On 1 July 2014, the Victorian Government introduce a mandatory drug and alcohol testing regime for the sections of the construction industry. According to the government’s media release:
“New requirements for tighter screening of drug and alcohol use at construction workplaces across Victoria will commence from 1 July, helping to ensure a safer and more secure environment for workers.”
This decision has been made on the basis of “widespread reports of workers being intoxicated, and of drug distribution and abuse” but the rest of the media release reveals other reasons for these changes including political pressure on its Labor Party and trade union opponents in the months before a close State election. Premier Denis Napthine has indicated that the move is also about cracking down on “outlaw motorcycle gangs dealing drugs on the sites”.
But are reports of potential criminality on building site enough to introduce a drug and alcohol testing regime? It is worth looking at some of the existing research on drug and alcohol use (or its absence) in Australian and Victorian work sites.
How can an OHS regulator get the management of its own staff so wrong?
In June 2014, a NSW Parliamentary inquiry released its final report into Allegations of bullying in WorkCover NSW, that State’s occupational health and safety (OHS) regulator. The report found that
“…Workcover has a significant organisational problem with bullying. This problem is a longstanding one and operates at a cultural level.” (page x)
The Committee Chairman Hon Fred Nile MLC, wrote that
“more effective leadership and governance is essential.” (page x)
Longstanding bullying problems? Problems with leadership and governance? Many companies and public sector organisations have had similar issues ambulances, police, fire services, research organisations, to name a few, and are working them through. What happened in New South Wales?
When people mention safety, they are often really talking about risk. In a similar way, people talk about the absurdity of ‘elf ‘n’ safety when they actually mean public liability or food safety or HACCP. And when some professionals talk about risk management they mean minimising the cost to the employer or controlling reputational damage.
Recently two books were released that illustrate the limitations of the current Western/patriarchal society’s approach to workplace safety. Dr Dean Laplonge has written about gender and its role in making decisions and Dr Rob Long has written his third book on risk “Real Risk – Human Discerning and Risk“. Both deserve close reading and that reading should be used to analyse how safety professionals conduct their work, the organisational environment in which they work and the cultural restrictions imposed in their technical education.
Laplonge has written a book out of the extensive research and training on gender issues in the mining industry. “So you think you’re tough? – Getting serious about gender in mining” provokes thoughts and self-analysis about gender in the workplace and safety management systems. This perspective may be part of the reason that attempts at changing safety cultures, particularly in industries where there is a strong gender imbalance – construction, mining, emergency services, nursing, teaching, struggle. (For those who cannot purchase the book, check out this free publication on the topic from the WA Department of Mines and Petroleum) More…
Recently Safe Work Australia released its first annual statement on “Psychosocial health and safety and bullying in Australian workplaces“. This is a terrific initiative but it has a significant flaw – it combines statistical data for harassment and bullying even though they are different hazards, have different remedies, are usually handled by different professions in many organisations, and have different external appeal options.
The Annual Statement itself quotes its origin:
“The Committee recommends that Safe Work Australia issues an annual national statement which updates any emerging trends of its collated data from each of the state and territory regulators, and the Commonwealth, with respect to psychosocial health and safety generally and workplace bullying specifically“. (emphasis added)
Nowhere in the Annual Statement is there any data specifically addressing workplace bullying. Bullying is always linked with harassment, contrary to the brief from the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Employment’s workplace bullying report, as I read it.
Beyondblue has just released a report into the cost of mental health in the workplace prepared by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and called “Creating a mentally healthy workplace – Return on investment analysis“. The report is interesting but of limited use for those looking for ways to make their own workplaces safer and healthier with minimal cost. The Beyondblue media release claims
“… that Australian businesses will receive an average return of $2.30 for every $1 they invest in effective workplace mental health strategies.
The research, which looked at the impact of employees’ mental health conditions on productivity, participation and compensation claims, also found these conditions cost Australian employers at least $10.9 billion a year.”
