The lost science of risk and safety

file5011249338919I 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?


  1. Wolfgang Dempsey Reply

    A good article, I have seen people emerging from the 2 day and five day course scenarios described where the certificate awarded is little more than a certificate of attendance.
    I see risk and safety so misunderstood at many levels where everything can be solved by a risk matrix or a flow chart with little or no understanding of the science behind safety or risk in general

  2. Gary Wong Reply

    I totally agree there ought to be more emphasis on low frequency, high consequence risk. This is the land of unpredictability and Black Swans. This past summer I had the opportunity to introduce Complexity to a firm’s Engineers-in-Training. Despite 4 years of engineering study, I was surprised how little they knew about the difference between linear, Gaussian, normal and non-linear Pareto distributions.

    I suspect that organizations that promote a Certified Safety Professional (CSP) designation might strongly object to universities impinging on their turf. I welcome that challenge since CSPs are primarily accredited on Safety-I and learn little about Safety-II.

    However, I’m not so sure if universities are actually the best institutions to advance safety thinking, especially safety differently. My opinion comes from watching Sir Ken Robinson’s critical view of education Most universities have adopted the factory model which can make emerging ideas and fluid thinking in safety difficult to take hold at the Bachelor level. Once a syllabus is set and approved, deviation is minimized.

  3. Matt Reply

    Hi Kim

    I studied the undergraduate bachelor of Health Science at QUT which was a 3 year degree in Health, Safety and Environment – previously OHS. We studied subjects such as Safety Technology which included metallurgy, as well as other scientific aspects and engineering aspects that have a safety outcome (not covered in diploma or cert IV), as well as 4 subjects of chemistry (also not covered in diploma or cert IV), 4 subjects of physics and 2 of psychology (not covered in Diploma or Cery IV), 2 of anatomy and physiology (not covered in same detail in diploma or cert IV), toxicology and occupational hygiene (not covered in Cert IV or diploma) as well as 2 in risk management, public health etc. I think you get the drift that most of these subjects and knowledge aren’t covered in the Cert IV or Diploma. I agree with your sentiments that those of us who studied OHS as an undergraduate degree feel ripped off that these so called experts with very low levels of education are giving us a bad name because they don’t have the same knowledge with a science background to understand what we understand. And are ignorant to that fact they cannot see why the SIA is driving further education for OHS professionals and they can’t see why they need it.

    Safety is and can be a science. If we actually looked at a lot of critical incidents, scientific and engineering forensics assists us to understand failures. Also yes there is too much focus on low consequence risks – skin heals after cuts, abrasions and burns, broken finger nails regrow, strained muscles strengthen, sprained joints heal. Permanent disability is permanent and death is final. The profession needs to realise some risks are acceptable and focus on those that are not such as critical risks and stop wasting everyones time telling people to hold handrails when using stairs but kill people in the actual work face and focus on the risks that kill. After all isn’t that the priority and aim of risk management to prioritise and focus attention to the priority risks?

  4. Martin Reply

    Appreciate the comments above. I am university educated (post grad) and have been working in the construction industry for the last 15 years. My organisation employs “Trainee” Safety Advisors as an entry pathway for budding Safety Professionals. This program is a hands-on, on-the-job program consisting of 50+ activities to be completed whilst working (and getting paid) over a 12 – 18 month period. The program is driven by the trainee who is assigned a mentor and program supervisor during their time as a trainee. The applications for these traineeships come from Uni educated (no experience) applicants to “off the tools” (no quals) applicants. I believe that no matter the pathway, it is the individual’s commitment and desire to improve safety outcomes that make them true “Safety Professionals”. What I have found is that both groups have provided individuals that have and will continue to succeed in the safety industry whilst both have also provided individuals who are better off in another profession.
    BTW, a Traineeship is the way to go. Just my humble opinion.

  5. Tanya Hewitt Reply

    I was a little surprised to read that low frequency high consequence events are not a focus of those in safety – having worked for the Canadian nuclear regulator and also having contacts in the commercial aviation industry, this is the only preoccupation. In fact, with the safety II recognition (see Steven Shorrock’s linked video on Human Error at the Velocity conference 2014) that normal work precedes accidents, and that investigating “nothing” (or work as normal) can yield you very similar findings to the catastrophic accident, it is a challenge to reorient focus from the disaster mentality.

    My doctoral studies have revealed to me that physicians are interested in learning only if the patient safety case is catastrophic (death or very near death, being saved by a medical hero), as only this is worthy of a Medical and Morbidity round presentation. However, a large portion of patient safety problems are found in the normal, mundane everyday work (faxes not getting to their destination, miscommunication between departments, medication misadministration, etc. etc.) If a little bit of focus from the low probability high consequence “salacious” cases could be diverted into the high probability low consequence issues, much could be gained. (This is in fact the same argument that Population Health idol Dr. Geoffrey Rose recognized – if we divert our main focus from the very sick patient to the mass of population at risk for a sickness, we will achieve much more health overall.)

    However, I agree that there is shockingly little in terms of safety education. I would have loved to do a PhD in a programme called “Safety Science”, but it certainly doesn’t exist where I live, and I don’t think it exists in the whole of Canada, despite a MSc being set up out East (but it will be a strongly Safety I focussed degree). As such, I am learning what I am about safety through a different degree.

    1. Suzanne Jackson Reply

      Tanya – we will see both an undergrad and a PhD in safety opportunity come from this Eastern Canada university – and, being an instructor in their diploma program for the past 8 years – I see a lot of opportunity for including human factors and safety II into the curriculum. And as a Dekker grad – hoping maybe I can help bring that curriculum to fruition.

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