What Is Right With The Way OHS Is Managed In Australia


What Is Right With The Way OHS Is Managed In Australia

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"

Introduction The following is written from approximately 38 years experience in senior field, corporate, project and consultant OHS roles. I have attempted to come at this paper from a practical as opposed to a theoretical perspective. OHS is about Change For The Future NOT Blame For The Past. Most OHS people realise this as do many in management. In approximately 38 years involvement in OHS I have had to help my employers cope with the aftermath of 13 fatalities, one case of paraplegia and a case of significant burns with massive scarring and severe psychological damage. A major harassment / bullying case revealed some very nasty behaviour and an organisation supposedly committed to high standards of OHS, manage the situation badly. I must admit to a certain level of cynicism about the way OHS is managed in Australia.

Moura Disaster When I was working in the corporate safety department of a major mining company 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 people. 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. A massive effort went into investigating the Moura disaster and developing recommendations for prevention. There was an incident in an underground coal mine in New Zealand where a number of men were killed. Whilst I am only going by media reports, not necessarily the most accurate source of information, this incident said to me that some of the lessons from Moura had not been put in place. Sometimes we just do not learn from personal damage occurrences.

What Is Right With The Way OHS Is Managed In Australia

Class 1 personal damage occurrence

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 (Fatal and non-fatal) 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 phenomenon. Whilst we hear about some of the fatal occurrences, Geoff’s research indicates that in terms of financial cost and personal hardship the non-fatal class 1 category has the most significant impact (That is not to downplay the devastating impact of fatalities) There is a minor realisation in Australian industry that the focus must be on Class 1 personal damage. The myth that preventing minor personal damage (Heinrich accident ratios) will automatically prevent major personal damage remains ingrained in many people’s minds. The need for industry based personal damage occurrence data systems escapes the majority.

Risk assessment

Many organisations carry out risk assessment processes and place great importance on it. In recent years my critical reflection on practice has led me to question the validity and reliability of typical risk assessment approaches.

Performance appraisal

Many organisations have safety incorporated in the regular performance appraisal of staff. The focus must be on what has been done to introduce excellent approaches to safety and not what personal damage has occurred.


Many organisations have regular internal and external OHS audits. My concern is that 4801 audits often do not drill down to the core of how safety is managed.

Emergency response plans

Many organisations have highly developed emergency response plans, the cynic in me says that sometimes the effort put into these would have been better spent on preventative aspects.


Many organisations have an E.A.P. approach and in my experience these work well.

Standard of OHS people

The vast majority of OHS people I have met have been dedicated people who try very hard, unfortunately I have also worked with a few incompetent idiots. There have been a few who were technically weak and some who were arrogant and thought they were God’s gift to safety, mainly new graduates. Some were weak in interpersonal skills and communications skills. A few buried their incompetence through playing political games and some lacked independent action through sucking up to their boss. OHS people have a difficult job and often their training does not prepare them well for the requirements of the job. I enjoy networking with OHS people and believe we have a lot to be proud of. My experience is that the majority of OHS people have a thirst to learn and improve, I hope my contributions to various forums and my web site ohschange.com.au help in this. OHS is yet to emerge as a profession, I put this down to the lack of a robust body of knowledge.OHS professional associations need to me doing more to elevate the status of the OHS business.

Human resource management processes

There is a raft of human resource management processes in Australia that support OHS, unfortunately they sometimes get overly complex and difficult to apply.

OHS conferences

There are regular, major OHS conferences in various states that attract many delegates. A number of people will tell you attendance at these conferences is beneficial. The posturing and self promotion by politicians, professional associations, regulators and consultants are a turn off for me. Lecture style presentations and the lack of interactivity in the presentations are a frequent problem. Having attended a Canadian Safety Engineering Society safety conference I can tell you the Canadians can teach Australians a few things about running safety conferences. I am to attend the American Society of Safety Engineers conference in 2013, the Americans appear to have a very practical focus to their conferences that is sadly lacking in Australia.

