Zero Harm is a “fallacious deception” – thoughts on the 2012 Safety In Action Conference

Overall the Safety In Action Conference, currently occurring in Melbourne, has been consistent but without any standout moments.  However there have been nuggets of interest from the speakers and insight from some of the participants.

Andrew Douglas of M+K Lawyers was blunt in describing some of the actions between State Governments and the Federal Government over the harmonisation of occupational health and safety laws as “extortion” that is impeding much-needed growth.  Also, he was clear that the most effective people to undertake investigations of workplace incidents were OHS professionals as safety is their expertise.  He was adamant that lawyers are experts in law and safety professionals in safety but that they must work cooperatively.

Gerard Forlin was an enormously entertaining presenter who should have been a keynote speaker as, he himself said, he was only warming up after his half hour.  His comparisons between Australian and UK OHS law were insightful.  Industrial manslaughter laws are out of vogue in Australia but Forlin stated that corporate manslaughter laws have contributed to an increased focus on safety by senior executives, even though prosecutions under those laws have been curiously targeted.

I was unaware of neuroplasticity before yesterday’s presentation by Paul Taylor.  and I still do not see the relevance of this to safety management.  Taylor made an enormous jump from neuroscience to safety behaviours without providing the pathways of cognitive thinking and human factors.  His presentation was of intellectual curiosity but of limited application without considerably more explanation.

I have come to understand after many years of attending conference breakfasts that speakers at these events are there to entertain more than educate.  By accepting this I have been able to cope with the disappointment with unending stories of inspiration that have been about leadership in the Antarctic and near-death experiences form a hail of bullets.

Round Table Forum

The conference organisers have tried new structures this year by including a series of three roundtable discussions.  The participants at my roundtable were supposed to gain enlightenment by piercing a potato with a drinking straw (pictured right).  This was achieved by having a vision rather than understanding the physics of the task.

The round table process reminded me of speed dating where people are required to talk with strangers over a short time.  Conferences often provide more professional benefit through networking and the round table was very good at this.  I learnt that seven out of eight safety professionals at my table believe that “zero harm” is doing more harm than good to the safety profession.  In fact one described zero harm as a “fallacious deception”.  The conversation provided the most enlightenment at this conference so far.

The conference organisation is a little odd this year as some regular features are absent.  In previous years there has been a formal opening from Victoria’s Governor or the local industrial Relations Minister.  The 2012 conference was missing this initial gravitas and, I think, numbers, particularly at the conference breakfast, were down on previous years because there was no IR Minister as a drawcard.  Given recent statements by the Victorian Premier on the business cost of OHS, any politician attending would have generated greater interest in the conference in general.

Conference organising

On more mundane matters, it is hard to understand why participants have no conference program.  There is a small pocket guide but many of the speakers are unknown and their topics obscure.  A conference program allows for introductory biographies for speakers and an outline of presentations as well as explanations of just what a Round Table Forum is meant to achieve.

Also there are no conference papers provided to participants unless the speakers brought along copies or the paper is already on the speaker’s website.  Apparently papers will be made available online in a week or so.

The operation of this conference indicates that there has been poor coordination on a range of issues from quickly arranged speakers to insufficient evaluation forms.  The conference is being described as the Safety Institute of Australia’s (SIA) first National Safety Convention, whatever this means.  An explanation, with possible endorsements from the Government and OHS regulators, would have been possible in a conference program.

Body of Knowledge

As I write this post, the SIA is holding its conference dinner at which it will unveil its much-delayed Body of Knowledge (BOK) program.  According to an SIA media release, being made publicly available tomorrow at a new website,, there are four principal benificiaries of the BOK:

  • OHS educators –  program development and learning materials.
  • Prospective OHS students – better accredited education programs.
  • OHS professionals seeking professional certification.
  • OHS regulators, employers or recruiters – a benchmark for professional practice.

