OHS conference hears of a bleak future

What do you do when the first speaker at a safety conference makes a strong argument that occupational health and safety (OHS) activities are likely to be automated out of existence within twenty years?  Dr Drew Rae opened the SIA Safety Convention with just such a statement.  This was reinforced by Andrew Harris of Laing O’Rourke who provided video evidence of an artificial intelligence that could identify that a worker was not wearing the required personal protective equipment.

The Convention’s theme is disruption as this is one of the current business buzzwords and safety people think disruption is a positive experience. But it is possible that disruption will erode the OHS profession IF that profession continues handling its knowledge and supporting its members in the same way.

At the Eric Wigglesworth Memorial Lecture on 5 September, Dr David Borys further disrupted the OHS profession by questioning its knowledge base and although an academic himself and a major participant in the Safety Institute of Australia’s Body of Knowledge, advocated a Body of Evidence  rather than a Body of Knowledge.  What this also did was cut across the core structure of the SIA which is wrapped around academic education.  Borys was very disruptive in a polite way.

The first session of this conference confirms the understanding that the best safety thinking comes from outside the safety profession.  The future of the safety profession will come from how the safety profession responds to change and several speakers have mentioned extinction.

It’s a good start to this conference.

Kevin Jones

Categories conference, disruption, education, innovation, OHS, research, safety, safety culture

10 thoughts on “OHS conference hears of a bleak future”

  1. This response is a little tongue in cheek… but I just spent the morning investigating why someone head-butted a ‘No Smoking’ sign… whilst there are people there will be accidents… however, as technology replaces people…!!! 😉

    The old culture of employing someone to ‘keep people safe’ and act as ‘safety police’ is an anachronistic to the trend today. Safety professional need to be cognisant that they are not the experts in risk but those with the specialist work skills are.

    Also, integrated risk management systems, where enterprise and WHSE risk methodologies are being melded together, are becoming more prevalent. This is an opportunity for the savvy WHS professional to expand their horizons but they will need to rely on more than just a Cert IV, diploma or even degree in WHS. WHS professional moving into the integrated risk space will need to think of expanding their knowledge of other business systems (HR, Marketing, Finance, etc). They don’t need to be experts (a good risk manager facilitates others to use their expertise to manage risks relevant to them) but they do need to have a broader understanding of risk management than simply risk mitigation (many seem to have trouble with the concept of a moving ‘consequence’ when assessing risk and in trading risk for benefit).

    Ian Munro

  2. This is the problem with 20 minute TED Style talks. They don’t leave room for nuance. There’s a companion piece to my talk today where I argue that there is an important – and more interesting – role for safety professionals in future. 20 minutes is enough to motivate the need for change or present a positive vision, but not both.

    The future is not bleak – but only if we embrace the need to transform the role.

  3. So long as there are corporations out there that think there is always an easy solution to health and safety, such as a machine that tells you when someone isn’t wearing their earplugs or quantify human behaviour for every individual on site using the law of averages, our profession is safe.

    1. Totally agree Darryl. Since when did that became a Safety Job, if anything it’s an indication of a bleak future for supervisors. 😉 And you don’t need a lot of intelligence for it either, natural or artificial.

  4. Thanks Kevin. I wish I was there but can only dream. It is of value that you keep me and others informed. I have found in the past that conferences are to “don’t make waves” affairs. It appears to me that it is the same of the same. We need to have contemporary views put forward at these conferences. What works when it is looked on from a different direction and outcomes? Not always the usual ranker about policy and outdated SWMS.
    Keep up the solid reporting mate.

  5. I think you missed the SIA context for Borys here Kevin. (a) It’s long past that the SIA’s core structure could be seen to be wrapped around academic education, even if it ecmver could have been said (b) the role of the BOK in guiding higher ed is not under question from Borys (c) we welcome and have great empathy for his comments on the gap still to be filled between knowledge and evidence base, and I would add to that the critical importance of his other point, linking research and evidence more strongly to practice (d) the SIA is not the place where perspectives are declared. Nor does it have views dominated by any school of thought. It is the place people come to talk about it all. David Borys’s Wigglesworth lecture was a welcome and very stimulating start to a great week of disruptive conversation.

    1. David, last night prior to the Wigglesworth Lecture, the Registrar of the AOHSEAB, which is “auspiced” by the SIA and whose finances are managed by the SIA, provided a retrospective of its role in accrediting OHS tertiary courses. This happened after the SIA presented awards to tertiary education students. Over the last few years, the SIA has focused on tertiary courses and is planning to accredit VET courses. The significance of academia to the SIA is plain. But I do acknowledge, and have said this to you, that the SIA is rebuilding and that it is starting to look beyond the academia is a real positive.
      The SIA has always empathised with the point that David Borys made about the gap between, to use my words, pure research at the big corporate end of the spectrum and the applied research needed where the bulk of Australians are employed and harmed, small business. But I don’t see any action by the SIA or others in researching small business OHS needs and risks. I draw your attention to the comments of Wayne Hochwarter in another of my blog articles from today regarding research grants.
      On another point in your comment, should the SIA be a place where perspectives are declared? I was under the impression that the SIA was developing a series of position papers on OHS issues.
      The SIA is (now) a healthy forum for discussion and its conferences continue to improve, and it still claims to be leading the OHS profession in Australia. It is one thing to provide a forum but it is another to participate in the conversation. I may criticise the SIA when I think it could do better but I have also assisted the SIA in preparing a submission to Victoria’s Labour Hire Inquiry, whose report has just been presented to the Victorian Government and which you will receive a hard copy when it is publicly released.
      I understand that as CEO you feel responsible for the SIA’s reputation and you have done remarkably well by rebuilding that reputation from very dark days, providing strategic rigour and getting the organisation back in the black. I have told you personally that I admire this achievement.
      The SIA more than any other OHS organisation understands continuous improvement and continuous improvement does not occur without constructive criticism, which is how I describe my blogs from the Convention today.

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