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Could OHS lose university status?

15 November, 2005

OHS continues to hang on in the academic arena, responding to professional drivers and spreading the OHS word. But some fear poor research funding could eventually ‘relegate’ OHS to the TAFE and training sector.

By Helen Borger, for the National Safety Magazine.

University level OHS is about leadership, change management and hazard management. No longer the domain of the medical profession, postgraduate students come from a range of backgrounds, reflecting the professions multidisciplinary nature. Undergraduate OHS courses and subjects also exist, but there tend to be more dedicated OHS courses at the postgraduate level. 

However, some academics are concerned that a lack of government support for necessary OHS research funding may see it lose university status.

More than risks

Risk complexity and a sophisticated workforce drive OHS’ change management and leadership focus. Identifying risks is not just a simple matter of saying, ‘this is the problem and here are the controls to fix it’. University of Western Sydney School of environment and agriculture, post graduate program, head of program Debra Moodie Bains says “Most risks are complex and involve ‘changing the way we do things around here’ and, in doing so, OHS managers can come up against difficult and resistant employers.”

The University of Western Sydney offers postgraduate studies only. It’s currently phasing out its undergraduate course due to poor demand.

The higher-level professional competencies of leadership and change management taught in the University’s postgraduate course also drive the need for evidence based-learning, so students develop evidence-gathering skills necessary for making a case and persuasively arguing the effectiveness of proposed changes.

Thrown into the mix is the tendency for OHS to be used as a vehicle for pushing other agendas. So it’s also important for OHS education to assist managers recognise legitimate OHS problems. “It is easy for OHS professionals to get caught up in minor dramas and industrial issues unrelated to OHS,” she adds.

But, if ideas and suggestions for change can’t be communicated, digging up evidence and staying on point won’t make implementation easier. “Communication and negotiation skills are in some ways more important than identifying risks,” she says. “You need to be able to communicate effectively with the CEO through to the maintenance staff.”

Also driving the need for learning good negotiation skills is one of OHS’ biggest frustrations – the often-heard refrain: “You’re the OHS manager so you fix it.” Education needs to drive home the idea that OHS is a shared responsibility and is about more than just compliance, she adds.

New learning

Under consideration for inclusion in the University of Western Sydney course, is a greater emphasis on holistic OHS. This is in response to the current workplace focus on safety as opposed to health and safety.  “The factory mentality and a focus on machines is still prevalent,” she says.

 “But 30 per cent of work injuries occur in motor vehicles, there is an aging population, emerging technologies, work life balance problems and stress, and employers don’t see these as major issues,” she says.

However, she argues  “health and well being sit in the science of the OHS professional” and should be taught within any OHS course.

Adding value

Also driving OHS learning is a change away from the view that it is “all about knowing” to “am I adding value?”, University of Adelaide department of public health associate professor Dino Pisaniello says.

As part of this change, he feels students need to understand what drives employers to want integrated OHS management systems and/or a focus on regulatory compliance.  If, say, an enforcement regime is the driving force in an organisation then an understanding of this is necessary to identify what is practical. Basically, OHS professionals need to learn “which way the wind is blowing”, he says.

So, in making the case for adding value, economics, resource allocation, market forces and intervention evaluation must be considered, he says, but many OHS professionals don’t evaluate the way they should – there’s no actual research model.  He feels too many people are just reinventing the wheel.

However, he acknowledges the value of benchmarking, which forms part of the evidenced–based movement. But says, while it can produce good results, it’s an evolutionary process that proceeds without any real leadership, and is driven by self-learning; and as a result there are some inefficiencies and random events.

Also, while he agrees that communication and negotiation are skills that OHS managers should have, he says they should be learnt in other teaching environments  – such as TAFE – and not university.

Educating managers

Recent research conducted at Monash University’s Australian Centre for Research in Employment and Work (ACREW) shows mangers, not just OHS personnel, are in need of OHS education.

The results are driving the development of OHS subjects for inclusion in Monash’s graduate management studies. Monash University assistant lecturer Gemma Clissold, who is the developing the subjects, says the focus will be on relationships between management practices, safety climate and safety behaviour – looking at action, policy, style and individual perception.

The approach is in response to the research findings which show that despite all levels of management being increasingly liable and responsible for learning about safety and their role as managers in the safety arena, most have been isolated from safety because many organizations already have a safety professional.

“Managers ask why they should take control,” she says. “And interestingly safety professionals ask - if mangers generally learn all about safety what will the safety people do?”

In reality, OHS professionals will always be required to support managers.

The “dream” is to move OHS activities from the OHS manager to all levels of management; and have the OHS manager act as an internal consultant to management – much like the way HR operates.

But despite OHS manager’s fears about losing a grip on the profession and other managers not wanting to learn, the fact is members of the OHS profession face considerable challenges. “Frustration, stress, pressure and responsibility - the OHS profession is “crushed” by pressure to comply,” she says.

So basically, in response, another course aim is to teach all levels of management proactive safety and the “the need for shared responsibility – to start a dialogue,” she says. “Have safety seen as more than compliance and OHS as a core business objective.”

Also as, the labour market is changing, all levels of management need to come to grips with and learn about new risks. “As we move to more service based economy with lots of people sitting in office spaces there is a misconception that such spaces produces no risks. However, work hours, job pressures, psychological illnesses, work life balance all come into play,” she says.

