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.