Are OHS professionals on the ‘B’ Ark?

In The Restaurant at the End of the Universe Douglas Adams has a character tell a story of a ship of middle managers being sent from a supposedly doomed plant to colonise a new world.  The ‘B’ Ark contains millions of

“Hairdressers, tired TV producers, insurance salesmen, personnel officers, security guards, public relations executives, management consultants,….”

I think occupational health and safety (OHS) professionals are lucky they were not included in the list because many people consider OHS professionals to be little more than a nuisance.  In a recent safety literature review David Borys asked the question – “Do occupational safety and health professionals improve the occupational safety and health performance of an organisation?“.  He found

“Two themes that emerged from the literature and which warrant further research are the importance of the line of report and the personal attributes of the occupational safety and health professional. It is suggested that knowledge without power and the ability to influence senior decision makers may negatively impact the occupational safety and health professional’s ability to add value.”

There are several points in this abstract that warrant discussion. Borys’ “line of report” has always been a struggle for OHS professionals.  How to get the attention of the company’s decision-maker?  How do you win this race for attention against your organisational equals – Human Resources, Risk Managers and others?  Perhaps the latter would be considered as the unmentioned members on the ‘B’ Ark.

Firstly, I think, it is important to realise that safety professionals are in a race for attention.  Some have realised that senior decision-makers like numbers so they present safety data in numbers, charts and graphs.  The trap is they often start seeing only the numbers and not what the numbers represent.

It is also useful to think about your strategy.  Why do you want to speak with the CEO? or the Chairman of the Board.  Michael Tooma would say that, to use Australian slang, safety professionals are “up themselves” and recommends speaking to the person who can most affect change in an organisation and who is unlikely to be the CEO or the Chair.

Borys also emphasises the need to understand the OHS professional’s “personal attributes”.  Personality and communication skills have until very recently, never included the skills necessary to explain safety to the people who practice it in reality or who need to improve it and this can perpetuate assumptions.  To a large extent, tertiary courses teach the jargon and encourage the use of this jargon even though people outside the profession do not understand it and in some cases began to see OHS professionals as (Australian slang again) wankers.  The way OHS was taught certainly in the past,  built in the credibility flaws that now bedevil the profession.

Borys also mentions power without influence. OHS professionals often seek credibility rather than build credibility.  Tooma has spoken about the OHS profession’s obsession with laws.  which illustrates a fundamental insecurity that seems to run through the OHS profession, professionals and educators.  There is a timidity to the OHS profession that reflects an entrenched sense of inadequacy.

The OHS profession has achieved important changes in Australian workplaces but these changes have rarely been public or on a large-scale – the level of attention (glory?) – that the OHS profession has been searching for.  The changes have largely been in small to medium-sized businesses where, often, there is a clear and direct line between the decisions of a manager and the actions of a worker.  These changes may not be spectacular but are often more important than the glorious achievement potential at the big end of town.

Recently a colleague of mine received a phone call from one of his nursing home clients who he had not directly worked with for a while.  They thanked him for his work in establishing a safe system of work that was able to operate without his involvement. This achievement was in a medium-sized business in an industry that is required to meet a specific level of accreditation and is a service industry for some of the most vulnerable citizens.  My colleague was rightly chuffed as safety has part of managing the business rather than an add-on or an imposition.

Borys also writes about the need to add “value”.  This is a common contemporary phrase in Australian businesses but it is largely a distraction.  The requirement to add value implies that it is possible to manage OHS without adding value.  Michael Tooma recently supported this possibility by  saying that many safety management systems are constructed to, unnecessarily, embed the need for a safety professional.

At a breakfast seminar on 27 April 2016 I asked a panel of safety and risk experts whether it was possible to build and maintain a safe workplace without contracting a safety professional.  The response was definitely Yes but added that business should still be able to readily access expert information.

The push for value also addresses the perception, and reality to some extent, that safety is only a cost and adds no financial benefit to a company or project.  This perspective is understandable because business will not spend on what it feels it does not need but the perspective also reveals a misunderstanding of OHS and ignores the qualitative, psychosocial benefits of a management system that values the mental and physical health of its workers. Perhaps the value of OHS professionals should be measured by new productivity measures rather than safety-related numbers.

