OHS – A Critical Comment by an OHS Professional

This article is provided by Les Henley, who has over 15 years experience in the OHS industry, and holds a Cert IV OHS, Cert IV OHS auditing, Cert IV Assessor and Workplace Trainer, Advanced Return to Work Coordinator (NSW) and a Bachelor of Commerce – Employment Relations.

Les has worked in OHS across many industries including commerce/finance, forestry, heavy and light manufacturing, transport and logistics and aged care.

Les submits this attached article, not with a view to criticising OHS professionals, but with a view to encouraging employers to refocus on how they manage their OHS obligations and use the services of OHS professionals…

Reviewing Safety IssuesHaving been a consultant, trainer and practitioner in OHS for over 15 years, and having previously worked both in middle management and as a tradesperson, I wonder if we haven’t lost sight of what it means to ‘manage workplace safety’ efficiently and effectively.

In NSW in 1983 (and at various times in other states) we saw a new paradigm introduced, in respect of legislative change, requiring employers to consult with employees on what constituted workplace safety. This was a radical change from the previous prescriptive legislation that had been carried over from British law with settlement of this great land. The primary thrust of this new approach was recognition that no two workplaces are identical and so a set of prescriptive laws would not fit every employer’s workplace and also could not keep up with the rate of technological and industrial change.

We (NSW) saw a revision of that new approach in 2000 and, with the introduction of a consolidated regulation in 2001, everything was supposed to get so much easier. But did it really?

A quick review of businesses selling OHS services on the WWW reveals that many organisations are offering OHS management systems (OHSMS) that are essentially generic, though intended to be tailored to specific worksites, which flies in the face of the intent of the new legislation which recognised the vast variations from worksite to worksite.

Many other businesses on the WWW are selling consulting services to support other businesses that find the whole OHS concept a puzzling maze. And it suits these consulting organisations to maintain the puzzle – often contributing to the problem by use of language and jargon that baffles the average manager, supervisor and employee who are supposed to consult together on matters affecting the health and safety of employees and others.

A third group of organisations are those selling auditing services aimed at making sure that an employer’s OHSMS complies with a raft of Australian and New Zealand standards to ensure that the documentation actually meets certain generic criteria established by yet a fourth group – Standards Australia – whose primary income is based in making these AS/NZ standards integral to doing business in Australia and around the world.

Let’s take a step back – 1983 and 2000 saw the introduction of laws that made it imperative for employers to resolve health and safety risks at the workplace level.

OHS related businesses have apparently been striving to make it seem as if one size (prescription) OHSMS fits all.

It doesn’t make sense!

Yes, the laws require employers to take a systematic approach to identifying, assessing and managing risks in the workplace.

And yes, the laws require some record keeping – as a means to demonstrate that employers have fulfilled their legal obligations.

But that doesn’t mean employers need to adopt and adapt generic OHSMS that are far more complex than most employers need.

My personal observation over the past 15 years leads me to believe that it has apparently been easier for employers to throw bankloads of money at consultants to assist them to ‘get it right’ than it was to take some time to understand the legislation and apply it according to its intent for their workplace. And yet we still kill and injure significant numbers of people in workplaces every year.

This observation is further supported by the number of middle and frontline managers that still struggle to ‘do OHS’ as an integral part of their job.

True, I’m seeing more and more CEOs and MDs focussing on OHS as a significant area of cost/benefit to the business – especially with the alternate rising cost of workers compensation and/or the threat or reality of significant penalties to provide impetus.

But even then I don’t see too much understanding of the real issues associated with implementing OHS at the coalface.

To put it simply – every employee is employed to add value to the business by earning income and/or reducing costs. But the ever increasing burdens of super complex OHSMS result in so much time being consumed in ‘doing OHS by the system’ that actual productivity is crippled.

Please don’t get me wrong – I’m in the business of OHS because I have lost workmates in fatal accidents and have even experienced a major injury myself back in the days when I was a tradesperson.

I strongly believe that it makes good business sense to ‘do OHS efficiently and effectively’. But if the primary focus of the complex OHSMS is essentially a means to ‘covering my butt’ in case something goes wrong then I think we need to refocus.

I also believe that if we (employers) spend a little more time on identifying, assessing and controlling the risks – and simply documenting that process in each application – we will achieve both a safer workplace and ‘cover our butts’ at the same time.

So where do we start to simplify this risk management process?

First we need to recognise the 4 key groups of risks. These are easily remembered by the “4 Ps” of:

1. PLACE: the workplace and its environment – the buildings, boundaries and contents of the employer’s premises at any given time. Every person coming onto the site is exposed to various combinations of these risks.

2. PLANT and substances – the machinery, tools, equipment, materials and substances that are used in the performance of work activities. Employees and others who are in the proximity of the work are directly exposed to these risks.

3. PROCESS – the step-by-step work methods, procedures, processes that employees follow to perform their work tasks. Employees are exposed to these.

