Effective evaluation of an organisation’s OHS performance

Effective evaluation of an organisation’s OHS performance

Article by the late George Robotham

See all of George’s unique takes on OHS here: george-robotham

I was asked to write about this topic and I am not confident I have a good response. I am aware my ideas about this topic will be different from many others.

What is good OHS performance?

Many have written about the myth that a low L.T.I.F.R. is a valid and reliable indicator of safety performance, so let us move on from this idiocy.

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

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. To my mind the most important indicator that an organisation is performing well in safety is the absence of Class 1 personal damage.

Traditional evaluation of an organisation’s OHS performance

I have written elsewhere about the traditional approach of auditing OHS management systems. These are often quite generic and do not drill down to the essence of how OHS is managed. I am a particular critic of 4801 audits and believe audits must focus on the things organisations are doing to prevent Class 1 personal damage.

Included in the audits I have been associated with have been 4801 / 4804, N.S.C.A. 5 star, N.O.S.A. 5 star, I.S.R.S., Tri-Safe, Safe Plan and Safe Map. None have impressed me as really drilling down to the core of how safety is managed.

Auditing of internal standards of OHS excellence

The best piece of OHS work I have seen carried out was when one organization developed, implemented and evaluated 18 internal standards of OHS excellence. Standards included- 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.

The standards were introduced 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 3 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.

These audits really impressed me as drilling down to the core of how safety was managed.

Critical incident recall

The process outlined below was very effective in evaluating an organisations safety performance

Many people will tell you near misses or near hits (Better referred to as critical incidents) are reported in their organisation. My experience is that unless proper procedures are put in place to surface critical incidents you will only get to hear about a fraction of them.

Background to the critical incident recall work

This work was done in the electrical department of an open cut coal mine. Prior to this work an electrician was seriously burnt in a 415 volt switchboard explosion. Some of the essential factors were production pressure, inexperience, suspect high voltage testing equipment, the ergonomics of the switchboard and test and prove dead not carried out.

The investigation revealed several areas of concern and it was decided to try a different safety approach.

What was done

All department members attended a short learning session where the Person, Machine, Environment concepts were explained. If I was to do this again I would include a case study of a complex class 1 personal damage occurrence to bring out the principles. 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.

Other techniques

Facilitated problem solving techniques, guided discussions, targeted questionnaires are amongst the techniques that can be used to evaluate an organisations safety performance. Based on my brief exposure to both areas, the skills of psychology and sociology assessment are relevant.


4801 audits are traditional methods of evaluating the safety performance of organisations, we need to assess if they are as effective as many assume they are. There is room for evaluating how well organisations manage Class 1 personal damage.


George Robotham

George Robotham

George was a Legend in the Safety World who passed away in Sept 2013 but left us with a great legacy
George Robotham
I have worked in OHS for most of my working life, many years in the mining industry including over 10 years in a corporate OHS role with BHP. Since leaving the mining industry I have worked in a variety of safety roles with a variety of employers, large & small, in a variety of industries. I was associated with my first workplace fatality at age 21, the girl involved was young, intelligent, vivacious and friendly. Such a waste! I was the first on the scene and tried to comfort her and tend to her injuries. She said to me “George, please do not let me die” We put her on the aerial ambulance to Rockhampton base hospital where she died the next day. I do not mind telling you that knocked me around for awhile. Since then I have helped my employers cope with the aftermath of 12 fatalities and 2 other life-altering events. The section "Why do Occupational Health & Safety" provides further detail but in summary, poor safety is simply very expensive and also has a massive humanitarian cost. My qualifications include a certificate I.V. in Workplace Training and Assessment, a Diploma in Frontline Management, a Diploma in Training & Assessment Systems, a Bachelor of Education (Adult & Workplace Education) , a Grad. Cert. in Management of Organisational Change and a Graduate Diploma in Occupational Hazard Management. I am currently studying towards a Masters in Business Leadership. Up until recently I had been a Chartered Fellow of the Safety Institute of Australia for 10 years and a member for about 30 years. My interest is in non-traditional methods of driving organisational change in OHS and I have what I believe is a healthy dis-respect for many common approaches to OHS Management and OHS Training. I hold what I believe is a well-founded perception that many of the things safety people and management do in safety are “displacement activities” (Displacement activities are things we do, things we put a lot of energy into, but which when we examine them closely there is no valid reason for doing them). My managerial and leadership roles in OHS have exposed me to a range of management techniques that are relevant to Business Improvement. In particular I am a strong supporter of continuous improvement and quality management approaches to business. I believe leadership is the often forgotten key to excellence in most aspects of life. I hold the Australian Defence Medal and am a J.P.(Qualified). I have many fond memories of my time playing Rugby Union when I was a young bloke.

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