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…
A busy mum, two little kids playing on the carpet in the corridor. She is busy pulling out an old gas heater from the cavity in the wall. Dust everywhere. She wants to recreate the old fashioned open fireplace that was there. The job will take a few days, she’s not in a hurry. Then the neighbour asks her gently, “Have you checked, we had asbestos behind our fireplace?” Mum’s blood goes cold. She looks at the kids.
‘Who in their right mind would buy asbestos?’ you may ask. After all the publicity, the growing numbers of tragic mesothelioma sufferers in Australia, the lung cancers, the famous court cases, the Hardies’ debacle.
There are three main ways you can still buy asbestos in Australia. First, a small number of components used in industry and the defence forces still contain asbestos in sealed conditions. For example, a shock absorber in the front wheel assembly of an aeroplane may contain an asbestos gasket. Certain specialised gaskets used in segments of the chemical industry may contain asbestos. The risk to workers and the general public is very small.
Then you can buy asbestos when you purchase gravel made from crushed masonry from demolished buildings that contained asbestos. Some 10 million tonnes of such bricks and concrete are recycled every year in Australia. More…
In November 2010 Geoff Fary left his role with the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) to chair the Asbestos Management Review. On May 3 2012 Geoff Fary will join other keynote speakers in a full day seminar in Melbourne called “Cancer in the workplace – a forum on practical solutions for prevention“. This event has been jointly organised by the ACTU and the Cancer Council of Australia.
Australia’s trade union movement has a good record in asbestos- and cancer-related seminars but rarely do they gain much traction outside of their sector. The cooperation with the Cancer Council will broaden the appeal of the seminar into more general workplace health consideration, particularly with a speaker from the United States, Lucille Servidio of Capaccio Environmental Engineering. Local speakers are not overlooked with, probably, Associate Professor Tim Driscoll being the most recognisable participant to OHS professionals.
With the increasing attention to workplace health, concern over cancer clusters and breast cancer risks in nightshift workers, these very affordable seminars often give terrific value – not something that one always gets from the seminars that cost of $A2000 a day.
The following article illustrates how important it is for companies to maintain accuracy when writing a media release about safety laws. The internet allows for inaccuracies to become widely distributed and for these to gain some legitimacy through the re-publication on various OHS, magazine and news websites.
Asbestos Audits International issued a media release in early April 2012 stating the following:
“On January 1st, 2012, new Australian Model Health and Safety legislation came into effect dictating workplace buildings constructed before 2004 must have an asbestos audit. The legislation outlines building owners, building managers and property managers are responsible for these audits. More…
One of the most important professional lessons is to only talk about what you know. I found this out personally after a disastrous pre-conference workshop many years ago where I did not understand what the workshop participants expected until I began seeing blank and quizzical expressions from the, thankfully, small audience.
On Australian radio on 14 December 2011, a geologist became embroiled in an interview on asbestos and cancer.
Ian Plimer is a well-known Australian geologist and is a professor of mining geology at the University of Adelaide. Plimer is a controversial and outspoken critic of climate change. The climate change debate is a fringe consideration in occupational health and safety but today, Professor Plimer entered the debate on asbestos, a carcinogen that is responsible for hundreds and thousands of work and non-work related deaths.
On ABC Radio, prominent Australian journalist and writer on asbestos industry issues, Matt Peacock, took Ian Plimer to task about Plimer’s 2008 claim that chrysotile, or white asbestos, is not carcinogenic. More…
SafetyAtWorkBlog evolved out of an online publication, safetyATWORK. In 2001, safetyATWORK published a special edition of the magazine focussing on the OHS issues related to the collapse of the World Trade Centre (WTC) in September 2011. That special edition is now available as a free download through the cover image on the right.
The magazine contains:
- an article by Lee Clarke on planning for the worst-case scenarios;
- an interview with Peter Sandman,
- an article by me, Kevin Jones,
and other articles concerning
- The best laid (disaster) plans
- Families take on renewed importance More…
The Australian Financial Review (AFR) reported on 14 June 2011 (not freely available online) that Senator Jacinta Collins has publicly stated that an International Labour Organisation (ILO) occupational health and safety convention will be signed by the current Government in conjunction with other conventions on maritime labour, asbestos and part-time work. The announcement that “Australia will ratify four ILO Conventions this year” was made at the recent International Labour Conference.
Most of the AFR article focussed on the labour relations impacts of the conventions but RMIT’s Professor of Law, Breen Creighton noted that
“Ratifying a convention has no effect in Australian law unless the Australian parliaments legislate to give effect to the international obligations.”
Senator Collins’ speech identifies the OHS protocol as the “Optional Protocol of 2002 to the Occupational Health and Safety Convention”.
A brief discussion on this protocol occurred on this blog in late April 2011 when the ratification was mentioned during the World Day for Safety and Health at Work.
Chris Evans, the Australian Minister for Workplace Relations issued a media statement on 28 April 2011 concerning the World Day for Safety and Health at Work. As well as some generalities about OHS harmonisation and government commitment, he said
“The Australian Government is also in the process of ratifying the ILO Asbestos Convention 1986 (convention 162) and the ILO Protocol of 2002 to the Occupational Health and Safety Convention 1981 (Protocol 155).
These ILO instruments will give Australians a world class OHS regime, by entrenching best practice in protecting our community from the harmful effects of asbestos and enhancing data collection and publication to support policy making and research.
“Australia has long been a member and supporter of the ILO in its efforts to promote safe work environments and raise the quality of labour and social standards throughout the world,” said Senator Evans.” [links added]
This seems a positive move but it is significant that no deadline for ratification is identified by Minister Evans. There are also a couple of obvious limitations or problems with these conventions and protocols. More…