OHS 2012 Where Are We Now?

George Robotham reflects back over the changes, or lack there of, in the last 11 years. Comments and criticisms are bound be many and are totally encouraged. Be warned, no punches have been pulled!

Quote:Many of the people who work in OHS are strongly locked into traditional approaches and have difficulty accepting new ideas. We have to recognise many of the traditional approaches have not been particularly effective, we badly need an aggressive philosophy of challenging the status quo. Adopting a continuous improvement policy is vital. Beware the person who makes pig poo look, taste, feel and smell like strawberry jam, there is no shortage of snake oil salesmen in safety.”

OHS 2012 – Where Are We Now?


In August 2001 I wrote a paper, Occupational Health & Safety-Where Are We Now? The paper can be found under OHS Articles on www.ohschange.com.au Some may find my comments in the following overly critical and pessimistic, I prefer to think comment is realistic.

At the time I said the following-Some of the problems I currently see with Occupational Health and Safety in Australia include these-

  • There is only half-hearted leadership from government, unions and many companies with regard to safety. Admitting to being a cynic I suggest the rhetoric is not always accompanied by action. I suppose it is naive to think the tripartite partners can put aside their industrial and political agenda when discussing safety.
  • There is a poor understanding in the community of the reasons why accidents occur. We are quick to make the assumption that the worker was careless, when one examines accidents carefully one identifies a range of work system factors that contributed to the accident as well, most of these work system factors are the responsibility of the employer at both common and statute law. Blaming workers for their careless behaviour is an emotionally appealing approach that is usually not all that productive in the bigger picture of preventing personal damage at work.
  • It is often said about safety that it is just common sense, if this is the case why are we doing such a poor job of managing it in this country? I am reminded of an un-named Chinese philosopher who was reported to have said "The trouble with common sense is that it is never common and rarely sensible"
  • The media emphasises personal fault in news releases about incidents and does not consider design and system issues that contribute to incidents.
  • We do not have a centralised, consistent method of reporting and recording incident and disease statistics. How can we examine the beast and learn from it if we do not record and report it in a consistent manner?
  • In business vast amounts of money can be spent on safety without really defining desired outcomes (I am not doubting peoples motives however, just their effectiveness)
  • Government, unions and many companies treat safety as a second priority and industrial relations issues dominate.
  • The standard of Occupational Health and Safety practitioner may not be as high as it could be
  • The messages of past incidents are not utilised enough in safety decision making. For this to happen past incident information has to be collected ,presented and organised in a useable manner.
  • The Lost Time Injury Frequency Rate predominates discussions about safety performance. How can a company be proud of a decrease of L.T.I.F.R. from 60 to 10 if there have been 2 fatalities and 1 case of paraplegia amongst the lost time injuries? The L.T.I.F.R. trivialises serious personal damage and is a totally inappropriate measure of safety performance
  • Changes since 2001

Admitting to being a cynic I do not see many improvements in the OHS situation since 2001. Admittedly there is much more OHS activity these days, how effective and purposeful a lot of that activity is, is questionable in my mind. There is a gradual realisation about the problems associated with using L.T.I.F.R. as a measure of safety performance. The Qld W.H.S.O. qualification has disappeared with harmonisation. Whilst this situation was far from perfect in implementation the concept of training those working in OHS in the particular state OHS legislation seems to be a particularly sound one that should be applied nationally. Incident data is still not collected , presented or organised in a useable manner. In 2012 I cringe when I see the OHS terminology I used in 2001. We are still lacking a focus on Class 1 (Permanently alters the future of the individual, Fatal, Non-Fatal) personal damage.

Issues for discussion in 2012

A 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.

B Harmonisation –I suspect the drivers behind harmonisation were more about reducing cost to industry rather than improving OHS.I generally believe a national approach to OHS is an excellent concept. Harmonised safety legislation may have some advantages but the current situation seems a mess to me given the piecemeal implementation. I find it difficult to recognise significant OHS advantages that have accrued from the work so far.

The fact that the Qld. W.H.S.O. concept was not picked up nationally and data collection and analysis remains incomplete are amongst the opportunities that have been missed.

C L.T.I.F.R.-There is still a disturbingly high number of companies using L.T.I.F.R. as their main measure of safety performance. People appear not to have got the message about positive performance indicators.

D Problems with 4801-Many people will have you believe 4801 is the holy grail of safety management systems and the fact that they have a 4801 compliant safety management system means they are doing a good job on safety.

As far as I am concerned 4801 represents a very basic approach to safety management systems and any S.M.S. I would want to implement would substantially exceed the requirements of 4801.

E Education for OHS personnel There is much activity in OHS education but I am unaware a comprehensive learning needs analysis has been carried out. One of the problems I see is that universities do not have a robust OHS body of knowledge to base their course offerings on. The Safety Institute of Australia carried out an OHS body of knowledge project and are to be commended for this. My view is that from a communications, OHS, project management and Learning perspective there were major problems with the project. What we see now should just be regarded as the start of the process.

