A vision for the OHS profession

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WorkSafe Victoria is very involved with moves to improve the professionalism of OHS practitioners in Australia.  There is no doubt that improvements are required but the role of a state-based regulator in a non-regulatory system is curious. Surely such changes should be run from a national perspective

Safety professionals often look at the prominence, influence and market share of professional organisations for the doctors or the accountants.  In Australia, at the moment, the health care profession’s accreditation/registration process is having a new structure introduced.  After a long review process the Australian Health Workforce Ministerial Council identified these areas for change

  • Accreditation standards will be developed by the independent accrediting body or the accreditation committee of the board where an external body has not been assigned the function.
  • The accrediting body or committee will recommend to the board, in a transparent manner, the courses and training programs it has accredited and that it considers to have met the requirements for registration.
  • Ministers today agreed there will be both general and specialist registers available for the professions, including medicine and dentistry, where ministers agree that there is to be specialist registration. Practitioners can be on one or both of these registers, depending on whether their specialist qualification has been recognised under the national scheme.

This third point is an excellent one and so easily applied to the safety profession and the practitioners. “Specialist” and “generalist” seems to reflect the composition of the safety industry in Australia.  There are those on the shopfloor or offices who deal with hazards on a daily basis.  There are those who research and write about safety.  And there are those who are a bit of both.  The two category system of accreditation seems simple and practical and readily understood by those outside of the profession.

  • Both categories will attract experts in various fields but the categories themselves don’t relate to specific areas of expertise. The Ministerial Council has agreed that there will be a requirement that, for annual renewal of registration, a registrant must demonstrate that they have participated in a continuing professional development program as approved by their national board.
  • Assistance will be provided to members of the public who need help to make a complaint.
  • The Ministerial Council agreed that national boards will be required to register students in the health profession
  • …boards will be appointed by the Ministerial Council with vacancies to be advertised. At least half, but not more than two thirds, of the members must be practitioners and at least two must be persons appointed as community members.
  • There will be a new “Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency”

 These points deal with matters sorely lacking from many areas of the safety profession – independence, transparency, skills maintenance, a clear and independent complaints procedure, diverse representation and a formal regulatory agency.

To this SafetyAtWorkBlog would add the concept of a Safety Industry Ombudsman for it is always necessary to have someone watching the “watchmen”.

Currently the Australian safety profession is part way through a mish-mash of a process of professionalisation.  Surely it would be better to follow the most contemporary of processes being implemented by health care and others.  Such a process would take some time and require support from the various disciplines of safety and the government.  More importantly, it may require “vision” but during this time of substantial change in OHS legislation and regulatory structure, it is surely the right time to bring in long-term structural change to a profession that would benefit business and the public very well indeed.

Kevin Jones

Safety Innovation – doing the hard yards

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Kevin’s stuff on the latest Safe Work Australia Awards got me thinking about an issue I have had a bee in me bonnet about for a while now.  It’s safety innovation, and the glaring hole in Australia for support for the hardest innovation of the lot – safety product development.  By “safety product” I’m specifically referring to development of equipment or systems intended for sale.

As far as I can discover, Australian OH&S awards tend to focus on the entirely worthy thing of endorsing solutions that are readily adopted and are ideas that have a record of successful implementation.  There is no doubt that the safety award system finds excellent ideas used all over the place.  But the key issue here is that these innovations, relatively speaking, sell themselves.  They have been implemented and are proven “winners” in the sense of being a successful safety idea.

What seems to be missing is support for a small-scale product developer who has an excellent product prototype that hasn’t the convenience of a proven safety track record.  I’ve had the privilege (and sometimes the terrible angst) of trying to help out safety product developers, solo- or micro-businesses that are plugging away at getting a marketable product up and running.

Any product development is expensive, and in the absence of a larger company budget to “take the hits”, the small operator has to wear lots of pain to get a product to the point that it can be put on the market.

General support for all sorts of product development is often made available by various government agencies.  In Victoria, Innovic is the government organization that does good work in helping promote good ideas.  They have a specific award program for very new ideas called “The Next Big Thing”.  

It’s a great system, that invites applications from around the world but it’s still limited, by virtue of it (like the current OH&S regulator safety awards) being mostly an endorsement.  And, sure, a developer can benefit from endorsement. But from my experience, the small operator is mostly in need of advice and funding to keep a product idea alive.  This is where I think the OH&S regulatory agencies could really have a positive impact on safety product innovation in Australia.

I’m suggesting that contributions from each of the Australian OH&S agencies to a fund to support safety product developers with a specialised new product award could be managed by Safe Work Australia.  That fund would have to be fair dinkum.  It would need to have the resources to draw on expertise from product development specialists.  It would have to have prizes that matter.  Options could include funding to have winners attend the very excellent programs much like the New Enterprise Incentive Scheme (NEIS) provided around Australia.) The award system could include in the prize a fully funded 12-month part time course that does a similar thing to NEISS. 

But that is all very well, but a good idea is a worthless idea if it can’t be funded.  Cash is the thing a product developer needs.  Ten thousand dollar prizes is about the sort of cash I think would start to come close to being useful.  Keep in mind that taking out second mortgages on homes and other severe financial burdens are par for the course for a product developer.  Ten grand is not going to keep a developer afloat, but it may well be the difference between an idea withering vs it being made available to everyone.

