Research shows the importance of OHS knowledge in achieving change

Recently Safety Science published “Important factors in common among organizations making large improvement in OHS performance: Results of an exploratory multiple case study” by Lynda Robson and a swag of others (available online but not sure for how long) which was noticeable for trying to

“… identify the factors important to large improvement in workplace occupational health and safety (OHS) performance.”

Cover of Robson research changeThis type of “step change” is often expected by business owners but is not often the focus of research. Robson et al. discuss “breakthrough change” or BTC and list twelve elements that initiate, are involved with or are outcomes of BTC:

  • “external influence,
  • organizational motivation to improve OHS,
  • new OHS knowledge,
  • a knowledge transformation leader,
  • responsiveness to OHS concerns,
  • positive social dynamics,
  • continuous improvement pattern,
  • simultaneous operational improvement,
  • supportive internal context.
  • integrated OHS knowledge,
  • decreased OHS risk,
  • decreased injury and illness.”

This list is a good summary of the elements that OHS professionals and safety managers should consider in developing or assessing their own safety management systems and strategies, however there are several that are of particular interest.

The research emphasises the important of OHS knowledge.  A current and effective state of knowledge on OHS and hazard controls is an important part of most occupational health and safety law and yet it seems underdeveloped except in academia and knowledge is so much more that academic teaching. The authors write:

“The transformation of OHS knowledge is at the model’s core: i.e., before BTC, the knowledge is unknown and external to the organization; by the end, it is integrated within the organization.”(page 216)

They depict the whole process of change, emphasising knowledge, in a graphic. This is a useful reminder of knowledge’s centrality to organisational change.

Graphic from Robson research change-2

They write that the traditional way of accessing useful knowledge was from external consultants or through hiring new personnel, but there is so much more knowledge available with the growth of the internet that the researchers talk about a key figure in the initiation of the BTC, the “knowledge transformation leader” or KTL. It is rare to advertise for such a role with that title and KTLs can have many titles but

“In all cases, multiple interviewees pointed toward the KTL, some with strong statements of attribution, such as ‘‘I mean it’s all her – there’s no doubt about it.”  The KTLs shared the characteristics of competence in administration (e.g., ‘‘a very organized person,”  ‘‘good at writing policy”) and strength in people skills (e.g., ‘‘a very, very good communicator.. .very persuasive…”). They were able to gain the cooperation of and collaborate with workers, supervisors and managers……..” (page 219)

This author has had several positions recently as a KTL without realising it.  It is surprising how influential a KTL can be as they draw new insights into what is often a very focused, narrow and insular workplace or project.  The perception of my two employers should also be acknowledged because they knew what they wanted even if they could not name it.  Now there is a name.

The recognition of the need for new or more knowledge or a fresher perspective may be an indication of a level of maturity in organisations.

Research can be a dry process but sometimes it uncovers something unexpected.  These researchers found a

“…. broad concept of positive social (and psychological) dynamics, which encompasses cross-case themes of energizing interactions, rapport, collaboration, worker empowerment and development through OHS, and passion for and commitment to OHS. This element had been unanticipated beforehand, and no a priori codes were developed specifically for it, yet it emerged strongly from the data.” (page 219)

As part of these “energizing interactions”, OHS professionals should not be surprised that the researchers found collaboration as important in building trust and constructive consultation:

“A collaborative approach was also taken with the entire workforce, with workers and supervisors being consulted as changes were planned and implemented. As a result, workers were no longer ‘‘afraid to stand up for safety stuff” and were ‘‘opening up more and more every year.” (page 219)

It is important to realise that breakthrough change is not necessarily from a prominent event or report.  The researchers found that elements of continuous improvement (a concept that seems to have dropped out of fashion) which will be so familiar to readers contributed to BTC:

