Today WorkSafe Victoria launches a new return-to-work campaign which will use Paralympian Jack Swift as the “face” of the campaign. The campaign is sure to be successful but the increasing focus of safety regulators on return-to-work (RTW) may illustrate a growing trend where rehabilitation policy strategies are gaining priority over injury prevention. Yet innovative approaches to injury prevention provide the greatest potential for personal, economic and social savings.
In 2001 WorkCover NSW began its Paralympian Sponsorship Program, a program that continues. The advantage of the New South Wales program is that it features a range of incident scenarios and, most importantly, the paralympians speak about “workplace safety, injury prevention and management and their personal road to recovery, return to work.” (emphasis added) This broad, multi-category approach seems to be missing from the new Victorian campaign.
According to a media release about the campaign (embargoed at the time of writing):
“He was just 21 and working as a plumber’s labourer on an inner Melbourne construction site when a 14-tonne excavator ran over his right leg, crushing it below the knee. Conscious throughout the ordeal, Jack was rushed to hospital and his leg was amputated the next day.
Jack said the accident “absolutely turned my life upside down” and described the 13 months he was off work as the worst time of his life.”
Jack Swift provided more details of the workplace incident in an interview to Runner’s World in early 2012:
“I’d just turned 21 and was working as a plumber’s labourer in Melbourne. It was a regular day on 6 December 2006; we were laying water mains in Spring Street in the city and had excavated two metres to lay pipes in the ground.
Part of my job was to sweep up the dirt to load it into the back of the truck and take it to the tip. I walked around to the truck, which was beside the excavator, when the driver saw something in the trench and accelerated forward without seeing me. Before I knew it, I had a 14-tonne excavator on my leg and was yelling out for him to back off.
It happened in seconds. I remember looking at my leg as the excavator was reversing and knowing I would never walk on it again. The bone fragments were like splinters. There was a nurse walking past who ran over and took my belt off to strap it around my thigh and restrict the blood loss. The next thing I remember is the paramedics arriving and giving me morphine.”
The crucial element in Jack Swift’s incident was:
“…the driver saw something in the trench and accelerated forward without seeing me…”.
In seven years’ time has workplace safety improved sufficiently to prevent such a situation? People working in close proximity to mobile plant in construction sites continues to be a major hazard. SafetyAtWorkBlog has tried to find out more about the December 6 incident by asking WorkSafe Victoria:
“Did WorkSafe Victoria attend the worksite at the time of Jack Swift’s incident? What action was taken, if any, against the employer due to this incident?”
A spokesperson replied that WorkSafe attended the Jack Swift incident but there was no prosecution. The spokesperson advised that “all safety procedures were in place at the time of his accident”. How could this be the case if a worker’s leg was crushed to the extent requiring amputation? Was the worksite “safe”?
In the month after Jack Swift’s incident, WorkSafe Victoria issued a safety alert on working near mobile plant. The safety alert lists hazard control measures for consideration such as:
- “isolating vehicles and plant from persons on the site
- using fencing, barriers, barricades, temporary warning or control signs
- planning the direction that plant moves, so visibility is not restricted
- implementing safe working distances
- using clear communication systems
- minimising amount of plant working at one time
- using demarcation lines or zones
- using audible reversing alarms
- using reversing/rear-view cameras
- using reversing sensors
- using flashing lights
- using high visibility garments
- using spotters or observers”
WorkCover NSW has proved that there is a demand for workers who have survived a traumatic injury to tell their stories. These stories can be immensely powerful and effective in changing some workers’ attitudes to the importance of OHS. ( The story of Charlie Morecraft is probably the best international example.) The struggle through rehabilitation, what Jack Swift called the “worst time of his life”, is inspiring but it seems obvious that the trauma could have been avoided by better safety management at the time. In times of economic austerity one would expect increased attention on the prevention of harm to eliminate the much greater downstream costs of repair and rehabilitation.
The increasing voice of RTW over injury prevention may be partly due to injury prevention still being seen as an additional business cost and one drawn from potential profits. RTW is less of a hit to the bottom line in Australia because it is funded through compulsory workers’ compensation premiums. In effect, the cost of business mistakes is already covered, where the cost of injury prevention is not. The existence of workers’ compensation funds also results in RTW being more politically “safe” as industry may complain about the size of the premium but it continues to pay it. Injury prevention has no such funding base.
Previous paralympian-based safety campaigns indicate that the Jack Swift campaign will be effective in communicating the intended RTW message and WorkSafe Victoria should be supported for freshening up such an approach. However it is an example of the hesitance of all OHS regulators in Australia to tackle injury prevention in any way other than through awareness-raising campaigns.
The Jack Swift campaign is worthy but is also an example of old, safe thinking. We should rather be seeking innovative solutions to injury prevention.