One view of how OHS needs to change

In a recent interview Richard Coleman states that the biggest opportunity for the occupational health and safety (OHS) profession is through health. He is another in the a long line of safety people (myself included) who advocate looking outside the traditional safety perspective to better understand safety.  But health may not be the best option as the health profession can have just as much myopia as the safety profession.

Coleman talks about his relatives who died not from safety risks but from health-related conditions that manifested from a lack of safety. He is right and the OHS profession is starting to think about the whole-of-life story of work-related health issues but there will always be a clash of cultures when one profession begins to spread into another’s “patch”.

This blog mentioned Workers’ Health Centres earlier this month.  These services have tried to pick up the pieces of safety failures, usually with minimal resources.  The OHS profession has often isolated itself from the consequences of failure by focussing exclusively on prevention. This position is understandable but no longer tenable.  However, OHS professionals should not feel obliged to try to know everything, as has been promoted in the past.  They may need to specialise even more than they currently do.

A General Practitioner (GP) does not know all the medical answers but has a good knowledge network to draw from.  They often also have special interests such as dermatology, podiatry, or other medical areas.  They are not qualified specialists in these areas but the have a greater awareness of these issues than do other GPs. Perhaps the OHS profession should start to assess its own characteristics in a similar way and embrace this middle-ground of “bush specialists”, as there are bush lawyers.  The challenge is, of course, to not give the bush specialists the same level of authority as true specialists obtain, even though their perspectives are useful..

Coleman’s point about the need to address safety issues beyond those resulting in fatalities is correct.  The OHS profession needs to broaden its interest which will also increase its relevance.  part of the reason the OHS profession now has to make up ground for relevance is that until very recently it contained its thoughts within the boundaries of the workplace, in line with the aims and objectives of the first round of OHS legislation.  Contemporary OHS laws, particularly in Australia and New Zealand, focus on work rather than the workplace and so the artificial boundaries of the OHS profession have been removed.  Not all the OHS profession understands or accepts this.

The formally educated OHS professionals often have the hardest time  accepting the changed circumstances because their education was configured around the decades old OHS concepts.  Those with more commercial sensitivities have had to be more adaptable and so have been more prepared for change.  However, this same sector may be increasingly susceptible to jumping onto OHS fads specifically due to their commercial agility.

Workplace health and safety has always been a social science even though it may have originated through the engineering disciplines.  The best-selling books on OHS in Australia have been those written by sociologists or psychologists as they analyse power relationships, organisational culture, corporate decision-making. A couple of decades ago these areas were unheard of in the OHS profession and in OHS academic courses.

The social context of work is not a recent concept although it has only recently returned to fashion.  A good example of the importance of the social context of work can be seen in the debate about and introduction of the 8 hour day in the 1800s.  The advocacy of a suitable “quality of life” is very similar to current calls for better worker health.

Coleman’s advocacy of understanding the health risks of work is part of the recognition of the broadening of the OHS profession into areas that are often resistant to what they see as an intrusion.

A good example of how some safety professionals have changed their thinking is in Coleman’s discussion on wellness, at the end of the interview:

“I think the absolutely massively untapped benefit, if you think about everybody being on this continuum of wellness, is if you shift everybody up – if you shift everbody [sic] to a point where they are much closer to being the best ….  that they can be, you get massive increases in engagement, productivity, general happiness in the workplace.  Now I know it is kind of a “fluffy” concept happiness but we want happy, engaged, productive people, that’s where our competitive advantage lies and its not something that safety people traditionally thought about.”

This new approach to health and safety may sound fluffy now but should not remain fluffy much longer.  There is an increasing body of research and evidence about wellness and productivity but this relationship still requires the intervention of the safety professional to ensure that any benefits do not come at a sacrifice of a worker’s health and safety in other ways.

There remains a disconnect between OHS, productivity, profitability and sustainability.  The analysis of these relationships needs research that looks closely at the political and economic factors in OHS decision making and policy setting.  Just as Coleman advocates greater emphasis on health to better understand safety in the modern world, so there needs to be an emphasis on the political and  the economy – areas from which many of the traditional safety professionals would run.

Kevin Jones

Categories business, disease, health, OHS, psychosocial, risk, safety

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