Learning Safety From Various Approaches

George’s Safety Reflections SEE MORE HERE

By George Robotham

Learning From Various Approaches

'Post-Explosion Mad Scientist Costume' photo (c) 2009, That Bill Fellow - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/Quotable Quote

“A health and 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”


There appears to be an ongoing debate amongst many people about the advantages and disadvantages of practical versus theoretical approaches to learning. Both practical and theoretical approaches have a lot of value, it is disappointing there is often a lack of meeting of minds between the different views.


The author has noticed what he believes is an over emphasis on academic papers as the main means of learning in some quarters. This short paper examines my perceptions on this matter and outlines alternate means of learning.


I am a believer in a thorough, professional, research-based approach to OHS Management and OHS Learning. Having been exposed to tertiary education in OHS, H.R.M., Adult & Workplace Education and Management of Organisational Change, there is no doubt some of the theory I have been exposed to has been of practical value and some has been an utter waste of time. I generally believe tertiary education can be a wonderful thing.

I rarely watch television and have a wish list of 50 odd carefully selected books on OHS, Learning, Communications, Interpersonal skills, Leadership, Psychology and Team building that I intend to buy over the next couple of years. I am well known at the local library. I note some of the high profile American authors spend a lot of time telling you how incredibly clever they are, exaggerate their successes and over complicate issues.

Academic papers

Practical management and learning skills are vital in an all professionals. These can be enhanced by focused formal learning that has direct practical application. Some of the formal learning does not have a practical orientation and we sometimes see long winded, boring academic papers that have little useful relevance to the real world .

The term succinct is often not evident. Busy people do not have the time to read masses of information and busy people do not have the time to write it. Some succinct information on what they have to do and what the benefits are is the focus of many managers and professionals. A good rule with any communications is to explain “What is in it for me” from the perspective of the receiver.

In my experience many people are like me and quickly scan a long report and try to quickly get to the guts of “Where to from here” A lot of the material in a long report will rarely be read in detail.

Some individuals and organisations use practically useless academic papers as a way of trying to boost their perceived credibility and reputation. Some papers make outlandish claims about the success with limited sample size and with very little detailed and credible justification and research. Some researchers put in a big effort and write a long report to tell us things that people practicing will have figured out for themselves a long time ago. Some organisations demand their staff publish, we thus sometimes see quantity and not necessarily quality.

Having said this I love an academic paper that helps me improve practically and in amongst some of the garbage I have been exposed to there has undoubtedly been some excellent material.


Some of the necessary skills can be learnt through formal study, some through short courses, some through practical experience, some by reading focussed sources of information, some through exposure to informed opinion of peers and experts, 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)

The adult educators say critical reflection is an important component of adult learning, the opportunity to apply theoretical learning in an authentic environment and figure out what works and what does not work is part of this. Some university based learning does not make allowance for a thorough approach to critical reflection. More people are realising the workplace can be a robust and transferable environment for learning.

The following is taken from Chapter 4 of Dr. Robert Long’s book Risk Makes Sense-“Learning is about experience, awareness, understanding, ownership, perception, motivation, capability, adaption, thinking and investigation. One of the first things we need to know about learning is that it is different for everyone. People do not all learn in the same style or at the same rate”

People can learn through many ways-Academic papers, critical reflection on the practical application of theory, benchmarking, secondments, participation in problem discussion groups, special projects, attendance at courses / workshops / conferences / seminars, being exposed to the informed personal opinion of peers / experts, practical experience in authentic settings, learning needs analysis, reading, coaching / mentoring, reviews / surveys / appraisals, maintaining a reflective journal and so on.

Indigenous people use storeys as a powerful means of transmitting history, meaning and learning. With my particular learning style I have found exposure to the personal, informed opinion of experts and peers has been a powerful means of learning. Sometimes the discussion with peers over a coffee or a beer can be as valuable as formal learning.

I do some work with an organisation that conducts adventure-based ,lifestyle, team building and leadership learning for at risk youth. The insights that can be found around the campfire at night can be outstanding.


When I see people focusing on any one approach as the main means of learning it says to me they have a limited understanding of how people learn. For me melding the theory with the practical is the most efficient means of learning. This is the stuff of life-long learning.


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.

Do you have any thoughts? Please share them below