps the OHS professions can translate and communicate this safety knowledge into language that the citizenry and businesses can apply and transform to their own needs at minimal or no cost.  Of course this will require the removal of institutional ego, the dismantling of intellectual “turf”, and a change to economic models, perhaps even a revolution in OHS knowledge.

This scenario is unlikely, based on some of the current strategies of some of the OHS institutions and organisations but, as in many areas of social change, if change is not actively sought, change is likely to be imposed and imposition is always more painful.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

9 thoughts on “OHS reviews need to leap forward to relevance”

  1. Yes, Kevin, you\’re right about the need for the community as a whole to understand OHS in the face of the new laws.

    If they\’re implemented well and are truly useable, this will be a great thing for workplace safety as the knowledge filters through. If they\’re implemented poorly, it will only make matters worse.

  2. And yet the head of Organisational Strategy at Leightons wants our regulators to become more prescriptive and follow the way things have been in England. No mention of common sense being applied or capacity of industry to do the right thing – do we always have to leave it to the regulator to stir it up in wrong proportions supposedly in the name of improvement. Of course leaving it to the pollies and talking about common sense prevailing is wishful thinking also>

  3. Kevin Jones raises a number of good issues. Let\’s start with the need to take a more futurist approach. As he mentions the Institute for Safety, Compensation and Recovery Research ran a Futures Initiative last year, where we aimed to determine possible futures for health and safety and road and workers compensation, to assist us with the development of our 5 year research strategy. Interestingly futures studies methodologies spend quite a bit of time understanding the past and identifying deeply held beliefs and cultural values which define the present, in order to be able to think more creatively about the future.

    As Safe Work Australia begins work on Australia\’s next national OHS strategy, futures studies methodologies would require us to review what has changed over the past 10 years so we can reflect on how far we have come, or not, as the case may be, and understand enablers and barriers to progress in making Australian workplaces healthier and safer. I suspect a view is emerging that the last national strategy was a pretty good one, but lacked effective implementation. If that is the case, we need to discuss why. Did our model of Federation get in the way? Is business too focussed on managing safety behaviours to the cost of environmental controls? Has our lack of OHS service delivery models which work for small to medium enterprises caught up with us?

    This year I have given a talk to a number of OHS conferences which describes how harm minimisation strategies suitable for injuries, may not be sufficient for the prevention of illness, especially mental illhealth, which is more complex. Our Futures Initiative found that a possible future for OHS will have new partnerships between OHS authorities and other government departments, employers (leading employers can be seen as a resource, making contributions to their communities in the spirit of Corporate Social Responsibility), unions, and other NGOs.

    I am just back from a visit to WorkSafe BC. There is a new partnership for safety there – safety at work, safety at home, in the water etc. Check it out at preventable.ca; note the partners. I am going to an OHS meeting in November being held by the pulp and paper industry group, an interesting employer/union partnership.

    Another futurist angle Kevin has taken is the better use of technology, and I couldn\’t agree more. We used data mining in our Futures Initiative to help with our very broad scan of the literature. There is huge potential to use information technology to identify new health and safety risk factors earlier, and to establish community of practices. Something we are working on now with the aim of better connecting research and practice.

  4. Marian, Safety needs to have a conversation that extends beyond workplaces and employers. Some of the regulators are using (exploiting?) the community through advertising to change personal safety priorities but the conversation must be more than this.

    I don\’t think the community understands safety and it seems that no one is trying to educate the community, in the broadest context. This conversation will become crucial when e new OHS laws I Australia kick in because the laws take the workplace outside of the office and factory walls and INTO the community. Workplace safety will include public safety and vice versa. Resisting the change will do irreparable social harm, embracing the change is likely to do more good.

  5. Brett, I think that the Wikipedia model is useful but there is also baggage with realign with that company, I think there could be more sustainability and influence if the Australasian OHS bodies started their own.

  6. Unfortunately, I think OHS can be just too overwhelming for many workplaces.

    I asked a large animal vet if they do risk assessments the other day and she just laughed and said it was too hard to manage given the variety of their work and the variability of her workplace(s).

    The perceived volumes of reports generated by OHS make it seem a cumbersome and ineffectual activity. This perception is only exacerbated when so-called \”shiny bums\” bring in \”mandates\” that do not reflect the reality of the job. It seems less about saving lives and more about covering those shiny bums.

    You\’ve got right to the nub of it with your comment: \”Perhaps the OHS professions can translate and communicate this safety knowledge into language that the citizenry and businesses can apply and transform to their own needs at minimal or no cost. Of course this will require the removal of institutional ego, the dismantling of intellectual \’turf\’, and a change to economic models, perhaps even a revolution in OHS knowledge.\”

    Before we see OHS implemented well right across this wide brown land, it must be simple, accessible and relevant. I\’d argue that few lay people would apply of those three descriptors to OHS right now.

  7. It sure looks like the UK OHS message mess is as much to do with reactionary push-back as anything else. But it\’s also too easy to come across local examples of OHS practices or advice that would quite reasonably have the punters scratchin\’ their heads about just what the hell is going on.

    I agree with ya KJ that OHS-World should be pushing change, in the context of the changes towards more effective messages and techniques. And a recent dip into the super fabo TED big-thinker site had me stumble on a presentation by a fella playing with the idea of inspiration; it got me thinkin\’ about OHS-World change.

    The presenter, Simon Sinek\’s talk is titled \”How great leaders inspire action\”. Sounds grand, despite the fact Sinek seems to be mostly interested in how corporations can inspire people into buying more products. But if you look as OHS as a product, the essence of Sinek\’s premise says something about a potential \”revolution in OHS knowledge\”.

    The guts of Sinek\’s premise is that good things happen when the punter is given the \”why\” message before the \”how\” and \”what\” message. Yep, the punter may express more interest in \”how\” and \”what\”, as in, \”just tell us what to do\”; but perhaps we in OHS-World need to be prepared to take greater control over the OHS dialogue, and insist that the \”why\” is just too important to use a simplistic response to the \”just tell us what to do\” demand?

    I reckon including the \”why\” serves the fundamentals of respectful safety leadership, does that thing of the punter of using the information in the \”why\” -explanation to work out their own good solutions, and just as importantly has us reflect on reasons for a given response, not just reactions to a safety problem.

    The link to Sinek\’s presentation on TED: http://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action.html


  8. Why not start by using Wikipedia? You can always make the page \”Occupational Health and Safety\” the main starting page and list and link to other pages covering what ever you would like to cover. Then when it gets momentum you can transfer all of it to a stand alone hosted wiki?

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