The Development Of Safety Competency

The Development Of Safety Competency – A Personal Journey

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”


The following traces my development of competency in safety. It may be that there are lessons for others in my journey. Despite a number of years in safety I am the first to admit I still have a lot to learn in this very challenging field, I encourage your comments, it would be a very boring world if everyone agreed with me.

Australian safety researcher Geoff McDonald has been my mentor / coach / guide / advisor during most of my safety career. Geoff has investigated many thousands of permanently life altering personal damage occurrences and brings a unique perspective on what works and does not work in safety. Geoff says a number of the things that are done in safety are “displacement activities”, a displacement activity is something we do, something we put a lot of energy into but if we examine it properly there is no logical reason for doing it. My safety career has seen a number of displacement activities. Another observation I have about safety is sometimes emotion gets in the way of logical judgement. I note that some safety people have a tendency to pick up and run with various safety fads, that while be emotionally appealing, have little factual basis.

Why read this paper? What will I learn? What is in it for me?

This paper traces my experience and my learning in safety. A number of suggestions are made to allow the reader to improve their own competency in the field.

National Safety Council of Australia

My first safety training job was as a Training Assistant with the National Safety Council of Australia (N.S.C.A.) My main role was to manage the administrative aspects of the various safety courses that used to be conducted for supervisors and managers. I was gradually thrown into a minor training role as competency was developed.

We taught a solid diet of Heinrich and Bird and particularly the silly notion there were fixed ratios between minor and major accidents. We used to reinforce the myth that stopping minor accidents would automatically stop the major ones.

In the 1970’s people were trained in Kinetic Lifting (keep the back straight, bend the knees) as a means of preventing manual handling injuries. I used to do a lot of this training and when I used to go back to audit the effectiveness of the training found no-one was using the techniques. Thankfully nowadays we have physios, O/T’s and ergonomists involved in this training as part of an overall process of developing and implementing manual handling injury prevention.

Utah Blackwater

From the N.S.C.A. I moved on to an Assistant Safety Advisor job at an open-cut coal mine, where I ran induction training, fire / rescue squad training and lots of safety meetings. I also carried out safety inspections, investigated accidents and encouraged the workforce in safety. A particular challenge was communicating with and managing the safety of the many ethnic contractors, many of whom did not understand English or have proper qualifications for the work they were doing.

When I started my first mining safety job the company decided to put me in a day shift relief mining supervisors job for a month to get to know the blokes and understand the operations. My first job Monday morning was to drive down the haul road to see how many guide posts had to be replaced. The haul truck drivers used to start the first shift of the week 11 pm Sunday night and come into work tired and / or pissed from the weekend. They used to lose attention, drift off the road, knock out the guide post and the theory was the stimulus of drifting into the table drain used to wake them up. Sunday night was always the worst time for guide posts.

Was probably 1976 at Blackwater mine when I was at a Christmas function at the mine, got a call that a company car had rolled and the 2 occupants were trapped in the car, I gather together a few mine rescue squad people (all of us pissed), jump in the mine rescue vehicle and proceed to extricate the 2 pissed occupants of the rolled vehicle. Even though they had quite a few injuries they did not want to be taken to hospital as this would attract the attention of the coppers.

For a number of years my company used to have annual mine picnics at the oval at the mine, great affairs with lots of entertainment for the family. Everybody had a gutful of grog & tucker and people were often seen leaving with a 6 pack for the trip back to town. After far too many car smashes the company put an end to the mine picnics.

The Qld mining industry has had random drug & grog testing at work for many years in an attempt to combat 2 major problems. Personally I was slow in learning the dangers of drink driving.

There were 2 events that made a major impression on me-

1A female office employee was seriously injured and I was first on the scene. As she lapsed in and out of consciousness she said to me “George, please do not let me die” She died the next day. I do not mind saying this knocked me about a bit and emphasises the seriousness of the safety business.

2 A miner was crushed between the shoe and an overhanging access platform of a dragline. He was made a paraplegic. The fixed nature of the overhanging platform was one of the design issues. Later I was to intervene at another mine so that draglines were not built with the same design feature. From this I learnt the importance of safety by design. I would not be surprised if draglines are still being built with this inherent design problem.

I attended training in the Accident Reference Tree-Trunk method of accident investigation with Geoff McDonald. Geoff’s training challenged a lot of the N.S.C.A. training I had previously been exposed to.

Utah Norwich Park

My next role was as Safety Advisor for the construction, development and operation of another open-cut coal mine.

I developed a comprehensive safety induction program lasting 2 days and put about 400 people through the training over about 2 years. I used to feel very proud that they left the training very switched on about safety. The reality was within a few days of hitting the workplace they realised that my safety world I had spoken about was not reality, the safety culture of the organisation did not support my training. The very clear message is anyone seeking to introduce learning programs must do learning needs analysis first (refer to the paper Safety Training Needs Analysis on my web-site

Early in my time at Norwich Park I completed the Graduate Diploma in Occupational Hazard Management at Ballarat University, a life changing personal and professional experience.