BOK will need a detailed “sell” to convince safety professionals that such a program is essential, particularly those safety professionals who are no longer involved in tertiary education. (Several SafetyAtWorkBlog articles, and related comments have discussed BOK though its development.)  What is currently missing from the SIA’s statements on BOK, and this may change tomorrow, is a statement similar to this from UK’s Institute of Occupational Safety & Health (IOSH) about the benefits of membership:

“Naturally, a big part of what we do is based on delivering knowledge and experience where it’s needed through qualified working professionals. Because of this, our members give us a unique opportunity to bring about change and improvements at a national and international level.”

The SIA seems to be focussing more on knowledge than experience and, in the past, has disparaged a large section of its professional membership by describing them as “generalists”.  IOSH’s quote above gives knowledge and experiences equal value and, most importantly, a commitment for change and improvement in the OHS sector.

It is understood that the SIA has recently expanded its salaried staff size by four with two focussing on corporate relations and media.  This is a very positive move, if it can be afforded, and it is hoped that the SIA listens to some of the speakers in its own conference who have stated the importance of openness, effective communication, establishing positive relationships with the media, accountability and engagement.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia
Categories conference, consultation, government, innovation, OHS, politics, research, safetyTags , , , ,

9 thoughts on “Zero Harm is a “fallacious deception” – thoughts on the 2012 Safety In Action Conference”

  1. Kevin
    Do you know how many are emplyed by SIA at the moment. They seem to be putting on people but by the job title some maybe replacements.
    And do You think this Conference is as esy to understand as a couple of years ago?

    1. I don’t know the exact numbers of salaried staff but I was told there were four new staff members in the last couple of months.

      The comprehensibility of the conference relates to the quality of the speakers. Several were plain and left no lasting legacy or lessons, others were a bit slick and there were some gems.

  2. Kevin you made some interesting observations that in my mind are a reflection of the direction and current state of affairs with the SIA. I think it reminds us of the great work and influence that former CEO Gary Lawson Smith made to the institute. It is also interesting to see that if the conference was promoted as a National conference then why was there so little of it known in the state I am a member of (qld). It highlights the personal agendas that have been driving the institute for the last 10-15 years and a my opinion is that a consolidated approach will never exist within the institute with the current operating model and people running the institute as it sits.
    I hope you enjoy the rest of the conference and the summary has you have provided is interesting so thanks for sharing it.



    1. Matthew, my experience with the CEO was very different but on the issue of a national conference, no one has explained what is meant by this (and there is no conference program in which to explain). I don’t know if this is a conference that rotates around capital cities annually (NSCA tried this almost twenty years ago and gave up after about five attempts) or whether it is replicated each year in each capital city.

      I mention the absence of a formal opening. If the conference is to be national the organisers will need to lock in a national OHS figure (politician?) well in advance.

      The SIA does have a committee developing the national conference strategy but one would have thought after 15 years’ experience with this conferenece, it could be better.

  3. My understanding of corporate manslaughter legislation in the UK is that it has been limited to prosecuting smaller companies with a relatively simple management structure. I believe this was due to the difficulty in assigning legal controls in specific safety matters when the corporate structure was very complex. Was this the ‘curious target’ you were referring to Kevin?

    1. Yes it was Andrea. The speaker went into the small business issue and when I get a chance to review my notes, I’ll be writing more on this.
      Again, can I suggest readers who want more on specific issues, use the search facility at the top right of the blog page. This access over four years of articles and I know there is stuff on industrial manslaughter there.

  4. I thought, after reading the heading of this post, that there was to be more discussion on the Zero Harm “fallacious deception” argument. Pity. I have met very few safety professionals who fully support the ideal. Perhaps the SIA or NSCA should have a debate on this matter at one of their conferences.

    1. I am writing a more detailed article on the topic after this conference. In the meantime more info on zero harm is available by searching for “zero harm” in the search function at the top right of the blog page.

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