F OHS Leadership

Having survived a number of years in industry the author is acutely aware that leadership of an organisation can make or break the organisation. The importance of leadership is vastly underrated in Australian industry, leadership is the forgotten key to excellence in business. Leaders send out messages, often subtly, about what they value and expect.

Livermore(in Carter, Ulrich & Goldsmith, p46) observes “The best system or model in the world is not going to do your organisation a bit of good unless you have a top down commitment to making it work. Once mid-level management and low level employees see top executives leading the way, most of them will begin to support the initiative as well.”

G Terminology used in OHS,

Probably the best example of a lack of scientific discipline in OHS lies in the terminology “accident”

The term “accident” implies carelessness (whatever that means), lack of ability to control its causation, an inability to foresee and prevent and a personal failure. How can we make meaningful progress on a major cost to Australian industry if we persist with such, sloppy, unscientific terminology? The term “accident” affects how the general population perceives damaging occurrences and the people who suffer the personal damage, inferring the event is “an act of god” or similar event beyond the control and understanding of mere mortals.(Geoff McDonald)

The term “accident” is best replaced by the term “personal damage occurrence”. Instead of talking about “permanent disability” we should be talking about “life-altering personal damage”

There is a poor understanding in the community of the reasons why personal damage occurs. We are quick to make the assumption that the worker was careless, when one examines personal damage carefully one will also identify a range of work system factors that contributed to the personal damage as well. Most of these work system factors are the responsibility of the employer at both common and statute law. Blaming workers for their careless behaviour is an emotionally appealing approach that is usually not all that productive in the bigger picture of preventing personal damage at work

H Need for psychological approaches to OHS

I completed a few psychology subjects as part of formal study and found them fascinating and very useful.

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.

I Lack of a national and industry wide Class 1 personal damage occurrence data bases

Many organisations analyse their “Accident” experience in the hope of gaining insight into how to prevent their problems. Most organisations will not have sufficient serious “Accident” experience to make statistically significant determinations.

1. Damage to people at work has a number of adverse outcomes:-

§ Financial loss to employer, worker and community

§ Pain and suffering

§ Dislocation of lives

§ Permanence of death

2. Damage to people from work falls naturally into one of three Classes.

– Class I damage permanently alters the person’s life and subdivides into

– fatal

– non fatal

– Class II damage temporarily alters the person’s life

– Class III damage temporarily inconveniences the person’s life (Geoff McDonald & Associates)

I Taxonomy

This is an incredibly simple technique that it is rare to find used. Essentially a taxonomy is a collection of like. The most well known taxonomy is the phylum of plants, their botanical names.

Examination of personal damage occurrences on an industry basis can provide meaningful insight into your safety problems. Examination on a national basis is even more powerful, I find it hard to believe our national government is serious about safety when we do not have a national method of collecting, reporting and analysing Class 1 personal damage.

J A lack of focus on Class 1 personal damage

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 phenomena. 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.

K The need for disciplines other than OHS to be used in OHS

Rightly or wrongly I believe safety people spend too much time doing safety stuff and do not apply the knowledge from other disciplines to OHS anywhere near enough. Of course this is strengthened by an education system that is focused on developing OHS technical skills. There is a lot to be said for OHS people to gain skills in disciplines aligned with OHS.

L OHS Learning

Facilitating OHS learning is a very important part of an OHS professional’s role but unfortunately many do not have high levels of skills in this area. The Cert. IV T.A.E. is the standard people are judged by. The reality is that this course has a number of limitations and only represents a learner’s permit.

For the learning to have meaning activities should be organised to allow participants to discover the concepts for themselves (not always an easy thing to do). Discussions, case studies, practical exercises, role plays are preferred. These are usually more effective learning methods than the lecture but they take a longer period of time.

M Marketing of OHS

Sometimes skills from other disciplines can be applied successfully to OHS, one such skill set is marketing. I have attended some marketing training but admittedly the focus was on marketing consultancy services. What I have tried to do with the following is provide are a few marketing tips I think can be applied to the work of an OHS professional in a normal employer employee relationship.

Marketing is putting the right product in the right place, at the right time, at the right place. You have to create a product people want.

In an employer employee OHS relationship monetary cost may not be regarded as a factor but there will be a cost in time and effort. In the situation where corporate OHS people are internal OHS consultants there may well be costs of running the corporate OHS department allocated to business units.

Like a lot of things in life the 7 P rule applies to marketing-Prior Preparation and Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.

Have an OHS marketing plan with ideal customers specified, a vision, a customer mission statement, goals and objectives.

Marketing people talk about the 4 P marketing mix-Product, Place, Price, Promotion. It pays to put a lot of work into defining these. People buy products not services and carefully defining your products is vital.