Many safety professionals would feel that they are always fixing problems created by others.  For instance, if imported plant and equipment was purchased to Australian safety standards or was checked for compliance at the border, the safety professional would not be needed to undertake a plant hazard assessment or redesign the plant, often, at considerable cost.  If employers accepted that they have the primary duty of care in Australian workplaces, the safety professional’s job may be one of support instead of being “given” the responsibility for safety management.  But plenty of successful careers have been made by repairing products and services, the OHS profession may want to embrace that role and do the best they can.

Some readers would say that the position of any profession that is so young, like workplace safety, needs to go through a maturing process.  But that perspective only works if one looks at the professional structures rather than the sociology and ethics of worker safety and welfare which extends beyond the Industrial Revolution.

The teller of the story, the Captain of the B Ark, comes to a degree of realisation from sharing the story.  He realises that he has been duped and that the dominant classes simply rid themselves of the people they thought were unnecessary only to die later from a disease contracted through dirty telephone handsets.

Safety professionals may be considered a nuisance and they certainly vary in quality and competence but they can have a positive and creative role.

Kevin Jones

13 thoughts on “Are OHS professionals on the ‘B’ Ark?”

  1. Having just read all the comments and met Borys at Ballarat Uni we all have our own specific opinions on this subject. But and it is a big but when the inspectorate come and make a visit to the workplace for a routine inspection or a workplace incident they want to talk to the management representative and from my own personal experience it has not included the nominated safety person. Reason why is that management think they are experts but when we get down to the facts they will back peddle and seek assistance from the safety person.

    Before you howl me down on this statement I have over 40 years experience in the industry first working in a laboratory and first hand seeing people getting hurt at work because of production and management pressure. Having achieved my safety knowledge on the job and theory at TAFE /Uni I still see culture as the key to have a safe work place.

    Finally, until we do not hurt/main or kill an employee at work we will still need the safety expert with the skills to work through this complex situation of why and put the controls in place to mitigate the hazard.

    Basic but true.

    1. Ross, I don’t think you’d be howled down on this blog.

      You are describing the safety professional as a subject matter expert who may not have the ear of management, at least in relation to a visit from an Inspector. This has been the OHS professional’s role for a long time regardless of managerial support or recognition. One of the skills that the professional has not been taught, or is rarely promoted, is the effective communication of that expertise.

      From the meagre experience I have had in local government, for instance, many Councils have been confused on the role of the safety professional as it is often seen to conflict with the role of risk manager.

      Part of the issue is also that Inspectors tend to visit in response to a failure or problem and are always seen in that role. Even when they attend for a routine inspection, the fear remains.

  2. How did safety evolve into something that follows behind the work counting things and not out in front of the work making things count

    1. Tony, I think you almost answer your own question. In my opinion the OHS laws in Australia in the 1980s, and elsewhere, had the potential to change how work was managed but it was too radical for the time or there were not enough advocates for the potential of the changes and so business, regulators and safety people applied the new laws as a new set of rules for the way they had already been doing safety. Risk assessments were formalised. Consultation was emphasised (but primarily through a convoluted Committee and designated work group process, that persists today!) Codes of practice were written, certifications were dropped and the employer’s responsibilities were emphasised.

      You might want enjoy reading some previous blog articles on safety systems of work – a long time obligation that has never realised its potential.

  3. There are some interesting and relevant questions you raise here Kevin.

    There also seems to be a lot of questions being asked about the safety and risk industry in general of late (well at least there seems to be more discussion than in the past) and for me at least, I think this is positive.

    I’ve been critical of the profession in recent years, a profession that I’ve spent my life working in. I see the focus so often on controlling and confining people rather than supporting and understanding them. I’m particularly interested in why this occurs.

    I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on this over the past few years; my dissonance (mental gymnastics and uneasiness) has been strong. The key thing (and I accept that there is not just one factor) that I keep coming back to, is to look at our broader society and culture, and consider the impact that this is having on how we go about things in risk and safety.

    For example, if you watch the main stream TV news, or pick up one of the commercial papers, there is barely a topic these days where the reporting is not of a ‘crisis’; of fixes needing to be made so people are ‘healthy and well’; and of the need to be ‘better’ and continual improve. Not surprisingly, similar language is being used in organisations.

