Workplace health and safety education | Making the right choice

October 8, 2019 David Clarke

Workplace Health and Safety Education – If it’s too cheap and too easy, it’s probably too good to be true says Australian Institute of Health and Safety CEO David Clarke.

In this article, David warns about a weak point in our workplace health and safety education system and advises aspiring health and safety people to do their homework. 

If you think you can learn all you need to know about health and safety only on the job, or if you think you can learn all you need to know only in a course, think again.

Effective WHS involves the application of systems and processes, often in complex working environments. It involves a mixture of hard and soft skills – of science and psychology, business acumen and people management. Like every profession, to be capable you need a combination the right kind of theory, learning about basic rules and conceptual frameworks, and the the right practice, learning over time to apply those concepts in the real world. One without the other isn’t enough.  

On the education aside of the equation the system in Australia for people who work in generalist Workplace Health and Safety roles is divided into two parts:

  1. Professional level education, in the form of University-based Bachelor degrees and postgraduate degrees (grad dip and masters) in health and safety; and
  2. Practitioner level training at VET level, in the form of Certificate 3 and 4, Diploma and Advanced Diploma in Workplace Health and Safety.

You would think that in this country we’d have our education system working properly and in higher education, we have.  Australia’s WHS higher education courses (Bachelor degree or higher) for professionals are accredited by the Australian OHS Education Accreditation Board (AOHSEAB), continually improving and upgrading as new knowledge emerges, informed by the OHS Body of Knowledge. 

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Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the VET system. The privatisation of VET has led to an alarming drop in the quality of both content and delivery of many courses in recent years.

Problems have ranged of from full-scale scamming of the system by some providers, to poor quality content and delivery of others. This has caused an increasing loss of business confidence in both the VET system and in the knowledge of VET graduates. Our mining and resources sectors rely heavily on VET trained health and safety workers, and so the threat that this poses to good health and safety is real.

For our part, government, business, unions, and the health and safety profession need to unite around this issue and drive reform, and we’re at work on this. 

Does this mean you shouldn’t do a Cert IV or Diploma WHS if you’re considering a career in health and safety? Not at all.  There are still good providers around so do your homework.

Take a close look at the provider and what they’re offering. You might be tempted to take the cheapest course on offer, or the shortest course, or the one that’s all on-line, or the one that wants to give you (for a price) a large amount of units passed for recognition of prior learning –  or one that offers all of these at once.

None of these things automatically mean the course isn’t OK, but first and foremost consider whether you’re going to learn what you need to know, ask questions and listen carefully to the way they talk about their programs. It’s critical that you have the knowledge and skills to do the job well because as a health and safety person, what you know – or don’t know – has a direct effect, daily, on the health and wellbeing of others. 

David Clarke is the CEO of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety, the national association for the health and safety profession. For more information please visit www.aihs.org.au

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