The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) commences its 2015 Congress this week. Each year around 800 trade union delegates meet to discuss changes to policies and to develop or refine strategies. This year the ACTU released its draft policies publicly prior to the Congress. These policies have a long and strong historical and industrial relations context. Occupational health and safety (OHS) is an important part of these policies and should spark discussions in the union movement and the OHS profession.
Early in the document, the ACTU states its “bargaining agenda” in which is included
“better work, life and family balance.” (page 7)
Curiously, the ACTU has chosen “better” rather than “safe”. Better is a more inclusive term but harder to define. Better for whom? Better could be better paid or more secure or safer.
Trade unionists often see OHS as being monitored and enforced through the mechanism of the Health and Safety Representatives (HSRs) and would argue that OHS is throughout all the draft policies due to the HSR role but there are more workplaces in Australia without HSRs than with and it is worth considering the policies as independent from the HSR structure, if that is possible.. More…
The Cancer Council of Western Australia has released a report (not yet available online)that states:
“The number of occupationally caused cancers compensated each year equates to less than eight per cent of the expected number.” (Executive Summary)
This is an extraordinary statistic but consistent with the history of occupational health and safety (OHS) statistics where the core data originates from compensation figures rather than incident figures. Cancer has always been a challenge in this area as it can manifest years after exposure or not at all. But this report also provides important data, and a challenge, for OHS professionals and business owners as
“Occupational exposures to carcinogens are estimated to cause over 5,000 new cases of cancer in Australia each year.” (Executive Summary)
The report has an excellent discussion on why such statistics are estimates and the unreliability of previous data in Australia and overseas but there is only a short, but important, discussion about risk and hazard controls – the principle focus for OHS professionals. More…
The Victorian commemoration of International Workers Memorial Day has held on28 April 2015 and was a major improvement on previous memorials. The politics was muted by the speakers. There was no tray truck of angry unionists yelling through tannoys and heading off half way through the event to a protest rally that they see as more important than remembering the dead. There was a good level of dignity and solemnity …… finally.
Occupational health and safety (OHS) is inextricably linked to everyday life and everyday politics but it is treated as somehow separate, even by those who are experts in OHS. This is not the case with industrial relations which is much more grounded in the political realities.
Industrial relations has been pushed by the trade union movement that has always seen workers’ rights as a social issue. The OHS profession and its associations have been content, largely, to live within the factory fence. Until recently OHS laws related solely to the workplace and OHS professionals had the luxury of a clear demarcation for its operations.
But new OHS laws acknowledge the responsibility for the effects of work on those other than workers, and those who are neighbours to workplaces. Australian OHS professionals have been slow to embrace the social role that has been foisted on them. There seems no excuse for this.
Recently, a hearing of an Australia Senate Committee spoke with the CEO of the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency, Peter Tighe. The discussion illustrated some of the social, political and economic risks of this long-known workplace hazard. More…
For many years Vicki Hamilton has been a tireless worker in support of those suffering from asbestos-related diseases. She, and her colleagues at the Gippsland Asbestos Related Disease Support Inc. (GARDS), are based in regional Victoria and often struggle for recognition of their efforts. In the 2014 Australia Honours list, Vicki was awarded an Order of Australia ” for service to the community through support for people with asbestos-related diseases”.
It is well-deserved and I congratulate her on her achievement. I hope it, in some way, makes her job easier.
Prior to the 2013 election, the Australian media, particular the News Limited newspapers, went to town on the previous (Labor) government over its handling of the National Broadband Network (NBN) strategy. The media sniffed a political vulnerability as it had in the Home Insulation Program and other economic stimulus packages, such as the Building the Education Revolution, even though the economic program is seen by some as a very successful strategy.
The NBN has several OHS contexts but asbestos is the most prominent. NBN needed to install its fibre-optic cables through the established and old infrastructure of a major competitor and partially government-owned telecommunication company, Telstra. Many of Telstra’s old pits were constructed using asbestos.
On 5 November 2013 The Australian newspaper published its latest article on NBN and asbestos but the content of its own article shows how much hyperbole the newspaper has employed in this long campaign and that NBN Co seems to be managing its asbestos safety well. More…
Australian politics is currently embroiled in a dispute generated by a contractor entering the telecommunications pits of the asset owner. Some, or many, of the pits contain asbestos and the contractor’s work, the laying of new fibre-optic cables, may disturb the asbestos. There are many other concerns but that is the nub.
