Australia’s workplace bullying report is a missed mental health opportunity 1

Cover of Workplace Bullying Final ReportThe report, issued last week, from Australia’s Parliamentary Inquiry into Workplace Bullying, is a terrific discussion on workplace bullying but is a major missed opportunity to achieve necessary change, and change in this area equates to the reduction of, principally, psychological harm to workers and their families.

The report starts off shakily by giving prominence to a statement that is clearly wrong. Page 1 of the report quotes Carlo Caponecchia and Anne Wyatt, saying:

“Bullying is the key workplace health and safety issue of our time.”

Caponecchia and Wyatt may believe that, but to open a Parliamentary report with this quote shows poor judgement from the Committee by giving workplace bullying prominence over other workplace health and safety (WHS) hazards and issues. Workplace bullying may indeed be the most difficult workplace health and safety challenge but that is very different from what the quote says. More…

First look at Australia’s workplace bullying report 5

Australia’s Parliamentary Inquiry into Workplace Bullying has released its report that includes 23 recommendations and a dissenting report from the Coalition (conservative) committee members.

The first recommendation that most will look forward is the latest workplace bullying definition. The committee suggests:

“repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or group of workers, that creates a risk to health and safety”.

This is no great shake from most of the previous definitions but illustrates further the isolation of Victoria from nationally harmonised work health and safety laws as WorkSafe Victoria’s preferred definition is

“… persistent and repeated negative behaviour directed at an employee that creates a risk to health and safety.”

Regardless of which definition is “better”, Victoria will be further out-of-sync.

The Committee also recommends the Government

“develop a national advisory service that provides practical and operational advice on what does and does not constitute workplace bullying..”

This is sorely needed and will relieve State OHS regulators of the pressure and the resources. No timeline is mentioned but it is likely that the Federal Government will move to establish such a service quickly, as the recommendation is not surprising.

However, the opposition political mantra for any government initiative is how it will be funded. More…

Chronic asbestos deaths, sudden mining disasters – both indicate deep corporate problems 5

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…

Challenges for WorkSafe Victoria at WorkSafe Week 1

As part of the annual WorkSafe Week, WorkSafe‘s Ian Forsyth presented the organisation’s OHS strategy to a large crowd at the Melbourne Convention Centre on 28 October 2012.

Harmonisation

Clearly Forsyth anticipated questions about the Victorian Government’s decision not to implement the model Work Health and Safety laws that will exist in all but two States and territories from 1 January 2013. He stressed that the government is adamant that the WHS laws will not be introduced “in the foreseeable future” and therefore Victorians need to refocus on compliance with the existing Victorian laws. He effectively shutdown any discussion on those laws before they started. The laws are off the Victorian table so let’s start working with what we have.

His stance has great significance for Victorian businesses and almost projected isolationism as a positive move. Part of his, familiar, justification was that the model WHS laws were based largely on the Victorian occupational health and safety laws and so there is little need to change, particular if the change would increase the regulatory cost burden to Victorian businesses. More…

Workplace Bullying Beat-Up 7

Over the last few weeks the Australian print media has published several articles based on the expressions of concern by some business and employer associations about  Safe Work Australia’s code of practice on workplace bullying.  The latest article was in the Sunday Herald-Sun on 28 October 2012, “Bullying blueprint attacked” (not available in its original form online), which opens with the inflammatory paragraph:

“Workers in cushy jobs will be able to claim compo for being left idle, under national laws drawn up to combat bullying.”

The later online version of the article, by the same writer, Natasha Bita, has a much less aggressive title, “Plan to ban work pranks”, and a revised text.  The “new” opening paragraph says:

“Workers will be able to claim compensation if their boss does not provide them with enough work and office pranks would be banned under national laws to combat bullying.”

This has not stopped Senator Eric Abetz releasing a media statement which states that the workplace bullying code reads

“like something out of the socialist playbook whereby personal  responsibility is thrown out the window and everyone is bound in bubble wrap.”

Senator Abetz is known for these types of colourful statements but the question that should be asked is, why raise these concerns now? More…

The world looks to Australia for quad bike safety changes 8

On 19 October 2012 in a video address to an Australian forum on quad bike safety, the US Consumer Product Safety Commissioner Robert Adler stated

“We at the US CPSC are monitoring your activities closely with the hope that what you learn can help us back here in the United States.”

