Advice to new OHS people

Advice to new OHS people

Guest Post by the late George “Failure is Not an Option” Robotham

Read more of Georges thoughts HERE

I make no apologies for the fact that I challenge the accepted wisdom in some of what follows!

The last thing I will leave you with are risk assessment and Zero Harm approaches to safety. I seriously question the effectiveness of both approaches and believe the safety people of the future will be amazed at why we believed in them so much. It will be interesting to hear what people are saying in 20 years time.

A final bit of advice is to have a well developed bulldust detector, by the hell you will need it!
The following is based on many years experience in field, corporate, project and consultant OHS roles, in a variety of industries. Critical reflection on experience, tertiary study in OHS, Adult & Workplace Education, Management of Organisational Change and Human Resource Management, wide reading, attendance at many courses, seminars and conferences, long term mentoring by Brisbane OHS Consultant Geoff McDonald and a tendency to question the accepted has guided these comments.

Quotable Quote

“A health & safety problem can be described by statistics but cannot be understood by statistics. It can only be understood by knowing and feeling the pain, anguish, and depression and shattered hopes of the victim and of wives, husbands, parents, children, grandparents and friends, and the hope, struggle and triumph of recovery and rehabilitation in a world often unsympathetic, ignorant, unfriendly and unsupportive, only those with close experience of life altering personal damage have this understanding”



I make no apologies for the fact that I challenge the accepted wisdom in some of what follows!

Your journey towards being a very effective OHS person has a solid grounding in your studies but this is just the start of the journey. Tertiary learning is very important but it is hard to beat practical experience, particularly practical experience backed up by critical reflection.

I have had my difficulties at times but these have been more than balanced out with many successes and a great feeling of achievement. Reducing personal damage to others is amongst the noblest things one can do with your life.

You have to resolve to being a life-long learner, often learning in fields allied to your major discipline will increase your effectiveness in your major discipline.

Focus on Class 1 personal damage and use this in considerations of analysis. Class 1 damage is that which permanently alters the future of the individual. Minor injuries are not a good predictor of more serious personal damage. Taxonomies (collections of like) of your industry personal damage occurrences provide better guidance than enterprise experience.

Remove the term “accident” from your vocabulary, instead use the term “personal damage occurrence”. Accident is an emotionally laden term that infers blame.

Look for “Essential Factors” not “causes” (Another emotionally laden term) in ‘accident” investigations. An essential factor is one without the final damage would not have occurred. Use the Analysis Reference Tree-Trunk method of investigation developed by Geoff McDonald. Do not believe the people who tell you “human error” (Another vague, un-useful and emotionally laden term) is responsible for the majority of “accidents”, even if it was true it is unhelpful. .Every personal damage occurrence will have Person, Machine & Environment essential factors. Concentrating on Person fixes often leaves avenues of control in Machine and Environment underdeveloped. Often engineering change is more effective than attempting to change the people.

Use personal damage occurrences, not emotion, to guide your preventative efforts. Beware of the many fads that crop up from time to time in safety, they are usually emotionally appealing but may misdirect your efforts. My mentor, Geoff McDonald uses the term displacement activity, a displacement activity is something we do, something we put a lot of energy into, but when we examine it closely there is no valid reason to do it. The history of the industrial safety movements has had and continues to have many displacement activities.

Be a sponge and soak up all the knowledge and experience you can. Never be scared to ask for advice and experience, never stop learning.

OHS is all about change management, expertise in this area will serve you well. A motto from organisational change management theory that I have found very valuable in OHS work is “When initiating change, People support what they create” Major efforts in communication, participation and involvement are usually necessary.

One of the things you must develop is leadership skills. Leadership is the often forgotten key to excellence in all aspects of life. Developing excellent presentation skills will also be very important.

As I get older my critical reflection on practice tells me communications skills and interpersonal skills are just as important as technical skills. There is not much point having a great message if you cannot get it across, if you have great technical skills but cannot get along with people you will not succeed. The biggest problem with written communications is its length, generally I think you must try to get your message across in a maximum of 2 pages, Busy people do not have time to write more and busy people do not have the time to read more. Interpersonal skills can be enhanced by use of techniques such as appropriate self-disclosure and reflective listening. When it comes to presentations be aware of the pitfalls of lecture style presentations. Use interactive learning approaches. There are things you can do to improve your communications, interpersonal and presentation skills.

Finding yourself a mentor will be of real value and constantly discuss issues with your peers.

Speaking from personal experience the most devastating thing that can happen to a company and its workers is to have an employee killed or seriously injured. The financial and more importantly humanitarian costs are immense.OHS is a joint responsibility of management and employees.

My view from the trenches is that there are many things wrong with the way OHS is managed in Australian industry. Gut feel and emotion rather than solid research often guides action. Fads driven by emotion are a real problem. Quite frankly a lot of the government and company approaches to OHS are strangled by complexity . Many employers are more interested in profits than their employees. The unions adopt the moral high ground in safety but my experience is that maintaining membership numbers is more important to them. I am reticent to mention the role of academic institutions but I have developed a perception that in the academic world practice sometimes suffers.