    At the heart of it, my take on this is that we are in a continual search for perfection (e.g. world peace, no deaths by suicide, schooling that achieves better performance outcomes). I ask, what is a chase for a perfect life doing to us?

    I’ve resolving my dissonance by moving in another direction in risk and safety. A direction where understanding and ‘meeting’ people are the key. Sure there is also instruction and educating, but with the aim of others being in control of their own lives, and accepting whatever outcomes that work for them, rather than dictating a path that I think they should go down.

    I’m not sure it is the ‘right’ direction, but I do know that my uneasiness feels less when in ‘support’ of others rather than in control.

  4. Very interesting article. As a national safety manager I really cannot envisage my organisation functioning safely without the role in place…..but then I would say that, wouldn’t I?!

  5. Like it or not, the credibility of safety professionals, and by inference, the safety profession, has always been under scrutiny.
    Kevin’s point that “to a large extent, tertiary courses teach the jargon and encourage the use of this jargon even though people outside the profession do not understand it” is very valid and until safety professionals learn to “speak” organisational jargon rather than their own, credibility and “buy-in” will continue to flourish.
    The fact that this is now being discussed openly and frequently, possibly heralds a new era of transparency and effectiveness in practice.

  6. So much is going through my head after reading this post, but what I keep coming back to as a key cause of safety negativity is that for some reason safety became a role outside general activities/training (which should ensure a level of safety competence BTW).

    Somewhere along the line safety got separated, once this occurred, it needed to be ‘managed’ so then we (have not found out who) put in place (invented) managers of safety, called safety people (who were mostly from quality backgrounds in the day). These people were to ensure the laws, rules, and best practices that became from prior learnings was ‘advised’ to the workplace leaders so they could ensure their teams were working as safe as they can with what was known (risk ALARP), they were also to assist and educate leaders on the tools that safety invented along the way; such as risk assessments, audits and investigations.

    But due to all this extra required time and effort and because safety was separated, the job of leading safety was bestowed onto safety people, whom, under pressure to justify their jobs took on board this new level of ownership without dispute.

    With this new ownership came many others who could see a market in selling safety stuff (it’s a billion-dollar industry), and they also continued to put ownership onto safety people via advertising in a manner the continually lead people to assume this ownership must be true (as safety people were the ones managing safety) & (even those leaders who wanted to manage safety could not do so, as were told that safety managed it).

    Over time the ownership of safety and management of safety become the total responsibility of the safety person who now worked under the department silo called the safety department. This further separated the ownership of safety as the safety department became the judge and jury, hence, since no person likes to be charged with a failing, the covert wall was built and it has been getting higher ever since.

    So now we find ourselves in a dire situation that is getting worse every day (Literally) that is really going to test (and rightfully so) the foundations of the term safety…who really owns safety? and what really should a safety person role be? and does it need managing or could the management be replaced with competency? Sadly, I sense my views go unnoticed and unread…I just hope that other will slowly see what see (for the sake of safety of people).

  7. Great read. The theme of this article echoes my sentiments towards HR as well. The thing that doesn’t, or can’t, be taught at university is the ability to affect change, to influence stakeholders.

    I believe the safety profession will be alive and well for quite some time but will see some serious change. My prediction is that permanent full time roles will become scarce and businesses will seek a combination of automated/tech solutions combined with outsourced specialised consultants. Therefore we’ll see a lot more self employed safety professionals. Finding a niche and becoming a specialist will be critical.

    Could be wrong, but that’s my prediction! ?

  8. The mixed messages presented in this discussion warrant some close attention. Yes Safety needs to grab some attention, but at the same time I am remined of the tv advertising of years ago when BHP sponsored 60 Minutes – “The quiet achiever”.

    No one would refer to BHP by that moniker now and indeed many would think that some recent events have indicated anything but that. But in the safety profession I feel that we may need to reassess ourselves and ask ourselves why we do it? Is it to get noticed, Is it to run with the “passionate about safety” buzzword, or is it really to try and make a difference without big noting ourselves?

    Food for thought?

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