On 18 June 2012, the Safety Institute of Australia (SIA) distributed two media announcements on behalf of the Australian OH&S Education Accreditation Board (AOHSEAB). One announcement states that RMIT University

“…was first cab off the rank as part of a pilot program for the accreditation of OHS professional education programs”.

That announcement continues to say that

“As universities progress through the accreditation process employers and recruiters will have confidence that OHS professional education programs adequately prepare graduates to enter the workplace as an entry-level OHS professional and potential students will have a point of reference when selecting a program of study.”

This sounds very positive but who is this accreditation board? The Board’s website lists the Board’s Members and states its purpose as

“accredit[ing] OHS professional education programs that meet the accreditation criteria and holders of accredited qualifications are then deemed to meet the knowledge requirement for certification as generalist OHS professionals.”

So the Board provides some additional credibility to OHS professional education programs through accreditation. Can OHS courses exist without this accreditation? Certainly. The media release says that universities are “lining up” but only Latrobe University is in the accreditation process at the moment.

The state of tertiary OHS education in Australia is confusing. Some universities are promoting OHS courses while academics at other universities (and the SIA) are bemoaning the closure of OHS courses.* The March 2010 edition of SIA’s member magazine, OHS Professional, included an article talking about the “death knell” of the School of Risk and Safety Science. It mentioned other failed OHS tertiary courses, such as Deakin University. It was not so long ago at an SIA awards function that OHS academics, who are SIA members, were near to tears over the “closure” of some OHS courses at RMIT University !?

The Australian OH&S Education Accreditation Board needs to provide a clearer rationale for existing, if it is to meet its aim of helping

“…potential students in selecting a university and an OHS program; it provides information for employers who may be requiring current OHS advisors to take on further qualifications; and it may inform recruiters and employers in their selection processes.”

Why have an OHS Accreditation Board at all? To what deficiencies in the education system is it responding? How does the Board’s accreditation add value to the existing courses? Cannot the market dictate which courses should and should not be provided?  The Australian Government has an active interest and role in tertiary education, to what extent should the government be involved with this Accreditation Board?

The media release states that the Board is

“Auspiced by Safety Institute of Australia Ltd”.

Auspiced? Other than auspice not being a verb, it is fair to extrapolate a meaning of patronage or protection by the SIA but in the latest Annual Report available (2009-10) there is no mention of this Board but there is mention of an OHS Education Chapter whose Vice President was Professor Mike Capra and whose Secretary, Pam Pryor, is also the Registrar of the Accreditation Board. The Chapter seems to have devolved over the years, according to the SIA website , into a Special Interest Group.

“The Chapter is a national Special Interest Group of the Safety Institute of Australia for those who are involved in OHS professional education, research or vocational or workplace training.

As of November 2009 the Chapter has two sub groups; the Academy of University OHS Education and Research and the Vocational and Workplace Trainers Group.”

It is fair to say that the Accreditation Board and its relationship with the SIA appears to be murky. The Board shares its phone number and postal address with the SIA. The Board’s ACN number is the same as the Safety Institute and the Board is “auspiced” by the SIA.  The AOHSEAB media releases are available on the SIA media website but not on the AOHSEAB media release site.

If the AOHSEAB is independent of the SIA, it needs to be seen as independent. If the AOHSEAB is “auspiced”, funded, owned, protected or administered by the SIA, be upfront about it and don’t create new terminologies that only muddy the relationship.

It may be that the safety profession in Australia is so small that the inter linkages of various OHS bodies, accreditations, academics and associations is unavoidable. Good governance would dictate that there be some clarity to responsibilities, duties and relationships of these organisations and individuals in order to avoid potential conflicts of interest, particularly when involving commercial organisations, like universities, with not-for-profit organisations like the SIA.

SafetyAtWorkBlog has approached the SIA for clarification of the media release and to respond to some of the questions raised in this article.

Kevin Jones

* It should be noted that a major advocate of the University of Queensland’s Bachelor degree in OHS, Professor Mike Capra, is on the Accreditation Board and that the University of New South Wales’ School of Safety Science did close but that OHS courses continue to be provided at that university.