All professions need spokespeople or champions who can provide informative and, hopefully, authoritative commentary on topical matters within and beyond the profession. Australia’s safety profession has never had such a spokesperson but recently the speakers’ bureau ICMI has packaged a selection of speakers who it thinks could be appropriate. The brief for Work Health Solutions focuses almost entirely on the issues of absenteeism, lost productivity, presenteeism and creating “a more enjoyable, friendly and less threatening environment” but will these speakers provide solutions to illnesses, injuries, amputations and diseases? Can these speakers provide the solutions implied in the program?
From the information on the program’s flyer, several of the speakers seem to be able to present stories about safety-gone-wrong. Theo Venter survived electrocution. Ian Johnson was seriously burned and speaks about the risks of confined spaces. Philip Smallman was a tree surgeon who became a paraplegic after a fall. Helen Fitzroy speaks of the impact of her husband’s workplace fatality. John Tickell has spoken at several OHS conferences and has at least contributed to a book about OHS but others are tenuous. But ICMI is also promoting speakers who are primarily event hosts or Masters of Ceremonies and at least one of them generated complaints during a WorkSafe Victoria event several years ago for inappropriate comments about women.
The best way of retaining information and information is through stories and the OHS people identified above have important stories to tell but often workplace stories focus on the struggle to regain health and well-being, or to cope with disability, rather than promote the prevention of harm. It is often hoped that the audience will make the link between the magnitude of a person’s struggle against adversity and the avoidance of harm. This link is made occasionally but that is usually when there is a an additional link beyond the story, where the speaker’s life lessons, or life stage, mirrors that of the audience member.
To be effective the stories must transcend the circumstance of the incident. For instance, a story about quadriplegia from not wearing a seatbelt in a truck rollover must be able to resonate with those outside the trucking industry. Losing an arm in a conveyor belt incident must be seen as significant to those who work outside of manufacturing. Bullying in a retail situation must be able to be understand by those in a different, regimented workplace or one where sufficient HR support is available. If these stories do not resonate beyond the industry of occurrence, they easily become stories of individual resilience rather than indicate a systemic failure, a cultural failure or a flaw in the system of work.
This is the risk inferred by ICMI’s Work Health Solutions package of speakers. Many are colourful raconteurs of stories, but only a few can be directly related to workplace hazards and, more importantly, solutions to those hazards. Those speakers who have been directly affected by workplace death and trauma are more likely to have solutions or at least the ability to contextualise their experiences by telling their stories but, overall, ICMI seems to offer more discussion opportunities than workplace safety solutions.
Clearly ICMI has created this package on the back of the supposed rise in workplace bullying and psychosocial hazards, or the link between wellbeing and productivity, the increased attention to corporate governance and OHS due diligence. Many of the speakers can talk about these issues, can raise or increase the audience’s awareness of these issues but solutions rarely come from awareness exercises. Solutions are more likely to originate from research and analysis and the Work Health Solutions package seems light on in this area.
It may be useful to again remember the hierarchy of controls. Awareness, corporate speakers and training sits at the administrative level of the hierarchy, the second lowest level of control. There is a hope that awareness may spark a solution but that hope is thin and meanwhile organising a prominent corporate speaker to address one’s workforce implies that the workplace safety issue is important and that the company is taking the matter seriously. However one should ask whether such activity generates change or simply an awareness that things must change.
ICMI should be applauded for providing the safety advocates mentioned specifically above with exposure to a broader audience. But naming the speaker package as Work Health Solutions is largely a misnomer and could provide a false sense of security to some clients. Caveat emptor applies of course but one cannot help but think that there was a chance to offer genuine solutions by approaching some of the OHS researchers who can provide evidence of programs that work, those that work not so well and those that fail, rather than assessing the existing pool of celebrity speakers to see how they could be made to fit the theme.