A ‘safety first’ society means everyone’s fishing for the best health and safety specialists.
Careers in occupational health and safety have changed almost beyond recognition in recent years. Once considered the office wallflowers, occupational health and safety staff are now the catch of the day, particularly if they are university-educated.
“More and more, we are being asked to put forward people for these roles with formal qualifications,” says Chris Grant, director of human resources at recruiter Michael Page. “In the past, OH&S specialists came from the unions or a construction background – they were people who had a lot of experience,” explains Grant, of employees who might have completed a TAFE Certificate IV in OH&S at best. After the 9/11 disaster, however, the emergence of a ‘safety first’ society, a culture of personal-injury claims, rising sick leave costs and changing laws in Australia, those days are gone.
Companies are also finding it increasingly difficult to secure tenders without suitable safety advisors and comprehensive health and safety policies.
The cost to the economy
In 2012, Safe Work Australia, the government’s independent agency set up to improve workers’ compensation arrangements, estimated that, from 2008 to 2009, workplace injury and illness cost the economy $60.6 billion. In the following year, 216 Australians died from an injury sustained at work and 640,000 reported experiencing a work-related illness or injury.
The same year, 303,000 were compensated for a work-related injury or illness (Safe Work Australia’s Work-related Traumatic Injury Fatalities, Australia 2009-2010).
Up-to-date national statistics are tricky to nail down as each state collates its figures differently, particularly for vehicle accidents, which may or may not be. Complicating the issue is the federal government’s move to ‘harmonise’ or attempt to unify laws across all states.
“The model work, health and safety (WHS) laws introduce the most significant and extensive change in WHS regulation in Australia for more than 30 years,” explains Siobhan Flores-Walsh, a leading Sydney-based WHS and employment lawyer at law firm Norton Rose. “The new laws represent a trade-off: the acceptance of vastly increased criminal liability for corporate and individual decision-makers in return for the promised reduction in WHS compliance costs,” says Flores-Walsh.
Many companies are unclear about the ins-and-outs of the new laws, a fact that has been exacerbated by inaccurate reporting. Despite this, recruiters say the impact of harmonisation can already be seen. This year’s Hays Salary Guide states, “Organisations have committed to upskilling their workforce and promoting a safety culture. This has increased demand for OH&S training experts, particularly in the e-learning space.”
Recruiter Robert Walters reported hiring of health, safety and environment (HSE) professionals picking up last year in Brisbane and Sydney.
Rebecca Garnett, HR and HSE consultant for Robert Walters in Queensland, has witnessed the rise in demand for well-qualified candidates and says this job market has been transformed and updated.
Ahead of the game
The Inghams poultry company, which employs 9000 people across Australia and New Zealand, has kept one step ahead of the game after scooping WorkCover NSW’s Best OH&S Management System Award last year. Over the past three years, the company has achieved a five per cent reduction in claims, a 38 per cent reduction in the number of incidents and a 35 per cent reduction in the number of lost-time injuries. But this has taken time.
For managerial positions, Ingham prefers to employ OH&S professionals with tertiary qualifications. This trend is a worry in the light of major cuts to university and TAFE funding, which has resulted in course and campus closures. Melbourne’s RMIT University, one of 15 universities that provide OH&S professional education programs, including a bachelor degree, graduate diploma and masters, was the first to be awarded official accreditation for its courses in June. La Trobe and Ballarat Universities are hoping to follow. Sadly, due to budget cuts, RMIT’s bachelor of health and safety is now in its final year and is set to close, while the University of New South Wales has shut down its entire OH&S program and the University of Western Sydney is curtailing some courses.
On a positive note, larger steps are being taken to secure the safety of people at work, such as the government’s televised advertising campaigns, its current inquiry into bullying, and the Australian WHS Strategy 2010-2022. The latter aims to reduce work-related fatalities by 20 per cent, achieve a 30 per cent reduction in claims resulting in one or more weeks off work, and a 30 per cent reduction in claims due to body stressing (musculoskeletal injuries) by 2015.
AHRI offers a one-day course in Workplace Health & Safety. For details on the course, visit the AHRI website.