In developing harm reduction and prevention strategies, the occupational health and safety (OHS) profession likes to look at worst case scenarios on the understanding that dealing with an extreme event introduces mechanisms that deal with lesser events. Partly this is a legacy of Bird’s Pyramid. During this current month of attention on workplace mental health, the issue of work-related suicide is unavoidable as a worst case scenario for depression and mental ill-health. There are several new pieces of data on work-related suicides that OHS professionals need to consider as part of their own professional development and to increase their organisational and operational relevance.
Mates In Construction
In October 2014, the Mates In Construction (MIC) program released a report on “The economic cost of suicide and suicide behaviour in the NSW construction industry and the impact of MATES in Construction suicide“. Below is a summary of some of its findings, in Australian Dollars:
“The average age of each suicide fatality among construction industry workers was 36.8 years and 37.7 years in QLD [Queensland] and NSW [New South Wales], respectively.”
“The average cost of a self-harm attempt resulting in a short-term absence from work is estimated at $925 in 2010 dollars.”
“Each self-harm attempt resulting in full incapacity is estimated at $2.78 million; and, each suicide attempt resulting in a fatality is estimated at $2.14 million”
“The key cost driver for full incapacity and a fatality is lost income, equivalent to 27.3 years productive years”
“Across all categories, the burden of cost associated with self-harm and suicide is borne largely by the government: 97% or $4.80 million of the total combined cost of $4.92 million.” (all in page 3)
One of the most ignored, but important, elements of occupational health and safety (OHS) management is the business case. Work on this issue is being completed in Australia by Safe Work Australia but the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) has beaten it to the punch by releasing “The business case for safety and health at work: Cost-benefit analyses of interventions in small and medium-sized enterprises“. This document includes new case studies that provide detailed analysis of cost and return on investment from interventions as varied as a vacuum lifter for pavers to warm-up exercises and task assessments of domestic builders by qualified physiotherapists.
The report found that:
- “Wide-ranging interventions appear to be more profitable than interventions targeting a particular
issue related to the sector of the enterprise.
- Interventions that mainly concern training and organisational change appear to be more profitable than interventions based on technical changes (such as introducing new equipment).
- Interventions that include direct worker (participatory) involvement appear to be more profitable, regardless of whether or not increased productivity benefits are taken into account in the
- In most cases, the enterprises managed to estimate benefits related to increased productivity. It
should be emphasised that increased productivity does not always come as a result of improved
safety and health, but it is taken into account in the context of a business case.” (page 10)
Later this month, the Victorian WorkCover Authority (VWA) will be releasing a document entitled “Integrated approaches to worker health, safety and well-being” (pictured right, but not yet available online). It is intended to generate discussion on how to improve workplace safety performance by breaking down the walls of various disciplines, production processes, consultative silos and institutional or organisational biases. This document builds on the overseas experience of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH – Total Worker Health program), the World Health Organisation (WHO – Healthy Workplace Framework) and others to provide an Australian context.
Those who are experienced in risk management principles may see little new in this approach and the publication’s success is likely to depend on how VWA explains the initiative and how its stakeholders, Victorian businesses of all sizes, accept the concept and believe it can work in their own workplaces.
The release of a publication advocating Integration implies that an unintegrated approach to safety management has been an impediment to change. This may be a surprise to risk managers and those who have been consulting broadly on OHS in their workplaces and those companies who have integrated systems managers with responsibility for Quality, OHS and Environment. More…
Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott provided his interim response to the Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program (HIP) in Parliament on 30 September, 2014. One should not expect much sustainable or cultural change from an interim response but Abbott’s responses hold some promise.
The commitments include:
“…[asking] Minister Hunt [Environment] to assume responsibility to oversee the Commonwealth response and to coordinate actions across departments and ministers.”
“…[asking] the Minister for Employment to examine these [OHS] findings, particularly as they relate to the reliance of the Commonwealth on state and territory laws, and his work will inform the government’s final response.”
“Minister Hunt and the Minister for Finance have been asked to recommend options to compensate their next of kin [of the deceased workers]“
The 2014 Annual Report of the Victorian WorkCover Authority (VWA) states a new initiative on workplace mental health:
“…a new direction for the VWA’s WorkHealth program has led to the Victorian Mental Wellbeing Collaboration. The VWA has invested in a tripartite collaboration with peak health promotion agencies VicHealth and SuperFriend to develop a range of evidence based tools and resources that will be tested and refined through industry leaders and made broadly available to Victorian workplaces.” (page 25, links added)
Two significant points in this statement are the development of a range of “evidence-based tools and resources” and the pledge to consult. However what is meant by a tripartite consultation in this context is unclear as traditionally OHS consultation has included employer associations, trade unions and government regulators. If health promotion agencies are included in this latest “tripartite collaboration”. Will the employer groups or trade unions be dropped? Consultation on any new OHS/wellbeing initiative should not be constrained in a tripartite combination.
