Managing the OHS Practical vs Theoretical Divide

Managing the OHS Practical vs Theoretical Divide

by the late George Robotham

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”



Watching the various OHS forums it appears a common topic of debate is the OHS Practical-Theoretical divide. In the following I offer one perspective on this debate. Please tell me if you think I have got it wrong.

How should we best manage the practical-theoretical OHS divide? It will take someone much smarter than me to answer this question.


I am generally a believer in succinct written communications, this paper started out as 2 pages but as I sent the original to a number of people for comment I felt it important to incorporate what they said.


As a young and relatively inexperienced mine Safety Adviser I attended the Ballarat Graduate Diploma in Occupational Hazard Management. A number of thought leaders in OHS were my lecturers and I networked with fellow students, a number of whom were senior OHS people in major Australian business. Besides from the technical stuff I learnt how to research and prepare an academic paper, be more questioning in my approach and probably the most important thing was I learnt was that there was a whole network of information available that I previously did not know existed (Of course this was before the internet) I also learnt the Victorian habit of drinking red wine.

After the Ballarat course I made a conscious decision not to do an OHS Masters and decided to study in fields allied to OHS.

As I have always enjoyed facilitating learning and see it as an important part of OHS change, I completed a Bachelor of Education (Adult & Workplace Education) at Q.U.T. The university practised the learning style they were trying to teach us, no boring lectures. There were 4 Field Experience units where we had to gain placements with companies and carry out a range of learning tasks. There was an amount of facilitating learning with peer review. Very interactive and hands on.

I am certain this experience improved my ability to design meaningful learning experiences and facilitate learning, discussion groups and problem solving groups. There was a good mix of theory and practice.

As I regard OHS as essentially about management of organisational change I completed a Graduate Certificate in Management of Organisational Change at Charles Sturt University. A complete theoretical overload with very little practice. I seemed to spend a lot of time reading papers from managers and ex-managers of American companies that had undergone organisational change, a number of these blokes later ended up in fraud and ethics investigations. I found this interesting as the focus of some of the papers was about telling us how good and incredibly clever the author was.

I learnt even the most well planned and executed change management initiatives will often not realise their potential. I picked up my motto from this course “When initiating change-Remember people support what they create”

Practical issues

Passion, life skills and compassion are prerequisites for the OHS person. Depending on the role and level, OHS people may be called upon to carry out some of the following duties-

Facilitating learning, facilitating problem solving groups and learning needs analysis

Developing, coordinating, implementing and evaluating OHS Management Systems and associated operational and strategic OHS Management Plans

Leading OHS project teams / Development of focussed, succinct OHS policy and procedure

Incident investigation, report writing, researching OHS issues, compensation and rehabilitation management

Interpreting, giving advice on, facilitating learning and checking compliance with safety legislation

Managing human resource issues, E.A.P. and counselling issues

Carrying out audits and inspections / acting in a customer service role

Supervising other OHS staff, safety committees and safety reps.

Managing downwards, sidewards and downwards

Incorporating OHS into quality systems, risk management, in particular risk assessment

Prioritising, planning and organising work

Facilitating communications and interpersonal issues, using computers, managing contractor safety and giving advice in relation to personal protective equipment and chemical management

Basic industrial hygiene

Audiometric testing and giving advice on noise and vibration issues.

Coaching and mentoring others, benchmarking and influencing the culture

Developing safety leadership management plans and influencing leaders on safety leadership

Marketing the OHS message

Acting as the corporate OHS conscience

Some of the above can be learnt through formal study, some through short courses, some through practical experience, some by reading good sources of information, some through networking with peers, some through a combination of the foregoing. All will be enhanced through practical experience and critical reflection on that experience (What went well, what opportunities for improvement were presented) Coaching / mentoring by an expert can be a powerful way of learning. Personally I think maintaining a reflective journal is a good way to learn.

Theoretical issues

I must admit to a certain level of cynicism about an amount of the theoretical approaches I see in OHS. When I find the bloke who said that a theory is only as good as its practical implementation, I will buy him a beer. Having said this I have to add I love a good academic paper that helps me improve practically.

Whilst I know it will not be the view of everybody I believe a tertiary education should be mandatory for OHS people, having said this I have doubts about how well universities prepare graduates for the practical reality of working in OHS.

A lot of this revolves around the fact that universities have not had an OHS body of knowledge to guide their course development. Recent moves by the Safety Institute of Australia to develop such a body of knowledge are to be commended. Hopefully this will improve with time.

My view is that a lack of distinct focus on the psychological aspects of safety and the prevention of Class 1 personal damage (Class 1 personal damage is that which permanently alters the future of the individual- Fatal or non-fatal) are major omissions in the current body of knowledge.

I am obtaining details of the American Society of Safety Engineers OHS body of knowledge project. It would appear that extensive consultation, participation and submissions by members was a very important part of the process, it would seem to me that this input will help ensure the work has a practical focus.

Practical OHS management and OHS learning skills are vital in an OHS professional. These can be enhanced by focused formal learning that has direct practical application. Some of the formal learning does not have a practical orientation and we sometimes see long winded, boring academic papers that have little useful relevance to the real world . The term succinct is often not evident. Some individuals and organisations use practically useless academic papers as a way of trying to boost their perceived credibility and reputation. Some papers make outlandish claims about the success with limited sample size and with very little detailed and credible justification and research. Some researchers put in a big effort and write a long report to tell us things that people practicing will have figured out for themselves a long time ago.

Elitist tendency

There is a disturbing tendency in some quarters for OHS to become elitist and overly academic. Exhortations to raise the OHS profile and be recognised as professional are fine as far as they go but some do not recognise the practical nature of OHS and the worth of those who work on the practical side of the equation as opposed to the academic side. Good OHS strategic plans are a waste of time and effort without good operational implementation. Some appear to operate on the presumption that those who do the strategic OHS work are superior human beings to those who do the operational OHS work.

