Factual reporting and the OHS Body of Knowledge

Pam Pryor,  Registrar, Australian OHS Education Accreditation Board, responds to some issues raised in a recent blog article.

The Safety Institute of Australia and the Australian OHS Education Accreditation Board welcomes informed, constructive comment on their activities and on OHS in general.

The paper Reflection on the SIA Ltd professional project and the Body of Knowledge (Pearse, McCosker & Paul, 2015) makes a number of assertions which must be addressed to ensure readers have an accurate understanding of the issues and the discussion. This article addresses just one of these assertions: The OHS Body of Knowledge promotes a narrow technical view of OHS.

While commenting that the reason for the existence of the OHS Body of Knowledge is unclear Pearse et al., also note that there is no industry-wide agreement on the educational requirements to practice as an OHS professional; that there is no unified body of knowledge for OHS; and the evidence base in relatively low and underdeveloped. All comments with which we would agree and also clear reasons for the development of an OHS Body of Knowledge and the discussions which have arisen, and will continue to occur, on what should comprise the OHS Body of Knowledge for Generalist OHS Professionals.

Pearse et al., state that the OHS Body of Knowledge was developed by the Safety Institute of Australia (p.8). More correctly the framework for the OHS Body of Knowledge was developed by a technical panel with representation from the SIA, Latrobe University, RMIT University and the University of Ballarat. The technical panel undertook extensive consultation with OHS academics and OHS professionals which included face-to-face workshops. The actual writing of the chapters of the OHS Body of Knowledge was undertaken by 42 specialist authors and 33 peer reviewers. The development of the most recent chapters was overseen by Topic Specific Technical Panels with academic, technical and OHS representation. This process resulted in discussion and generation of knowledge beyond the scope of any single university or professional body.

One of the most concerning and misleading comments in the paper is that “the OHS Body of Knowledge attempts to cover all the knowledge required by an OHS professional in one publication” (p12) and “promotes a narrow technical view of OHS” (p.3).

The OHS Body of Knowledge is NOT a book or one publication. It is an ongoing effort to compile a collection of works that will inform OHS practice. The OHS BoK preliminaries state that:

It is not intended as a definitive statement fixed in time. Rather it will be subject to continual reinterpretation and evolution as people engage with it, apply at, and extend it by research. (p.xv).

The synopsis of the OHS Body of Knowledge clearly states that it

Takes a ‘conceptual approach. As concepts are abstract, the OHS professional needs to organise the concepts into a framework in order to solve a problem”(p.xvii).

The principles underpinning the OHS Body of Knowledge provide further understanding of the scope, intention and application of the OHS Body of Knowledge (Introduction p.5). These principles include:

  • There will be a broad range of inputs in developing the structure and content for the Body of Knowledge, including Australian and international sources, educators and academics, OHS professionals, OHS professional bodies and other interested parties
  • The Body of Knowledge will not be based on the opinions of individuals but, wherever possible, be derived from the evidence base reported in peer-reviewed literature
  • As the evidence base expands, the Body of Knowledge will be updated to ensure its continued relevance.
    • The OHS Body of knowledge is: not a text book; not a program of study or a course; nor a series of dot points.
  • Be able to be applied in different contexts and frameworks.

Thus, the OHS Body is not, and was never intended to “cover all the knowledge required by an OHS professional”. This can also be evidenced by the list of potential future topics posted on the web site for comment. (www.ohsbok.org.au)

In their closing comments Pearse et al., argue that the required OHS knowledge could just as easily be obtained from contemporary texts, Australian Standards and codes of practice. Firstly, it is expected that OHS professionals with tertiary education are operating at well above the level of merely applying Standards and Codes of Practice but rather are leading the discussion on OHS thinking and OHS practice. Secondly, as noted by Pearse et al., and I agree, OHS is multidisciplinary and the knowledge is not unified. Thus, while there are many good texts on OHS the OHS student and OHS professional must read very broadly to get just a smattering of the scope of the knowledge and contemporary discussion; a task that is beyond the time and financial resources of most OHS students and OHS professionals.