One of the traps in this initiative is the potential confusion by terminologies. “Mental health” is a well-understood term that is readily applied to the workplace by organisations such as the Western Australian Mental Health Commission who quotes the World Health Organisation
“…. good mental health is not simply the absence of a mental disorder. It is a state of wellbeing whereby an individual can realise their own potential, manage everyday stresses, work productively and contribute to their community.” (page 6)
There have been many claims of a workplace bullying epidemic in Australia but there has always been a lack of evidence. Research has been targeted into specific industry sectors or regions but broad ranging studies have been few. This lack of evidence was a major frustration for the Parliamentary Inquiry into Workplace Bullying that concluded in late 2012. However useful evidence is beginning to appear.
A recent edition of the Journal of Health Safety and Environment included a report (subscribers only) entitled “The prevalence and nature of bullying: A national study of Australian workers”. The authors, Dr Sarven McLinton, Maureen Dollard, Michelle Tuckey and Tessa Bailey, wrote that the study
“… shows that nearly 7% of Australian workers reported bullying and harassment in the past six months.” (page 283)
Corporate maturity, especially in the area of workplace health and safety, is an increasingly important consideration in determining the preparedness of an organisation to change and embrace OHS as a crucial element of its business operations. There are several advocates of determining corporate maturity usually based around Hudson’s five levels of maturity, the most recent seems to be the Australian Constructors’ Association (ACA) in conjunction with RMIT University (see parts 8-7 of the document pictured below), but these tools are often aimed at the upper levels of an organisation.
Recently the Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR) produced a series of handouts that apply a variation of the maturity matrix to separate components of safety culture.
These levels include:
Australian recruiting firm, Sacs Consulting, has released the findings of a survey entitled “Dangerous Personalities making work unsafe“. Such surveys are predominantly marketing exercises and usually, as in this case, there is a limited amount of data available but the results are often broadly distributed and add to the discussion about workplace safety.
The headline itself is a red flag to occupational health and safety (OHS) professionals who are old enough to remember the debate about “blaming the worker” for OHS breaches, injuries and illnesses. Most safety managers and corporate safety programs are applying a “no blame” philosophy to combat the worker focus but the reality is that workers are still being blamed and being dismissed for safety breaches. The Sacs Consulting survey confirms the growing worker focus by looking at the personal rather than the organisational.
The Sacs study found:
“…that some people still ignore OHS rules and act unsafely in the workplace, whereas others value their own safety and that of their colleagues so actively that they try to improve the safety of their workplace. Using personality and values testing, the study was able to predict whether an individual is more or less
likely to be safe at work.” (page 1) More…
Little of the recent commentary on the findings of the Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program (HIP) have mentioned the opinion of the Royal Commissioner Ian Hanger that the Australian Government acted in a “grossly negligent” manner. Such a comment deserves considerable analysis by a specialist lawyer but it remains a remarkable criticism in terms of obligations under OHS/WHS laws.
Commissioner Hanger wrote:
“To encourage inexperienced young people to work in an environment where there was a risk of defective electrical wiring, and allow them to install conductive material was, in my opinion, grossly negligent. It is no answer for the Australian Government to say that it was the responsibility of those young people’s employers to protect them.” (para 5.2.20, emphasis added)
Gross negligence has been equated to the term “reckless endangerment” included in Australia’s Work Health and Safety laws. One legal website site says that:
“Reckless endangerment is the offense of engaging in activity that has a disregard for risks with foreseeably dangerous consequences.”
Commissioner Hanger’s comments certainly seem to fit reckless endangerment as the risks, not only of electrocution but simply from working in domestic roof spaces, were well known.
The findings of the Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program (HIP) deserve a great deal of analysis by the safety profession. Amongst the lessons are important ones concerning leadership, culture and consultation.
The final report identifies major deficiencies in the design and administration of a major project regardless of the politics and jurisdictional argy-bargy. Although many are disappointed the report did not identify any big name politicians as the major evildoer, Commissioner Ian Hanger is brutally forthright when necessary.
In the introduction of the report, there are several references to what a “competent administration” would have done, clearly implying that the government of then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, was incompetent in the management of HIP. In fact Hanger writes:
“It ought also to have been obvious to any competent administration that the injection of a large amount of money into an industry that was largely ‘unregulated’ would carry with it the risk of rorting and other unscrupulous behaviour.” (para 1.1.19)
“It ought to have been obvious, to any competent administration, that such an exponential increase in work to be undertaken would require a similarly huge increase in the workforce to do it.” (1.1.9)
“The reality is that the Australian Government conceived of, devised, designed and implemented a program that enabled very large numbers of inexperienced workers—often engaged by unscrupulous and avaricious employers or head contractors, who were themselves inexperienced in insulation installation—to undertake potentially dangerous work. It should have done more to protect them.” (1.11.18)