A highlight of my time at Norwich Park was where Geoff McDonald led a Critical Incident Recall process. All department members attended a short learning session where the Person, Machine, Environment concepts were explained. The process they would go through was explained.

Some department members were trained as critical incident participant observers and observed what was happening in the workplace, some department members were trained as critical incident interviewers and interviewed their workmates. It was essential that those chosen for these tasks were trusted by the workforce. The identified critical incidents were communicated to management.

It was planned to let the above process go for 6 months but after a short period of time the frequency and severity of the critical incidents set the alarm bells ringing.

Based on the identified critical incidents a questionnaire was developed and all department members were asked to complete it in a series of meetings.

Responses to the questionnaire were collated and displayed on histograms

In what was a very brave move considering the industrial climate the senior department manager led a series of meetings with the workforce where he displayed the histograms and asked for feedback on reasons why the responses were the way they were. The manager was advised that no matter how severe the criticism he was not to react defensively. In these circumstances if a senior person is criticised severely you will usually find someone in the work group will come to his rescue if he is being fair dinkum, if that does not happen the facilitator can come to his rescue.

Changes that occurred included upgrading of diagrams & plans, purchase of new high voltage testing equipment, better understanding of some test equipment, training, improved maintenance, improved procedures, changes to isolation procedures and improved practice. An environment of open and honest communication also developed.

A major task for me was the conduct of the largest Open-Cut Mines Rescue competition. I put a lot of planning into it and it was a huge success. Thankfully nowadays we have project planning software to help with this sort of task.


My next role was as Senior Safety Advisor with a major mining company where I had major safety training responsibilities. We had a one day Introduction to Safety course, a two day Accident Investigation course, a half day Occupational Health course, a half day Job Safety Analysis course and a half day Risk Management course. I learnt a lot about safety by seeing how people reacted to the training and interacting with them. I led a number of projects driving significant safety change and have formed the view project teams are a great way to enhance safety.

BHP-Coal learning

In the early 1990’s BHP-Coal revolutionised their approach to learning. An exhaustive learning needs analysis was carried out. This worked formed the basis for the introduction of competency-based learning in the Australian mining industry.

Doctor Stephen Billett of Griffith University was engaged to research preferred and effective modes of delivering learning. Not surprisingly learning by doing coached by a content expert was favoured. A lot of people saw classroom learning as largely a waste of time. Carrying out authentic tasks in the workplace was seen as important.

Consultants were engaged to prepare self-paced, competency-based modules in many areas. The modules were given to learners and they were assigned a content expert to refer to as needed. Some modules articulated to a National certificate IV. My role was to do the T.N.A., write modules, liaise with the consultants writing the modules, assess learners, coach learners and where necessary facilitate the modules. I have written elsewhere on the full details of this work.

BHP-Coal Access to earthmoving equipment

I developed a gut feel that we were having a lot of injuries when people were getting on & off the massive, open-cut earthmoving equipment. My statistical analysis said it was a major loss area so a project was mounted to investigate the issue. Field investigations and discussions were carried out and a report with recommendations developed. I quickly realized the problems being experienced were not unique to my employer. Through the employer association we successfully applied for Federal Government funding to extend the original research work. This work( led by Geoff McDonald) provided significant input into the writing of an Australian Standard for “Access to Earthmoving Equipment”, detailed access purchasing and maintenance guidelines were developed and subsequently most earthmoving equipment in open-cut Australian mines now have hydraulically operated access arrangements. A taxonomy of the industry access personal damage occurrences was part of the process. Many of the recommendations are applicable to access to non-earthmoving equipment, eg. Trucks. With the passage of much of this work has been forgotten.

BHP-Coal Internal standards of OHS excellence

Standards were developed for the safety management system e.g. Visitor safety, contractor safety, compliance with statute law, use of personal protective equipment, management commitment, hazard identification/risk assessment, safe working procedures, loss prevention &control, employee involvement, emergency procedures, accident investigation, education/communication, inspections, health & fitness, injury management, etc and compliance with these standards must be audited.

BHP-Coal introduced the above standards and it put a massive increase in the focus on safety. What excellence in implementation of the standards would look like was defined and people were trained in this. A detailed set of audit questions, based on the fore-going was developed as was a detailed set of auditing guidelines and roles of auditors defined. Sites to be audited were briefed on the auditing guidelines and auditors were trained on the audit questions and auditing guidelines. A series of annual Executive Safety Audits was introduced at the various sites with an audit team led by a senior manager to give the process significant management horsepower. The largest audit team I was involved in had 10 auditors and audited the site for 4 days. A quality assurance approach where NCR (Non-compliance reports) were issued was used and formal processes were introduced to follow-up on audit recommendations.

