Stirring the OHS pot

I was honoured to speak recently at the monthly meeting of the Central Safety Group.  As the meeting occurred during Safe Work Australia Month it seemed appropriate to stir debate about the nature of occupational health and safety (OHS) and how it applied.

Here is a selection of points that I intended to make. Discussion developed in a manner that allowed for many of these to be only touched upon but that was the intention of the presentation – to encourage OHS professionals to talk about OHS rather than about specific hazards.

OHS professionals have an insane reliance on documentation and rules to make workplaces safe. The workplace has now become so regimented that workers have little ability to think about risk  or to think creatively about OHS beyond immediate hazards.  Nor do they necessarily receive training in creative thought or analysis beyond the parameters of the particular workplace and corporate intentions.

Certification of OHS/WHS practitioners continues to be discussed and there are many positives in formalising the OHS profession but the certification does not equal competence and the market is more interested in competent OHS professionals than accredited ones.  The competence of OHS professionals is unlikely to be addressed or furthered by the current accreditation process

OHS continues to struggle to speak clearly.   This is almost unforgivable in a discipline that is structured on consultation and communication.

Why does the OHS profession continue to measure itself against the medical, legal and other professions?  It seems to believe that a profession that only began in the last hundred years can measure up against professions that are centuries old. It needs to stop struggling to play with the “big boys” and start valuing itself and focus on the development of its own character and build on its own strengths.

OHS professional often work under Human Resources but continues to fail to engage constructively that with the HR profession.  OHS and HR continue to operate in ideological, conceptual and terminological silos.

OHS continues to argue its case on moral grounds and the duty of care, neglecting the argument for a business case for safety even though that evidence already exists.

The OHS profession continues to call for evidence-based policies and decision making but does not lobby enough for the resources required to research safety and develop the evidence.  This is complicated by some OHS academics who seem more interested in building an empire than furthering the OHS discipline.  Non-university research options need to be developed to avoid the academic argy-bargy and funding models but still produce valid safety research.

OHS is notorious in Australia for waiting for someone else to speak up about safety instead of realizing its own voice.  It pressures regulators to progress the OHS industry and then complains when regulators succumb to budgetary and political pressures.  The OHS profession could, and should, be a socially progressive agent of change but it is so uncertain about its authority, some would say existence, that it makes no comment on social actions that affect it or that it affects.

The Robens approach to OHS was inclusive but the OHS profession has tried to be exclusive. Health was always a part of  the Robens approach but was ignored for decades.  No one seems to have investigated why this was.  Before trying to “put the H back into OHS” perhaps we would learn more about what to do by determining why H was ignored for so long.

To properly apply OHS principles is to challenge the fundamental processes of business.  A core principle of OHS is to eliminate the risk, hopefully, at the source.  This principle was a formal part of OHS laws for a long time but has been diluted over the last decade to accommodate a discretionary approach to safety management through “as far as is reasonably practicable”.  This has demotivated the OHS profession as an agent of change.  We often support business aims even though we can see that in the longer term worker’s will be less healthy and less safe.

The employer is the principle duty holder for workplace health and safety yet it is common to blame someone else for an error or incident – that could be the worker, or the regulator or the trade union or someone else.

OHS professionals seem to be notoriously shy in expressing opinions about their own profession and principles. It is unclear why this is so but it indicates a lack of confidence and an uncertainty about the profession.  It is almost as if OHS apologises for the disruption it may cause even when that disruption is justified in preventing harm and illness. “Sorry to reduce your profits but we have to make things safe”.

OHS is scared of discussing failures even though we know that often the most significant changes in safety have come from failure.  Workplace safety is about preventing failure but OHS professionals cringe from using the word.

We hesitate to challenge fads and allow businesses to spend thousands on unproven strategies.  Recently Michael Quinlan described us as living in a world of fads and accepting that as the reality.

The timidity shown by the OHS profession in Australia encourages the acceptance of short-term solutions instead of persisting for long term changes. Over time we stop suggesting the long term because business/clients only seem to want quick fixes.  The OHS profession is seen as predominantly about PPE when it deserves to be an integral element of business strategies. Last week in a Safe Work Australia webinar on the importance of work design in complex supply chains one of the first questions from the viewers was how to get workers to wear PPE!!

The OHS profession and its academics too often talk about safety in disasters instead of talking about safety in the everyday.  These encourages “disaster porn“. Grand case studies can illustrate a failure in decision-making and design but also seem divorced from the reality of small to medium sized businesses or everyday decision making, where most people work.

The focus on disasters also reinforces the basis of OHS on fear and the traditional approach to OHS as reacting to failure rather than preventing failure or minimising harm.  Attempting to change this approach is the “safety differently” movement.

The Hierarchy of Controls (HoC) concept has been integral to determining appropriate control measures for workplace hazards.  All OHS professionals are taught them and regulators require or advocate them but we do not apply them enough. There is an increasing realisation that the traditional HoC may not be appropriate for addressing psychosocial hazards at the workplace.  Some are tweaking the HoC to fit, others are developing alternative HoCs.