Once you have defined you marketing approach get feedback from your customers to ensure it is really what they want.

N OHS Team building

OHS people must have technical OHS skills. My experience is that broader skills such as leadership, communications, interpersonal and team building skills are also necessary. I have facilitated some team building interactive learning for OHS team members and believe such learning has significant benefit for both established and new teams.

Teams are small groups of people with complementary skills who work together as a unit to achieve a common purpose for which they hold themselves collectively accountable.

O Complexity of reports

OHS seems to attract long, wordy, complex reports and presentations that people seldom read, seldom listen to, seldom care about and seldom do much in response. Busy people do not have time to prepare detailed reports and busy people do not have time to read them. The term succinct is rarely apparent.

Many OHS people are complaining they have to spend so much time behind their computer they have little time to get out in the field where the action is happening.

P Quality management

Incorporating OHS into Quality management approaches can add significant rigor and benefits, it is surprising that much more is not done in this area.

Q Communicating change-Winning employee support for new business goals-T. J. Larkin, Sandar Larkin

I worked with T.J. Larkin analysing communications in a major organisation, the things he says make a lot of sense to me.

There were 3 main messages to come out of this research-

Use face-to-face communications,

Use the supervisor to communicate and

Frame messages relevant to the immediate work area.

R Behaviour-based safety.

It is a rarity to see Australian companies with BBS as a major plank in their approach to safety. A small number have it as part of the overall approach. There are some aspects of the Australian culture , independence, lack of respect for authority, general cynicism, mateship etc. that make BBS difficult to implement here. My reading on BBS is limited to Scott Geller and Thomas Krause who seem to be the American pioneers of the area. Their writings did little for me.

My view is that there are a number of proponents of B.B.S. who make outlandish claims about the success of the technique without rigorous research studies to back up their assertions. Some of the arguments for the technique get emotive.

My view is that you have to have good safety systems and engineering controls in place before you consider introducing B.B.S. There is one safety professional whose opinion I respect highly who tells me he has had good success with Dupont B.B.S. systems.

The biggest challenge in any discipline is dealing with the people issues. Behavior is determined by many factors heredity, upbringing, safety leadership, safety systems, safety culture etc and my view is that it is simplistic to think a basic tool such as BBS will make a major difference.

Proponents of BBS will have you believe about 90% of personal damage occurrences (“Accidents”) will be the result of faulty behavior. I find this view simplistic. Every personal damage occurrence (“Accident”) will result from Behavior, Machine and Environment essential factors (An essential factor is one without which the final damage could not have occurred). Often Behavior is effected by Machine and Environment.

If you are interested in introducing BBS my advice is to look through the rhetoric, gloss and salesmanship, carefully examine any success stories to see if they are statistically significant and examine if the proposed changes will have a meaningful impact on safety culture.

If you introduce it be conscious that are many other things you will have to do to have a robust safety management system and BBS in isolation will have little real impact.

S Elitist tendency

There is a disturbing tendency in some quarters for OHS to become elitist and overly academic. Exhortations to raise the OHS profile and be recognised as professional are fine as far as they go but some do not recognise the practical nature of OHS and the worth of those who work on the practical side of the equation as opposed to the academic side. Good OHS strategic plans are a waste of time and effort without good operational implementation. Some appear to operate on the presumption that those who do the strategic OHS work are superior human beings to those who do the operational OHS work.

T Arrogant tendency

I note a tendency to arrogance in some OHS people, some companies with high profile OHS systems and some OHS organisations.

The principal reason why professional organisations exist is to serve the professional needs of members. Anything less than an intense focus on members needs, appropriate succinct communications and seeking and responding to member feedback will result in an ineffective organisation. Professional organisations that do not put in the hard work to identify member needs and react to them will fiddle at the edges and be irrelevant.

Some appear to operate on the presumption that those who do the strategic OHS work are superior human beings to those who do the operational OHS work.

To the many who engage in OHS arrogance I remind you of an ex-manager of mine who used to say the main problem with OHS is that individuals and organisations engage in acts of public masturbation.


It appears a number of the 2001 issues I identified are still issues in 2012.I have provided a number of new issues which I am suggesting are relevant in 2012.My aim with this paper is to promote discussion. I am not silly enough to think I have captured all the issues and I recognise there is a big difference between identifying the issues and solving them. There are a number of papers under Articles on ohschange.com.au that may provide some solutions.

Final thought

Many of the people who work in OHS are strongly locked into traditional approaches and have difficulty accepting new ideas. We have to recognise many of the traditional approaches have not been particularly effective, we badly need an aggressive philosophy of challenging the status quo. Adopting a continuous improvement policy is vital. Beware the person who makes pig poo look, taste, feel and smell like strawberry jam, there is no shortage of snake oil salesmen in safety.

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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