The rebuilding of OHS conferences

All conference delegates want to hear cutting-edge, radical or step-change solutions or strategies but what happens when the conference speakers are reinforcing what you already know? That is the situation facing the delegates of the Safety Institute of Australia’s (SIA) National Convention.

On the first day of the conference, local and international speakers have suggested the delegates, almost all occupational health and safety (OHS) professionals, do what they are already doing – talk about safety, build relationships, report on the positives and the lead indicators.

This is not the fault of the SIA.  The SIA is rebuilding its conference processes and early indications are that they have learnt many of the lessons from previous near-disasters.

The fault (perhaps I should be listing contributory factors rather than looking for root causes) seems to be that OHS thinking seems moribund.  Hollnagel’s safety categories and approaches are well-established although still not widely applied, for lots of cultural regulatory and corporate reasons.  Reason’s swiss cheese model is nowhere near as radical as it once was and is now the equivalent of Safety 101.  Hudson’s maturity model remains relevant but has struggled to be applied, primarily it can be argued, because companies almost always think they are more mature than they are. (Companies should not be ashamed of being stuck in safety puberty as long as they keep trying to get to drinking age and have their driver’s licence.)

The highlight of Day One, at least at the time of writing this, was an interchange between Dr John Culvenor and Dr Drew Rae (yes, everyone speaking seems to be a Doctor!) after Rae stated that:

“There is very little evidence that anything done in relation to safety, works.”

Culvenor’s response was that safety has been integral to establishing the facilities in which the conference was occurring.  This illustrates how safety is often unseen in a finished product and provides a useful reminder to the audience to keep pointing out the activity and relevance of OHS, whenever possible and relevant.

Building or resurrecting an OHS is a difficult task and not one entered into lightly.  Thankfully the SIA is not looking at an immediate turnround so has the luxury of time. However, it cannot take too long to polish the service and to prove its importance, as it has the National Safety Council of Australia (NSCAre-entering the OHS conference sector, through its NSCA Foundation, and private conference providers who continue to exist, although not necessarily growing.  In some ways, the SIA is also competing against safety webinars of the type provided by Safe Work Australia during October 2015, in particular.

Certainly the OHS profession in Australia needs enlivening. The SIA is rebuilding its base through conferences, and other initiatives, to achieve this. The NSCA will help also.  In the mean time, OHS professionals need to extract what useful information they can.

Kevin Jones

Categories communication, conference, education, evidence

7 thoughts on “The rebuilding of OHS conferences”

  1. Hello all. Firstly – As far as the particular content of the SIA conference goes, Kevin you were there so I take your comments about content on board, and I also know that since you wrote this piece, you had some positive experiences as well !

    For my part, I can say with my own conviction that this particular conference was designed to have speakers who challenged the delegates, and I can also say from the feedback we are receiving, that many were indeed challenged and had a great experience – and at times, as a result of being challenged – an uncomfortable experience. No propaganda intended – just real feedback. I have no personal capability to address Drew’s comments about the content of the Safety in Design stream, but the feedback I am getting on that is very positive as well. This could be put down to the limitations of the delegates and their points of view, but just maybe, it WAS worthwhile and challenging.

    As far as the broader concept of conferences being something akin to bookstore browsing, I think there’s real truth in that. It is impossible to expect that events like this produce incredible flows of innovation, insight and step changes, nor should they be expected to. Conferences are only what they are and their value should not be overstated. However, I have surprisingly often seen people’s whole system of thinking change direction because a conference experience. I rate more highly than you do Graham, the small things that surprise the delegate with an open mind, and set them down a slightly new path. I have regularly seen open minds absorb new ideas (whether from the speakers, or over dinner with new colleagues with new perspectives) and I’ve seen those new ideas create sustainable change.

    I particularly enjoy the enthusiasm and hopefulness that younger people bring to these events, and their thirst for change and new approaches is invigorating. However, if you’re very highly skilled, highly experienced, you’ve seen it all, and you know what the problems really are today with WHS, I would agree that conferences are probably getting past their use-by date.

    As far as your reference to the NSCA Kevin, we really don’t have any strategic focus or interest in that sort of thing. There are many commercial providers in the field, the NSCA included. We are seeking, over time to build our national conference to reflect the coming together of a community of interest, where people can share (and yes, re-share!) old and new ideas about WHS, in a creative environment. Did we achieve this in Melbourne this year? only partly, and there’s much more to do, but I personally had a really positive experience. And Kevin, I put it to you, that on a number of ways, you did too ?