Future of Uni OHS

Despite OHMhm’s challenging nature, Dino Pisaniello is concerned about OHS’ university future.  “If it doesn’t meet the income generating criteria and we can’t increase the tertiary entrance score, as there is no demand, it may end up in the TAFE sector.”

He says government support is lacking, as they are mainly interested in prescribed training, not university training.

Also tied into the argument is the need to boost OHS research funding to ensure OHS can continue to hold its own in the academic arena. However, he says government funding cuts to the former National Occupational Health and Safety Commission’s (NOHSC) research capabilities has negatively impacted this area.

 He also believes the only higher-level research the government is interested in funding is compliance and OHS education and training issues, as opposed to generic research such as health effects.

He claims it’s partly due to the employer, employee and government representative tripartite system, where employers don’t want to look at generic research that may uncover long-term health affects.

If the current funding arrangements keep going this way under the recently formed Australian Safety and Compensation Council, he fears OHS will go two ways – contract, consultancy research that will deliver what the government wants and mass-produced education through specialised training providers - a situation that doesn’t bode well for OHS academia.

The detail of ASCC’s research role is yet to be unveiled. However, according to the Federal Workplace Relations Minister Kevin Andrews, “The ASCC’s main role will be to coordinate research and provide policy advice to the Workplace Relations Ministerial Council – which comprises the Federal Workplace Relations Minister and my State and Territory counterparts.”

Dedicated funding demise

University of NSW School of organisation and management professor Michael Quinlan is also concerned about the future of university-level OHS.

He agrees it is linked to problems with the way OHS research is funded, but doesn’t believe employers are the problem. “Employers may have become more “bolshie” in their approach to OHS since the election of the Howard government, but the tripartite system has not negatively impacted funds dedicated to OHS research.”

Basically, he claims the federal government shows no leadership when it comes to OHS research. Apart from uniform standards, there’s no “clear impression” of what the government intends to look at in relation to OHS, he says, and so dismisses the idea that the federal government has a research focus on compliance and education.

More to the point, the problem lies with funding structures. While grants for OHS research are also available through organisations such as the National Heart Foundation and the Australian Research Council, he says the demise of NOHSC and its research unit and the rise of the ASCC have stymied dedicated OHS research.

NOHSC’s diminished research capabilities were noted in the August 2005 Workplace Safety Standards Bill 2005 parliamentary debate. Federal Shadow Industrial Relations Minister Stephen Smith said in his second reading speech that a $4.7 million reduction in NOHSC funding since 1996 “has lead to the virtual cessation” of NOHSC OHS research funding support.

But not only has less OHS funding and the demise of NOHSC led to fewer research dollars it has also reduced the focus on priority areas, lessened a balanced spread of consultancy and independent academic research funding and removed a vehicle that drew people into OHS and developed further research, Quinlan says. 

Now, OHS academics are more reliant on a smaller pool of other funding sources. “But, while other research funding avenues are available, there aren’t many Australian Research Council grants set aside for health and safety,” he says.

The old NOHSC research unit was better equipped to fund OHS research, as such research was generally in the lower finance categories. “A 30,000 dollar grant could do a lot of good OHS research,” he says.

Rather than kill off NOHSC, he wanted to see NOHSC-funded teaching centres of OHS excellence established at selected universities, developing dedicated and independent OHS research activity and infrastructure.

During the scaling back of NOHSC’s research activities, he was also concerned about the NOHSC grant selection process. He argued in a 2000 paper critical of NOHSC’s OHS research demise that it should be mandated that the OHS research selection committee comprise qualified and experienced researchers “taking due account of the scientific merit of applications and the capacity of the applicants to achieve a successful outcome”.

He wanted the selection process to follow the same criteria as the Australian Research Council and National Health Medical Research Council, which assess applicants past competitive grants tendering records and research publication track record. However, the process in place consisted of non-expert review, raising the “potential for bias or predetermined findings, or generally lowers the perceived independence and standards of reports,” he says in Forget Evidence: The Demise of Research Involvement By The National Occupational Health and Safety Commission since 1996, 2000.

“Distinguished or even just competent researchers, conscious of their reputation, may not wish to be associated with this type of funding arrangement (in terms of sitting on expert panels or refereeing final reports). Indeed, it may lead them to question having any links with NOHSC or its successor body.”

Unless OHS professionals make an impact on the government, there won’t be enough well-researched academics to fill the shoes of those who move on, making it difficult for OHS to justify its university existence.

Diminished academia

The reality is academics aren’t paid only to teach. Their role is to generate money for the university through research grants and consultancies. Dino Pisaniello says that under the current circumstances there’s not much room for OHS academics to get grants to conduct sufficient research to develop a track record good enough for university level.

Unless OHS professionals make an impact on the government, there won’t be enough well-researched academics to fill the shoes of those who move on, making it difficult for OHS to justify its university existence.

Michael Quinlan estimates that, unless research priorities are changed, the next 10 to 20 years will see the current crop of well-researched academics leave and not be replaced.

But Dino Pisaniello has a glimmer of hope - with OHS developing in schools he says it’s an opportunity to empower a new generation.

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