Some plain talking on SWMS 10

In Sydney this afternoon a workplace safety trade show held a fascinating (and free) panel discussion on safety in construction. The topic of Safe Work Method Statements (SWMS) was raised, as expected, but the comments were sound – SWMS are only required for specific high-risk activities so make them simple enough to satisfy legislative requirements AND have workers work safely.

One participant asked about obtaining a SWMS template for an activity that was not necessarily high-risk. She was advised to forget about the template and instead approach one of her trustworthy subcontractors and have that contractor step her through the work process to be undertaken and the associated risks. Then she should write a SWMS based on that information. In this way she has consulted on a safety issue, talked with a subject matter expert and developed a SWMS tailored to the workplace needs. In other words, she would have done everything that was reasonably practicable to achieve a safe and healthy work environment.

One of the other issues raised was the need to train people on the use of the risk matrix on which many SWMS are based, and that is embedded in Australian OHS Standards. The audience was advised to ignore the risk matrix as most of the workers do not understand it. It was also mentioned that many OHS/WHS regulators see it as overly complex. The audience was, instead, encouraged to based the SWMS on the Hierarchy of Control (HoC).

It was argued that workers understand the linear decision-making of the HoC more easily and that they are well aware of the consequences of failure or an unsafe act. They do not need to see a risk-rating to accept the risk of an amputation or a fall from heights or a trench collapse.

The trade show seminar had an audience of over one hundred but each one of them received the best advice from the panel of legal and industry experts available. That this cost each participant nothing but their time may indicate why safety conferences, at least in Australia, are struggling for relevance.

Kevin Jones

Short radio interview on the cost of workplace mental health 3

I was interviewed this evening on the cost of mental stress by Your Rights at Night on Radio Adelaide. The podcast is now available HERE.


I have listened back to this interview this morning and have some advice for other OHS professionals who may find themselves in a similar situation.

Insist on seeing the interview questions prior to the interview.  I asked for this but the questions weren’t available.  Colleagues have advised me to refuse the interview if this occurs again as there is a risk of being trapped in a discussion that is very different from what was expected.

If the questions aren’t available, ask for the core theme of the interview so that topic parameters are established earl in the process. More…

One hour of OHS discussion on New Zealand radio Reply

On 17 August 2014, RadioLiveNZ‘s Mark Sainsbury devoted an hour to discussing workplace health and safety.  Given New Zealand has undergone a remarkable change on its occupational health and safety (OHS) strategy since the Pike River disaster, with the restructuring of its regulations and regulator into WorkSafeNZ, the various interviews are worth listening to.

This series of interviews are structured assuming that the audience has no prior knowledge of OHS.  The first interview was with a representative of the Accident Compensation Commission, Dr Geraint Emrys.

Dr Emrys lists fishing, forestry, and farming and agriculture as the industries of most concern.  This list is not surprising considering the industrial profile of New Zealand but it is curious that mining was not mentioned, even in passing, given the prominence of Pike River.

Emrys is asked about the opportunity to build an overall safety culture for New Zealand.  Emrys says that overall campaigns are possible More…

WHS, performance indicators, annual reports and other thoughts 2

Macquarie University researcher Sharron O’Neill is traveling around Australia refining, through consultation and seminars, her research into Work Health and Safety (WHS) Due Diligence. In a Melbourne seminar this week O’Neill, and her colleague, Karen Wolfe,  provided thought-provoking discussions on three principal areas:

  • Due Diligence,
  • Performance Indicators, and
  • Reporting.

Below are some of my thoughts that they provoked.

WHS Due Diligence

WHS Due Diligence is still a poorly understood concept.  Part of the reason is that the major explainers of due diligence seem to be, predominantly, labour lawyers who, not surprisingly, emphasis the legal requirements and origins rather than the safety elements and application.  There are few safety professionals who are explaining due diligence; rather they are discussing OHS/WHS in the context of due diligence.

One colleague explained how an established organisation employed her as their first dedicated OHS professional around the same time as due diligence was being discussed  as part of the national OHS harmonisation process.  By looking through the company’s existing system of work, More…

Harm prevention needs to look beyond the individual into the corporate and the systemic 4

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are excellent resources for minimising harm from workplace issues, particularly psychosocial hazards.  However this usually occurs after an event or an incident.  This reality was emphasised recently by a media release from AccessEAP that revealed “the top five causes of workplace stress” (not available online but an article based closely on the release is available HERE) .  The top 5 seems reasonable but the advice in the media release doesn’t seem to address the causes of the top 2 – Job Insecurity and Work Overload.  These are difficult hazards to address particularly as the causes may originate outside the workplace but the media release indicates that to be effective safety managers it is necessary to look beyond the company’s fenceline and accept that the prevention of harm is now just as much social and political as it is occupational.

The top 5 triggers of workplace stress according to AccessEAP are:

  • Job insecurity
  • Work overload
  • Organisational change
  • Conflict with managers or colleagues
  • Bullying and harassment

Such triggers are not unusual. In 2002 the Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine (JOEM) reported the following causes of stress at work: More…

Zero Accident Vision and its OHS potential 4

In 2013 the  Safety Science journal allowed open access to an article that discusses “The case for research into the zero accident vision” (ZAV). The terminology is slightly different but seems compatible with the “zero harm” trend occurring in Australia. The authors acknowledge that

“…. many companies with a good safety reputation have adopted a zero accident vision, yet there is very little scientific research in this field.” (link added)

Although the discussion revolves around experience in Finland and Finland has a unique culture, the concepts discussed are indicative of the ZAV:

  • “accounting for complex contexts;
  • setting up norms, rules and performance indicators;
  • identifying the role of safety climate and safety culture;
  • studying human behavior.”