That places considerable attention on the safety initiatives and negotiations in Australia but also may indicate that the United States is struggling to achieve change in this area.

On October 17 2012, the Weekly Times devoted its front page, a double page spread and its editorial to the safety of quad bikes, or All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs).   The editorial called  on the Government to

“…mandate all ATVs are fitted with roll-over protection ..[and to] provide a rebate to allow retro-fitting of roll-over protection to existing ATVs.”

ABC News provided an excellent summary of the issues associated with quad bike safety in its news report on 17 October 2011 and showed some scary images of young children riding quad bikes.

Following the forum, Australia’s Workplace Relations Minister, Bill Shorten issued a media statement outlining to the outcomes.  It stated:

“The Minister said he has asked Safe Work Australia to report on the key findings of the quad bike issues paper and today’s forum, and that he would direct Comcare*, the Commonwealth workplace safety regulator, to immediately implement the following:

  • Comcare will work with scheme employers to review their use of quad bikes and consider possible substitution with less hazardous equipment. More…

Victorian Minister claims “safest state in Australia” 4

Victoria’s Minister for WorkCover, Assistant Treasurer Gordon Rich-Phillips, obviously felt obliged to get in early for the 2012 WorkSafe Week by stating, in a media release, that:

“Victoria is the safest state in Australia in which to work”

Rich-Phillips quotes a range of statistics based on a recent report by Safe Work Australia (SWA) – the Fourteenth Edition of the Comparative Performance Monitoring.  His claims may be correct but he is selective.  He mentions his State’s workers compensation claims performance:

“Victoria had nine serious injury and disease claims for every 1,000 employees, far fewer than the national average of 12.2 claims. It was also well ahead of the Northern Territory (11.2 claims), Western Australia (12), South Australia (12.3), Australian Capital Territory (13), New South Wales (13.7), Queensland (14.7) and Tasmania (15.6).”

However it is well-known that workers’ compensation statistics indicate performance of the workers’ compensation scheme and claims,  and not the real workplace injury rate.  The SWA report provides information on both safety performance and workers’ compensation claims.  The Minister extrapolates the performance of one element and applies it to the other.

The Comparative Performance Monitoring report also measures each State’s regulatory safety performance against the agreed National OHS Strategy.  Against the Injury and Musculoskeletal measure, again based on claims data, only South Australia exceeded the “36% improvement required to meet the long term target of a 40% improvement by 30 June 2012.”

Victoria came third, after New South Wales, with a 31% improvement rate.

Safe Work Australia stated that

” It is unlikely that Australia will meet the target.” (page 2)

The targets of the OHS National Strategy established in 2012 have been aspirational for some time and without any fear of sanction or reward for attainment, the worth of any National OHS Strategy is dubious.

SWA’s report also includes very positive national statistics on fatalities but still insists that:

“The volatility in this measure means that this improvement should be interpreted with caution and consistent improvement is still required to ensure the target is actually achieved.” (page 3)

This caution is missing from the statements of Gordon Rich-Phillips. More…

BusinessSA’s backflip on OHS laws carries short-term gain but long-term risk 5

Australian business associations have different perspectives on the need to harmonise occupational health and safety laws across Australia but BusinessSA has performed an enormous backflip in only a month on new Work Health and Safety Laws.  In a letter (now a media release) to the industry association’s members, BusinessSA has called on the South Australian Government to defer the laws until a scheduled national review in 2014.  The major points of the letter are discussed below.

Objections to the letter on some of the LinkedIn discussion forums have been voiced by some safety and legal professionals, the principle concern being that all state governments agreed to the initiative of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) in 2008 to harmonise the OHS laws.  Employer groups, unions and OHS regulators have been closely involved in the harmonisation process.  Other parties, including BusinessSA made submissions.  According to the 2008 submission, these were the six key issues:

  • “Self-regulation: The appropriateness of the duty of care, consultative mechanisms, performance-based (as opposed to prescriptive) regulation, and education/training in facilitating an effective (self-regulating) OHS system.
  • Causality and uncertainty: Can, and should, governments attempt to regulate with respect to potential future hazards, given the enormous pace of technological change and uncertainty relating to that change and where causes of More…

SISA has few problems with SafeWorkSA but where are the other submissions? 5

In May 2012, the South Australian parliament announced an inquiry into the effectiveness of that State’s workplace safety regulator, SafeWorkSA.  Submissions are being received by the Parliament Committee but, as yet, none are available through the inquiry’s website.