Arrogant tendency

I note a tendency to arrogance in some OHS people, some companies with high profile OHS systems and some OHS organisations.

Unless you are very careful to avoid it, a natural consequence of progression to more senior positions is that you get embroiled in the strategic world and quickly lose touch with the operational world. I have lost count of the times when managers and OHS personnel have told me how OHS is managed in their facility and when I went out in the paddock found a vastly different scenario. A lot of people do not realise that the OHS approach that works well in one organisation can be a disaster in another. A lot of people do not realise that whatever you do in OHS must be targeted at the identified needs of the organisation. What happens up the sharp end is what matters.

Any organisational change will inevitably be a disaster if you do not involve those affected by the change in the change process. As we used to say in the Army you are stuffed without your private soldiers.

Some people and organisations hold themselves out as experts in safety, to my mind there is no such thing as an expert in the challenging function of OHS, I tend to ask the question that if you blokes are as good as you say how come OHS is in the mess it is.

Many of the people and organisations that hold themselves out to be experts to not react favourable to comment about their activities. In my experience engaging dissenters is the best option. It is a sign of a mature and professional approach, is good for communications and interpersonal issues and there is a pretty good chance you will learn something

Some individuals and organisations are somewhat flirtatious with the truth in describing their capabilities. Some go to great lengths to try to convince you how great they are. The psychological phenomenon of Group-Think is evident in some groups.

I am not impressed by fancy policy, procedures and glowing speeches from senior management. What happens in the middle of the night when it is pouring down rain and there is no supervisor around seems to be the acid test.

The principal reason why professional organisations exist is to serve the professional needs of members. Anything less than an intense focus on members needs, appropriate succinct communications and seeking and responding to member feedback will result in an ineffective organisation. Professional organisations that do not put in the hard work to identify member needs and react to them will fiddle at the edges and be irrelevant.

Some appear to operate on the presumption that those who do the strategic OHS work are superior human beings to those who do the operational OHS work.

To the many who engage in OHS arrogance I remind you of an ex-manager of mine who used to say the main problem with OHS is that individuals and organisations engage in acts of public masturbation.

OHS Learning

If I was developing an education program for OHS professionals I would boost the OHS technical skills component with learning on leadership, learning, organisational change, communications skills, interpersonal skills, project management, quality management, basic human resource management and basic marketing. The traditional approaches to OHS are fine provided the useless buggers we have working for us do the right thing! I would suggest the biggest challenge in OHS is to influence people in the OHS mix to ensure the Person, Machine and Environment essential factors in personal damage occurrences are identified and managed.

The adult educators say critical reflection is an important component of adult learning, the opportunity to apply theoretical learning in an authentic environment and figure out what works and what does not work is part of this. Some university based learning does not make allowance for a thorough approach to critical reflection. More people are realising the workplace can be a robust and transferable environment for learning.

Examples of the OHS practical-theoretical divide.

To my mind there are no greater examples of the OHS practical-theoretical divide than Zero Harm and Behaviour-Based Safety.

The theory behind Zero Harm sounds fine, it is emotionally appealing, it looks good on the company annual report, senior managers can swell their chests with pride when they tell their mates at Lions or Rotary about their commitment to safety and many would say it is a nice thing to have.

The most commonly reported problems with Zero Harm that I hear are that the goal is neither realistic nor achievable, it leads to covering up and under reporting of personal damage and inordinate amounts of time, effort and resources are spent on very minor issues thus making a mockery of the safety management system. The Brisbane based OHS consultants, Intersafe, have a paper that describes the pitfalls of Zero Harm in more detail. I would think zero permanently life altering personal damage is a more appropriate goal. I had a senior manager of a major Qld. organisation tell me Zero Harm was doing more harm than good.

With my limited understanding of psychology I thought the theory behind B.B.S. sounded fine, even though I have heard many say it reeks of the myth of the careless worker. I was associated with 4 B.B.S. implementations that ended up being fizzers. With the first one the process failed because one of the things the workers were asked to do was observe and report on their mates behaviors. Australians do not “dob” in their mates and the process just did not work. The lack of trust between the management and workers was probably a major factor.

The other 3 implementations were done in the same department at 3 different sites in the one company and for 6 months or so worked very well and a lot was achieved. At all 3 sites after 6 months or so the process was abandoned because both workers and management thought it was too much like hard work and there was not sufficient return for the effort. . Out of all the OHS people I have had contact with in recent times I have only had one, whose opinion I respect, say anything positive about B.B.S.

I tend to think psychological, neuroscience and sociology principles have a lot to offer in OHS, it is just that I have not seen it work yet.

I recognise my perspective on Zero Harm and B.B.S. could easily be wrong so I invite further comment.

Looking to the future

Given the fact that the people are the most important part of the OHS mix, my view is that the OHS professional must have a good understanding of psychology and sociology so they can harness human capital effectively.


I have been a firm believer in the concept of the OHS body of knowledge since it was first announced and I took the view it was an opportunity, with appropriate management, to make a rare, significant impact on how OHS is managed in Australia.

People have expressed mixed views to me about the current project. It will be interesting to see how this develops in time. A.S.S.E. appears to have adopted a quite exhaustive approach to their body of knowledge with substantial member input and submissions,it will be interesting to compare the results.

My view is that all OHS people, not just members of S.I.A., should have input into further development.

OHS in Australia is in a state of flux and change, an inevitable consequence of change is that you will end up pissing some people off.

I do not have the answer to the question about managing the OHS practical-theoretical divide but hopefully the foregoing will prompt some discussion.

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