According to Martin Ralph, managing director at the Industrial Foundation for Accident Prevention (IFAP), there are several concerns within the sector that “need to be aired”.
IFAP has been at the forefront of leading the occupational health and safety movement in Australia since 1962.
The organisation recently hosted a health and safety conference that “really pulled lid off some big issues”.
“There was a drum beat that all of the presenters were singing to. There is going to be a concerted push almost globally to resurrect the safety movement.”
A ‘polarised’ industry
According to Ralph, there are three key issues that are negatively affecting the health and safety of workforces – although his viewpoint was “purely from a WA perspective”, many of them are being seen in the national health and safety space as a whole.
“The current economic malaise that’s impacting Western Australia, and the whole of Australia, is challenging the state to do more with less,” he said.
“There’s also a state of flux going on with the safety profession – a polarisation is happening.”
Ralph explained that people with tertiary qualifications are deemed as ‘safety professionals’, and ultimately their jobs seem secure.
“But people with vocational qualifications are become ‘safety practitioners’,” he told HC.
“They are currently being let go from jobs in large numbers, and have more uncertain futures.”
Ralph referred to this issue as “growing pains” being experienced by the sector.
The third issue plaguing the sector, according to Ralph, is specifically occurring around the vocational training space.
“The last month has been littered with stories of registered training organisations taking advantage of the flawed processes we have currently in Western Australia,” he told HC.
He noted that there was an ongoing review into work licences, and reports emerging around regulating authorities that show the level of noncompliance with standards within registered organisations is remarkably high.
‘Employers are going to get hurt’
“When we bring those three issues together, they reflect the fact that employers are looking for value for money,” Ralph continued.
“But we’re seeing that there are a bunch of registered training organisations that perhaps don’t have the industry’s best interests at heart.
“The solutions that are being offered aren’t matching community expectations, and that’s going to hurt employers at some point in the future.”
Ralph gave a rather alarming example to prove his point.
“Over the last couple of weeks, Worksafe WA found that a guy with 12 high-risk work licences – one of which was for operating a tower crane. Imagine if he had been taken on by an employer who had him up on a 25 or 30-storey site, and he hadn’t done a day’s training in his life.”
“It’s just one of a range of scandals that are besetting the whole safety and training movement,” he said.
Can HR maintain high standards?
Fortunately, according to Ralph, there are a “multitude of things” HR professionals and employers can still do to improve occupational health and safety standards.
Firstly, companies should implement a quality process in relation to selecting their safety commission providers.
“In this space you get what you pay for,” Ralph suggested. “The cheapest option is not necessarily a great long-term solution.”
He also advised HR to look at partnering with their health and safety colleagues.
“You should be thinking about building a long-term relationship with your solution providers,” Ralph said.
Finally, HR professionals need to be wary not to “fall for the trap that safety just happens out there at the pointy end”.
“We’re seeing alarming statistics that show the impact of the workplace upon employee health and wellbeing ,” Ralph told HC.
In recent months, Stanford University released a report that suggested organisational factors such as poor job control or a non-supportive workplace culture are as harmful to individual health as smoking – and could potentially be ranked as the fifth highest cause of morality in the US.
“We really need to be putting the ‘health’ back into health and safety,” Ralph said.
“The findings of that report are an absolute shock, and it really is peeling open the impact of work on the health and wellbeing of individual employees.
“Those people who think that health and safety is just about the industrial side of things need to have a serious think about workplace culture and environments.”
HR professionals often become responsible for, or involved in, maintaining the health and safety of employees in their workplace – but according to a leading health and safety expert, Australia’s health and safety sector could be spiralling out of control.