Impairment argument fails to convince Fair Work Commission over unfair dismissal 10

On 16 January 2015 the Australian newspaper (paywall) reported on a Fair Work Commission (FWC) decision involving an unfair dismissal claim by a worker who, as a result of a random drug test, was found to have methylamphetamine in her system “at levels four times above the minimum detection level”.  The company, Downer EDI Mining, sacked the worker, Leah Cunningham, as she presented a hazard to her work colleagues. The newspaper article was called “CFMEU slammed for drugs defence” and the FWC decision is Tara Leah Cunningham v Downer EDI Mining Pty Limited (U2014/1457) (14 January 2015).

The Australian, a newspaper with no love for the trade union movement and the CFMEU in particular, focussed on the apparent absurdity of a trade union, that places such a high priority on workplace safety,  contesting the dismissal of a worker who presented a hazard to herself and others at work.  The newspaper quotes Commissioner Ian Cambridge:

““It was highly regrettable to observe during the hearing that an organisation, which apparently conducts campaigns which strongly advocate safety in the workplace, could contemplate a proposition which, in effect, would countenance a person driving a 580-tonne truck whilst having methylamphetamine in their body at a level four times the reportable cut-off figure,” he said in his decision this week.

“Any realistic and responsible pursuit of the case on behalf of the applicant should have been confined to the development of evidentiary support for the applicant’s explanation for the presence of the methylamphetamine. Indeed, much greater energy and focus should have been devoted to such an evidentiary position rather than any attempt to defend the indefensible.”

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Sniping in social media raises issues about hydration 9

A spat has recently emerged on one of the safety discussion forums in Linkedin.  The catalyst was a statement that

The source of this data, not disclosed at the time of the original post, was a company that sells

“…a great tasting, scientifically proven mix of cutting-edge branch chain amino acids and low Gi carbohydrates for sustained energy release, combined with a formulated blend of electrolytes for optimum hydration in harsh Australian conditions”.

The discussion quickly refocused from the original safety concern to one of unreliability of statements; sadly the discussion also became personal and abusive. but the discussion raised two discussion points:

  • The reliability of statements on the internet, and
  • the issue of hydration and work performance.

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Australia’s OHS Body of Knowledge project grows 1

The recent launch of several new chapters of the OHS Body of Knowledge (OHSBoK), associated with the Safety Institute of Australia, did not allow for questions from the audience but I was able to catch up with the coordinator of the project, Pam Pryor, and put my questions directly.  (My thanks go to Pam for her honesty and time.)

One of the intentions of the OSHBoK has been to maintain currency and relevance. Was there a plan to review and revise the existing chapters?  Pryor advised that there is a seven-year review schedule for all chapters.  Some chapters may need reviewing earlier, particularly if there are references to specific legislation and that legislation has changed.

Is there a plan to establish an index or to improve searchability?

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What if “reasonably practicable” was applied to a disease outbreak? 4

There seems to be an increasing trend for the principles of occupational health and safety (OHS) to be applied to matters outside the workplace.  OHS principles were created to reflect the values of society in the 1970s and 80s and, although the laws have changed to reflect economic needs, the principles remain basically the same.  A major legal change has been the move away from preventing harm “at the source” to one of reasonable practicability and this can reduce the overall level of safety available to workers and others.

It is interesting to note that statements on the current Ebola outbreak argue the sense in dealing with the outbreak “at the source”.  Why do we accept a reasonably practicable control measure for harm at work but expect a stronger preventative measure for public health threats?  Shouldn’t we be aiming to reduce all harm “at the source” regardless of the type of harm? More…

Lack of progress on Safe Work Method Statements shows immaturity 15

On 27 October 2014 the Safety Institute of Australia, with the support of RMIT University conducted a seminar on safety in the construction industry.  As with the event last year the issue of Safe Work Method Statements (SWMS) dominated the conversation.  The same frustrations were expressed as last year – SWMS are too big and complex, they are demanded for tasks they are not legislatively required for, they are rarely read, they are rarely reviewed and they are written only in English.  What was missing was an indication of  who is (over)demanding SWMS and why.

