The 15 Major Impediments To OHS Success

The 15 Major Impediments To OHS Success

1 Lack of succinct paperwork.

There is not much point in having detailed paperwork that is too much like hard work to read. The OHS world is famous for long ponderous paper work that no one reads, cares about or uses. Busy people do not have time to read this garbage and busy people do not have the time to write it.

2 Using theory instead of real world approaches

Whatever you do reality test it with the workforce first. I am a believer that a theory is only as good as its practical application. Recent graduates of OHS courses can be quite painful with their presumption that their training gave them all the knowledge they needed.

With one graduate I briefed him on doing a relatively easy job, he ignored my advice and stuffed the work up beyond belief. When I had to rectify the situation I found it was particularly hard as the graduate had got everybody off side with his superior attitude.

One part of me says I should coach and mentor graduates another says I have neither the time nor inclination to nursemaid them. It is usually only the ones with the right attitude that get any help from me. I am yet to see an OHS graduate straight from university with many practical skills.

3 “When implementing change-Remember, people support what they create”

I picked this motto up during study into management of organisational change, it seems particularly appropriate in the OHS area.

4 Not using face to face communications

Research by Harvard professor T.J. Larkin suggests when communicating change with the workforce use the supervisor not senior management, use face to face communications and frame communications relevant to the immediate work area and processes.

5 Needs analysis

A formal needs analysis is a necessary pre-cursor for everything you do, learning needs analysis is often done poorly. There are many group approaches that can be used to enhance OHS and identify needs, force-field analysis is a favourite of mine.

6 Simplicity

Ignoring the simplicity not complexity rule is a major problem with many approaches to OHS. The more like hard work things are, the less likely they are to happen.

7 Safety Leadership

Not training formal and informal leaders in Safety Leadership is common in Australian industry. Leadership is the often forgotten key to excellence in our lives..

8 Team building

Using team-building principles in your safety approach will make for focused, productive and enjoyable teams. Running a team building activity for a newly formed team is essential. Team members must have good interpersonal skills. Reading up on and practising reflective listening and appropriate self-disclosure will help.

9 Taking yourself too seriously

Using humour in your interactions with others can be good for communications and interpersonal issues. Try not to take yourself too seriously and celebrate success. Be tough on the task but gentle on yourself and others.

10 Enterprise “accident” experience

Most organisations do not have sufficient Class 1 personal damage occurrences (Permanently alters the future of the individual) to allow statistically significant analysis. Analysis of industry experience will guide action through industry taxonomies of permanently life-altering personal damage.

11 Risk assessment

Risk assessment is the centre piece of many organisations approaches to OHS. My experience is that it is often difficult to obtain equivalent risk ratings when different people and teams assess the same risk. I believe many put too much emphasis on the risk ratings from risk assessments, the reality is that a lot of risk assessment is very subjective. Risk ratings are fine if used as a basis for a conversation about reducing risk but they should not be given any scientific credibility or regarded as valid and / or reliable..

12 Relying on tertiary OHS education as the panacea for the safety business.

Developing a thorough, well defined body of OHS knowledge guided by the personal damage occurrence phenomenon and having an equal focus on practice as theory is essential to guide OHS learning. Recent moves by S.I.A. in this area have to be commended, even though I find the results somewhat disappointing. Hopefully there will be further development of this work.

My view is that without a well developed body of OHS knowledge it would be difficult for learning organizations to develop and implement properly targeted programs.

Detailed learning on psychological approaches to safety and safety culture seem very important.

13 Broader skills

Employing OHS people based on technical skills alone is relatively common. Effective OHS people need many skills over and above the technical skills, eg. Communications, interpersonal, leadership, project management, learning, change management, quality management, team building etc. My view is universities are doing industry, the OHS business and students a disservice by turning out graduates with OHS technical skills alone and none of the broader skills. Many of the safety people I have worked with have been dills, a number have not had their passion matched by their skills.

14 Lost Time Injury Frequency Rate

The Lost Time Injury Frequency Rate is still the principal measure of safety performance in many companies in Australia. The L.T.I.F.R. is subject to manipulation.