The technical basis, training and preparation for the audits was sound but the key to success was the fact the audits were driven by senior management.


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 are 2 major lessons I learnt from my university course

1 Training is what others do to us, learning is what we do to ourselves

2 Learn a little-Well

BHP-Coal Job safety analysis

A section of one mine had an event where a person came close to being killed. The regulator investigation gave the organization 6 months to examine and develop safe working procedures, if the regulator was not satisfied with the work done the operation, a vital part of the whole operation, would be shut down. I trained the whole department of some 200 personnel in Job Safety Analysis (refer to the paper on this topic on my web-site and oversaw the development of the Safe Working Procedures. I saw this work as quite positive but I am conscious that Safe Working Procedures are not necessarily the answer to a maiden’s prayer and sometimes it is easy to rely on them unduly. The issue of what you rely on the workers competency for versus what you put on paper is something I have difficulty coming to grips with.

BHP-Coal Moura disaster

When I was working in the corporate safety department of a BHP-Coal I was focused on the 7 open-cut mines and had no responsibilities for the 2 company underground mines. My view was and still is that some of the safety work being done in the open-cut mines was very good. On the 7th August 1994 Moura underground coal mine suffered an underground explosion that saw 11 men entombed in the mine and the mine closed. If my memory serves me correctly the head of the Mining Wardens enquiry into the disaster said “What happened at Moura represents a passage of management neglect that must never be repeated in the mining industry” The people who said what happened at Moura was an enormous stuff-up are understating the situation. Professor Andrew Hopkins wrote a book called “Managing Major Hazards” on the Moura disaster that I think should be compulsory reading for every manager, supervisor and OHS professional. The Moura Disaster was as much about communications and culture as safety.

Those who complain about the effort and cost of implementing safety measures should have been around to see the slump in the company share price, shareholder dissatisfaction, pain and suffering, cost, effort, media crucifixion , ruined reputations, wrecked careers, psychological trauma, union backlash, enormous investigation effort, massive counseling effort, threat of regulator action, legal action against the company and company officials and strained relationships I saw.

Whilst I only have media reports to go on it appears a mining disaster at a coal mine in New Zealand appeared to have many features similar to the Moura disaster.

After BHP-Coal

Since leaving BHP-Coal I have worked in a variety of OHS Management and OHS Learning roles in a variety of industries. Force-field analysis has proved to be a very valuable technique in my safety work.

A number of my roles have required me to supervise, coach, lead, mentor, advise and guide junior OHS /Learning personnel. The biggest test of my leadership and teambuilding skills was my contract role as OHS Project Manager with Ergon Energy. I had a geographically dispersed team of 6 electrical workers and 2 OHS professionals with the task of developing control plans for 21 identified high risk activities. There were few guidelines for our work and we had to develop innovative ways of going about our task. The teams work received much praise from Ergon management and our recommendations were incorporated in the organisations strategic and operational approach. There were well developed change management and project management plans.

Two things I have learnt are that some in leadership positions just do not get it in safety and as a safety person you have to persevere. One organisation had a number of Improvement Notices about confined space work and my audit revealed major problems in work practices. Surprisingly this was not enough to get action from management so I had an external audit carried out. This audit reinforced earlier findings and there was grudging acceptance of a minor need for change. Many obstacles were put in my path but finally, through determination, change occurred.

My work facilitating risk assessment training and seeing groups assessing the same risk come up with different risk scores, has made me question the validity and reliability of traditional approaches to risk assessment.

My research into leadership has left me with the view this is probably the most important key to success in safety.

A concept from Geoff McDonald that is very important is the following- 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.

An important thing I have learnt is that you must have a good resume and interview skills to manage the bull dust recruitment consultants and prospective employers will put you through.

I had a contract with a major mining organisation, pages and pages of detailed safety policy and procedures, I had to wonder if the people up the sharp end would wade their way through the paperwork and apply it.

Where to from here for me.

I intend to continue my relationship with Geoff McDonald and look forward to the publication of his book. I liked Dr. Robert Long’s book Risk Makes Sense and refer to it from time to time, I am looking forward to the publication of his next book. My plan is to continue my leadership learning through attendance at some short courses and to try to apply that learning to safety. The other plan is to learn how to apply psychology principles and practices to safety, I am not sure yet how I am going to do this.

What I see around me

I believe I have been fortunate to have Geoff McDonald as my mentor and had a diversity of safety experiences to learn from.

I see a number of highly motivated safety people around me that are let down to a certain extent by the technical OHS learning they are provided with.

The Safety Institute of Australia is to be commended on their initial, basic work, developing an OHS Core Body of Knowledge, much more needs to be done.


Further development of the OHS Core Body of Knowledge is vital to enhance the skills of OHS people. This will allow learning organisations to provide more focused OHS learning.

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