Fuzzy OHS Logic

Fuzzy OHS Logic

by George Robotham

Because they go to work in Australia, 10 people per hour, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year have their lives permanently altered (Geoff McDonald)

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 have been around OHS for awhile, have had a few challenging roles, been up the sharp end when permanently life altering personal damage has occurred, have tertiary qualifications in OHS, Management of Organisational Change and Adult & Workplace Education and led a few highly successful OHS projects. I say this not to blow my own trumpet and tell you what an incredibly clever bloke I am, rather it is to put some context into what follows.

In writing the following I am aware I may upset a few sensitive souls, all part of the fun for me.

Linkedin posts

I have reviewed the posts on a few LinkedIn OHS forums and have come to the conclusion some of them display some pretty fuzzy logic in relation to safety. Because a number of things I have read about safety and a number of things I have been told about safety have been proved to be incorrect, I make a frank admission I am a considerable cynic.

Displacement activities

My mentor, Geoff McDonald, refers to displacement activities, a displacement activity is something we do, something we put a lot of energy into but which there is little logical reason for doing it. The more I see of the OHS business in Australia, the more I think displacement activities are rampant.

Some of the fuzzy logic I see includes the following-

The science of safety

I have been working in OHS for nearly 4 decades; if there is a lot of science in safety I have missed it. Maybe there is a tiny bit but certainly not at the level some would have you believe. I would say however there are a number of other disciplines that impact on safety and most of these have a good science base.

Fixation on minor personal damage

1. Damage to people at work has a number of adverse outcomes:-

– Financial loss to employer, worker and community

– Pain and suffering

– Dislocation of lives

– Permanence of death

2. Damage to people from work falls naturally into one of three Classes.

– Class I damage permanently alters the person’s life and subdivides into

– fatal

– non fatal

– Class II damage temporarily alters the person’s life

– Class III damage temporarily inconveniences the person’s life (Geoff McDonald & Associates)

Some people indicate a fixation and emphasis on minor personal damage. In terms of cost and suffering Class 1 personal damage far outweighs Class II and class 111. We get to hear about some of the fatal class I damage but little is known about the massive area of non-fatal class I damage. If you are talking about getting the best bang for your buck you must focus on class I personal damage

Peer reviewed journals

Some organisations and individuals have slavish devotion to peer reviewed journals and see them as the font of all knowledge. Some journals are great, some are mediocre and in my experience many are useless. Some articles spend an incredible amount of time telling you how incredibly clever the authors are, make wide conclusions based on little credible evidence and are removed from the real world of work. The term an academic wank comes to mind. Some people restrict their learning to journals. Networking with others, books, critical reflection on your own and others experiences, training in safety, training in safety aligned disciplines, the internet, liaising with suppliers, liaising with consultants and harvesting workforce information are some of the other avenues for learning. One of my strong beliefs is that surfacing workforce knowledge can be the key to success in safety.

Zero Harm

The biggest example I have seen of fuzzy logic comes from the weak, emotive and illogical arguments of the proponents of zero harm. These people are really out of contact with the reality of work. I thought Dr. Robert Long’s book For the Love of Zero is a pretty convincing way of putting zero harm to bed.

Learning for OHS people

Many OHS people attend short courses and tertiary education in OHS, I reckon this is great. What is not quite so great is the blinkered approach by some that specific OHS learning will give the OHS person all that he / she needs to operate effectively in an OHS role. I would argue the effective OHS person needs a broad range of non safety skills to be effective. Skills in communication, interpersonal issues, learning, quality management, leadership, time management, quality management and project management are some of the areas I see as relevant. In my case I believe attending tertiary education in areas other than safety was more beneficial and of more practical use than completing higher OHS study. I learn most from people and situations in the workplace, as this is where whatever knowledge I have has to convert into workable management tools.

Body of knowledge

One thing that came to me through my 2 bouts of non safety tertiary study was how well developed the body of knowledge was in the 2 other disciplines and how poorly developed the OHS body of knowledge was. The S.I.A has to be commended for attempting to develop an OHS Body of Knowledge. I have to admit I thought the process to develop this lacked rigor, others have pointed out some of the weaknesses in the finished product. Hopefully what we see now will only be the start of the development.

Behaviour-based safety

Others have written about the weaknesses of B.B.S. B.B.S. presentations are often pretty slick and full of salesmanship. Some outstanding successes are often claimed. As the result of this some organisations make massive contributions to B.B.S. consultants. I must admit I have not sorted out in my own mind where B.B.S. is placed in the bigger scheme of things. I do not see it as the all knowing, all seeing, complete answer it is made out to be.

Thinking minor personal damage is a good predictor of life-altering personal damage

Accident ratio studies (insisting on set ratios between near misses, minor accidents and serious accidents) are prominent and accepted unthinkingly. The much-quoted “Iceberg Theory” in relation to safety does not stand up to scrutiny in the real world! The “Iceberg Theory” is fine if used for statistical description but it cannot be relied upon for statistical inference. (Geoff McDonald)

The result of the “Iceberg Theory” focus is a furious effort to eliminate lost time injuries in the belief that all major personal damage occurrences will be eliminated in the process. Certainly there are minor personal damage occurrences that have the potential to result in more extensive damage (and we should learn from them), but personal experience tells me the majority of minor personal damage occurrences do not have this potential. It is a matter of looking at the energy that was available to be exchanged in the personal damage occurrence. The common cold cannot develop into cancer; similarly most minor injuries will never develop into serious personal damage.

The concept that preventing the minor personal damage occurrences will automatically prevent the major ones seems to me to be fundamentally flawed.

Analysis of personal damage occurrence (Accident) experience

Some posters on Linkedin indicate a reliance on analysis of enterprise personal damage occurrence (Accident) experience. The reality is that unless you are a very big organisation and have a lot of personal damage occurrences (Accidents), particularly the more serious ones; it will be difficult for your analysis to be statistically significant. It astounds me that the concept of standardised industry personal damage occurrences (Accident) reporting has not been taken up more than it has.

Long, ponderous paperwork

I cannot understand the commitment some people have to long, ponderous safety paperwork. Busy people do not have time to read it and busy people do not have time to write it. Some safety people must be paid by the word. You must produce succinct documentation and demonstrate to others this is what you expect.

Compliance with statute law

Many people display an extreme focus on compliance with statute law. This is undoubtedly very important but it is also important to recognise it is but one part of the overall picture of having a robust safety management system. The conclusion on a Canadian OHS forum was that if all you did in safety was to comply with statute law, you would be lucky to prevent 20% of your personal damage. Certainly lack of compliance with statute law was not a main factor in the permanently life altering events I have been associated with.

Great belief in risk assessment

Some people display an extreme commitment to the routine risk assessment process, I would suggest it is often quite subjective. I have experience with teams of people assessing the same risk and coming up with vastly different and risk scores. When questioned the always had what appeared to be good reasons for their evaluations. I am not saying do not do risk assessment, I am saying do not put excessive faith in the process.


Well, like it or hate it, the above is my suggestions for fuzzy thinking you see in OHS in Australia. I make heaps of mistakes and could be wrong. The above is simply what my critical reflection on my practice tells me.

George can be contacted on fgrobotham@gmail.com, he welcomes debate on the above (it would be indeed a boring world if everybody agreed with George)

George Robotham, Cert. IV T.A.E.,. Dip. 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), Accredited Workplace Health & Safety Officer (Queensland),Justice of the Peace (Queensland), Australian Defence Medal, Brisbane, Australia, fgrobotham@gmail.com, www.ohschange.com.au,07-38021516, 0421860574, My passion is the reduction of permanently life altering (Class 1 ) personal damage

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