One role of the OHS Body of Knowledge is to provide an accessible and comprehensible review of current thinking which the student and the OHS professional can use to direct their further reading and investigation on a topic of interest. The recent chapter on Organisational Culture (Borys, 2015) is an example of the role of the OHS Body of Knowledge in examining often disparate views and synthesising knowledge referenced to the discussion. ‘Safety culture’ is noted in nearly every corporate OHS policy, it is spoken about by most OHS professionals on a daily basis and is sometimes cited as the cause of accidents. Yet Borys notes

After close to 30 years, the body of safety culture literature is plagued by unresolved debates, and definitional and modelling issues. As a result, safety culture is a confusing and ambiguous concept, and there is little evidence of a direct relationship between it and safety performance. (Borys, p.17)

Through a structured analytical approach Borys teases out the key themes in the literature, then presents the outcomes of 17 interviews with academics, OHS professionals, industry representatives and two focus groups. Thus he makes the discussion on organisational and safety culture accessible to OHS professionals and other interested parties so that they may enter the debate and develop their own mental models informed by contemporary discussion.

The OHS Body of Knowledge has been welcomed by many OHS professionals, educators and academics as a major step in developing and making accessible the knowledge base to inform OHS practice. As I said in the Preliminaries to the OHS Body of Knowledge (p.xv) as with any work of such a vast scope and compiled from the input of so many there will be those who think we have not got it quite right and I called on those people to be part of the discussion. But please, can the discussion be constructive and informed.

Pam Pryor
Registrar, Australian OHS Education Accreditation Board
Previously, Chair Technical Panel, OHS Body of Knowledge

Categories culture, design, education, evidence, OHS, safety, safety culture, standards

6 thoughts on “Factual reporting and the OHS Body of Knowledge”

  1. I think that Teddy Roosevelt said it best in his
    “THE MAN IN THE ARENA” speech.
    Individuals gain from texts that suits them best,I found the BOK quite a good series of guides,as I do and always will John Lentini Scientific Protocols for Fire Investigation.
    In a few years time somebody will author a new book.
    Kevin are you listening hint hint!
    Loose the ego an malice and then we are in with a chance.

  2. A more suitable series of texts for OHS Law are the Due Diligence Series and the Annotated Guide of WHS Act written by Michael Tooma.

  3. Rob, you suggest the BOK – offering, for free, OHS information crafted by 42 specialist, peer-reviewed authors – “still doesn’t come close to any of the knowledge” you use in tackling safety challenges. Presuming that you are hinting of areas where the BOK is deficient, can you outline where those deficiencies exist? (And are you able to help plug those deficiencies?)

  4. interesting response given the precipitating article which was an analysis by other persons. A lot of media stuff lately talks about all sorts of rights and free speech and freedom of thought to supposedly encourage open thinking but tries to control or suppress other ideas. I have had contact with some tertiary institutions where they teach graduates that the top risk tool is a JHA and some of the learning in those courses bears no resemblance to the real world – sentiments echoed in comments to the earlier article of the scope of the SIA and Body of Knowledge.

    Like Kevin and others, I hold senior roles in safety and had to go and get a diploma to hold my position, yet have continually found myself providing advice and guidance to even masters graduates.

    This is really more an issue about competence and what makes up that lovely word. In most legislative domains it is knowledge training and experience, In my view, the first and the last don’t seem to be getting the real recognition along with interpersonal skills and understanding of he way businesses have to work in regulatory regimes not just to be successful, but to be properly compliant and to stay afloat, often with huge investment to be repaid, which must come out of making a profit to start with. Kevin I would probably be in the same boat as you when it comes to what level SIA would install me at.

  5. Interesting, whilst a Chartered Fellow of the SIA i was never consulted about the BoK, which initially was launched as being comprehensive and then when mistakes and gaps were highlighted, became an evilving body of knowledge. The BoK still doesnt even come close to any of the knowledge which i use in tackling the challenges if safety. Despite the fact that my post grad course is inundated with demand. More closed shop, more club, more insularity than ever. Ho hum.

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