4. PEOPLE – the behaviours of all people who may be at the workplace from time to time may present work related risks. This can be further broken down into the “3 Cs” of:

a. Competence – employees need the right combination of knowledge, skill and experience in order to be competent to perform work tasks safely. Qualifications and licenses provide limited evidence of competence.
b. Capability – employees need to be physically, emotionally and psychologically capable of performing work tasks safely. Issues such as physique, (shape, size, strength, etc), relational circumstances (marriage, inter-social connections, etc) and self-concept (phobias, egos, etc) along with issues such as fatigue all go to affecting any given employee’s capability to perform work safely.
c. Compliance – a person’s willingness (or not) to comply with established workplace standards and processes. People need to know what the standards and processes are before they can comply with them.

These concepts are embodied in the employers’ primary responsibilities as set out in the OHS Act (NSW) 2000 at section 8(1) and 8(2). Every other part of the legislation and subordinate regulation goes to provide direction for employers and others to manage the risks associated with these “4 P’s” and “3 C’s”.

Now we need to acknowledge that every workplace is more or less complex than every other workplace. Because every site is different, every set of plant and substances is different, every set of work processes are different and every set of employees is different.

BUT every employer needs to understand and manage the risks associated with their own workplace.

Buying and implementing an OHSMS and maintaining it to a set of generic criteria is not evidence that the risks associated with the “4 P’s and “3 C’s” have been identified, assessed and controlled at the workplace. And OHSMSs, whether paper based or electronic have never, in and of themselves, prevented an injury.

However, if an employer was to:

  1. establish a consultative process with their employees, and 
  2. consult them on identifying, assessing and controlling risks associated with the “4P’s” and 
  3. document and implement the outcomes of that consultation

… such an employer would have gone a long way to fulfilling their legal obligations under the OHS Act (NSW) 2000.

There may be a need for some expert assistance in interpreting the OHS Regulation, various codes of practice and some Australian Standards with regard to some specific risk issues, but these should be done on a needs basis rather than as a matter of course in the implementation of a full-blown generic OHSMS.

The cost of this approach? The same cost in employee, supervisor and manager time as if a consultant were engaged to lead the process.

The benefits of this approach? Make significant savings in consulting fees, gain a better understanding of the workplace and all the risks that it encompasses and build a better relationship between managers, supervisors and employees. AND gain ownership of the process by all persons involved and affected.

Thank you Les.

About the Author

Safety Concepts is an online resource providing up to date insights and covering issues in the field of Workplace Safety.

Comments (4)

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  1. Mark Bates says:

    I totally agree great submission. I am also an OHS consultant; I encounter organisations that have ‘bogged’ themselves down with systems that literally were designed ‘to cover their butt.
    On further personal investigation I have often found key staff is not even aware of the organisations OHS procedures and policies!
    Also OHS legislation appears to me to so academic in principle and scaremongering that the key person responsible for OHS in a company has to devote so much time and energy to (covering his butt) paperwork, audits, incident analysis. He or she never gets the opportunities to actually step out onto the front line and do what I refer to as a ‘real life hazard investigation.
    I have found many times the office OHS manager relies on incident reports provided as a true representation of the work place hazards, where in fact I have case studies where the incident was far greater upon real life investigation.
    So in other words I say stop protecting your butt – get off your butt and go and do real life investigation for potential hazards.

  2. Les Henley says:

    Thanks for the supporting comment Mark,
    It’s good to know that I’m not alone.
    Your reference to “Incident reports” also touches one of my ‘OHS nerves’ – so many businesses are still using lag indicators such as LTIFR and CIFR to measure their ‘OHS performance’ – these were developed to benchmark and compare businesses across the spectrum.
    Unfortunately they only indicate the rate of failure – they don’t even provide evidence of prevention management or even what went wrong that needs to be addressed.
    We need to get them looking at lead indicators – “What did we do PROACTIVELY to PREVENT injuries?” rather than “How good did we fail?”
    Some example lead indicators could be “How often did we get off our butts and identify hazards in the workplace?” And “What did we do about the deficiencies (unacceptable risks)we found?” This would cover activities such as Workplace Inspections and Hazard Reporting.
    I’m just starting to get some acceptance of these types of indicators at one worksite I’m responsible to support. But our Corporation is still subject to our CEO who measures CIFR and requires a 30% reduction each year on previous year. I’m still trying to nut out how to effectively reduce CIFR when it can go up or down just based on worked hours.

  3. Gunther Gahleitner says:

    Interesting article and also of interest is your CEO requiring a 30% reduction in CIFR.
    I once had a project manager that insisted my priority was to reduce the LTIFR by 50% in the first year. My response was for him to nominate the 4 people that he wanted hurt and I would arrange that only these 4 were injured. This would then meet my KPI’s and I could then be free to focus on ensuring no one got hurt for the rest of the year.
    Needless to say that after some discussion, we were able to establish real proactive targets and indicators.
    PS: No LTI’s were suffered during the project.

  4. John says:

    you are certainly not alone with the thoughts expressed so well. Simplification of the 4P’s and 3c’s says it all. Tie that in with some consultation and training will start to get some change to both culture and of what every business is looking for and that is a redution in real terms of injury/illness at work. What would be very nice is turn the table somewhat and approach this from from health/wellness perspective-just one of many thoughts and throw LTI’s out the window.

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