Traditional approaches

My understanding is that there has been some improvement in Australia in the occurrence of fatal permanently life altering personal damage but little improvement in non-fatal permanently life altering personal damage. Traditional approaches to OHS have a less than satisfactory record and many are looking for alternate approaches. There is a greater realisation that doing different things is necessary to get different results. Questioning the status quo is becoming more prominent.


The media emphasises personal fault in news releases about incidents and does not consider design and system issues that contribute to personal damage. The media loves juicy stories about safety and often the truth becomes a casualty. Many in the community are realising that there is more to safety than is portrayed in the media.


Much of safety is made out to be quite complex and simply hard work, we would not want to be simplistic but there is room for less hard work. Many organisations are seeking to make their OHS approaches less complex.  

Caring In my experience most employers have a caring attitude towards their employees and have a genuine desire not to see them injured. It is just that some are not particularly skilled at achieving this objective. I did however work briefly with one organisation that displayed what I regarded as a callous disregard for the safety of the employees, for the only time in my professional life I liaised with the regulator on the more life threatening issues.

Linkedin OHS forums

The advent of the Linkedin OHS discussion forums has done a great deal for OHS debate in Australia. The Riskex associated safety blog has many worthwhile safety articles.

Body of OHS knowledge A fundamental requirement of a profession is to have a robust body of knowledge, we do not yet have this in OHS in Australia. A major challenge for the OHS industry is to advance the initial efforts in this area. Whilst S.I.A. is to be commended for its initial efforts in this area, many have come to the realisation that more work is required.

OHS learning Universities continue to offer new and revised graduate and post-graduate OHS learning. Much of the learning OHS people facilitate lacks guidance from modern adult learning principles and process. Cert IV T.A.E. continues to improve. It is difficult for learning organisations to provide focused learning without a robust body of knowledge.

Interpersonal and communications skills OHS personnel are gradually coming to a realisation of the importance of these. You can be technically great but if you cannot get your message across you will not be effective. Often it is the relationships you build not your technical expertise that determines success.

L.T.I.F.R. Many OHS people now understand the deficiencies of The Lost Time Injury Frequency Rate.  

AS 4801 Many OHS people and some in management realise 4801 is but a basic starting point in developing a safety management system.

Zero Harm There has been considerable discussion, led by Dr. Robert Long, on the various OHS forums, about the dangers of zero harm approaches. A number of people appear to be saying zero harm is neither an achievable nor realistic goal. A number of people have said zero harm approaches shift the focus on major events to minor events and great amounts of resources are wasted on the inconsequential. For my money it is time we stopped wasting resources on zero harm and moved onto more productive pursuits.

OHS Leadership The importance of leadership is vastly underrated in Australian industry, leadership is the forgotten key to excellence in business. Many larger organisations are conducting leadership learning and refining their leadership approaches. Senior leaders of many organisations are making public statements about the importance of safety, one hopes the gloss is backed up by action.

Need for psychological approaches to OHS- As an OHS person I have come to the conclusion that all this safety stuff would work well if only we were not working with the unreliable buggers we are, ie the fallible human being. The biggest challenge in any profession is dealing with the people issues. Looking to the future I see the time when OHS people should have a basic understanding of how psychological theory relates to safety and an ability to use psychological techniques in safety. Dr. Robert Long has written valuable material on this topic and raised its profile. In my experience a small number of organisations have engaged organisational psychologists to deal with cultural and behavioural issues. Surveys have been carried out and results analysed for improvements.

Ponderous paperwork The safety industry revels in the production of long, ponderous, detailed paperwork that no one reads, cares about or uses. Many have realised the problems associated with this approach.

Justification Funds for capital expenditure are more likely to be spent if it has a safety justification. Unfortunately we sometimes see the safety justification inappropriately applied.

