OSH as a discipline and practice has been on a rollercoaster of a journey over the past years – polarisation of opinion in the press fed a public perception which was often less than complimentary. The social, cultural and technological legitimacy of the profession has been undermined at times and the uninformed still see safety and health management as all about compliance.
That attitude persists in some organisations. Safety and health does not have the same status as other core functions. It is not uncommon to find those in OSH roles lacking the requisite skills, knowledge and experience to carry them out effectively. This will continue while OSH is viewed simply as a compliance issue: if you want only to answer the question “are we compliant?” you need someone who can complete a checklist.
But there are other employers who recognise safety and health as a core business value and a key contributor to their social licence to operate. This is becoming increasingly important as we see in many jurisdictions an increasing shift by regulators away from guidance on achieving compliance but also stricter legal or reputational penalties for those who do not meet minimum standards. This shift increases the onus on organisations and individuals to create their own frameworks to make workplaces safe.
To do so, organisations need to identify competent professionals and to understand the skills, knowledge and experience those professionals offer to assure success in achieving their OSH vision. With this in mind, IOSH, supported by its members, decided to provide a framework describing competence at all levels for those responsible for overseeing, implementing or advocating safety and health.
Most OSH professionals (I am no exception) were trained primarily to understand technical requirements: legislation, risk assessment and management processes. These remain key tools in a professional’s toolbox. But our discussions about the framework concluded that, to ensure safety and health in organisations, engagement and communication are also vital.
Knowledge of business strategy and planning and sustainable practice is vital to ensuring the OSH agenda remains relevant and positioned appropriately in an organisation. Consequently the IOSH framework specifies the need for technical, business, communication and strategic competence to carry out OSH duties effectively.
Competency measurement will enable organisations to bring out the differences between themselves in a more sophisticated way than regulation can achieve. A competency approach will also do much to combat the perception and legitimacy of safety and health among the public and media. It will also help to position and equip the profession better to contribute to business success. This will support a better informed, less prescriptive, more proportionate and more goal-oriented approach to safety and health with less reliance on compliance and regulation as the main drivers.