What Is Wrong With The Way OHS Is Managed In Australia

What Is Wrong With The Way OHS Is Managed In Australia

Guest post by the late George Robotham 

Quotable Quote

“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.

I normally write about solutions and leave the problems to the many who love a whinge, in this case I have decided part of developing solutions is to define the problems.

What Is Wrong With The Way OHS Is Managed In Australia

Traditional approaches-My understanding is that there has been some improvement in Australia in the occurrence of fatal permanently life altering personal damage but little improvement in non-fatal permanently life altering personal damage. Traditional approaches to OHS have a less than satisfactory record yet many seem to be locked into traditional approaches. Some seem to think doing the same things will give different results. Questioning the status quo seems a favoured approach to me. There is an enormous amount of activity in safety in Australia nowadays, how purposeful some of that activity is remains open to question. As I look back on approximately 38 years involvement in OHS I see little that struck me as being particularly effective.

Why personal damage occurs 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 identifies 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.

Common sense 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”

Media The media emphasises personal fault in news releases about incidents and does not consider design and system issues that contribute to personal damage. The media loves juicy stories about safety and often the truth becomes a casualty

Complexity-Much of safety is made out to be quite complex and simply hard work, we would not want to be simplistic but there is room for less hard work.

Body of OHS knowledge-A fundamental requirement of a profession is to have a robust body of knowledge, we do not yet have this in OHS in Australia. A major challenge for the OHS industry is to advance the initial efforts in this area

OHS learning-Because we do not have a robust body of OHS knowledge, learning organisations find it difficult to develop effective, targeted learning. Much of the learning OHS people facilitate lacks guidance from modern adult learning principles and process. Lecture style presentations should be limited to the very short and interactive approaches used.

Safety stuff-OHS people do safety stuff and often do not use the learning from other disciplines in their work.

Interpersonal and communications skills-These are a weakness with many OHS personnel.

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.

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.

L.T.I.F.R.- 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

AS 4801-4801 is regarded as the ultimate standard by which safety management systems are judged and a whole industry has been developed around it. I would suggest AS4801 is but a basic starting point in developing a safety management system.

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.

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. Interestingly the Prime Minister claimed success in the harmonisation of Australian OHS laws, I do not share her optimism.

The tripartite partners bring their vested interests to the discussion table and at times real progress in OHS is a casualty. It is very easy to make a lot of noise about OHS and look like you are doing effective things in safety. The challenge for all tripartite partners is to really make a difference.

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.

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.”

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

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.

Fads- The safety business has a tendency to pick and run with various safety fads that emerge, often the smooth marketing disguises the inherent weaknesses in the approaches. Pig poo is made to look, smell,taste and feel like strawberry jam.

Professional associations-Despite substantial flapping of gums not all OHS professional organisations provide a good service to their members.

Standard of OHS people-The vast majority of OHS people I have met have been dedicated people who try very hard, unfortunately I have also worked with a few incompetent idiots.OHS is yet to emerge as a profession, I put this down to the lack of a robust body of knowledge.OHS professional associations need to me doing more to elevate the status of the OHS business.

Tripartite partners- The partners bring their vested interests to the discussion table and at times real progress in OHS is a casualty.

Ponderous paperwork

The safety industry revels in the production of long, ponderous, detailed paperwork that no one reads, cares about or uses. Ploughing through the detail is just too much like hard work. There is room for succinct summaries of major approaches.

Recruitment of OHS personnel

Many OHS personnel will tell you horror stories of how OHS recruitment was managed, recruitment consultants appear to come under particular criticism. One experienced OHS person described recruitment consultants as essentially salesman who had little understanding of safety and often had little idea what the employer needed in safety people.

Arrogant tendency

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

Unless you are very careful to avoid it, a natural consequence of progression to more senior positions is that you get embroiled in the strategic world and quickly lose touch with the operational world. I have lost count of the times when managers and OHS personnel have told me how OHS is managed in their facility and when I went out in the paddock found a vastly different scenario. A lot of people do not realise that the OHS approach that works well in one organisation can be a disaster in another. A lot of people do not realise that whatever you do in OHS must be targeted at the identified needs of the organisation. What happens up the sharp end is what matters.

Any organisational change will inevitably be a disaster if you do not involve those affected by the change in the change process. As we used to say in the Army you are stuffed without your private soldiers.


The above are what my training and experience tells me is wrong with the way OHS is managed in Australia. You may well have different training and experience and have come to different conclusions. The challenge obviously is to solve any identified problems. Some may say the views above represent a cynical view of OHS, in my defence I have to say the majority of what I write is about proactive approaches to the function. Someone said it is a thin line between cynicism and realism.


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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