OSH Issues – How do you solve a problem?

How do you solve an occupational safety and health problem

Problem-solving is a skill needed by OSH professionals (Occupational safety and health) at all stages of their careers. IOSH asked Finch’s experienced OSH manager and industrial hygienist Dr Steve Cowley for his advice on how to do it well.

What kind of problems are OSH professionals likely to face?

We are problem-solving all the time: our role is to try to prevent health and safety problems or to mitigate those that exist. We’re generally trying to sell a message to people about how things should be designed and run so that risk is minimised. And the hierarchy of controls [a way of determining what actions will best control exposures] that we use as a framework is almost a problem-solving list in itself.

In what situations can problem-solving be effective?

I’m currently looking at a problem that’s been created by designing a process around the product, and the processing of that product – and then the person has been brought into the picture to interact with the process and equipment. And that’s too late: we want these problem-solving activities upstream in the design process. We should stop and think about how human input will work safely with what we’re trying to achieve equipment and process‑wise. So, we’re now having to problem-solve, but the solution is going to be a compromise.

How do you approach problem-solving?

We begin with gathering information. The type of information we often need includes:

  • What that problem is: how it has arisen, the scale of the problem, whether it is technical or organisational, and whether it is simple or multifaceted.
  • What the nature of the problem is: is there a risk to people, the organisation or the environment?
  • The risk of exposure: is the risk acute – requiring immediate intervention and short-term solutions – or do we have the luxury of time?
  • The stakeholders: what are their interests and are there competing interests?
  •  What is the organisation trying to achieve? Is there support where it’s needed and time and cash in the budget to solve the problem? Is there an appetite for the best solution?

What soft skills do you need to be a good problem-solver?

Open-mindedness, listening and creative thinking skills. Problem-solving tools are obviously helpful, but the choice of tool will be determined by the scale and nature of the problem.

My colleague Dr John Culvenor experimented successfully with physician and psychologist Edward de Bono’s ‘Six Thinking Hats’ methodology* in team-based problem-solving. The hierarchy of controls is a great foundation for creative thinking that all health and safety professionals are using because we’re constantly looking for ways to achieve those higher-order outcomes. We also need to be consulting with all the stakeholders – so it’s an open, communicative, creative and consultative approach. Consultation is more than communication.

Which elements of the IOSH competency framework are used?

To an extent, all of them. In the technical category, we’re looking at health and safety law – or compliance – and risk management. Of the core competencies we’re trying to provide leadership, and planning is where we’re trying to get upstream and get the problem solved at the design stage.

And then in the behavioural category we’re managing stakeholders, we’re communicating and working with others. So problem-solving fits into a large part of the framework.

How do you ensure that problems are identified before they arise?

We must look for opportunities for the organisation to learn, and prevent repeats of the mistakes that have led to past problems.

Ideally, the OSH professional is consulted at the concept and design stages. All stakeholders must be identified and consulted. Users and maintenance staff, for example, usually have rich experience and ideas that are of value to process and equipment designs.

Assessing processes from end to end, considering machinery and equipment lifecycles, identifying the stakeholders at every stage and engaging them in such group exercises is always fruitful. Consultation is vital for identifying and ironing out as many problems as possible before money is spent.

If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to contact [email protected].

*Read more about Six Thinking Hats in a safety context at

You can read the IOSH version here.

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