Where Is OHS In Australia Going Wrong?

Where Is OHS In Australia Going Wrong?

Guest post by the late George Robotham 


There are many areas where OHS is going wrong in Australia. I have chosen to comment on 4 areas, Class 1 personal damage occurrence data systems, complexity, lack of focus on the people and harmonised legislation.

Quotable Quotes

“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”

OHS is about “ Change For The Future NOT Blame For The Past”

An ex-manager of mine used to say “Bring me solutions, not problems” The best way to influence management is to provide solutions and not bury them in problems. Another ex-manager said “If you cannot manage safety, you cannot manage”

Class 1 personal damage occurrence data systems– 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. Of course this does not diminish the devastating nature of fatalities.

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. The lack of such a system is a serious impediment to progress.

Complexity and safety

Early in my safety career it became obvious to me that safety is about the people and not about the things and artefacts. It is not about the safety management systems, safety management plans, risk assessments, audits etc. but what the people do with them.

Generally speaking the human being will do things by the least time / least effort way. Much in safety management is simply hard work, we should not be surprised when it does not happen!

Call me slack if you will but I find so much that is written about safety requires me to invest far too much of my time and effort to understand it, I just give up and do not bother. Simple English is the way to go!

Introducing excellent safety managements systems is quite easy, eliminate complexity and focus on your people.

Recently I had the opportunity to comment on two organisations attempts to develop job safety analysis and work method statements or safe working procedures. This stuff is as simple and basic as it gets but both organisations had clouded it in layer of complexity that they were obviously not coping well with. There were procedures for the procedures and extensive signoffs and checks, no wonder things were not working. Safety personnel had put extensive work into overly formalising inherently simple approaches.

A lot of safety represents a just in case or cover your arse approach, great in theory but not realistic when you inflict it on the workers. The Australian worker knows bullshit when he sees it, it is no wonder much of safety has low credibility in the worker’s eyes.

I started a contract with one organisation and they said I should read about their approach to safety. About 200 pages of detailed information, I got to page 50 and gave up. I wondered about how much impact this documentation would be making up the sharp end.

There is one individual, with a military background, on one OHS forum I participate in who talks about the safety approaches he has introduced in his organisation. Full of detailed policy and procedure, very disciplined, very regimented, full of signoffs for various things, full of complexity, full of all knowing management dictating what the workers will do and so on. I would not be surprised if he got the workers to salute him at the beginning of every shift.

Such approaches were never particularly successful in my time in the Australian Army and seem to have little place in modern industry with a more enlightened workforce.

Focus on the people

Early in my safety career I experienced 3 defining events.

At one organisation the production manager and I reported to the location manager. I had a lot of support from the location manager whereas the production manager and the location manager frequently clashed. There was a safety issue that I could have handled better by involving more people in my decision making process. The technical basis of what I did was sound but I did not explain it to some of the stakeholders. The production manager blew the issue out of all proportion, tempers got flared and there was a lot of noise. When the fuss had died down I quickly and easily resolved the issue by working with one of the production manager’s direct reports.

I could not understand why the production manager got so excited over such a minor matter. One of the other managers told me what was really happening was the production manager was taking an opportunity to get back at the company manager by pointing out my mistakes.

At another location I used to run a 2 day accident investigation course with the central theme that personal damage occurrences (Accidents) were the result of People, Machine and Environment essential factors. I emphasised there was a lot more to safety than blaming the people.

A new manager started whose focus was finding out who was to blame for accidents and kicking their rear end. My training, while technically sound did not go over very well with him and he complained very loudly to senior management. There was a great deal of excitement. He displayed considerable inflexibility in his approach and was eventually told by senior management to pull his head in. My manager made it clear to me that he expected me to keep doing what I was doing.

At another location the manager the site OHS person reported to contacted me because he was concerned about the technical basis of how the site safety person was conducting a particular aspect of his job. The manager had researched the issue to a certain extent, had his concerns justified but had no luck in getting change. I researched the issue very thoroughly and forwarded the results to the manager. The manager then requested I visit the site and influence the site safety person.

I had a large pile of well researched information to prove my case but the site safety person would not shift his approach. I later discovered he spent a fair bit of time piling crap on me to anyone who would listen. He amused people at a meeting of all company safety people by saying my definition of a reasonable man was one who agreed with me.

