Playing it safe at work
Posted October 13, 2011, by Mike Kermode
When I was younger, my skateboard had a sticker somewhat ironically brandished on it. ‘Safety is an attitude, not a process’, it read. While neither my skating nor myself were exactly governed by this dictum, modern occupational health and safety (OH&S) is undeniably about both – a way of thinking and a highly systematised process.
As Australia, along with the rest of the world, has become increasingly safety-conscious, the onus is on every manager and administrator to have knowledge of OH&S practices to ensure the wellbeing and safety of their staff. Many industries are also in need of qualified OH&S specialists who can bring workplace practices into line with current legislation.
Here, that legislation is about to become nationally streamlined. As of the 1st of January 2012, we’re all technically going to be as safe as each other as the states harmonise their hitherto incongruous OH&S laws.
This makes it an opportune time to get back to basics and ask: what is OH&S all about, anyway? Why is it so important? And what sort of opportunities are there in OH&S for the ambitious and the safety-conscious?
What you need to know about OH&S
One of the first things to realise about OH&S is that it spans every industry. Not just those like construction or mining, where you’d expect it, but every industry. Occupational health and safety principles apply to every workplace, and every business needs workers who are versed in OH&S policy.
The World Health Organization defines OH&S as:
OH&S is about preventing these ‘departures from health’ for employees, customers and the general public by keeping hazards and risks in check through hyper-vigilance. Keeping safe premises, having safe machinery and materials, providing safe systems at work, having sufficient training and supervision, and a suitable working environment – OH&S encompasses all of this.
OH&S draws on a host of different subject fields, including occupational hygiene and toxicology, public health, safety engineering, chemistry, health physics and law. It’s big. In workplaces all over the country, it manifests in the presence of personal protection equipment (PPE) like helmets, gloves and goggles; first aid kits on worksites; the signage of hazardous substances and machinery; ergonomic furniture; a safe and comfortable office set-up; and general safety standards and regulations.
OH&S procedures and laws are also designed for the protection of employers. How? By protecting them from losing productive workers and production time, losing the goodwill of a happy and healthy workforce, from workers’ compensation claims, and from the negative public perceptions that would arise if that employer was seen to be negligent when it comes to employee safety.
The heart of OH&S
Modern OH&S, then, is considered vital to the success of a business. For it to do its thing in a workplace, however, it requires two core processes: hazard identification and risk assessment. And this gets to the heart of what OH&S professionals do.
A hazard is any situation that could potentially cause or result in harm to people or property (like a skateboard on the office floor). A risk is the chance of the hazard causing an injury (busy office = high risk). Then there is the severity of the outcome (potentially serious).
It’s the compiling of all the hazards, risks and their outcomes that enables a business to structure its approach to safety systematically. It’s an important role, and one that must be performed by a safety expert.
Safety in numbers
Go on SEEK.com.au, and you’ll find hundreds of jobs for OH&S specialists. The numbers attest to the importance placed on safety today, and also the extent of demand for qualified professionals.
Whatever the name, the brief is the same: safety professional. These people are in charge of keeping employees aware of OH&S procedures, keeping policies up-to-date, conducting safety audits and training, and promoting a ‘safe work culture’ generally throughout a business. In close communication with management, they’re responsible for monitoring and modifying safety practices as work environments change – identifying hazards and assessing risks.
Sometimes the above brief is combined with incident investigation and injury management or return-to-work management. These professionals ensure that an injured worker receives the treatment they need to return to work, as well as income support during rehabilitation. Opportunities here include return-to-work coordinator, injury management advisor, case manager and injury claims consultant.
Consultancy and training
Some organisations outsource their OH&S management, relying on independent advice on how to best implement and standardise their health and safety practices, and train in-house OH&S coordinators. There are many opportunities for these mobile safety pros.
For those with the right background (be it medicine, engineering, industrial design or public health), there are also opportunities in the production of OH&S infrastructure and equipment, ensuring that they meet safety standards and provide a high level of protection and usability. This encompasses products like safety signage, hi-vis clothing, tools, fire safety equipment, barriers and first aid kits.
To work as a safety professional, you’ll need a qualification in OH&S. This could be anything from a statement of attainment to a certificate, diploma or advanced diploma, and you can even do graduate studies in OH&S and become a highly qualified workplace safety specialist.
You’ll also need a fine set of communication skills. You’ll be dealing with many employees – from management level to shop floor – and you’ll be supporting, training and managing staff in their workplace practices. If it’s a higher level position, getting yourself a training and assessment certificate can help you become an OH&S training leader in your workplace.
Most importantly, you’ll need up-to-date knowledge of OH&S legislation, which means understanding the changes to your state’s legislation in line with national harmonisation. There are also new safety products coming onto the market all the time, so knowing which are in step with safety standards is a must.
Getting a qualification in OH&S can be a valuable add-on to your role as a manager, HR professional or administrator, or can pave the way to a career specialising in workplace health and safety. In today’s safety-conscious environment, a job in OH&S is a sure bet – you’re virtually guaranteed a well-paid job, and you’ll be helping Australian businesses function as safely and productively as possible.