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…
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…
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)
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.”
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 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…
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)
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.
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…