The Australian newspaper has been running on this issue for many weeks but one article in today’s edition called “Taking a dig: will Bill come up short?” (page 9 – online paywall), by David Crowe, caught my attention. Crowe reports that:
“The Australian has been told Telstra chief executive David Thodey wrote to Shorten in December 2009 to argue against his proposal for a ‘‘proactive’’ program to remove asbestos from the company’s pits. Thodey gave three reasons for not proceeding: the cost; the risk of releasing asbestos; and the fact plans for the NBN were in train but had not been locked in.”
I realise that the OHS legislative concept of “reasonably practicable” does not extend to all facets of life but if it were applied to the current asbestos exposure (and I think it could) Thodey’s three reasons given above would be crucial in any potential prosecution, particularly if the reasons in Thodey’s response to Bill Shorten were listed in order of priority. In OHS law, cost is the last element to be considered in determining a reasonably practicable hazard control measure.
It is less than a week until the premiere of Devil’s Dust, a movie about asbestos in Australia and the corporate maneuverings of James Hardie Industries to minimise its exposure to compensation claims but its lessons spread beyond asbestos to politics, corporate responsibility and individual morality.
In a recent article on the movie, the depiction of then New South Wales Premier, Bob Carr, was mentioned. The politics of asbestos is well shown in the Carr depiction. The asbestos issue seemed to have little importance until a political value was placed on the issue. Carr, a Labour Party politician, then acted, met people affected by asbestos-related diseases and made clear statements of moral significance about asbestos and corporate responsibility.
Recently Crikey reminded its readers of some comments on asbestos compensation from 2007. Apparently, the now-Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, Julie Bishop stated
“I have enormous sympathy for those who suffered asbestos-related diseases,” she said in a statement to The Australian. “There were members of the CSR executive management team who also died of asbestos-related diseases who had worked at Wittenoom.
“As one of the lawyers in the case, I acted ethically and professionally at all times in accordance with client instructions.” [link added]
There is no doubt that Bishop acted ethically and professionally in her role as a lawyer but by 2007, the issue of asbestos exposure and compensation had moved to a moral basis. Are companies who resist providing compensation for illnesses caused by their products being heartless or responsible corporate citizens? More…
On November 11 and 12 2012, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation will broadcast “Devil’s Dust”, a two-part movie about asbestos in Australia. This is not a documentary on asbestos-related diseases. It follows the story of investigative journalist Matt Peacock from the 1970s to the present day in parallel with the corporate machinations of James Hardie Industries and its former CEO, John Reid and the life, times and death of Bernie Banton.
To many Australians, bits and pieces of each of these narrative streams will be familiar but Devil’s Dust illustrates the moral linkages between these streams leading to a powerful story of corporate greed, strength of character and man’s inhumanity to man. The workplace safety context of Devil’s Dust is obvious – ignoring or hiding information about harm to workers, the management of many workplace risks through allowances and “danger money”.
The television production values depict the times perfectly and for those who know of the asbestos risks, particularly readers of Matt Peacock’s book “Killer Company” which inspired the movie, the opening few seconds summarise major issues in the asbestos story – sacks of asbestos on a truck, cigarette smoking and dust being bashed from work clothes. Later in the first part, other issues are touched on – the washing of asbestos-contaminated work clothes by wives, asbestos in trains, asbestos in carpet underlay and asbestos used as road toppings. More…
“How can this be allowed to happen nowadays?” the distressed wife of a seriously injured worker asked me recently. Her husband was sitting next to her, his eyes still victims of the recent terror that nearly killed him. She saw that and struggled to join him in his very dark and personal space. This now would become a life time job for her.
This meeting captured for me one of the most fundamental factors at most workplaces. That workers’ most common feeling at work is that of vulnerability. Of course many workers find comfort and pride in their job. Of course it feeds them and their families. Of course it can provide personal identity and purpose. And of course there are many managers who understand all this.
But it’s also true that much too often this is not the case. That’s one reason why when suddenly factories or mines close, or car manufacturers ‘shed’ 200 workers, or car part factories go bust workers are not only shocked, but it substantiates their sense of vulnerability, “What a shock, I thought they loved us!”
Not only is this painfully evident when a negligently poor H&S standard results in crippling a worker for life, but is typically present on a daily basis. Permanent fear of job loss results. The fact that a worker can be disciplined or sacked for a number of events that can be defined and redefined by creative managers feeds that feeling. That’s another reason why so much bullying and humiliation occur and so much stress is experienced. More…