Is There Hope For The OHS Business In Australia?

Is There Hope For The OHS Business In Australia?

Guest article by the late George Robotham 

In my nearly 4 decades of involvement in OHS I have helped my employers cope with the aftermath of 13 fatalities and 3 other cases of permanently life altering personnel damage. As a permanent employee or consultant / contractor I have worked with about 20 companies, only 3 of them convinced me they had their act together in OHS. One organisation picked up 5 Prohibition Notices and 33 Improvement Notices in one day, has been the subject of 2 Enforceable Undertakings and was criminal in their neglect of safety of their employees. Some other organisations had their safety effort buried in bureaucracy, bull dust, policy and procedure and long, ponderous paperwork. Some had distinctly ordinary people working in OHS roles. I have written elsewhere on the challenges facing the OHS business in Australia, they are numerous and considerable. One supervisor I used to work with said he used to dread my coming to his office as it usually meant he had to do more and better. Now I think about it I reckon that supervisors comment says a lot about what it means to be an OHS person. Some of the problems I currently see with Occupational Health and Safety in Australia include these-

  • There is only half-hearted leadership from government, unions and many companies with regard to safety. Admitting to being a cynic I suggest the rhetoric is not always accompanied by action. I suppose it is naive to think the tripartite partners can put aside their industrial and political agenda when discussing safety.
  • There is a poor understanding in the community of the reasons why accidents occur. We are quick to make the assumption that the worker was careless, when one examines accidents carefully one identifies a range of work system factors that contributed to the accident as well, most of these work system factors are the responsibility of the employer at both common and statute law. Blaming workers for their careless behaviour is an emotionally appealing approach that is usually not all that productive in the bigger picture of preventing personal damage at work.
  • It is often said about safety that it is just common sense, if this is the case why are we doing such a poor job of managing it in this country? I am reminded of an un-named Chinese philosopher who was reported to have said "The trouble with common sense is that it is never common and rarely sensible"
  • The media emphasises personal fault in news releases about incidents and does not consider design and system issues that contribute to incidents.
  • We do not have a centralised, consistent method of reporting and recording incident and disease statistics. How can we examine the beast and learn from it if we do not record and report it in a consistent manner?
  • In business vast amounts of money can be spent on safety without really defining desired outcomes (I am not doubting peoples motives however, just their effectiveness)
  • Government, unions and many companies treat safety as a second priority and industrial relations issues dominate.
  • The standard of Occupational Health and Safety practitioner may not be as high as it could be
  • The messages of past incidents are not utilised enough in safety decision making. For this to happen past incident information has to be collected ,presented and organised in a useable manner.

The Lost Time Injury Frequency Rate predominates discussions about safety performance. How can a company be proud of a decrease of L.T.I.F.R. from 60 to 10 if there have been 2 fatalities and 1 case of paraplegia amongst the lost time injuries? The L.T.I.F.R. trivialises serious personal damage and is a totally inappropriate measure of safety performance. Australian safety researcher Geoff McDonald has been my advisor/coach/mentor /guide in my safety career.

Geoff McDonald has a system of classifying personal damage occurrences (“Accidents “) that goes something like this- Class 1-Permanently alters the future of the individual Class 2-Temporarily alters the future of the individual Class 3 –Inconveniences the individual Geoff has investigated many thousand Class 1 damage occurrences in his career and maintains the most effective way to make meaningful progress in safety is by focusing on the class 1 phenomena. I have been involved in 3 projects with Geoff where we have either analysed critical incidents or personal damage occurrence experience and I found the results very impressive, the analysis of the critical incidents and personal damage occurrences really targeted control actions in an appropriate manner. Rightly or wrongly I believe safety people spend too much time doing safety stuff and do not apply the knowledge from other disciplines to OHS anywhere near enough. Of course this is strengthened by an education system that is focused on developing OHS technical skills.

There is a lot to be said for OHS people to gain skills in disciplines aligned with OHS. One thing I have learnt is safety project teams can be a great way of driving OHS change. Having done some study in Management of Organisational Change I can see considerable room to apply change management principles to OHS. Introducing OHS initiatives is essentially about change management.

Carrying out effective change is often very difficult, if you do not involve those to be effected by the change process in the change process, you are doomed to failure. Attempting too big a change and / or changing things too quickly can create an adverse reaction and alienate the very people you want to make allies. Learn the context, culture and past before trying to make changes. Unless a crisis situation is apparent realise effective change requires a lot of effort and time. John P. Kotter speaks of 8 steps for successful large scale change- Increase urgency, Build the guiding team, Get the vision right, Communicate for buy-in, Empower action, Create short-term wins, Do not let up, Make change stick..These steps provide useful, practical guidance.

Another thing I have learnt is that Safety Leadership is often poor in organisations, leadership is the often forgotten key to excellence in many facets of business. Interpersonal skills are extremely important for the OHS person, I have written about this elsewhere. As a group many OHS people complain a lot about the state of safety play in their organisations. Having a good whinge makes us feel better. Complaining is one thing, the important thing is to figure out how to make the required changes. It is not easy, as in my experience, some in management roles are a challenge to work with. People in supervisory and management roles have been known to tell outright lies about safety and be generally resistant to change.

I read and participate in a number of the Linkedin OHS discussion forums. The personalities of the contributors show through in their posts. Some comments are poorly researched, come from a narrow knowledge base and display a resistance to change. Some display fuzzy logic in their arguments. Some are very insightful and very helpful. Regardless of the standard of debate that sometimes occur the thing that cannot fail to impress is the extreme passion for OHS that the contributors display.

To my mind a fire in the guts is a very important part of being an OHS person. Safety is very much a people game and the passion for safety displayed on OHS forums says there is hope for the OHS business in Australia despite the numerous challenges.