The first claim looks attractive but achieving such a return is unlikely unless the company includes the following:
- “commitment from organisational leaders,
- employee participation,
- development and implementation of policies,
- provision of the necessary resources, and
- a sustainable approach.” (page iv)
The best chance for the return on investment (ROI) will likely occur in a company that has an enlightened management, “necessary resources” and a leadership that is already likely to have mental health and a safe organisational culture on its agenda. This is a rare combination which limits the application of the PwC report findings. More…
Ministerial responsibility seems to be advantageous in financial policies but irrelevant to workplace safety going by actions by Australia’s political leaders. This week former senior (Labor) parliamentarians, Mark Arbib, Peter Garrett, Greg Combet and Kevin Rudd, will be fronting the Royal Commission into Home Insulation to explain their lack of due diligence on workplace safety matters. This is only a week after the Federal (Liberal) Government released a Commission of Audit report that promoted ministerial responsibility.
The popular perspective is that these ministerial decision-makers will be held to account for the deaths of four young workers but this is unlikely to occur because State occupational health and safety (OHS) laws establish a direct OHS relationship between employers and employees and the senior politicians did not employ anyone who was installing home insulation. The argument at the Royal Commission mirrors the chain of responsibility concept except that in work health and safety (WHS) legislation, government ministers are not covered by the definition of ‘officer’ and therefore have less OHS/WHS responsibility that anyone heading up a company or organisation.
Labour lawyer Michael Tooma has perhaps been the most outspoken critic of this, as he describes it, “purely cynical political” exercise. More…
There are very few innovations that originate from within the occupational health and safety (OHS) profession. Most of the change seems to come from the application of external concepts to workplace activities and approaches. Recently a colleague was discussing how some of the current OHS initiatives mirror the “broken windows” concept which originated in criminology in the United States. In some ways Broken Windows Theory mirrors OHS positives but it may also reflect some of the negatives or OHS dead-ends.
Ostensibly Broken Windows Theory discusses how attention to small improvements may generate cultural change. However the improvements introduced seem to have different levels of success depending on the context in which they are applied. For instance in OHS, a construction site may mandate that protective gloves are worn for all manual activity but if there is a variable level of manual handling risk, the wearing of gloves will be an accepted practice in one area but haphazard in another. The intention of a mandated safety requirement is to change the risk and safety culture of a workplace but the different levels of risk mean that the requirement can be seen as “common sense” in one area but unnecessary “red tape” in another.
The criminological application of the theory reached its peak in New York City in the 1980s and 1990s. More…
Most of the Australian media is waiting for the former politicians to appear at the Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program later this month but the Commission has not been quiet in its many public hearings recently. One of the hearings heard evidence that is particularly significant and relates to risk registers.
According to an April 8 2014 article in The Australian newspaper, one of the few national media covering the Commission, a consultant from Minter Ellison Consulting at the time, Margaret Coaldrake, failed to include workplace safety in a risk register being prepared for the home insulation program (HIP). This article is not specifically about Coaldrake’s actions, and the fact that a Royal Commission has been established into the insulation scheme is testament to the broad variety of matters that have contributed to the failure of the HIP scheme and the deaths of workers. More…
In December 2013 I wrote:
“The Age is correct in saying that claims of workplace bullying are “set to soar”. This has been predicted for some time, even privately by members of the Fair Work Commission, but the number of claims does not always indicate the level of a problem.” (link added)
Recently the Fair Work Commission (FWC) released its first quarterly report into anti-bullying applications and the statistics indicate that there is no soaring of claims. Sadly the report does not provide analysis only facts. More…
After a major incident or at an Annual General Meeting, it will be common to hear a senior executive state something like “Safety is our number one priority”. This is unrealistic and almost absurd because even in the most worker-friendly company, the continued existence of that organisation is the real and ultimate goal. Most corporate leaders believe these safety clichés because they think they reflect their own values but the statements are misrepresenting occupational health and safety (OHS) and need to be questioned.
Corporate leaders who say such statements are not hypocrites. They are more likely to not understand the consequences of their statements. If safety really is the number one priority, an executive should be able or expected to close the company if its work cannot be conducted safely. If a company’s people are paramount to the success of the company, how does it handle an accusation of bullying against a manager? Which of the people does the Board or the company choose to keep and which to lose? Should it keep the “evil” sales representative because the rep is its most effective salesperson or sack the rep because he or she is abusive?
These are executive decisions that need to be worked through if any company is to develop an effective operational culture that truly values the safety of its workers. It is vital that the reality behind the statements is analysed and acted upon, or perhaps such statements should not be uttered in the first instance. More…