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Improving effectiveness of OHS consultation

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Both employers and employees have a role to play in workplace occupational health and safety, according to an Australian consultant.

Senior OHS Advisor Kristina Barrett spoke at the 2006 Sydney Safety Show, presented by Australian Exhibitions and Conferences.

Good consultation, communication and cooperation between employers and employees can have a major impact on the success of improving health and safety at work, according to the OHS expert. There is no doubt this is a key factor in strong safety culture. In 2000 with the introduction of a Duty to Consult, many workplaces established consultation arrangements in response to fulfilling this stationary requirement. Now moving on a few years, the goal is to move beyond basic compliance and improve the effectiveness of the consultation arrangements that businesses established.

Traditionally workplace health and safety initiatives have not disseminated easily into small business. Instead, many OHS regulations and other preventative initiatives have had great difficulty permeating to small and medium enterprises (SMEs). 

The project was designed for SMEs to diagnose the effectiveness of their existing consultative arrangements, be given support during the process and to collect information of practices across industry to distribute the good ideas back to all participating companies. The benefits of using a self assessment model gives the company a chance to critique its own behaviours and identify areas and ideas to implement for itself, thereby increasing the success of subsequent initiatives through ownership of these ideas.

The self assessment survey tool is designed to be used to stimulate thought, create discussion, identify new opportunities and improve the amount and quality of issues that the arrangements facilitate employees to get involved with. 

How did it begin? The approach to program design

Having become familiar with the types of queries, concerns and complaints from AI group members both from managers and employee representatives regarding OHS and consultation the next step was to work out how to tackle and find the best approach to giving back what they needed. This involved the following steps taken in forming the program design.  

  1. Identification and outline of the purpose and its objectives.
  2. Identification project participants.
  3. Identification of key barriers of engagement
  4. Scoping of key information categories and best method to collect it
  5. Design and testing pilot programs and relevant tools
  6. Implementation
  7. Review and evaluation

The final program implementation consisted of the following steps:

  1. Companies perform the self assessment, submit the survey and received written feedback.
  2. An independent telephone survey is performed of another (e.g. non committee) employee at the participating company.
  3. The collecting, collation and sharing of information continues through participants’ attendance at a workshop and,
  4. A final report is provided to all participating companies showing trends of industry good practice.

Literature review and research

The review and research phase initially focussed on identifying what other tools and what information was available from web-based searches, government publications and academic articles. There is an amazing amount of information regarding consultation and/or communication and its benefits to business and the benefits are widely supported and accepted idea. 

Pilot and findings  

The program needed at least the following elements to be successful:

  • Enthusiastic participants on a voluntary basis
  • An accurate consistent user-friendly tool and guidance material
  • Clear objectives as to the scope and type of the information gathered
  • An objective checking mechanism
  • Support and expertise
  • Constructive feedback to participants through workshops and reports  

The findings were:

  • Language and jargon, for example non-understanding of the use of the word “workgroups”
  • More thorough explanation of certain terms
  • Inclusion of specific examples of best practice to compare yourself against
  • Modifications to the length and time taken to fully complete the survey and different people required to give different opinions depending on their operational position
  • Restructure sections for ease completion, such as tick box scoring

Outline of the self assessment tool

Information gathered in the self assessment tool was based around basic set up, role and function of arrangements; communication, consultation and decision making and going one step further.


There has been a response from 120 companies initially showing interest in participating of which 64 companies have completed and returned the survey forms to date. Overall most companies reported they were satisfied with the arrangements they had in place and felt it was suited to the company structure and was working well for them.

An interesting comment is the demonstration of good consultation practices particularly in the smaller businesses who report they consult on an as needed basis and have little documentation to rely on however can show working examples of an open and inclusive attitude towards consulting with their employees over OHS decisions.

“This has been an interesting project and particularly for myself as an accredited consultation trainer it has demonstrated to me where emphasis is required to assist companies to get this right,” OHS expert Kristina Barrett said.  

“This paper has been an account of our project so far and we welcome any insights and reflections and more participants into the project.”  

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