I embarked on my career in Health, Safety and Environment 30 years ago when it was just safety, no environment. It was a back water of the Human Resources Department tucked in behind Medical Services. There was no undergraduate degree in safety and I had to study the pure sciences and the social sciences. Environmental management was just emerging from the primeval swamp, ergonomics and occupational hygiene were these weird esoteric sciences that had little place in industry. “Safety Officers” wore green hats with white crosses and were mostly known to kick butt and take names; it was more reactive than proactive. Risk identification, assessment and control was virtually non-existent and risk registers were about as common as iPads. We have come a very long way since those days.
In the late 90’s a revolution occurred in safety and it became the standard to have good safety practices and not injure people. At the same time there was another revolution and that was the emergence of “Quality Control”. During this period it was also the merger of Health, Safety and Environment as a discipline. It came about through Quality and the need to have National and International accreditations in the form of ISO14001, OHSAS18001 and AS4801. Funnily the Standards are very similar and smart thinking Senior Management seized the opportunity to get rid of duplication, as dictated by Quality (waste was the enemy) and formed the Health, Safety and Environment Department. However, something strange occurred, the Universities really took up the mantle in the area of Environment and nearly every University offered undergraduate course/s in environment but they were slow in taking up undergraduate courses in workplace health and safety.
Now, I am going to play three cards early and firstly I exempt Central Queensland University (CQU), The University of Queensland (UQ), Australian Catholic University (ACU), Edith Cowan University (ECU) and especially Curtin University from my spat, I will come back to them later. Secondly my account here is of my personal observations of our industry. Finally I recognise that 50% of our audience is from outside of Australia and I would be very interested in their view of the undergraduate scene within their regions.
I feel we have lost the science of risk and we are not concentrating on low frequency high consequence risk or critical risk. The management of high frequency low consequence injury should now be business as usual for safety professionals, and the focus squarely placed on low frequency high consequence risk; understanding what in your organisation is going to kill or seriously injure an employee, contractor or member of the public, then placing controls that focus on prevention of the event in the first instance. Managing critical risk is extremely difficult, complicated, time consuming and not for the faint hearted safety professional. It is where the science of risk must be fully realised. Somehow we have lost the science of risk, so how did we do that?
During the revolution Universities catered for the emerging science of the environment to the point now where it is very difficult to impossible to find a University in Australia that does not offer an undergraduate degree in some form or another for the Environmental Sciences. Safety was very different. Universities were slow to take up undergraduate degrees in safety but courses did start to emerge in the early to mid 2000’s. Very good undergraduate courses were established in recognised institutions offering Diplomas and Bachelor degrees. One would have the opportunity to study safety in at least one institution in each state, larger States had a few offerings. However from about 2009 one by one Universities dropped their undergraduate degrees in safety and replaced them with post graduate degrees. Today there are a plethora of post graduate degrees in many Universities and only five Universities offering undergraduate degrees, CQU, UQ, ACU, ECU and Curtin. Five Universities offering undergraduate studies in the whole of Australia for an area that usually rivals the size of the Finance department of any company. What’s worse is that no University in the populous States of NSW and Victoria offer any undergraduate studies in safety. Could you ever imagine only five universities offering accounting undergraduate degrees?
The undergraduate degree is where people learn the science of their chosen field and the post graduate degree is where one hones the sciences and researches their chosen niche. I feel the science of risk is learned at the undergraduate degree stage and because there are only five Universities offering courses we are now seeing the emergence of safety professionals not understanding the science of risk.
The void of the loss of the undergraduate degree in Universities has now been filled by RTO’s (Registered Training Organisatons) offering diplomas in Health and Safety. Some I understand are very good however some are of 5 days duration. How anyone can learn the science of risk and safety in 5 days and be awarded a Diploma is totally beyond me. It cheapens our brand and sends us back to when I began in safety: kick butt and take names. People who gained Diplomas from recognised institutions in Health and Safety in the mid 2000’s have certainly had their qualifications denigrated.
Over the years I have employed many Health and Safety and Environment professionals. I am always impressed with environment professionals’ qualifications which is reflective of the depth of undergraduate courses available in Australia today. Their understanding of aspects and impacts (risk) is complete. On the other hand I am disappointed at the sometimes scant qualifications of safety people. This was especially true during the resources boom. It was difficult to impossible to find professionals in safety with an undergraduate degree from a recognised institution.
It’s time now to get the undergraduate degree in safety at recognised institutions back. My hat comes off to CQU, UQ, ACU and ECU but my bow is saved for Curtin University who has recognised the discipline of Health, Safety and Environment and is offering an undergraduate degree. To these Universities I say thank you. My challenge now is to the Universities offering post graduate degrees, take the lead from these Universities and commence undergraduate degrees and get the science of risk and safety back into our profession. Finally what is the situation in other regions – are they making the same mistakes as Australia?