The seminar contained one client representative experienced in major construction projects who said that he was not directly involved with SWMS as the contract demands only that work is undertaken safely with predetermined levels of risk and reward.  That level of safety may or may not involve the use of SWMS – SWMS were not prescribed.  

He did not review SWMS unless there was a specific reason and most of the time there was not.  It could be argued that too much involvement by the client in how the project is to be completed implies a shared OHS responsibility with the client, changing the client/contractor relationship.

One construction industry representative said that they have been able to reduce the number of SWMS to around twenty types for each of the active construction projects.  This has been achieved by limiting the SWMS to the 19 high risk tasks identified in safety legislation.  It was significant that this perspective came from the top-level of construction companies, the Tier Ones. More…

Whitlam’s dismissal diverted workers compensation reform 6

In October 2014, one of Australia’s Prime Ministers, Gough Whitlam, died at the age of 98.  Whitlam introduced major social reforms, many which still exist today (just).  One reform he valued but was not able to achieve was a national accident compensation scheme. It is worth noting when reading of the current economic and moral arguments over workplace responsibility and over-regulation that Whitlam’s national accident compensation scheme included workers compensation.

In 1974, during Whitlam’s time as the Prime Minister of Australia, the New Zealand government established a no-fault accident compensation scheme following the 1967 Royal Commission of Inquiry into Compensation for Personal Injury in New Zealand chaired by Owen Woodhouse.  Woodhouse was invited to assess the likelihood of a similar scheme being introduced in Australia.  He completed his inquiry (not available online) for such a scheme and legislation was drafted. The bill was in the Australian Parliament when the Whitlam government was dismissed by Governor-General John Kerr.  As a result of the political machinations of the Liberal Party of Australia, Australia missed the opportunity to have a national accident compensation scheme. More…

When developing a mental health/wellbeing plan, suicide should not be forgotten 1

Cover of MIC-Report-October-2014In 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)

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When safety equipment fails to be safe, nobody’s watching 38

Twelve months ago, some Australia media, including this blog, began reporting on safety concerns raised by the Working At Heights Association (WAHA) about the reliability and suitability of anchor points.  Australia is currently in the middle of Safe Work Australia Month and there seems to have been little progress on the issue.  A reader of SafetyAtWorkBlog provided the following summary and update of the situation:

Who checks the true safety of equipment designed to save the lives of Australian workers? Nobody in particular, it seems.

Last September, the Working At Heights Association, an industry body staffed by volunteers, revealed many of the most commonly-used roof anchors failed to meet basic safety standards. Almost a year later, the association is still battling to see rooftops made safe, despite repeated appeals for action from the OHS regulators and the absence of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).

 An estimated 800,000 Australians work at height and routinely clip their harnesses onto safety anchors. A worker falls to his or her death every 12 days and WAHA chairman Michael Biddle said authorities should be concerned. Biddle told Industry Update magazine

“It’s the third highest cause of death in the workplace after motor vehicle accidents and being hit by moving objects. In most cases, regulators are more concerned in taking a reactive approach after an accident has happened.  There is a great need for an enhanced level of enforcement.   If we had an increase in penalties and stronger enforcement of standards I’m sure we would see a higher level of compliance by industry.”

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Australian PM responds to Insulation Royal Commission 4

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]”

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Safe Work Australia month begins with an online gamble Reply

The annual Safe Work Australia month starts today.  The promotion of this month has fluctuated wildly over the last decade.  Sometimes there are physical launches with interesting speakers, sometimes balloons and merchandise, other times the national OHS authority has left most of the activity to the States.  In 2014, Safe Work Australia has jumped into internet videos, online presentations and webinars each day of the month of October (the full schedule is available HERE).  This initiative is to be supported but it has not been tried before in Australia and its success is not guaranteed.

As expected the first couple of videos are polite launches of the strategy with statements from Ministers and CEOs.  The potential for valuable content is after the initial launch but this value is debatable.  It is unclear who the target audience is.  If the seminar series is for OHS newbies, a restatement of legislative OHS obligations is of little interest to experienced safety managers and professionals.  More…