    I hope to try to put the smallest dent in the politicisation of WHS, the aggression and the cynicism, and seek a stronger focus on common interest, and knowledge sharing. That’s idealistic I know, but I have no problem with a little idealism. I have been staggered by the level of cynicism and tribalism in this field (I thought health took the cake but WHS trumps it!) In my opinion, you can forget whether the sector is following one type of thinking over another – that’s a small part of the problem. I believe that the bigger issue is the cynicism and lack of mutual respect amongst the profession itself for its opposing tribes, that is the most damaging problem of all for this sector.

    Dean, I support your comments generally in terms of looking outside the established body of knowledge, but I don’t think you can then say we have to avoid fads, because that is exactly what any new idea outside that body of knowledge will be accused of being! In further support of Dean’s comments, we don’t necessarily need to create entirely new approaches to safety. But, if you don’t think we don’t need to be doing safety somehow differently, then we won’t be going anywhere.

    After delivering in my career, 17 state, national and international conferences in three industries, my experience is that there is very little ever created which is genuinely new. Conferences are only a part of the framework and they’re not everyone’s cup of tea. But, even so they are important. Whether its new ideas you stand for, or more work on the existing ones, the exploration needs to continue, and with less rancour, in different environments, to absorb the range of ideas. Study is critical. However new ideas don’t usually come from it. They come after it, through creative discussion and debate with people who do not think the same way as you do. Conferences are the kinds of places where there is usually enough difference around you, that the accident of creation of new ideas can actually occur. If you listen.

    So – I’m personally still a fan of conferences. And this one? moribund? Forget it! For me, this one was absolutely full of life.
    Kind regards to all.
    Dave Clarke

  2. Kevin, always great to read your comments. I wonder if the conference content these days matches the workplace practices? Is it all becoming stale, repetitive, safe? The problem with getting in speakers who liven up a conference, however, is that it doesn’t necessarily produce new ways of doing things. It can be inspiring to hear a great story or a great idea, but without changes to the workplace safety culture, any enthusiasm people had at the conference will soon diminish when they get back to work. I believe we need to avoid safety fads. We need to focus on long-term work and ideas, even if they at first seem unusual or difficult. And we need to be looking at quality research from outside the established body of knowledge, so we can find new ways of thinking about and doing safety.

  3. Kevin, I’m uncertain you will ever get a general audience conference that has “cutting-edge, radical or step-change solutions or strategies”. The best you can hope for are ideas and information that are new to most attendees. Safety at the moment is very tribal, in the sense that there is lots of interesting information that stays within one group.

    I was genuinely shocked that at the same conference where you thought Safety-II ideas were old-hat, the Safety In Design stream seemed 20 years out of date. You could grab any decent researcher and speaker on safety cases or safety critical system design and they would be new, interesting and “radical” whilst recycling their system safety conference material. Swiss Cheese isn’t “Safety 101”. Understanding why Swiss Cheese is problematic is Safety 101.

    I do agree, though, that for an average practitioner looking to advance their knowledge, conventions and conferences are bad value. For us (academics) they are effectively sales pitches for our much more solidly designed courses. It’s like going into a bookstore and browsing the back covers of books. You may find something interesting, but you’re really only going to learn if you decide to pick one up and read.

    1. Drew, I take your point on Swiss Cheese.

      Perhaps my hopes for conferences are too high but as a consultant I rarely get to “talk safety” or think creatively. Mostly I think analytically, as I hope this blog shows. In fact, I was challenged by a conference delegate to state what I stand for. Understandably it is a question I need to think about but it is a question we should all think about (and try to find answers that are not cliches).

      I would agree that the safety profession is “tribal, but this is partly because safety people may claim to share ideas and solutions but the reality is that we all need a point of difference, particularly those in consulting, and so intellectual property is closely controlled.

      I should add that some involved wiht developing the conference have claimed this conference has caused a revolution in safety thinking?! “Do you hear the (safety) people sing? Singing the song of angry men?….”

  4. I will seek knowledge on how to ‘get inside the head space’ As you say I would not waste 5 minutes at a conference as nothing new is espoused. I would be more likely to go to a trade show that has different types of safety equipment.

  5. Your article:

    “All conference delegates want to hear cutting-edge, radical or step-change solutions or strategies but what happens when the conference speakers are reinforcing what you already know?”

    End of Quote:

    I agree Kevin, that is why pretty well the only conferences I attend are where I am a speaker or chair. Quite aside from the increasing (not insignificant) cost of conferences there is a major “opportunity cost”, i.e. what else could I be doing if I was not here.

    The opportunity cost is dramatically heightened where, as in most conferences you know 90% (or more) of what will be addressed will be either irrelevant to you or provide only a marginal increase in your existing knowledge.

    Should I pay $1,500 – $2000 a day or so, attend for 8 hours and miss that day of work when only 30 perhaps 60 minutes of the day will increase my knowledge.

    For experienced OHS practitioners the cost : benefit analysis becomes harder and harder to justify.



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