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.