As a relatively young OHS person I came to the realisation that no matter how technically sound your approaches, the people issues can bring you undone.

Some in OHS management forget that they are dealing with unreliable human beings and treat people like they are machines, they then wonder why their approaches do not work.


You can have the most complex safety management system but the reality is the example you set will be a determining factor in how it is implemented. People judge you by what they see you doing not by what you say you are doing. Treating people with the upmost respect at all times is essential.

Quotable Quote

“The people are fashioned according to the example of their king and edicts are less powerful than the life (example) of the king” Claudian, c. 365, Egyptian epic poet

Safety change

It is rare for organisational change to be effective if those affected by the change process are not fully involved in the change process. “When initiating change remember, People support what they create.” The 6 P rule is very important in change – Prior Preparation and Planning Prevents Poor Performance.

Attempting too big a change and / or changing things too quickly can create an adverse reaction and alienate the very people you want to make allies. Learn the context, culture and past before trying to make changes. Unless a crisis situation is apparent realise effective change requires a lot of effort and time.

High technology

Some people think complexity is the solution. We live in times of high technology solutions to many problems, these are fine if the essential interpersonal and communications issues are not overlooked.


“Nothing is more central to an organisation’s effectiveness than its ability to transmit accurate, relevant and understandable information among its members.” Keep written communications focussed and succinct. Busy people do not have time to read lengthy documents and busy people do not have time to write them. Always check for understanding. Produce and create an expectation of receiving succinct written communication.

Where ever possible use face to face communication, it is a big mistake to rely on e-mails for communicating major issues. Frame communications relevant to the receivers work environment. Safety people seem to engage in competitions to make simple communications overly complex

Safety leadership

Leadership is the often forgotten key to excellence in most facets of life. Great leaders are always great simplifiers.

The Top 10 Things that are Essential for Safety Leadership

  1. Leaders must visibly demonstrate commitment and focus on safety. Good leaders lead, great leaders develop other leaders.
  2. Leaders must set the safety example.
  3. Leaders must create high safety expectations.
  4. High values and detailed standards of performance must be used

  5. Leaders must listen to and involve the workforce

  6. Leaders must do what they say they will do.

  7. Leaders must value safety goals.

  8. Employees must be made to feel they are part of something important and satisfying.

  9. Leaders must reinforce, reward and celebrate success.

  10. Everyone must be held accountable for safety performance.

The great leaders I have worked with have had an uncomplicated approach to the safety function and a great focus on the people. During leadership training in the Australian Army I was told the most important thing in leadership is to look after your private soldiers, because you are stuffed without them. Many in management could learn from this.

Simple Things

Do the simplest thing that will work. Effective systems are a trade off between simplicity and complexity. Systems have to be complex enough that they have identified and meet needs yet simple enough that they are not a big ask to implement.

Harmonised safety legislation

The cynic in me says the harmonised safety legislation was never really about improvements in health and safety, rather it was about reducing the costs of doing business for companies that operated across various states. The lack of Australia wide implementation of the harmonised legislation has been a joke.

I am reminded of discussion on a Canadian OHS forum where the conclusion was that if all you did in safety was comply with legislation you would be lucky to prevent 20% of your accidents

I am also reminded of an organisation that had 18 internal standards of OHS excellence. Compliance with safety legislation was but one of the many standards. Compliance with safety legislation is important but I find some get overly focused on it being an answer to a maidens safety prayers.


There are many areas where OHS is going wrong in Australia. I have chosen to comment on 4 areas, Class 1 personal damage occurrence data systems, complexity, lack of focus on the people and harmonised legislation. Major changes are required to manage these areas well.


George can be contacted on fgrobotham@gmail.com, he welcomes debate on the above (it would be indeed a boring world if everybody agreed with George)


George Robotham, Cert. IV T.A.E.,. Dip. Training & Assessment Systems, Diploma in Frontline Management, Bachelor of Education (Adult & Workplace Education), (Queensland University of Technology), Graduate Certificate in Management of Organisational Change, (Charles Sturt University), Graduate Diploma of Occupational Hazard Management), (Ballarat University), Accredited Workplace Health & Safety Officer (Queensland),Justice of the Peace (Queensland), Australian Defence Medal, Brisbane, Australia, fgrobotham@gmail.com, www.ohschange.com.au,07-38021516, 0421860574, My passion is the reduction of permanently life altering (Class 1 ) personal damage

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