On November 12 2014, the Safety Institute of Australia (SIA) conducted its first large seminar on the certification of occupational health and safety (OHS) professionals. The seminar had an odd mix of some audience members who were suspicious, others who were enthusiastic and presenters who were a little wary. There were few who seemed to object to certification but, as the SIA admitted, the process is a long way from complete.
Justification for Certification
Certification works when it is either mandated by government, usually through legislation, or in response to a community/business/market need. Australia does not seem to have either. The SIA explained that there is a “legal requirement” for OHS certification by placing it as part of the OHS due diligence obligations of Australian businesses, that Safe Work Australia (SWA) sort-of refers to it it in its National OHS Strategy and that the “Recommendation 161” of an unspecified international law:
“….calls for organisations to have access to “sufficient and appropriate expertise” as a basic right of all workers.”
There is no such Recommendation but there is an Occupational Health Services Convention, 1985 (No. 161)
Convention concerning Occupational Health Services (Entry into force: 17 Feb 1988) – a International Labour Organisation Convention that Australia has not ratified.
The SWA strategy repeatedly mentions the important of “health and safety capabilities” as a “national Action Area”. It specifies this action area as:
- “Everyone in a workplace has the work health and safety capabilities they require.
- Those providing work health and safety education, training and advice have the appropriate capabilities.
- Inspectors and other staff of work health and safety regulators have the work health and safety capabilities to effectively perform their role.
- Work health and safety skills development is integrated effectively into relevant education and training programs.” (page 9)
In the strategy’s chapter on Health and Safety Capabilities, SWA says:
“In a decade many existing workplace hazards will still be present and new ones will have appeared. It is particularly important that education and training enable those who provide professional or practical advice to competently deal with old and new hazards. Those who provide advice need to know when to refer the matter to others with appropriate expertise.” (page 12)
There is no mention of certification in the SWA strategy but the SWA is sympathetic to certification.
It is significant to acknowledge that the issue of certified OHS professionals has existed for some time and that even after serious consideration by SWA’s predecessor, the National OHS Commission (NOHSC), a certification process was not recommended or implemented. The Guidance Note for the Development of Tertiary Level Courses for Professional Education in Occupational Health and Safety [NOHSC:23020 (1994)] states that a 1990 workshop discussed, amongst other matters, the “possibilities for improving the certification of occupational health and safety professionals” (page 2). No recommendations for certification resulted.
Chris Maxwell QC, in his review of the Victorian OHS Act, quotes a submission from the Victorian WorkCover Authority
“…. The VWA is aware that some OHS consultants have been sued for poor performance by those who have contracted them. This industry may benefit from some form of industry based accreditation scheme, similar to those operating in the accounting field, so that consumers can gain a level of confidence about the consultants that they may engage.” (271)
The SIA seemed to imply in its presentation that the emphasised quote above was by Maxwell himself and this is clearly not the case.
The SIA was deeply disappointed that the OHS harmonisation process in Australian failed to require, through legislation, the use of OHS advisers who were suitably qualified. The review body, in its second report
“…recommend[ed] that persons conducting a business or undertaking be required, where it is reasonably practicable to do so, to employ or engage a suitably qualified person to advise on health and safety matters. Details of the qualifications should be provided in regulations.” (page xxiv)
The second report referenced three influential business groups who submitted that
“There was concern that [the recommendation above] would restrict business freedom and innovation by focusing on workplace and business arrangements rather than on improving OHS outcomes. Another criticism was that mandating such appointments would increase red tape and costs for little benefit, provide for blame shifting and management delegation of responsibility, as well as reducing consultation and shared responsibility for OHS.” (page 225)
It is understood that the avoidance of delegating OHS responsibility was a particularly influential reason for not including a legislative requirement in the new Work Health and Safety laws.
However change does not come from governmental reports and reviews but from how a government responds to those reports. The Ministers’ responses to the harmonisation report are available here. Recommendation 139 (page 36) addresses the suitably qualified matter.
The Victorian WorkCover Authority’s (VWA) position on “suitably qualified” advisers was touched on at the seminar, showing some solidarity for SIA’s initiative. VWA’s position revolves around its 2008 guideline. It is a useful summary but Victoria is excluded from the Work Health and Safety laws that apply in most other Australian States. It has relinquished its leadership role in many areas of OHS and the national relevance of this guideline is minimal.
In a recent National Safety magazine article (not available online), Dr Robert Long, a longstanding critic of the SIA, said of the certification scheme that
“If the government wants to accredit safety professionals in legislation, then that is an entirely different issue, but this is a private organisation trying to set up a process of accreditation and draw people into it.”
For SIA’s certification process to succeed it will need to convince the business and industry associations, and many in the profession, that certification addresses all of the concerns listed above. Any industry uncertainty about the certification process could be severely damaging.
The SWA quote above, significantly, mentions competence, a word that was absent from the SIA presentation until SafetyAtWorkBlog raised it. The SIA’s certification process has as its motto or logo:
CAPABLE CREDIBLE CERTIFIED
The SIA responded that competency is part of a professional’s capability and left it there.
Competence is a commonly understood term in business, the training sector and the community meaning that a person is suitably qualified to undertake a specific task. Many companies verify competence through analysing a worker’s “certificates of competence” and, increasingly, requiring a practical demonstration (at least in the construction sector). The SIA’s proposed certification system is a verification of competence but the SIA again misses the opportunity to capitalise on an existing, common term preferring a, perhaps more accurate, term that requires explanation.
