Competent safety professionals

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Australian worksites have established a system of red, green or blue cards that are used to indicate a level of OHS competence on a range of worksites.  This type of system is reflected around the world in different industries and different forms, such as Safety Passports, or the green card in Canada and the United Kingdom.

Some professional safety organisations in Australia have banded together, with the support of at least one OHS regulator, to establish a competency benchmark for safety professionals under the banner, Health and Safety Professionals Alliance (HaSPA).  As people and organisations digest what is involved with HaSPA, some in the OHS industry believe the initiative is beginning to wobble.

Perhaps the HaSPA members need to promote the initiative in a more readily understandable concept – one that people can accept now and worry about the details later.  

SafetyAtWorkBlog proposes the HaSPA Green Card.  The operation of the card follows all the protocols of the other competency cards but in relation to the safety professional.

The concept may not work but it seems that the industrial safety industry has already laid decades of groundwork in competency identification and maintenance so why can’t safety professionals follow this and not impose an additional level of complexity to workplace safety?

Maintaining professional standards by looking outside the discipline

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I am a great believer that solutions to hazards in one industry can be applied or adapted to other industry sectors.  Regular readers of SafetyAtWorkBlog are aware of the cross-referencing between general workplace hazards and some solutions from the sex industry.

However, solutions can come from other countries as well, and not just from the United States.  Last week, a car bomb set off by Basque separatists in the University of Navarra in the northern city of Pamplona resulted in 248 people being treated for respiratory trouble, coughing and nausea from inhaling unidentified gases.  A university spokesperson, Javier Diaz, reportedly said that the fumes were generated by repair works that “are related to the terrorist attack.”

This occurred seven years after the 9/11 attacks in New York and after the resultant and widespread reporting of persistent health issues suffered by relief workers and emergency services personnel.  Yes, fumes are different from airborne particles of asbestos but the hazard, and the control mechanisms, are similar.  The lessons of exposure by emergency workers in disasters are obviously still to be learnt.

This morning, 10 November 2008, we wake up to a Russian submarine disaster that immediately reminds us of the tragedy of the Kursk in 2000.  Overnight 200 submariners and shipyard workers were affected in  the K-152 Nerpa submarine from exposure to freon gas.  Three servicemen and seventeen civilians have died.  Initial reports say that the gas was released when the fire extinguisher system was activated.

Russian submarines off the east coast of Russia can easily be dismissed by newspaper readers and business professionals as largely irrelevant but the media has said that 

“A Russian expert has reportedly said that a lack of gas masks among too many untrained civilians may have elevated the death toll in the submarine.”

Does insufficient PPE and training sound familiar? The release of gas in a restricted area?

For OHS professionals everything is relevant to making the best decisions possible for clients and employers.  The trick is to allocate the appropriate level of relevance to the information.  Risk managers and OHS professionals need to filter information from the widest possible pool of knowledge in order to provide the best advice.

We are not all Russian shipyard workers in a just-built submarine but, increasingly, we could be helping people from the rubble of a collapsed building, or helping in the aftermath of a natural disaster or a terrorist attack, or advising on a fire safety procedure and safe design of buildings.  We need to read, listen and digest so as to maintain and improve our personal core body of knowledge.

Safety professionals should be the “child in the crowd”

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One of Hans Christian Anderson’s most popular tales is The Emperor’s New Clothes.  For those unfamiliar with the story an English translation is available.

But in summary, an emperor hires two swindlers to make him the finest clothes.  The swindlers pretend to create a gown from the best material and tell their client that it happens to be invisible to fools.  The emperor parades through the town in his new outfit an a young child yells out that the emperor is, in fact, naked.  The townsfolk see through the swindle.

It is the job of OHS professionals and advisors to be the ones to point out the obvious to business or to burst the preconceptions that are hampering safety improvements.  Interestingly, there are no repercussions for the child in the tale and, once shown the fallacy of his beliefs, the emperor continues with the parade.

It is also worth bearing the many lessons of the Emperor’s New Clothes in relation to the purchase of personal protective equipment, project briefs, verification of qualifications and the sycophancy of colleagues.

It is helpful to think that once back at the palace, he revoked the contract with the swindling tailors but that is outside the original tale.

“Suitably qualified” OHS professionals – who benefits?

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For many years OHS regulators have been concerned about the quality of advice that OHS experts have been providing to businesses in Australia.  Some States have a regulated profession, others do not. Certainly there is no regime in Australia that compares to the “closed-shop” of Singapore.

I have seen no evidence of bad OHS advice to business.  Looking through legal databases doesn’t help, as cases are too difficult to find and the regulators say they have evidence but they usually don’t share.

For over thirty years, OHS legislation has stated that OHS management in a workplace is, principally, the responsibility of the employer.  This also means that an employer is responsible for any OHS decisions made based on their own assessments, which may involve advice from an external adviser.

