What It Takes To Be An Excellent OHS Professional

What It Takes To Be An Excellent OHS Professional

Classic post by the late George Robotham 

safety professional

Geoff McDonald

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.

One of the things people do in organisations is analyse their “accident” experience with the view to gaining insight into ways to prevent the problem, this analysis is predicated on the belief that stopping minor events will stop the major ones. In his extensive writings Geoff explains many reasons why Class 3 and Class 2 events are usually not good predictors of Class 1 personal damage, it is a bit like saying the common cold will develop into cancer.

My interpretation of Professor Andrew Hopkins work says he supports Geoff’s views on this.

Unless organisations are quite large and frequently experience Class 1 personal damage they will not have a solid predictive data base for Class 1 damage.

A number of years ago the Qld mining industry introduced a standardised “accident” reporting system in the industry which allowed meaningful interpretation of data, it seems to me that standardised industry reporting systems can have many benefits. I might mention this did not happen without a bit of pain and resistance to change.

From the above it seems pretty obvious to me that we need to be encouraging standardised industry personal damage occurrence data systems and Australia needs a National Class 1 personal damage system that is easily accessible, consistent and able to be interrogated easily.

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.

Geoff has a view that many of the things that are traditionally done in safety programs are “displacement activities”, a displacement activity is something we do, put a lot of energy into but at the end of the day there is little logical reason to do it. My safety career has seen no shortage of displacement activities. Given Geoff’s immersion in serious personal damage I believe he brings a unique perspective and knowledge of what works and does not work in safety and I value his opinion. He also warns about the tendency to pick up and run with the various smoothly marketed safety fads that emerge.

What OHS people do

Depending on the role and level, OHS people may be called upon to carry out some of the following duties-

  1. Facilitating learning, facilitating problem solving groups and learning needs analysis.
  2. Developing, coordinating, implementing and evaluating OHS Management Systems and associated operational and strategic OHS Management Plans.
  3. Leading OHS project teams / Development of focussed, succinct OHS policy and procedure.
  4. Incident investigation, report writing, researching OHS issues, compensation and rehabilitation management.
  5. Interpreting, giving advice on, facilitating learning and checking compliance with safety legislation.
  6. Managing human resource issues, E.A.P. and counselling issues.
  7. Carrying out audits and inspections / acting in a customer service role.
  8. Supervising other OHS staff, safety committees and safety reps.
  9. Managing downwards, sidewards and downwards.
  10. Incorporating OHS into quality systems, risk management, in particular risk assessment.
  11. Prioritising, planning and organising work.
  12. Facilitating communications and interpersonal issues, using computers, managing contractor safety and giving advice in relation to personal protective equipment and chemical management.
  13. Basic industrial hygiene.
  14. Audiometric testing and giving advice on noise and vibration issues.
  15. Coaching and mentoring others, benchmarking and influencing the culture.
  16. Developing safety leadership management plans and influencing leaders on safety leadership.
  17. Marketing the OHS message.
  18. Developing safe working procedures.
  19. Acting as the corporate OHS conscience.
  20. Safety data analysis and reporting.

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.

Prerequisites for the OHS person.

  • A focus on the class 1 personal damage occurrence phenomenon
  • An ability to question the validity and reliability of the smoothly marketed safety fads
  • Passion and a fire in the belly
  • An excellent sense of humour
  • An ability to bounce back from the inevitable pressures of the role
  • A robust personality and an ability to argue ones case under pressure.
  • Life skills
  • Compassion
  • A good dose of humble
  • Being a lifelong learner. Attend OHS and OHS aligned training, participate in discussion forums, join appropriate professional organisations, read widely, network with fellow professionals, be alert for anything you can do to increase your knowledge.
  • A willingness to question the status quo
  • An enquiring mind
  • Admit your mistakes and when you cannot give a good response
  • Keep in touch with the stakeholders regularly and adhere to promises made

Skills of the excellent OHS professional

  1. Interpersonal skills-Techniques such as reflective listening and appropriate self-disclosure can make a real difference. If you cannot get on well with people your technical OHS skills will go to waste.
  2. Communications skills-The biggest and commonest mistake is written communications that rave on to many pages, succinct written communications is the way to go. Not much use having a great message if you cannot get it across.
  3. Leadership-Some people say leaders are born, not made, I do not know about this but do know learning programs can enhance leadership abilities. The number 1 job of a leader is to transmit and embed high value standards. In modern business shared leadership is of more relevance than individual leadership.
  4. Get your priorities right-Recognise safety will never be the number one priority, safety must be fully integrated into other business functions
  5. Humility-Be humble and recognise the knowledge and worth of the front line worker, they are the only ones who know how things really happen
  6. Broad thinking- Think outside the square and challenge the status-quo
  7. Legislation-Recognise that while compliance with legislation is important it is only a minimum standard
  8. Pareto Principle-Remember the Pareto Principle, the 80/20 rule, identify the 20% of things you do that give you 80% of your results and concentrate on them
  9. A commitment to a continuous improvement philosophy and ability to implement Quality Management.
  10. Change management-OHS management is all about change management and generic skills can be learnt.
  11. OHS technical skills-Tertiary training is important but practical experience and critical reflection on practice is vital.
  12. Auditing-Well developed auditing questions are the important first step.
  13. Project management-OHS lends itself very well to a project management approach for major change.
  14. Learning-Avoid the lecture, use Adult Learning Principles & Process and promote interactive approaches and avoid “Death by Power-Point”
  15. Team-building skills-These essential skills can be learnt
  16. Time management skills-Relatively easy to learn this
  17. Sharing-“People support what they create” Not involving the workforce in decisions about OHS change is the road to disaster.
  18. Well developed bull-dust detector


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