Andrea Madeley of VOID has commented that her organisation has already provided the committee of inquiry with a submission but the only public submission SafetyAtWorkBlog can find is from the Self-Insurers of South Australian Inc (SISA).  Below is the summary of SISA’s submission:

“Should the responsibility for all occupational, health and safety issues remain with SafeWork SA or should some or all of that responsibility be transferred to WorkCover?

SISA members have no fixed views, although if the choice were simply limited to the current separated model and a single massive regulator, we might well opt for the current model as a means to avoid conflicts of interest. If, in the alternate, we are asked ‘Could the quality of OHS regulation and functional delivery be improved?’, we would answer ‘yes, but this cannot be achieved by structural change alone’. We therefore advocate no particular structure (though with a preference against amalgamation) and urge the Committee to concentrate on the quality of what is delivered.

2(a) WorkCover ought to be recognised as having a vital role and interest in improved OHS outcomes.

2(b) Scope exists for improved collaboration between WorkCover and SafeWork SA, especially in the field of data collection, management and use.

2(c) SafeWork SA and WorkCover should look at the self insured employers as resources and force multipliers for their own efforts to reach out to smaller employers.

2(d) Our members have few complaints (and no recent ones we are aware of) about their interactions with SafeWork SA.

2(e) The experience of small and medium size business may be different, however.

3. The OHS profession should have substantial representation on OHS regulatory and advisory bodies.

4(a) The real challenge for SafeWork SA lies in the small and medium size business community.

4(b) The conventional model of the regulator being the initiator of action will always be inadequate for small and medium size business due to the sheer numbers involved compared to the resources available.

4(c) Experience rating of workers compensation premiums has at best limited and delayed effect, and even that is anecdotal and presumptive rather than established as fact.

4(d) South Australia needs to think outside the square of normal regulatory models when considering small business safety. The French CRAM model might offer one such possibility.” [emphasis added]

SISA believes that SafeWorkSA’s performance can be improved but not through structural change.  It would be fascinating to see how SafeWorkSA would change with a new set of work health and safety laws.  From recent comments in the media by SafeWorkSA’s Judith Lovatt it would appear that the organisation is looking forward to them.

SISA clearly understands the separation between the workers compensation and rehabilitation roles of Workcover and the harm prevention and prosecution role of SafeWorkSA.  Too often criticism of the management of workers compensation is aimed at the wrong regulatory agency, a major problem seen recently in the Federal Parliamentary Inquiry into Workplace Bullying. More…

The Salvemini court saga illustrates many problems with prosecutions, justice and care 15

Sometimes when there is a procedural or organisational blockage, an opportunity or potential solution appears out of the blue. A South Australian Supreme Court decision on 3 October 2012 (not yet available online) may be just such a case.

Almost seven years ago Jack Salvemini was working on a shark fishing boat in the Great Australian Bight when he became entangled in a net being winched and was, according to various reports, either strangled or crushed to death. SafeWorkSA prosecuted the company running the boat, Jean Bryant Fishing and the skipper of the boat, Arthur Markellos.  Both were found guilty of breaching the occupational health and safety laws in effect at that time.

The company was fined $A71,000 from a maximum fine of $A100,000. Markellos was fined $A17,000. Arguments and appeals have continued on over this case since the original prosecution in the Industrial Magistrate’s Court in November 2010. (This judgement also provides the best level of detail of the fatality and its impact on all parties including Arthur Markellos)

Following the Supreme Court decision, Jack’s father, Lee, said he would like to talk with the Attorney-General to discuss what more can be done on his quest for justice. Later in the evening South Australian Premier, Jay Weatherill, commented on the case and offered to meet the family. There is a political element to the Premier’s offer as it makes an important point about the Work Health and Safety Bill currently stalled in the SA Parliament. More…