“Improvement in the organizations with regards to their core operations, found in three of the cases, had some direct effects on OHS hazards and practices. For example, in manufacturing, a housekeeping intervention, implemented in part for operational reasons, also reduced tripping hazards. In Social Agency, lifts were increasingly acquired to address the needs of new clients, but they also reduced biomechanical loads for service providers. Further, when the agency underwent accreditation as a means to improve its operations, it was required to develop further in areas broader than but inclusive of OHS, such as emergency planning, risk management, and organizational performance measurement. Improvement in operations had indirect effects on OHS risks too. In one manufacturing organization, better control over processes meant ‘‘the guys weren’t always running around,” and therefore had more time to think about” safety during work tasks and come up with solutions to safety problems. Similarly, in the other manufacturing facility, new leadership had forced a distinct shift in operational practices, such as improved  adherence to and standardization of operational procedures, enhanced accountability, and better ‘‘closing of loops,” and this discipline benefited safety too.” (page 221)

Importantly, these researchers measured the outcomes of the interventions.  They found that OHS knowledge was integrated in better, and better quality, communication, decreased OHS risk and decreased injury and illness although the data for this was only workers compensation data, a data source the researchers later acknowledge may have emphasises physical injuries over mental and occupational health. Nevertheless the researchers were able to validate this injury reduction.

OHS professionals bang on about the importance of injury and illness prevention and many companies get heartily sick of this pressure but every so often there is research that reinforces the usefulness of this approach.  The researchers identified no magic bullet but…….

“Considering the results at a high level, we note that none of the BTC narratives had a ‘‘magic bullet” remedy for improving OHS performance. Instead, multiple organizational actions were involved, and most were concerned with the primary prevention of injury and illness.” (page 222)

And even though there was no magic bullet:

“An influx of new OHS knowledge and its transformation into new or modified responsibilities, policies, procedures and practices for both managers and workers was found to be at the core of the BTC process.” (page 222)

Researchers seem to rarely include case studies but this report includes the following:

“Our cases illustrate how new OHS knowledge may be identified and assimilated, but not yield performance improvement until it is transformed and exploited. That is, two of the cases went through a mandatory provincial OHS management audit program a few years before the BTC period. They failed a first audit; then, in response, identified new OHS knowledge and assimilated it in the form of new policy and procedure documentation, allowing them to pass on a second audit. However, the more significant changes in organizational routines and thus OHS outcomes came later, during the BTC period, once knowledge had been fully transformed and exploited, as a result of the additional presence of organizational motivation to improve OHS and a knowledge transformation leader (KTL).” (page 222)

The research report also included a lovely description of a typology for policy instruments – “carrots, sermons and sticks” – courtesy of Vedung.

It was curiosity over research into large changes that brought this article to my attention and it was a useful discovery.  Others have written about organisational cultural change but not necessarily with the detail or approach of Robson and her swag of collaborators.  The measurement of change is also a stand out part of this research report.  OHS has got to the point where every change and improvement  proposed should be able to be measured.  Quantitative evaluation may be preferable for measurement for some but there is growing criticism of reducing measurement to numbers only and of the information that is omitted as a result.  These researchers were able to validate change through numbers but the role of the knowledge transformation leader is largely qualitative.

This research report deserves close scrutiny to make sure one misses none of the opportunities for change that it has identified.

Kevin Jones

Categories OHS

2 thoughts on “Research shows the importance of OHS knowledge in achieving change”

  1. Kevin

    Lynda Robson’s article was a great find.

    The Breakthrough Change Model (figure 2) is the best visual manifestation of how to achieve “step change” I have seen. I know because I have witnessed this very approach create real change over a 3-4 year period.

    Without a KTL, material change will not occur. The challenge for the KTL (and supporting OHS professionals / organisational leaders) is to rigorously defend the change process for as long as it takes.

    It must be understood that Breakthrough Change will not be an easy or short journey, with conflicting short term organisational priorities and “non believers” constantly threatening the mission / desired outcome.

    When success arrives, the whole organisation benefits. Reduced human suffering, less distraction, greater productivity, reduced costs (which can lead to ongoing competitive advantage) all flow from Breakthrough Change.

    It is at this point that the penny finally drops for “non believers” – injury reduction is directly linked to profitability and sustainability.

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