37 Introduction to Practice as a concept

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Introduction to Practice as a concept

The OHS Body of Knowledge has described the technical requirements and knowledge base of an Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) professional. But there is a final, critical ingredient for a well-rounded, effective OHS professional, and that is the ability to influence.

The practice of promoting operations personnel to senior OHS leadership roles frustrates some specialists. There are even times where this practice is the stated intention of management. But the reason for this approach is sound; the chosen operations personnel will already have demonstrated their ability to influence. They will have shown that they can identify the need for change; can effectively analyse the situation; have the credibility and capacity to form alliances and coalitions to make change happen; and have a track record of being able to deliver. When surrounded by competent OHS professionals there is no reason why this approach should fail, which presents a straightforward and low risk option for management.

Rather than feel excluded, the OHS professional should apply the key components highlighted in the meta-skills of “consultation and building relationships” and “working within an organisational context” that underpin the Model of OHS Practice in the OHS Body of Knowledge. In fact, it is the duty of OHS professionals to ensure they are included. Regardless of career aspirations, the ability to influence is an essential element in the practice of OHS.

Specialists dealing with highly technical issues should have an easier time influencing as the knowledge base and recommendations are difficult to challenge. However, to be successful even the most technical information needs to persuade leaders to take action. Consider the messaging of a statement on unacceptable employee exposures that says “exposure data shows that the 95th percentile upper confidence limit of the geometric mean of monitoring results is 0.37 compared to the occupational exposure limit of 0.2”. Unless the recipient is also a technical expert, this is unlikely to influence action despite its completeness and accuracy. A far more persuasive statement would be “employees are overexposed to a harmful substance and action is needed today”. But even that statement will not guarantee that the appropriate interventions occur in a timely manner. While a practitioner may present data, the effective OHS professional will provide the influence needed to address the causes of the overexposure and provide long term solutions.

However this is a simple example and most OHS professionals do not deal with issues quite so straightforward. A cultural shift affecting the behaviours of managers or the workforce; the introduction of a new approach to risk management; the elevation of key health issues to match the attention paid to safety; or a multitude of other necessary changes identified by the OHS professional all require influence. This entails a steady and considered situation analysis; establishment of coalitions; development of a plan; and implementation of the plan, all of which require an influential professional. There will be times where senior management is fully aligned with little effort, but the professional must presume on every occasion that this is not the cases and build the necessary alliances and coalitions, including, in many cases, an executive sponsor.

To become effective and well-rounded the OHS professional must master the ability to influence over a wide range of issues encompassed by OHS. The field of OHS gives the professional a good insight into the application of broad concepts, but the technical management of OHS issues requires different skills than those required to influence. The chapter on the Model of OHS Practice gives insights into the practice of OHS, touches on this need to influence and identifies many individual skills that contribute to such ‘influence’.

The chapter on the OHS professional as ‘critical consumer’ of research identifies the need for the OHS professional to be able to explain their reasoning and the evidence supporting a particular direction or decision. This requires the professional to be technically current and informed by research so they can provide managers with advice that can be trusted for accuracy and is recognised as ‘leading edge’.

No matter how technically competent, the professional should not presume that the ability to influence will come naturally. Even the most well-respected professionals will benefit from formal coaching to develop influencing skills and should seek a mentor to guide the application of these skills. While more research and clarification of the model of OHS practice is required, these final chapters of the Body of Knowledge give valuable insights into the practice of OHS. The professional should heed the suggestions and, recognising that the needs of each individual will be different, seek guidance specific to their needs to pave the way to become effective and influential.