As an OHS consultant I provide the best advice I can.  If the client needs advice in an area that I am not knowledgeable in, I contract a suitably knowledgeable colleague as part of servicing my client.  Any advice I provide is clearly specified as coming from the information provided by the client and my observations on the day.  What decision the client makes is up to them. This point is made in the WorkSafe Victoria paper mentioned below.  The paper says

“It is important to note that employing or engaging a suitably qualified person to provide OHS advice does not discharge the employer from their legal responsibilities to ensure health and safety as required under Part 3 of the OHS Act. This duty cannot be delegated”

This week WorkSafe Victoria released a position paper to clarify a section of the OHS Act.  According to the website

“This document sets out WorkSafe’s position on the meaning of section 22(2)(b) in the context of duty holders meeting their obligations under Part 3 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act).

Part 3 (sections 21 to 23) of the OHS Act places duties on employers to ensure health and safety.

Section 22(2)(b) provides that employers must, so far as is reasonably practicable, employ or engage persons who are suitably qualified in relation to occupational health and safety to provide advice to the employer concerning the health and safety of employees of the employer.”

My belief is that OHS consultants should be called in, primarily, for a second opinion.  This opinion is provided after the employer and worker representatives have “had a go” at identifying hazards.  In my experience, businesses have a fair idea of the workplace hazards present but are not sure how to prioritise the controls of those hazards, and may be unaware of new control measures.  This is where the OHS consultant comes in.

Few OHS professional associations in Australia provide their members with information on how to do your job, or how to apply your knowledge in a commercial context.  Until recently few tertiary institutions provided this service and I would like to hear of those OHS courses that now do teach business practices to graduates.

(I remember attending a Ergonomics Society conference in Sydney almost ten years ago.  It was the first time anyone had spoken on the issue of professional ethics to the ergonomists.  I would be surprised if other Australian professional associations have progressed this far)

According to the position paper, these are the elements that they consider “may” make a suitable qualified person:

  • Knowledge
  • Industry experience
  • Professional activity
  • Reputation
  • Professional association
  • Communication skills
  • Technical expertise
  • OHS legislative understanding:
  • Risk management strategies

From that basis, below is my plain English checklist for businesses to assess their OHS advisers. Comments are in brackets:

  • Knowledge: Does the professional have an educational qualification that is relevant for your needs? (I have never been asked to show my education qualifications by a client. Also, having an educational qualification does not equate to competence, in itself, no matter what the education evangelists say)
  • Industry experience: Do they know what they are talking about? (This is impossible to verify unless they have worked in an industry for a long time in a prominent role. One could ask for references but the references are always friendly to the adviser)
  • Professional activity: Can the person demonstrate recent professional activity in the relevant OHS field? (Activity does not mean that the quality of that activity was any good. A snake-oil salesman could have been in business for a decade but they still sell snake oil. This is also relevant to the educational evangelists – academic papers in peer-reviewed journals do not indicate competence in advising companies on the best hazard control measures)
  • Reputation: Have they been any good in the past? (This can be indicated by googling their full name. I recently found an OHS adviser with a criminal record and jail time for “failing to act honestly as a director of various companies”. However, an internet campaign can be used to unfairly discredit someone. The best way of checking their reputation is the talk with the adviser’s professional association, should they be in one and should that association know what it’s on about.)
  • Professional association: Do they belong to a relevant professional association? (This is a good move but many associations allow advisers to buy membership without any verification of their competence? The flaw in this criterion is the validity of the association, its disciplinary procedures and its criteria for membership. Do not over-emphasise this criterion)
  • Communication skills: Can they read and write?
  • Technical expertise: Do they know how to use their tools properly?
  • OHS legislative understanding: Do they know there is an OHS law? Have they read it? Do they understand it?
  • Risk management strategies: Does their advice control the hazard or simply reduce its impact?

 But then, this could all be tosh.  Seek a second opinion.

Corporate accountability – Lessons from Lehmans

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Yesterday,the CEO of Lehman Brothers, Richard Fuld Jr, faced an inquisition at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.  It was uncomfortable to watch but fascinating.

Video of the hearings shows the questions focused on Fuld’s accumulation of wealth in the good times and the retention of wealth in the bad times. There are parallels with the non-financial accountability of corporate leaders on matters such as workplace safety and corporate social responsibility.

The chair of the committee, Henry Waxman, spoke of company documents that 

“portray a company in which there was no accountability for failure”.

Waxman said he was troubled by the attitude of Fuld where Fuld would not acknowledge any wrongdoing. Fuld did accept responsibility for the failure of the company but would not accept that his behaviour or the behaviour of the company he lead, contributed to the failure.  In other words, Fuld would not accept that his company had a culture that may have contributed to the bankruptcy.

There will be more of this type of inquiry and in many countries other than the United States.  OHS managers should not sit back and watch the chief financial officer squirm with discomfit and anxiety for the way that the financiers handle this crisis, as there are important lessons about their own accountability, responsibility and disaster planning.