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Smiling Worker Giving a Thumbs-up on a Worksite

Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S)

​Careers in occupational health and safety have transformed almost beyond recognition in recent years. Occupational health and safety staff are now the catch of the day, especially when they’re – educated, qualified, and experienced.

“More and more, we're getting requested to put forward people for all these roles with formal qualifications,” says Chris Grant, director of recruiting at Michael Page. “In earlier times OH&S specialists came from the unions or a building history – they were individuals who had lots of expertise,” explains Grant, of workers who might have finished a TAFE Certificate IV on OH&S at best. After the 9/11 disaster, the development of a “safety first” society, a culture of personal – injury claims, climbing sick leave costs and changing laws in Australia, those days are gone.

Businesses are also finding it increasingly hard to secure tenders without acceptable security advisors and complete health and safety policies. “Expectations have stepped up. Traditionally, OH&S had lots of folks without casual qualifications, now we’re attempting to escape from cowboy behaviour. A death at work has the ability to bring the entire site down,” explains Grant.

In the year 2012, Safe Work Australia, the government’s independent agency set up to enhance worker’s compensation arrangement, estimated that, from 2008 to 2009, workplace injury and illness cost the market $60.6 billion. In the subsequent year, 216 Australians died from an injury sustained at work and 640,000 reported experiencing a work- related illness or injury. The exact 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 data are tricky to nail down as info comes from each state’s safety watchdog – confusingly called Work Cover in NSW, SafeWork in South Australia and WorkSafe in the rest of the territories. Its figures are collated by each state differently, especially for vehicle accidents, which might or might not be included as they’re often only reported to authorities. Complicating the problem may be the government’s move to “harmonise” or try to unify laws across all states.

“The model work, health and safety (WHS) laws introduce the most critical and extensive change in WHS regulation in Australia for more than 30 years,” describes Siobhan Flores-Walsh, a leading Sydney- based WHS and employment attorney at law firm Norton Rose. “The new Laws represent a tradeoff: the approval of enormously increased criminal accountability for corporate and individual decision makers in return for the promised decrease in WHS compliance costs, “says Flores- Walsh. The intention is the fact that businesses that run across state and territory borders may have less jurisdictional differences as policies will probably be dependent upon a main WHS Act, citing regulations and codes of practice to manage.

Many businesses are uncertain concerning the ins-and-outs of the brand new laws, a fact that’s been exacerbated by incorrect reporting. “The references within the media to a “single” or “uniform” WHS system in Australia have been misleading. We will not get a single national system even if all jurisdictions eventually adopted the model laws,” describes Flores-Walsh, who’s skeptical concerning the advantage to employers, especially smaller businesses. We’ll still have nine different WHS systems (1 for every state, territory and also the Commonwealth), nine different prosecutors and nine different first-in state courts and over time the likelihood is that additional jurisdictional differences will emerge, sabotaging the promised decrease in WHS compliance costs,” says Flores-Walsh. To date, five jurisdictions have implemented the model WHS laws. Two will do this on January, next year, but Western Australia and Victoria, have indicated they won’t adapt.

Regardless of this, recruiters say the effect of harmonisation can already be found. This season’s Hays Salary Guide states, “Organisations have dedicated to upskillling their workforce and encouraging a security culture. It’s raised demand for OH&S training experts, especially within the e-learning space.”

Recruiter Robert Walters reported hiring of security, health and environment (HSE) professionals picking up last year in Brisbane and Sydney “We found strong demand for damages and benefits specialists to help with retaining top talent and OH&S specialists because of new legislative changes,” a spokesman said.

Rebecca Garnett, HR and HSE advisor for Robert Walters in Queensland, has seen the rise in demand for well – qualified candidates and says this job market is updated and transformed. For example, jobs are actually advertised as work, health and safety (WHS), health, safety, environment (HSE) or health, safety, and environment and quality (HSEQ) management positions instead of under the conventional OH&S banner. “Previously, companies would have someone within this function that moved up the rankings but now they need somebody who understands the legislations and has more qualifications, “says Garnett, who says competitive salaries of $100,000- plus are now being provided for managerial positions within her state. Kamila Faeghy, a HR recruitment specialist for Robert Walers in Sydney, says she is seeing new, more technical health and security functions emerging. “We recently put a HSE analyst – a systems advisor type function. Due to the brand new laws, lots of businesses are making sure they have people who is able to do statistical evaluation, and work within an analytical function to coordinate systems, and such individuals are rough to find,” says Faeghy.

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 this past year, its system functions through the organization intranet, offering its health and security policy, Safety for Like training strategy, internal training programs, risk management activities as well as website-based standard working processes. Within the last three years, the business has reached a five per cent decrease in claims, a 38 per cent decrease in the total number of incidents and a 35 per cent decrease in the total number of lost time injuries, but time have been taken by this. “It has taken five years to fine tune that system,” says Stephen Ruff, Ingham’s group OH&S and workers compensation manager. “The government must realize that you simply cant tinker with the laws and expect to see changes overnight. We establish ourselves a chain of 18 month plans to reach our standards – we tried lesser time frames but it didn’t work,” says Ruff.

For managerial positions, Ingham prefers to employ OH&S professionals with tertiary qualifications. This tendency is a stress within the light of major cuts to TAFE and university funding, which has resulted in campus and class closures. Melbourne’s RMIT University, one of the 15 universities that provide OH&S professional education programs, including a bachelor degree, graduate diploma and masters, was the first to be given official certification for the classes in June, La Trobe and Ballarat Universities are expecting to follow.

This move, as well as compiling an official listing of experts and reference guide, or ‘Body of Knowledge’ for OH&S workers, should help professionalise the business. Sadly, due to budget cuts, RMIT’s bachelor of health and safety is presently in its final year and is set to close, whilst the University of New South Wales has shut down its whole OH&S program and also the University of Western Sydney, is curtailing some classes. “There is definitely going to become a shortage of classes, especially if you need to go directly into this place from school,” says Leo Ruschena, senior lecturer in OH&S at RMIT. “We will require increasingly more of those people – so what’s likely to be their path into OH&S when so many job adverts are saying, ‘demands bachelor degree qualification’?,” says Ruschena.

On a positive note, bigger steps are getting taken to ensure the security of people at work, like the government’s televised advertising campaigns, it’s current inquiry into intimidation, and also the Australian WHS Strategy 2010-2022. The latter aims to reduce work related fatalities by 20 per cent, attain a 30 per cent reduction in claims leading to one or more weeks off work, and a 30 per cent reduction in claims due to body stressing (musculoskeletal injuries) by 2015.

Victoria has started a yearlong Work Safe campaign targeting musculoskeletal injuries, the most typical criticism. Victoria’s Helper Treasurer Gordon RichPhillips says: “These injuries are mainly hidden since they don’t make the nightly news but the impact on workers, their families, as well as their company’s business could be tremendous and long lasting.