*When I was a mine-site Safety Adviser I led a Critical Incident Recall process in the mine electrical department over a period of some 3 months and was disappointed with the resistance to change from some of the stakeholders. I persevered and was happy with the results. A few years later I went camping in the bush and 2of the electricians from work were in the group. Around the campfire at night we got talking about the Critical Incident recall work and they explained to me that prior to the work some pretty dodgy work practices were happening and everybody was covering up for each other. They assured me that if they had continued as they were fatalities would have occurred. It is these moment that make the hard work of being a safety person worthwhile!

Many of the safety people I have worked with have been idiots who are a disgrace to the safety business. Many of the safety people I have met have been the most fantastic people you will meet anywhere. You will notice I do not refer to the OHS profession, this is because I do not believe the body of OHS knowledge has yet developed to a professional level.

A major challenge is the development of a robust OHS Body of Knowledge, the Safety Institute of Australia is to be commended for beginning this development. My view is much more work is required.

OHS is a very frustrating occupation, there will be no shortage of knockers, you just have to focus on your goals and push through the crap. If you only save one person from serious injury it has been worthwhile.

One thing you will have to do to be a successful safety person is to challenge the status quo, this often gets you in a lot of strife, but frankly it is a lot of fun. Three favourite sayings of mine are” You do not know what you can get away with until you try”,” It is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission “ and “Doing the impossible is very satisfying”

The issue of professional organisations is a vexed one. At various times I have been a member of an Australian, Canadian and an American OHS professional organisation, 2 Australian Learning professional organisations and an Australian Human Resource Management professional organisation. I have not been a member of any for about 2 years and do not feel like I have missed out on much. I am considering rejoining an OHS, Learning and HRM. Organisation .I must say the non-OHS organisations can give a broad management perspective that the OHS ones do not do.

I was a Chartered Fellow of the Safety Institute of Australia and found going through the rigorous assessment process taught me a lot about myself on both a personal and work basis. At the end of the day I cannot give much advice on joining OHS professional organisations, it is up to you to determine the benefits for yourself .

I suspect the drivers behind harmonisation were more about reducing cost to industry rather than improving OHS.I generally believe a national approach to OHS is an excellent concept. Harmonised safety legislation may have some advantages but the current situation seems a mess to me given the piecemeal implementation. I find it difficult to recognise significant OHS advantages that have accrued from the work so far.

The fact that the Qld. W.H.S.O. concept was not picked up nationally and national data collection and analysis remains incomplete are amongst the opportunities that have been missed.

Many people will have you believe 4801 is the holy grail of safety management systems and the fact that they have a 4801 compliant safety management system means they are doing a good job on safety.

As far as I am concerned 4801 represents a very basic approach to safety management systems and any S.M.S. I would want to implement would substantially exceed the requirements of 4801.

I completed a few psychology subjects as part of formal study and found them fascinating and very useful. As an OHS person I have come to the conclusion that all this safety stuff would work well if only we were not working with the unreliable buggers we are, ie the fallible human being. The biggest challenge in any profession is dealing with the people issues.

Looking to the future I see the time when OHS people should have a basic understanding of how psychological theory relates to safety and an ability to use psychological techniques in safety. Dr. Robert Long has written valuable material on this topic.

Sometimes skills from other disciplines can be applied successfully to OHS, one such skill set is marketing. I have attended some marketing training and see some advantages for OHS.

Marketing is putting the right product in the right place, at the right time, at the right place. You have to create a product people want.

OHS people must have technical OHS skills. My experience is that broader skills such as leadership, communications, interpersonal and team building skills are also necessary. I have facilitated some team building interactive learning for OHS team members and believe such learning has significant benefit for both established and new teams.

Teams are small groups of people with complementary skills who work together as a unit to achieve a common purpose for which they hold themselves collectively accountable.

My web site discusses a number of safety related issues.

A ex-manager of mine, who has a way with words, says the trouble with management and safety is that management and safety professionals sometimes engage in acts of public masturbation! I apologise if anyone finds the foregoing offensive but my belief is it is an admittedly crude, but accurate, way of describing some of the things I have seen happen in both safety and general management.

The last thing I will leave you with are risk assessment and Zero Harm approaches to safety. I seriously question the effectiveness of both approaches and believe the safety people of the future will be amazed at why we believed in them so much. It will be interesting to hear what people are saying in 20 years time.

I would like to finish by wishing you all the best. Nothing worthwhile is easy, but despite the occasional set back I have found OHS to be exceptionally rewarding and you end up meeting some great people. I have found using project teams has been a fantastic way of driving significant safety change.

A final bit of advice is to have a well developed bulldust detector, by the hell you will need it!

George Robotham, Certificate IV Workplace Training & Assessment, Diploma in Workplace Training & Assessment Systems, Diploma in Frontline Management, Bachelor of Education (Adult & Workplace Education), (Queensland University of Technology), Graduate Certificate in Management of Organisational Change, (Charles Sturt University), Graduate Diploma of Occupational Hazard Management), (Ballarat University), Currently completed one third of a Masters of Business Leadership, Accredited Workplace Health & Safety Officer (Queensland),Justice of the Peace (Queensland), Australian Defence Medal, Brisbane, Australia,, www, 07-38021516, 0421860574,16/10/2010

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