Let’s acknowledge the problems with this year’s Safety Institute of Australia (SIA) National Conference upfront before the good stuff is mentioned.
A speaker on the issue of Diversity failed to turn up. Many of the rooms were setup in such a configuration that some delegates had to stand or, like I did, sit on the floor. Almost all the speakers were asked to speak for over 40 minutes which was a challenge for some and conflicts with studies about attention spans. Some of the presentations didn’t seem to support the “in practice” theme of the conference. Lastly, what some described as challenging presentations, others found to be vanilla and too general. Some of these problems were beyond the SIA’s control but they were still negative experiences.
Over the next week SafetyAtWorkBlog will be writing about some of the very positive speakers and experiences at the SIA National Conference.
The SIA claimed this to be an “inaugural” conference, and it is, in this latest iteration, but the SIA has been conducting and sometimes running conferences for several decades. This was a golden opportunity to apply a wholesale change to its conference content and format but, instead it went for a half and half. Many of the speakers and presentations were dynamic and thought-provoking (TED-lite) but were not as informative as they could be. Others stuck to the lectern-model of presenting and provided a great amount of occupational health and safety (OHS) information in a traditional fashion.
Notable omissions from the conference program were
- No lawyer speaking, even though some Australians are calling for Industrial Manslaughter laws and some States have implemented them.
- No speaker on the OHS impacts of sexual harassment. That seemed to be left to a free seminar in the accompanying trade show.
- No mention of safety culture (at least not in the presentations I attended).
The first two are disappointing but the third was a welcome change.
The SIA could have jumped its conference to the contemporary style , a la TED, that people see on YouTube and attend, if they can, but the OHS discipline seems to have a lack of dynamic speakers who can apply this style, or so the conference scuttlebutt said. Yet look at what Jeremy Thorpe of HALT has been able to do through next to no budget but plenty of commitment. Suitable speakers are out there, more can be made.
Modern workplace safety communicators are skilling up in public speaking. The SIA Conference displayed some of the young safety professionals in a session late on Day Two. Naomi Kemp, Andrew Barrett, Tim Allred and Wade Needham built a wall from their safety stories and their life stories, which were not all positive. This combined, interchanging presentation was engaging and enlightening and a great use of time. Did it advance our thinking about OHS? No. But for some OHS professionals, particularly the young and new professionals, they would feel less isolated by knowing their struggles are not unique.
Professional institutions need to do more in support of the public speaking skills of their members, particularly in the safety discipline. At this conference the importance of communicating was stressed by many speakers but associations rarely, if ever, provide professional development sessions in public speaking, media training or conference presentations; all skills which are applicable to the communication of safety on stage or at the work site. Regular webinars are okay but more personal value could be gained from improving these skills which would also provide a professional association with an increased talent pool of speakers.
It is always difficult to close a conference. At the end of Day 2 or 3, half of the audience has usually left through fatigue or competing demands on their time. Sometimes the best conference speaker is missed. Mykel Dixon was not the best speaker at this safety conference. He did not talk about safety or health. He advocated creativity. He advised us not to be ashamed of subjectivity. He had a musician on stage playing guitar while he spoke. He told us a poem.
Where conferences are usually closed with a “Thank you to our sponsors” or “Thanks for coming”, this conference ended with Phil Ceberano playing Pink Floyd’s Comfortable Numb on the guitar. The difference in closing events was like Dr Who playing electric guitar instead of a recorder.
Perhaps the fairest way to describe SIA’s National Conference was that it seemed uncertain. It knows it needs to change and it has an idea of where it has to go but it is not certain how to get there or how fast it should change. In the past OHS conferences could get away with being informative even though this was often stodgy. Future conferences must be careful to not sacrifice the knowledge for the packaging or the presentation. The most valuable gifts are not always those with the best wrappings.
The future is looking bright for SIA’s conferences. The 2019 event is to be in new conference facilities in Sydney. The optimism is coming from the young professionals. The older professionals need to work on broadening their communications to all demographics in order to show that the development of professionalism moves from Ignorance to Information to Knowledge to Wisdom.