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Thursday, 20 July, 2017 - 10:15
Industry news

There are three significant trends that will impact the future of business in Australia and OHS professionals will need to take a number of steps in order to prepare for these changes, according to Innes Willox, chief executive of The Australian Industry Group (Ai Group).

The first major trend relates to technology, which will see increasing integration of information technology into other sectors through automation, industrial internet, analytics, artificial intelligence and the merging of currently separate disciplines of biological sciences, physics and neuroscience into industrial and business processes, said Willox.

The second major trend is ongoing integration of Australia into global markets, global supply chains and international product standards, while the third trend relates to people issues, such as the ageing workforce; changing and merging of periods of learning and working within careers; stresses on the traditional hierarchical management structures to cope with rapid, complex change and uncertainty and ambiguity in markets.

Willox, who was speaking ahead of the 2017 Victorian Safety Conference, which will be held in late August in Melbourne, said these trends have a number of implications for OHS professionals, including both a changing nature and range of WHS risks.

Willox predicted there will be a reduction in many traditional physical risks through increased automation of repetitive and dangerous tasks, as well as an emergence of new physical risks from new materials (such as nanomaterials and chemicals), artificial intelligence and increased machine-human interface.

Mental health risks will also become increasingly important, as a result of rapid change, economic dislocation, struggling organisational leadership and a breakdown of work-private time divide.

“Traditionally WHS specialists are trained very well from a technical perspective on hazard topic areas,” said Willox.

“To operate at a professional level in WHS, they need to make sure they are developing understanding and competency in behavioural aspects of WHS – attitudes, drivers and perceptions of safety; managing change and understanding how people learn at different ages and in different environments.

“Professional level competency in WHS also requires an understanding of the business context of the organisation (including market, political or governance stresses), the variability in capability of people to learn, comprehend and engage with others; and the technology frontiers that may be crucial to the organisation’s commercial future, and their possible WHS implications,” he said.

As a result, Willox said it was important for OHS leaders to understand their own role (both positive and negative) in building WHS competency in the workplace.

“Are they doing other people’s thinking for them?” he asked.

“Avoid focusing on ‘ticking boxes’ rather than making real change within a business and influencing culture/leadership.

“So don’t just transact, have a mission – aim to normalise safety in the company; or to build organisational capability in WHS.”

Willox warned that WHS specialists may try to be everything to everyone, and risk not achieving the results they want.

“We’ve seen this in the holistic wellness area where WHS professionals traditionally trained in hazard/risk management are now trying to develop health and wellbeing programs and they are failing, unfairly discrediting the concept within those organisations,” he said.

There are a number of practical steps OHS leaders can take to help prepare for the above, according to Willox:

  1. “Observe and listen until you are surprised by something,” he said. “Don’t just look for what you already know.”
  2. Know your limitations. “Understand when you need to refer an issue to an expert,” he said. “Be creative and innovative when coming up with solutions – look for opportunities to improve everywhere and anywhere within the business and operations. Get people involved at every level.”
  3. “Don’t swim against the rip,” said Willox. “Look for ways to make the organisation’s operational objectives work for safety and not against it. Engage with researchers who are building knowledge about specific risks and safety thinking.”


The 2017 Victorian Safety Conference: Safety Strategies Towards Efficient Productive Systems, will be held at Victoria University City Convention Centre from 29-30 August 2017. For more information visit the conference website.