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 latestarticle 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…
The investigation into workplace deaths associated with Australia’s Home Insulation Program (HIP) was refreshed yesterday with the publication of some of the terms of reference for a new Government inquiry into the program. The HIP deaths is an enormously politically charged issue in Australia and the politics, and associated media attention, could derail an inquiry that has the potential to provide important occupational health and safety, risk management and governance issues.
Greg Hunt, Environment Minister is quoted as saying that
“The Government is committed to a full inquiry into Kevin Rudd’s home insulation scheme that was linked to the tragic loss of four young lives,….”
According to the Courier-Mail newspaper on 27 October 2013 there will be ten elements in the terms of reference but only four are mentioned:
The process and basis of government decisions while establishing the program, including risk assessment and risk management;
Whether the death of the four men could have been avoided;
What if any advice or undertakings given by the government to the industry were inaccurate or deficient, and;
What steps the government should have taken to avoid the tragedies.
These four seem reasonable aims but this information has been leaked, the full terms of reference have not been released and a person to head the inquiry is yet to be announced.
Near miss events, or “close calls”, are important opportunities to review safety and work processes. In fact they can be the best opportunities as the participants and witnesses are still alive and can provide detailed information on the mistakes, breakages or oversights. But rarely are companies prosecuted for near misses.
In Western Australia, a company has been found guilty of breaching its duty of care after two of its workers were lost for almost a whole day, and was fined over $A50,000, the highest fine of this type. The near miss is almost comical and at least one newspaper has described it as a “comedy of errors“, except that it could easily have resulted in tragedy. WorkSafeWA’s (long) media release, provides the details:
“MAXNetwork was contracted to the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations to consult with disadvantaged job seekers, in this case through their office in Kalgoorlie.
A number of employment consultants work at the Kalgoorlie office, and they regularly travel to remote areas – some accessible only by dirt roads and narrow tracks – to work with job seekers.
In December 2009, two of the company’s Kalgoorlie area employment consultants were instructed to do an “outreach visit” to the remote community of Tjuntjuntjara, around 600km north-east of Kalgoorlie in the Great Victoria Desert.
The two consultants departed Kalgoorlie in a Toyota Prado leased by MAXNetwork at around 6.00am on a journey estimated to take nine to ten hours on a road with no signs that was a narrow track in some places.
The women were not provided with a map, GPS or any other navigational aid, and consequently they became lost. They had received no training or instruction on travelling in remote areas, and so did not know what to do in the event of becoming lost.
The satellite telephone provided to the consultants did not work, and management was aware of this prior to the trip. In addition, there was no schedule for regular contact with workers in remote locations so no-one realised the women were overdue. 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…
There has always been a moral similarity between the occupational health and safety (OHS) profession and the environmental advocates. One focusses on the immediate safety of humans and the other on the long term safety of humans. This similarity can create challenges for organisations and industries that have workers in both environmental settings such as forestry and mining. This type of challenge is currently being faced by Dr Nikki Williams of the Australian Coal Association.
In an article in the Weekend Australian on 10 March 2012 Dr Williams expressed concerns over a Greenpeace campaign against coal mining. (Significantly the newspaper included no quotes from either Bob Brown of the Australian Greens or from Greenpeace. ABC News did on on March 6 2012) She inadvertently compliments the campaigners by saying the campaign shows a “a very high level of planning”, is “sophisticated” and “very detailed”. 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…
The latest edition of the Journal of Occupational Medicine (JOM) (Vol 61. No 5 Aug 2011) includes a short article on the occupational impact of climate change, an issue that must be addressed in the work context and one that places additional challenges for those involved with safe design.
The JOM article lists the following hazard categories that are likely to affect workplaces and activities:
“Increased ambient temperature (global warming) and resultant climate changes,
Increased air pollution (resulting from increased temperatures, ozone levels and airborne particles),
Ultraviolet (UV) radiation,
Extremes of weather (resulting from global climate change),
Vector-borne diseases and expanded habitat,
Industrial transitions and emerging technologies,
Changes to built environment.”
It is unlikely that employers will try to tackle climate change through OHS considerations as there are far more important economic pressures. OHS, in this context, can only be reactive but several of the issues mentioned above are likely to substantially change work methods and planning. More…
On 8 August 2011, the Australian Financial Review (not available online) reported on a letter from the head of the National Offshore Petroleum Safety Agency (NOPSA), John Clegg, that criticised the Western Australian government’s regulatory regime for offshore petroleum exploration. The crux of the letter was that WA does not require energy companies to develop a “safety case” for their offshore operations.
“…Clegg said….that given WA legislation at the time of the Varanus Explosion it was “doubtful” that Apache Corporation, the US operator of Varanus, had any obligation to adhere to a “safety case”, the crucial tool for management of oil and gas field safety.”
The “safety case” requirement for complex processing industries originated after the inquiry into the Piper Alpha disaster of 1988 and has become a default safety management process in many jurisdictions around the world. (UK’s Health & Safety Executive has some excellent background resources on this)
The political arguments between State and Federal jurisdictions will be a major impediment to safety reforms in this industry sector – a tension to which few in the Eastern Australian States may give adequate attention. The tension echoes the continuing conflict over OHS harmonisation laws. More…