The authors’ short discussion of context is important as it acknowledges the state of knowledge of hazards and advocates systemic analysis.  It also mentions dealing with ‘normal accidents” in complex settings that leads to either looking for safer substitutes or ‘high reliability theory’ and ‘resilience engineering’. Context is vital but there is also the trap of paying too much attention to context and not enough to the hazard, a situation that can often happen with wellbeing programs. More…

How can an OHS regulator get the management of its own staff so wrong? 3

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?

More…

The voice of OHS is being reduced to a squeak 14

The decline of trade union influence in Australia, as membership remains low, has the sad effect of also seeing a reduced voice for some core elements of occupational health and safety (OHS) such as the importance and prominence of the “safe system of work”, the myth of the “careless worker” and the insidious hazard of impairment. These OHS issues remain significant and demand attention but who will be the new voice of workplace safety?

Impairment

Impairment is a collective term that many trade unionists use for workplace hazards such as fatigue, drug use, alcohol use and other psychosocial hazards, such as stress.  Impairment is a useful term as it relates to the worker’s fitness for work and the level of attentiveness that the employer expects as part of the employment contract.  It also ties into the issue of labour productivity as an impaired worker, regardless of the cause of the impairment, is unlikely to be working as hard or as effectively, or productively, as the employer expects.

The downside is that using a collective term makes it more difficult to focus on specific interventions.  Drug and alcohol use can be combated by a combination of preventive education and enforcement through testing  but such strategies cannot be applied to fatigue or stress although both these elements may be contributory factors to drug and alcohol use.  Stress and fatigue are more effectively reduced by job redesign and a reassessment of the organisational structure and morality, in other words, the establishment of a “safe system of work” as required by both the OHS and Work Health and Safety (WHS) laws.

Impairment may have some connotations of disability but its attraction is that it is a neutral term for describing something, or someone, that is not working as intended due to an external factor.  It is a good descriptor but a poor term from which to base anything more than general action.

Safe System of Work

The “safe system of work” has been a term whose definition never seemed to have stabilised in Australia’s legislation.  This is partly because it has been treated similar to a workplace culture, something that is thought to exist but never really understood.

More…

Important safety perspectives from outside the OHS establishment 4

Real Risk - CoverWhen 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…

Mind Set – Mental Health in Australian Workplaces Reply

[This article was written by Helen Borger and was first published in the May-June 2014 edition of National Safety - a magazine of the National Safety Council of Australia.  Reproduced with permission. (Links added by SafetyAtWorkBlog editor) ]

rsz_ns__mayjun_2014A quick online search reveals a plethora of advice and information about choosing the right mood-altering paint colours for office walls and selecting the best beanbags for worksite chill-out spaces. Not to mention the availability of on-site massages to ease employee tension and anxiety.

It’s tempting to make these interventions the centrepiece of workplace mental health and wellbeing programs because they are feel-good, visible signs of management action that are relatively easy to implement.

Although these interventions have their place, when jobs, work processes and workers come under pressure, staff are more likely to be driven up the moodaltering walls than calmed down by them; cobwebs, not workers, are more likely to come to rest on the beanbags in the chill-out spaces; and on-site massages are unlikely to singlehandedly resolve employee tension and anxiety.

The cost of work-related stress in Australia is enormous. Employers are spending an estimated $8 billion per annum on sickness absence and presenteeism due to depression; of this, $693 million per annum is incurred due to job strain and bullying, says Safe Work Australia’s report on psychosocial safety climate and worker health in Australia.

“Regardless of cause, the estimated cost of productivity loss for the most psychologically unhealthy 25 per cent of the Australian workforce was $17.84 billion,” the report adds.

No excuses

CommuniCorp Group* managing director and principal psychologist David Burroughs says while many organisations understand the complexities of workplace mental health, and are willing to ask the hard questions and genuinely fix problems in their organisations, he still sees many other organisations that rely on employee assistance programs (EAPs) or tertiary interventions, and are looking for quick fixes to very complex problems.

“The reality is there are very few quick-fix solutions when it comes to psychological health in the workplace. You can’t just run [a product] off the shelf and expect it’s going to address the various needs across all the different job roles, job levels and workplaces that are out there,” says Burroughs.

Despite the complexities, he rejects the concern that workplace mental health problems are hard to fix. “We’re asking [employers] to acknowledge what’s actually going on in their workplace. We’re not uncovering problems that aren’t there. We’re not taking a lid off a can of worms,” he says. “The excuse that it’s too hard, or it’s hard to actually spot, or it’s too problematic, is no longer valid … an employer has a responsibility and an obligation to the business and to [their workforce].”

Beyond the quick fix

To avoid tokenistic solutions, Kevin Jones, a work health and safety (WHS) consultant and the publisher of www.safetyatworkblog.com, says it’s necessary to remind workplace leaders that the aim of occupational health and safety (OHS) and its laws is to remove harm at the source. He says often things that bring symptomatic relief, such as massages at desks, have no impact on the cause. More…