One area that requires tidying up in the SIA presentations and information on this program is semantics. The speakers may have a clear understanding of the different terminologies but this was not communicated clearly to the audience. There were mentions of
- “safety professionals”,
- “safety practitioners”,
- “safety people”,
- “Generalist OHS professionals”
- “Generalist OHS practitioners”.
These terms were not only used in terms of certification levels but in general speech as synonyms. The SIA should settle on one term that describes the members of the safety profession AND this term should be one that is readily acceptable to the broader community, rather than trying to invent new terms. The term that most fits the needs of both the Institute and the community is “safety professional”. Whether this relates to ergonomists, hygienists or health and safety representatives should be irrelevant.
If the SIA wants to cut through the ignorance of what it and its members do, it needs to take ownership of the common terms for its profession and not impose layers of unnecessary explanation. Clarity and uniformity of terminology is essential if the certification process is to succeed.
SIA’s Certification Process
The SIA stated that certification achieves
- “certainty to consumers
- demonstration of due diligence by clients
- role recognition
- recognition of education, knowledge and experience,
- recognition of practitioner and professional roles
- international comparability.”
It can, but people will only trust certification if the process is independent, robust, transparent and fair. The process proposed by SIA seems to fit these criteria.
The SIA stated that the process will comply with the international standard ISO/IEC 17024:2013 – Conformity assessment – General requirements for bodies operating certification of persons (online purchase required). This is a strong position and one that should be promoted as part of any SIA promotional campaign. The standard should satisfy many of the SIA’s critics on matters of independence and transparency as it stipulates the management of impartiality, the criteria for examiners/assessors, confidentiality, and, most importantly, an appeals process, amongst other matters.
According to the SIA’s current information sheet there will be three categories of certification, not counting the Graduate level:
There was some debate on the content of these categories but there was no strong objection to the categories themselves.
The SIA’s university bias was on display in response to one question from the floor which resulted in the questioner walking out. The question was that not every safety professional may have the time, the resources or the capability of undertaking tertiary education. The SIA’s response was “Why Not?” This response showed a lack of understanding for some of its membership and its potential market, and the walk out was understandable.
On the issue of cost, the SIA response was that any course costs are fully tax deductible. This is a common response to issues of safety-related and education-related costs but ignores the fact that there may be a significant financial outlay that an individual or family needs to carry until tax time. When tertiary education is undertaken in Australia, it usually generates a debt that the government deducts from one’s pay after a certain income level is reached. It may not be possible for someone to take on such a debt, regardless of the amount.
Professional development usually involves a financial cost but few workers have a sympathetic employer who covers the education cost and/or provides study leave. In fact, another question from the audience reminded the SIA that those working in the small business sector may have even less capacity to undertake the necessary training to maintain or improve one’s safety qualifications.
Another question took considerable time for the SIA to understand. One audience member asked whether the SIA had any processes in place to assist people in beginning the tertiary education process. The simple answer was no, but the SIA later acknowledged that an entry/pathway/preparatory process was a good idea and should be seriously considered. This acknowledgement should be applauded but one could ask why such a basic process was not already included in the certification proposal. This lack illustrates the SIA’s tight focus on education through the university sector and a seeming lack of understanding of the vocational education sector, processes and role.
Early in its presentation the SIA stated that 60% of Safety Institute of Australia members have no formal OHS qualifications. This is a staggering figure for a professional organisation of over 60 years’ standing and makes the lack of understanding on vocational training even more stark. Surely, any organisation proposing a certification process would have included a pathway process if over half the membership had no formal qualification.
The bias of the SIA was also mentioned in a recent article in National Safety magazine (available only by subscription) where through certification:
“…diploma-qualified practitioners will be recognised as ‘practitioners” while university-educated ones will be recognised as “professionals”.”
The reason for this split between practitioners and professionals and for the use of the term “generalists” has never been fully explained and continues to expose the SIA to the accusations of elitism.
One issue that was not discussed yesterday was money – the increased income stream possible from becoming a certified OHS professional. To satisfy due diligence requirements and expectations in any industry, companies want to obtain the best available advice, as far as is reasonably practicable. In relation to the certification table above, it is reasonable to expect that the higher the certification, the higher the hourly rate for OHS advice.
The SIA would be foolish to even hint at any relationship between certification rates and higher remuneration but one can guarantee the safety professionals are already talking about it. They will be assessing the rate of return on financial outlay and time allocation against the top level of certification. This relationship will be outed when the first professional indemnity insurers reduce premiums in relation to level of certification.
The Safety Institute of Australia must stay above the issue of remuneration but would be foolish not to be considering the potential financial benefits to its members.
One of the biggest impediments for the introduction of its certification scheme is that the SIA’s reputation has yet to regain the prominence it achieved prior to a bitter internal row that involved legal action on defamation among other things. The SIA’s profile was not very high prior to the turmoil and its membership numbers seem to have hovered around 4000 – 5000 for well over a decade.
It is rebuilding and the actions of the new executive are promising however financial figures provided to members in late 2014 indicate that the SIA has run at a loss of over $200k for at least its second year in a row – a difficult position for a not-for-profit organisation and one that SafetyAtWorkBlog has been told is also a registered charity.
The Safety Institute of Australia should not be criticised for trying to introduce a certification scheme, as no one else in Australia is doing so. The need for such a scheme can be debated but if the gamble pays off, it could ensure relevance for the SIA for many years to come.
The VWA guideline from 2008 illustrated that at least one regulator was sufficiently concerned over the issue to provide some clarification in a position statement. Indications from Safe Work Australia is that it would support an industry-based certification scheme. But the certification gamble is risky and requires careful planning, broad consultation and serious negotiation with the broader industry and regulatory community – not the SIA’s traditional strengths.