Changing Gears

Monday, 11 August, 2008 - 10:00
Industry news

Changing Gears

Editor's note: Article written by David West for National Safety Magazine. This article was first published in the November 2008 edition of National Safety Magazine and is reproduced with the permission of the National Safety Council of Australia (NSCA).


Three significant moves by the Federal Government in 2008 could mean that education and research in OHS is on the cusp of a new era.

In September, the Cutler Report flagged the likelihood of increased funding for higher education and research across the board, and the Federal Government also announced the establishment of a new body, Safe Work Australia (SWA). And, in March, the government announced the Review of the Australian Higher Education System, due to report by the end of the year.

This comes at a time when there is a growing awareness that good OHS management is central to corporate governance and bottom-line performance. In turn, this is reflected in the healthy remuneration packages offered to health and safety and risk managers, particularly in mining and manufacturing.

But the centrality of OHS requires more than high pay cheques. A comprehensive approach to developing a new generation of OHS researchers and practitioners through top-level education and a commitment to adequate research funding is required. Such an approach is necessary to reverse what some believe has been a downgrading of OHS research and university-level education.

In decline


The current group of leading OHS researchers, who emerged in the 1980s, are ageing and, due to a decline in funding and a shift in educational priorities over the past decade, there are now few to replace them.

Professor Michael Quinlan from the NSW University School of Organisation and Management, who was one of the group from the 1980s points out, ‘the problem now is that all the really good researchers who came out of the ’80s are getting into their 50s and need to be replaced by a new generation’.

His comments are echoed by Dr Benjamin Brooks, Program Director OHS, University of SA who said, ‘Researchers such as Michael Quinlan and [professor] Andrew Hopkins from ANU continue to do high-quality and internationally recognised research, but their generation is getting older and, as yet, there is no new generation coming up behind them’.

According to Quinlan there was growth in OHS research in the mid-80s to mid-90s but he argues that ‘the last government was simply not interested. OHS was not a priority area and the winding up of NOHSC had disastrous effects for OHS research’.

The 1980s in Australia saw the introduction of a raft of new OHS legislation, the establishment of National Occupational Health & Safety Commission (NOHSC), the establishment of National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety (NIOHS), the establishment of Australian College of Occupational Medicine (ACOM), the widespread use of corporate occupational physicians and a substantial increase in the size of the trained OHS workforce.

However, when NOHSC moved from Sydney to Canberra in 2000, only nine out of over 100 staff moved and none of the members of the Epidemiology Unit moved.

Quinlan does not believe that NOHSC was perfect. ‘I think that the internal research area at NOHSC grew too big. They had 40 to 50 researchers. I think that 20 to 30 would be enough within the new body with funds left over to be directed towards external research.’

When the Australian Safety and Compensation Council (ASCC) was established in 2005 at a time of increasing individual employment arrangements and decreasing union influence, there was a loss of expertise and opportunities in research, occupational medicine, OHS education, corporate knowledge and research funding.

‘The ASCC was largely driven by workers compensation and had very few people with the right kind of expertise; and the problem now is that all the really good researchers … are getting into their 50s and need to be replaced by a new generation,’ says Quinlan.

‘Despite this, there has still been some really good research done in the intervening years, such as the work done by Tony LaMontagne at the University of Melbourne into workplace stress. There has also been good work done at the ANU, Griffith and Flinders.’ 

Moving forward

The new OHS body, SWA, offers renewed hope on the OHS research front. It will have a new research arm dedicated to developing model OHS legislation for adoption by all jurisdictions, which in theory will present new opportunities for OHS researchers.

The announcement of the new body follows the Council of Australian Governments signing of an Intergovernmental Agreement for Regulatory and Operational Reform in OHS on 3 July 2008.

SWA will be an independent federal, state and territory statutory authority, which will aim to achieve that elusive goal of uniformity of OHS and workers compensation legislation across all jurisdictions. It will have an independent chair and will be comprised of representatives of the Commonwealth, the states and territories, and employers and unions.

The Cutler review of the national innovation system criticises the decline in funding for innovation and research across the board and makes a series of recommendations that, if implemented, should change the way funding for research is approached and made.

