‘Employers are going to get hurt’, warns health and safety veteran

by Chloe Taylor23 Nov 2015
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.

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.”


  • by Cathy Knight 23/11/2015 12:51:44 PM

    Good on you for speaking out! As a HR Manager at one time responsible for Health & Safety in an operational environment (with plenty of professionals as well), my efforts to focus on the "health" aspect, specifically 'wellbeing', were largely ignored. I felt like Robinson Crusoe.

  • by Bernie Althofer 24/11/2015 12:23:54 PM

    Australians in general are a fairly trusting lot. We seem to take people on face value and place a lot of trust on what they say they can do.

    I have previously presented on the topic of Accreditation. At the time, it appeared that a number of investigations had been conducted regarding the issuing of licenses. In some cases, these licenses allowed the operators to use certain heavy machinery. In addition, there were some connections identified between the issuance of drivers licenses and 'criminal gangs'. In another case, a person presented 'falsified' qualifications to secure a senior position within the medical profession. In recent times, I have been alerted to a 'health and safety person' placing red marks in rooms to 'check whether or not the rooms were being cleaned daily' when the cleaning schedule states 'monthly cleaning of walls'.

    I suspect that in some cases, the mention of health and safety conjures up the need to create additional paper and ongoing talks and checks. As the focus seems to have been on safety, health and even wellbeing drops of the radar. In some cases, health/safety and wellbeing issues such as bullying have been kicked around the organisation because it was not seen as a health and safety issue, let alone a wellbeing issue. In some cases, 'bullying' even had a name change to harassment, to negative workplace behaviours to positive workplace behaviours.

    Unfortunately, in some cases, the approaches that may have been taken in some organisations created a perception or belief that health and safety did not add to operational benefits, and therefore was not seen as mainstream. For example, an organisational wide assessment resulted in responses from senior management to show that 'safety - that's not my job, that's why I pay the safety co-ordinator'. If you go out to conduct such an assessment and your findings are not what the 'organisation' expects, then you may find yourself on the outer with no where to go, except out the door.

    I suspect that for some managers and workers at all levels, health safety and wellbeing is not clearly spelled out in their terms of employment or contract. As such, they may argue that it is someone's job. It seems to me, that in some cases, health safety and wellbeing is seen as 'someone else's job' and the main reason is that managers and workers are not made responsible or held accountable through other HR systems and processes e.g. performance management.

  • by 27/11/2015 9:44:06 PM

    The day the JSA became a Management Tool instead of a workers tool to look for NEW Real Time Hazards the workplace Risks are not getting the focus they deserve to ensure they are controlled before the Task begins. This is a Fact supported by most workers.
    Regardless of all else the JSA tool needs to return to "The best Workers Safety Tool ever"

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