Questioning If you follow the Linkedin OHS forums you will see healthy questioning of the state of safety play in industry.

Contractor safety Many organisations have come to the realisation that contractors need the same safety emphasis as ordinary employees. Developing best practice in contractor safety inductions appears to be an issue.

Rehabilitation programs Many organisations have well developed rehabilitation programs. . I have found early intervention, extensive communications and consultation, identification of appropriate, meaningful alternative duties, preferably prior to when needed, accurate functional capacity assessment and a determination to succeed are essential. What sometimes seems to be forgotten in the rehabilitation debate is the fact that preventing the incident is the best sort of rehabilitation management.

Accident investigation An industry has developed around accident investigation with commercial models, licensed systems and designated training. For my money the Analysis Reference Tree Trunk model from Brisbane based Intersafe is the best.

Safe working procedures Many organisations have extensive safe working procedures. Keeping them short and simple, developing them using job safety analysis and involving the users seems essential. Despite many years in OHS and discussing the matter with many people I have difficulty establishing the distinction between when you rely on procedural controls and when you rely on the competency of the people performing the task.

Enforcement My experience in Qld. is that, with the exception of the mining industry, the regulator is not very active in enforcing safety legislation. This has been a disappointment to me. At least we do not suffer from what appears to be the excesses of O.S.H.A. in America.

Wellbeing programs More organisations are introducing wellbeing programs. Sensible approaches need to be adopted eg. Subsidised gym membership will be loved by those already going to a gym but may not necessarily increase the numbers of people going to a gym.

Haddon’s 10 countermeasures The traditional wisdom in the safety world is to apply the hierarchy of controls. More people are realising the advantages of Haddon’s 10 countermeasures.

Customer service Sam Walton of Walmart said you must treat your customer like a King or a Queen, because if you do not, your competitors will. There is a slow realisation that provision of OHS services is all about customer service. Separating customer needs from wants is vital and customers often need help with this. There are a small number of really smart OHS people who incorporate broader marketing principles into their work.

Involving the workforce Based on my study of Management of Organisational Change I have adopted the motto “When initiating change, remember, People support what they create” for my OHS work. Generally I think involving the stakeholders in discussions and decisions about OHS is a good idea. My mentor, Geoff McDonald, says “ Consignorance” is alive and well in OHS in Australia. “ Consignorance” is what you get when you combine consensus with ignorance. Many realise the importance of involving those affected by OHS change processes in the change process.

OHS standards A small number of organisations have developed OHS standards describing the essential elements of how the safety management system is implemented. Audits of these standards replace 4801 audits.

Project teams I have found an effective way of driving OHS change is through project teams. Well led, well researched project teams with carefully chosen members and using project management and change management methodologies can have a significant impact. Development of a detailed project plan is essential. A number of companies are now using OHS project teams.

Professional versus practitioner I do not routinely refer to people who work in OHS as professionals. This is because I do not believe OHS can be referred to as a profession when there is not a well developed, specific body of OHS knowledge. The professional versus practitioner debate has been done to death a number of times, it would be ideal if the OHS professional bodies could work together to finalise the issue.

Field focus There is a strong realisation among OHS people that there is a need to spend time in the field instead of the office if one is to be effective.

Conclusion The greatest strength I see in OHS in Australia is in the many dedicated, hard working people who work in the function. Ours is a difficult job, often without much in the way of rewards.OHS is not the job for the faint-hearted and you have to be tough to survive. Many, at all levels, are not backward in explaining their beliefs about where we are going wrong. There are many things wrong with the way safety is managed in Australia and driving change can place a significant emotional and psychological burden on the OHS person. It is essential to be flexible, maintain a sense of humour and within limits, not take things too seriously. If you do not do these 3 things, situations will get on top of you and you will be of little use to yourself, your family or the OHS business. Ours is an inherently caring occupation, unfortunately, sometimes, we do not show sufficient care for ourselves.