I was recently challenged to speak about what OHS means to me.  I still don’t know but the points above are part of the process of working that out.

Kevin Jones

9 thoughts on “Stirring the OHS pot”

  1. STRONGLY AGREE.. same situation over in Malaysia.. sadly to say the need for CHANGE is agreed by all, however the WILL TO CHANGE is another question…Thank you KEVIN

  2. Some very valid points Kevin but I would not agree with the comment regarding certification of HSE professionals. I was knocked back for a role that I could do blindfolded because I didn’t have a piece of paper – only 20 years experience! I can’t prove it but I do think that there have been a few since then – not in your face though. So I got and Adv Dip in WHS – and quick as a flash nothing happened. Two things are critical in getting a job these days – age and certificates. I think ageism kicked in while I was studying!
    Hardly ever see an ad that doesn’t mention certs – they definitely don’t mention age, but that’s a given now. It’s given rise to the expression ‘too experienced’ in recruitment circles.
    Sadly there is little value placed on life experience and one wonders where this is all going to end up.

  3. Yes Kevin it is a difficult dilemma we face. Some thoughts. We are one of many voices clamouring to be heard in an organisation but without as much clout as the Finance or HR functions. If the CEO doesn’t recognise this lack of OHS in the conversations they are listening to or the risk of not hearing it then we have accidents waiting to happen.

    While we may only have ourselves to blame it is also incumbent on those at the Top Table to open a space for a serious conversation about the risks and implications of not dealing effectively with them.

    A serious loss event is ultimately not solely a fault of the OHS person but probably an endemic lack of attention to risk in the entire management hierarchy ( which of course starts at the top) .

    I don’t think the training of OHS people is half adequate and has been captured by the academics rather than supported by neuroscience. There is so much more for practitioners to learn about human behaviour than about hazard control.

    It’s not so much about what we tell people they should do to prevent harm but about engaging with them in a way that facilitates their understanding.!

  4. Once again Kevin, great insight and provocative discussion
    Only wish the Regulators ( both State and National) would read your posts. It would certainly give them some real direction.
    Good on you!
    Sheryl Dell
    FSIA RSP(Aust)

    1. Many OHS regulators do read my blog but are often constrained to respond by the organisations’ social media policies. However it doesn’t stop them from ringing me or meeting for coffee.

  5. Hi Kevin,

    I’m totally in tune with all the points you raise above.

    As what “OHS means to me” – It’s about helping the rank and file and their managers to understand what managing risk is about with a view to ensuring that:
    1: people don’t get hurt by foreseeable risks and
    2: the business doesn’t suffer adverse financial performance either from:
    a: injuries and associated unnecessary loss of productivity or
    b: penalties for failure to discharge legal obligations.

  6. Way to stir the pot Kevin! Each of these deserve their own series of posts – and as you alluded to their own body of research. I can see why the discussion at the CSG may have only allowed some of these to be briefly touched on as a few of these were drilled into. Thanks for distilling some of your thoughts and challenging us to think a bit deeper about what safety means to us all.

  7. Well said Kevin. Why was H ignored for so long? Perhaps because busness did not understand how or where it would fit in and saw it as adding costs and no value (unsupported of course). Experience genrally shows that wher OHS is put under HR groups and reporting to them ther is a tendency to minimise the role and importance and one is not considered a true HR person per se.

    I like what Alan Quilley (Canada) espouses and promotes as art of Integrated Safety Management – that safety is merely an attribute of how we do our work. Safety and quality go hand in hand as joint attributes.

    Companies continue to sprout the wrong messages somehow in the vain belief that people really care what their priorities should be – “Safety is our first priority” whn in fact that is only what they want you to believe. Their first priority is to succeed, make a profit, keep the shareholders happy and stay as viable company.

    When we put safety and quality together we have a potent force and a compelling arugment that can and does save time, money, increases productivity by doing it right the first time, reduces accidents and incidents, etc.

    I believe that part of the issue with speaking up is that many safety professionals in companies have not realised business economics – that every year when the company creates it’s forward palnning budget, there is actually a finite amount of money available to all divisions. If safety is going to get more and actually initiate and institute effective programs that have a positive impact in so many ways and there are plenty of good examples coming out of myriads of businesses – they have to demonstrate whey money should be taken off ofther areas or divisions. To do this they need to not only show the positive effects of their programs and initiatives, but also quanity what the actual savings will be to other divisions who lose money from their budgets to support OHS. In many cases by doing this you can estblish that by such a program you will actually save teh other division more than they are losing which is a win win for all areas.

    Simply look a teth pye chart and see who is getting what percentage and how you can asist to improve their bottom line as well becasue that is what it is all about to the company and the real fighting goes on at division level between each group jealously protecting what they get. You will then be wrking collaboratively with all teh relevant stakeholders in the business, growing your area of OHS influence and credibility and valuing your profession in a more meaningful way.

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