Several long and involved phone conversations resulted from last week’s articles on Australia’s Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Body of Knowledge (BoK) and its role in accreditation of tertiary OHS courses. It is worth looking at the origins of some of the issues behind the research on these safety initiatives.
One important document was published by the National OHS Commission (NOHSC, a forerunner of Safe Work Australia) in 1999 – “Professional Development Needs of Generalist OHS Practitioners“* . This NOHSC document continues to be referenced in the continuing debates listed above and illustrates the need to understand our recent OHS past.
The Executive Summary of this 1999 document identified the need for a body of knowledge:
“….The integration of OHS into mainstream management is apparent, particularly in larger businesses, and with this comes an increase in the range of managers and other professionals involved in OHS. The outsourcing of OHS expertise in this context is also a growing trend.
These changes have considerable implications for the role and development needs of the OHS practitioners; indeed the role and function of the OHS practitioner varies considerably from one organisation to the next.
This paper suggests that these changes have increased the necessity for everyone involved in OHS, from senior management through to the OHS practitioner, to have a common core of OHS knowledge, skills and attitudes.” (emphasis added)
In the last 25 years, there has been a growth in external OHS advisers just as the internal corporate legal services have been outsourced. It is suspected that the trend identified here has continued, but contemporary evidence seems scarce.
Roles and functions do vary considerably just as OHS needs vary between small, medium and large companies. OHS practitioners need to be able to able the basic OHS principles across this industrial variety.
These skills should be based on a “common core of OHS knowledge, skills and attitudes”. NOHSC’s document identifies three crucial elements for developing an OHS professionalisation:
The OHS BoK is only one of these criteria, albeit an important one. Knowledge without application is interesting but OHS is about the reduction and prevention of harm. It is about action and application. “Pure” knowledge in the OHS discipline seems almost contrary to OHS’ purpose.
The inclusion of “attitudes” raised hopes that this area would be defined and discussed, but it was not to be, in this report. The report conclude that:
“Everyone (OHS practitioners at all levels, managers, technical specialists) involved at whatever level of OHS function, needs a consistent core of OHS knowledge, skills, abilities and attitudes/values (to be defined).” (emphasis added)
The quote implies some equivalence between attitudes and values which fits with some of the values-based OHS training that has emerged since. That training largely become behaviour-based training that has been ridiculed by significant sectors of the OHS profession, primarily, because of the over-estimation of its significance and influence.
It may be that what was intended when discussing attitudes was an examination of OHS as a component of organisational culture.
Specialists and Professionals
Australia’s safety profession missed its chance to apply accurate and simple categories of skill. Rather than introducing “Generalist” to common parlance, it had the opportunity to mirror the structure of medicine where there are General Practitioners and Specialists within a Medical Profession. Such a split would have been more palatable to the safety professionals and not require any explanation to OHS clients and end users.
The NOHSC report discusses Specialists:
“OHS specialists (e.g. ergonomists, hygienists, physicians etc.) and those involved in developing OHS strategy need to add to their OHS technical skills a broad base of business knowledge and skills, and the capacity to be change managers, critical thinkers and problem solvers, so that they can implement measurable cost effective solutions.
Expertise in occupational health, in addition to safety, is also important to deal with emerging occupational health issues.”
(Good to see health specifically mentioned)
In a brief discussion on OHS as a profession NOHSC asked a crucial question (emphasised below) for which evidence, other than anecdotal, still seems to be missing.
“Professional ‘status’ certainly impacts on the capacity of OHS practitioners to gain access to and influence critical decision-making. To the extent status is earned, the relatively low status of OHS practitioners reflects perhaps on the actual performance, competence and professionalism of OHS practitioners. Is the discipline able to demonstrate that it is able to deliver cost-effective responses to OHS issues in the business environment? After all, OHS is often referred to as ‘common sense.’
The NOHSC report could be dismissed as simply of historic interest but there is a tendency in OHS to ignore the recent past and to accept each new guidance or other initiative as if there were no precursors. It is important that we understand how current actions have evolved. The fact that the NOHSC report currently exists only in hard copy libraries, and likely only those few libraries of Australian OHS regulators, is evidence of this process.
There is a history to everything we do, all the decisions we make and the initiatives we apply. To better understand what is happening now, we must look to the past, even if it is only 25 years ago.
*SafetyAtWorkBlog has contacted Safe Work Australia who has agreed for me to make this document available..