Some safety people cheat like hell with their L.T.I.F.R. statistics encouraged by managers with an eye to keep their key performance indicators looking good. The more the pressure to keep K.P.I.’s looking good the more creative the accounting.

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.

Somewhere in the push to reduce L.T.I’s, reduce the L.T.I.F.R. and consequently achieve good ratings in safety programme audits the focus on serious personal damage tends to be lost.

Reducing the L.T.I.F.R. is as much about introducing rehabilitation programmes and making the place an enjoyable place to work as it is about reduction of personal damage

In my view a concentration on the Lost Time Injury Frequency Rate has hijacked the Australian safety profession for far too long.

Accident Ratio Studies Misdirect Efforts

My grandmother used to say “Look after the pence and the pounds will look after themselves” In the world of traditional safety there seems to be similar thinking that if you prevent minor damage you will automatically prevent major 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 incidents will be eliminated in the process. Certainly there are minor incidents 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 damage incidents do not have this potential. It is a matter of looking at the energy that was available to be exchanged in the incident. The common cold cannot develop into cancer, similarly many minor injuries will never develop into serious personal damage.

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

All organisations have limited resources to devote to safety, it seems more efficient to prevent one incident resulting in paraplegia than to prevent 20 incidents where people have a couple of days off work (some will say this comment is heresy)

15. Focus on Class 1 Damage

A method of classifying personal damage that seems appropriate is the following-

CLASS 1-Damage that permanently alters a persons life e.g. death, paraplegia, amputation of a leg, severe psychological damage.

CLASS 2- Damage that temporarily alters a person’s life e.g. fractured leg that repairs with no lasting impediment, deep laceration that has no underlying tissue damage and repairs without significant scarring

CLASS 3 inconveniences a person’s life (Geoff McDonald)

The report of the Industry Commission 1995 indicates that safety in Australia is fundamentally a class 1 problem (87% of occurrences were class 2 with18% of cost, 13% of occurrences were class 1 with 82% of cost. Most safety management systems in Australian industry focus on lost time accidents within the organisation. Better returns for effort will be gained by focusing on Class 1 damage in the companies industry or Australia-wide. We must lobby for government to improve methods of collecting, disseminating and analysing personal damage occurrence (accident) data. Collection of personal damage occurrence (accident) data on an industry-wide basis is essential. Taxonomies of industry Class 1 personal damage must be developed.

Special mention-Safety Management Systems

The best S.M.S.I have experienced consisted of 18 internal standards of OHS excellence, a commercial system and a system to manage low probability, high consequence risk. This was a number of years ago and despite exposure to a number of 4801 systems and a number of commercial systems in recent years, the previous system remains the standard for me. I take the view that 4801 is very basic and far too much reliance is placed on it. The glib assurances by many that they have a good S.M.S. because it complies with 4801 are unconvincing to me.

I make a point of asking fellow OHS people what their S.M.S. consists of, the majority are unable to articulate a coherent response.

About 20 years ago the C.E.O. of an organisation asked me to give him 10 things the organisation had to do to have a good safety approach. Since then, as I have had good and bad experiences in safety, I have added to the list. There are now about 50 things on the list that I am suggesting for consideration for inclusion in a S.M.S. This information is to be found in the paper What Makes A Safety Management System Fly to be found under-E-Books-Articles-

I have received good feedback about the paper and an earlier version was published by the American Society of Safety Engineers in an International Safety Best-Practice publication. I am conscious however that the Yanks may just be easy to impress.


Rightly or wrongly the above are my thoughts on the 15 major impediments to OHS in Australia at the moment. There are undoubtedly many other impediments that could be considered.

I encourage feedback on the above, it would be a boring world if everybody agreed with me.


George Robotham, Cert. IV T.A.E., Diploma in Workplace Training and Assessment Systems, Diploma in Frontline Management, Bachelor of Education (Adult and Workplace Education), Graduate Certificate in Management of Organisational Change, Graduate Diploma of Occupational Hazard Management),Graduate of learning in the contested ground of trying to improve safety for many years, Justice of the Peace (Queensland), Australian Defence Medal, Brisbane, Australia,,, 07-38021516, 0421860574

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