And I recognise this sort of support for people trying to get a product on the market is high risk.  If a product development program got up there’s bound to be some failures and that has to be accepted as the cost of taking risks.  But maybe it’s time for the OH&S regulators to stick their neck out in this area?  Australians have had a pretty good history of coming up with new ideas, and there is lots of rhetoric about backing product innovation. It would be excellent to see more examples of regulators being prepared to do the hard yards on safety product development.

Col Finnie
www.finiohs.com

Groundwork for employee engagement

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Safety professionals should be suspicious of many management trends.  Over the last decade behavioural-based safety has been popular and more recently workplaces have been subjected to the application of amorphous concepts such as leadership and engagement.  Many of these are dressing up old approaches to management in new jargon,  some have little evidence to back up their claims.

At the end of April 2009 the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) identified limits to the application of employee engagement.  A SIOP statement said 

 Study after study has shown that an engaged workforce is considered desirable in any organization and leads to greater productivity and profitability. In short, There seems to be no downside to employee engagement. However, Thomas Britt, an industrial-organizational psychology professor at Clemson University, cautions there are some limits to employee engagement that managers should consider.

Britt acknowledges that employees who are actively involved in the management and decision-making of their company provide greater productivity and profitability. In modern parlance, engagement is good.  But he identifies several issues that should be considered.

“If [engaged workers] are not getting the resources they feel they need to perform at their best, their engagement may be diminished.”

So worker enthusiasm and initiative needs to be adequately supported.

Britt said performance could be restricted by

  • lack of budget and equipment support,
  • access to important information,
  • work overload,
  • unclear objectives and goals, and
  • assigning employees’ tasks that don’t fit their training.

SIOP said 

Britt’s research shows engaged employees are likely to become frustrated and dissatisfied and may blame their supervisors if they do not have the systems and support necessary to be effective. Given the higher pro-activity and energy levels of engaged employees, this frustration could lead to turnover as they begin to look for more supportive work environments. “The ones who stay behind may well be the ones who just don’t care,” said Britt.

 Work overload can lead directly to burnout.  According to SIOP, Britt said

 “highly motivated employees are willing to go beyond the call of duty to help the organization, but when temporary overload continues and they repeatedly fail to meet their own high expectations, their motivation becomes directed at locating other job possibilities, leaving the organization at risk of losing key talent.”

The impediments to an engaged workforce can often be missed in the enthusiasm of the engagement evangelists It is important not to dismiss the enthusiasm but to temper it so that any benefits are long term.  For any new management approaches to work, there must be adequate groundwork so that the participants know the reasons for change, this will help the new approach succeed.

In short, business needs to acknowledge that consultation is a basis for improvement not a communication method of telling people about change.  As SafetyAtWorkBlog has said consultation occurs in preparation for change as well as during and after.  Thomas Britt and SIOP have provided excellent ideas of the areas of threat for an employee engagement program.

More information may be available at  www.siop.org.

Kevin Jones

“Getting back on the (trauma) horse”

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Mental health in the workplace is one of those recent manifestations of psychosocial hazards.  It continues to evolve and during this process one is never quite sure where the best and most relevant information can be obtained.

Cnfusion for the safety professional can come from new, slightly off-topic, issues that can skew the public perception and understanding of exactly what it is one is trying to manage.

Is it reasonable to take inspiration (if that is the right term) from studies of Iraq War sufferers of post traumatic stress syndrome in providing clues to handling mental health issues at work?  

During tertiary risk management courses the debt owed to the armed forces and their planning processes is acknowledged but soldiers operate in a unique culture of accountability, clearly defined duties and a rigid hierarchical structure.  In most circumstances only the broadest of concepts could be translated to the real (non-militarised) workplace.  In a similar way studies of Scandinavian workforce management are interesting but are highly unlikley to be transferable outside the cultural geography.

A very recent example of this problem of getting excited about innovation and then wondering about its genuine applicability, can be seen in the TV show, Catalyst, (video available online for a short time) broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on 16 April 2009.  

The program provides a profile on a computer simulation program that purports to aid the rehabilitation of war veterans by returning them to traumatic events of the war zone.  It seems that the theory is the same as “getting back on the horse that threw you”.

In OHS terms, the applicability for firefighters, emergency response personnel etc is obvious but SafetyAtWorkBlog has reservations.  The use of video simulations and games by the armed services before, during and after combat is discomforting.  

Managers and health care professionals may need to carry some of the responsibility for the cloudiness of mental health and trauma by applying the hyperbole of trauma to relatively benign workplace issues.  Many elements of work are being described as traumatic when they are not.  They maybe disturbing, disconcerting or even harmful but there is a big difference between being punched in the face by a psych patient and driving over a car of civilians in an armoured vehicle.

In other industry sectors, such hyperbole would be described as spin.  It is the responsibility of OHS professionals to cut through the spin and not be distracted by “exciting”, but indirect, innovative solutions.  Let’s look for the evidence and operate from what we know works.  At least until new evidence appears.

Kevin Jones

Lawyer speaks on nanotechnology risks

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A leading Australian OHS lawyer, Michael Tooma, spoke to ABC Radio on 16 April 2009.

Tooma spoke about the potential risks employers face by dealing with a substance whose hazard rating is unclear. HE says

“Employers at the moment may be unaware of the extent of the potential liability sometime down the track. …We could be facing another epidemic in our industrial history of people, large groups of people, displaying latent symptoms from current exposures that are taking place at the moment. “

The unions have repeatedly made the comparison with asbestos hazards but as  Dr Craig Cormick of the Australian Office of Nanotechnology says, in the same interview, that in the early usage of asbestos evidence of potential harm was available but not shared.

An April 2007 legal update from Tooma on the issue is available