The report found that between 1993–94 and 2007–08 Australian Government support for science and innovation declined by nearly one-quarter as a share of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the number of researchers per thousand employees declined substantially in the last decade, and that US patents granted per 1000 population have plunged from 0.06 to 0.01.

Although the Cutler Report does not mention OHS specifically, it does make a number of relevant recommendations including:

o    establishing a program to encourage and support professional bodies to provide accelerated pathways to facilitate enriching professional transitions

o    building pathways for key professions in which there are skill shortages

o    resourcing the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) to deliver incentives designed to rationalise and consolidate Australia’s health and medical research sector, including universities and independent medical research institutes, to achieve efficiency and effectiveness of the sector

o    allocating funds currently distributed under the Research Training Scheme and Australian Postgraduate Award (APA) schemes to institutions on the basis of demonstrated excellence in research based on the research quality rankings that will be produced by the Excellence in Research for Australia Initiative.

New funding structure

Brooks sees renewed possibilities for OHS if the realities of developing and pitching for research grants are understood and properly funded.

‘We do not have adequate funding for OHS research in this country. This is because most researchers are put in the position where they have to do other things to pay their way,’ Brooks says.

‘Only around 30% of applications for research grants are successful and researchers have to develop applications in their spare time. This involves not just writing an application, but also developing ties with the industry to establish industry partners in research.'

‘Industry usually contributes around a quarter of the funding of each research project.’

A new approach to salaries is also necessary to inject research space into the working lives of academia. ‘What we need is at least 20 per cent of researchers' salaries to be specifically earmarked for research. This would of course be linked to performance criteria,’ he says.

‘The money certainly exists. Uni SA for example has $80 million in the bank and no debt. Universities have become hard-nosed business environments.’

And there is no shortage of areas in need of OHS research. ‘We definitely need new and better research in the area of chronic disease and how this affects the health problems of those in the last 10 years of life,’ he says.

‘We also need to take a deeper look at manual handling, which remains a difficult problem area and also intangible areas such a psychosocial issues. We also need more funding for coursework especially those that link OHS and the environment.'

‘Nevertheless there is good research being carried out. Safe Work SA has recognised the value of high-quality research and has recently committed to a research program,’ he adds.

When it comes to grants, Quinlan believes that there should be a peer-reviewed grant system, without competitive tendering, that brings in OHS knowledge from other organisations.

In relation to SWA, he would like to see a comprehensive approach. ‘I think we need a research group within the new national agency with enough staff to cover the whole range of issues,’ he says.

‘NOHSC had a good model for directing funds for research. They had a Research Standing Committee that would concentrate on five to six major areas each year, with a balance between applied and more fundamental research.’

However, he points out that while research that provides practical solutions needs to be encouraged, it is also necessary to conduct research that is published so that the results can be shared.

More uni courses

Quinlan also believes SWA could play a role in driving OHS education. ‘The national body could also provide funding for centres of excellence in teaching OHS each with a different focus, such as engineering, health sciences or management,’ he says.

‘In this hopefully we can start to build cohorts of students looking to take on PhDs in OHS, who will become the new generation of researchers.’

He believes that we need more OHS courses at big universities ‘if we are going to get really serious [about OHS research and education]’.

‘A lot of the big unis don’t have anything on offer at all,’ he says. Sydney University had a Department of OHS and offered a Master of OHS, but was closed in 1996.

He would also like to see more research on contemporary OHS issues. ‘We need new research in the areas of psycho-social issues such as staffing levels and work systems, the proliferation of hazardous substances and we also need to look at how government agencies run awareness campaigns — in fact there is no shortage of things to look at,’ he says.

When it comes to providing education, Brooks says, because it is more driven by economic considerations than it was, it has changed the way students engage with university.

‘Most of our students are working full-time and want flexibility. Although this means that we have committed students, it is not ideal because it is better to have face-to-face contact with students,’ says Brooks.

‘Students are very hard-nosed these days about what they want and why they are doing a course — especially as the price of the course increases.'

‘However, we run our course on a shoestring, although it is increasingly recognised that good health and safety is good business. An indication of this is that some OHS professionals, such as those in the mining industry, can earn up to half a million dollars per year.’

The Federal Government’s Cutler Report, the implementation of Safe Work Australia and the Review of the Australian Higher Education System may be the impetus needed to boost OHS university education and research funding to a level commensurate with its impact on the community.