How OHS professionals added the most (and least) value through COVID-19

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Thursday, 11 February, 2021 - 12:30
Industry news
National News

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted vastly different ways in which organisations engaged with their OHS teams and resources through 2020, according to new research.

At one end of the spectrum, some organisations elected to centralise and restrict decision-making to the upper echelons of leadership – excluding OHS from involvement in strategic risk management.

At the other end, other organisations recognised the applicability of general risk-management expertise and instead welcomed OHS professionals into crisis management meetings with open arms.

The research, which was conducted by Dr Tristan Casey from the Safety Science Innovation Lab at Griffith University and Dr Xiaowen Hu in the Business School at the Queensland University of Technology, involved three waves of interviews with 25 safety professionals from 12 different industries over the past year.

“Their insights have helped us to understand the role of a safety professional during times of crisis and how they have contributed over time,” said Casey, who was speaking ahead of a webinar on “crisis leadership: learning from COVID-19” to be held on Thursday 22 April 2021.

“Early in the pandemic (around March last year), we found a stark contrast in the way safety professionals were involved in pandemic planning and response. Somewhat alarmingly, many participants found themselves deemed ‘non-essential’ workers during the initial crisis.”

No longer allowed onsite, Casey said safety professionals found themselves at home attempting to remotely manage onsite safety.

“As one safety manager reflected, this experience somehow revealed the ‘true’ priority of safety among management,” said Casey.

Other OHS professionals found themselves excluded from the organisation’s crisis management team and high-level pandemic decision-making and were frustrated by the focus on fiscal matters and a poor-quality information flow.

“One safety manager described the initial experience with the crisis management team as an ‘information black hole’,” said Casey.

“For those who remained in an active role, they found themselves scrambling to interpret rapidly-changing government information and pandemic requirements, sometimes ambiguous, and often inconsistent between federal and state levels.”

Casey said the pandemic – being a time of resource scarcity, dynamic change and pressure –also raised several safety tensions; most notably a tension between pandemic-safety and physical safety.

“Safety managers found their budgets restricted, cut and redirected away from existing safety-related improvements and towards pandemic response,” he said.

The research also identified two key strategies that safety professionals used in their roles to contribute value during the early stages of the pandemic.

The first is engaging in proactive and extra-role behaviours, and the second is acting as a source of social support for the organisation.

“Safety professionals truly went above and beyond their formal task requirements during the pandemic,” he said.

“Some engaged in a practice of ‘job crafting’ – proactively reshaping their role to fit with the ‘new normal’.”

Further, Casey said safety professionals leveraged their personal and professional networks both inside and outside their organisations to ensure high-quality information was making its way to top decision-makers.

Examples included assisting with the procurement of sanitiser and masks, organising logistics for marooned site workers (such as in the case of the FIFO sector) and liaising with contractors and suppliers to shore up a collective strategy and approach to safety management.

Safety professionals also found themselves defending and supporting decisions being made by the organisation to try and build support among the general workforce, said Casey.

“As one construction safety manager explained, the rapid pace of decision making based on fluctuating pandemic requirements introduced a challenging aspect to their role around change management and providing encouragement to concerned workers,” he said.

Throughout COVID19, safety managers contributed not only to physical safety by setting up the right risk management process and controls, but also providing ‘social safety’ through acting as a source of reassurance around pandemic measures.

Beyond the pandemic, Casey said many safety professionals became increasingly concerned about mental health as the pandemic progressed and implemented proactive support activities such as regular communication and promoting wellbeing services and support.

“For example, one safety manager realised that misinformation might have created panic and stress among the workforce and took the responsibility to clarify assumptions and beliefs,” he said.

Through their research, both Casey and Hu have developed a model to assist OHS professionals with managing effectively through crises.

Hu explained that the “ICE” model emerged through the identification of three key dilemmas that organisations have had to manage throughout the pandemic:

  • informational (reassuring versus reliable information),
  • viability (finances versus people), and
  • decisional (centralisation versus decentralisation).


Hu said each dilemma has an associated leadership practice that aims to resolve these dilemmas in functional ways: involvement (responding quickly while also giving opportunities for employees to have input), certainty (giving reassurance while also providing up-to-date information), and empathy (maintaining a business perspective while also showing compassion and understanding).

“The ICE model has applicability for any time where there is change and uncertainty, and various tensions or dilemmas have surfaced,” said Hu.

“These might feel like anxiety or pressure, with ambiguity about the next steps.”

Hu explained that the model “gives safety and non-safety professionals some advice about how to proceed through these murky waters as we emerge from the pandemic, and may become especially relevant if the virus flares up and lockdown resumes”.

Hu observed that OHS Professionals have a challenging task to work within ambiguous regulatory requirements while carefully balancing different domains of safety at the same time.

“A proactive mindset is important to address these key challenges. Anticipating, thinking outside the box, and navigating through and beyond one’s resource and role constraints are the key for success,” said Hu.

The study also reinforces the central role of interpersonal skills such as influencing, persuading and leading for the OHS professional, according to Casey, who said the ability to influence will be valuable when it comes to upward management (i.e., with the executive team), as well as working with the general workforce.

Of note, Casey said the AIHS has spent considerable time and effort to define such interpersonal competencies, which are supported by a growing program of empirical research (e.g., Provan, Rae & Dekker, 2019).

“Unfortunately, some OHS professionals may need to work harder in some organisations to gain a valued seat at the crisis management table; in others, the OHS professional is a natural fit and a source of immense risk-management knowledge that can be applied in times of crisis with great impact,” he said.

“Regardless, we feel that interpersonal skill development should be elevated further on the OHS agenda.”

Casey said OHS professionals should also think outside the box when it comes to resolving the tensions that crisis often brings.

He noted that adaptivity and proactivity are hallmarks of organisational resilience (Hollnagel, 2014), and importantly, are demonstrated through the actions and inactions of organisational members.

“OHS professionals are in a strategically vital position to contribute directly to resilience during crisis through creatively reinventing their roles, applying their knowledge into new domains, and reaching out to peers and colleagues elsewhere to bring new and up-to-date information into an organisation,” he said.


Casey will present an AIHS endorsed professional development webinar on “crisis leadership: learning from COVID-19” on Thursday 22 April 2021 from 2:30 to 3:30 PM AEST. For more information email, call (03) 8336 1995 or visit the event website.