Role of Occupational Safety and Health Practitioners

Occupational safety and health (OSH) practitioners include OSH professionals employed as external or internal advisors, OSH managers and OSH representatives elected by employees. Organisations have increased the use of OSH practitioners following Robens inspired OSH legislative reform in the 1970s that placed more responsibility on businesses to manage the risks created in the course of business activity.

The Role of OSH representatives

Some research has focused on elected OSH representatives, but most dates back to the 1980s. As part of her master’s thesis, Leigh-Ann Harris analysed the roles of OSH representatives in New Zealand’s metal manufacturing industry and found that there were diverse interpretations of the purpose of the OSH representative role across businesses and within businesses. OSH representatives could be grouped into four role ‘types’: administrators, workshop inspectors, problem solvers and craft experts. All ‘types’ positively contributed to OSH.

The role of OSH professionals in organisations

In contrast, there is scant published research on what OSH professionals do, their strategies, their impact on OSH and the barriers they meet in their efforts to improve the working environment.  In a preliminary study, Dr Kirsten Olsen interviewed ten OSH professionals in large New Zealand organisations about their job role, tasks, strategies, and their self-assessed impact on OSH. She found that the OSH professionals were facilitators of change aimed at improving the work environment; they have a central role in the implementation of OSH programmes, they focus on middle and first line management but see OSH representatives as important stakeholders; their main impact is on stakeholder's knowledge, attitude and OSH management systems and they have little influence on development and planning processes.

The aim of this research is to assist with the development of OSH teaching programmes, and to inform the training, education and support of OSH practitioners. Future studies will include larger sample sizes, and focus OSH professionals' role in implementation of national OSH programmes. This research is linked to a large Danish research programme CAVI (Centre for Analysis of Working Environment Policy Programmes and Instruments) which include: Professor Peter Hasle, Aalborg University, Copenhagen, Denmark; Associate Professor Klaus Nielsen, Roskilde University, Denmark; Professor Per Langaa Jensen, Technical University of Denmark.

Publications from latest projects:

  • Harris, L.-A. (2011). Legislation for participation: an overview of New Zealand’s health and safety representative employee participation system. New Zealand Journal of Employment Relations, 36(2), 45-60.
  • Harris, L.-A., Olsen, K.B., & Walker, R.J. (2012). Role typology for health and safety representatives. Employee Relations, 34 (5), 481-500.
  • Olsen, K. (2012). Occupational health and safety professionals strategies to improve working environment and their self-assessed impact. WORK - a journal of prevention assessment & rehabilitation, (41), 2625-2632.
  • Olsen, K. (2012). The internal working environment practitioner's role in implementation of working environment policy instruments or programmes. Presented at CAVI research workshop: Understanding the function of working environment policy instruments, Magleas Kursuscenter, Birkerod, Denmark, 11-12 Oct 2012. 15 pages.

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