Recently a colleague of mine expressed regret that occupational health and safety in Australia is no longer occupational. Occupational health and safety (OHS) established its parameters in its title but now most of Australia is bound to Work Health and Safety laws. Work is more than a workplace and so the discipline, the OHS profession, became more complex. Some would say that it has always been complex and that many OHS professionals failed to see the bigger picture, the broad social context of workplace health and safety.
I was reminded of my colleague’s regrets when someone on a construction site recently asked for my opinion on some pictures of her son, at a childcare centre, hitting some nails into a block of wood. The boy (pictured right, at home) was wearing safety glasses, albeit a little large; the “work area” was separated from the rest of the children and the boy was supervised at all times by a child care worker. I was told that some of the parents had expressed concern that such an activity should not be happening in a childcare centre due to the potential risk to other children.
I said that I saw very little risk compared to the benefits of having children emulate their parents and to improving their fine motor skills in a very difficult task. The “work area” was segregated, the “workers” were supervised at all times and some personal protective equipment had been provided. I advised that the supervision continue to focus on the children and that properly sized safety glasses be obtained.
It occurred to me later that I had advised about an activity that was not work, was not performed by a worker, but was in a workplace. Should I have expressed an opinion at all? I am on OHS professional but I was not advising on work and my advice was based on a photograph and not an inspection of the workplace. But if I was a Work Health and Safety (WHS) professional, would my opinion have carried more weight because I was advising about the emulation of work, in a workplace where a qualified childcare worker was supervising? Is there a functional difference? Should the approach to risk be different?
I think the answer is that I have never really advised about safety, only about risks and hazards. Such things can exist in workplaces, roads, back verandahs, up trees, in the air or anywhere. And therefore safety can be anywhere.
By looking at risks, hazards and safety in a structured manner, it may be possible to reduce harm and reducing harm is the core principle of OHS, WHS and all the other safety professions. But more importantly, reducing harm is a social value, a norm, an expectation, and an element that perhaps too many safety professionals forget.
The boy pictured above is learning about the hazards presented by hammers, nails and wood. He is learning about risks by having his parent supervise and advise him. He is learning about safety at the same time.
Performing these tasks at a childcare centre will teach him the same things but significantly, it will also teach others and teach them by example – a crucial element in the safety leadership we safety professionals advocate.
What I have not yet said in this article is that hammering at the childcare centre is available to all genders, not just boys, and the girls apparently enjoy the task just as much. I wonder if gender prejudice and outmoded stereotypes are behind some of the parents’ concerns. Should a princess not hit a nail? Should a fairy not use a hammer? Should a girl not emulate what she may see her father doing in the garden or the workshop? Should a young women not study engineering? Should a woman not be a plumber?
A young woman contributed to my political awareness in my early 20s in response to me saying that I was not interested in politics by stating that politics is in everything. Within a year I was a long haired, harem pant-wearing protester. In a parallel conversation, Amree may have said that safety is in everything. Safety is in everything we do, to varying degrees, and it is the job of the safety professionals to tell this fact to the world. But what we must do first is accept the fact ourselves. Without self-realisation, there will be no progress in harm reduction for ourselves or our society.