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?
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 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.
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…
Paul Breslin caused a stir in Australia’s OHS sector in 2013 with his costing of one element of managing high risk workplaces, the Safe Work Method Statement (SWMS). In 2014, an update of Breslin’s research was published in The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Health, Safety and Environment (only available through subscription), in which he states that
“Industry stakeholders claim that the SWMS Process is no longer manageable and that this document process has failed the industry and has basically outlived its usefulness” and
Recent “criticism has centred on the fact that SWMSs, which were intended to be easy to use documents, have often become so large and complex that they are impractical to use”.
(The latter statement was supported by speakers at a recent (poorly attended) Safety In Construction Conference in Melbourne, Australia.)
Some general industry criticism has been aimed at occupational health and safety (OHS) regulators such as the various WorkSafes and the Office of the Federal Safety Commissioner for accepting bloated and super-generic SWMSs but an equal amount of criticism could be laid at the feet of clients who often request a SWMS when, in fact they are seeking a construction or work methodology. This is lazy management but also indicative of ignoring the need to have OHS professionals in the contract assessment process from the conceptual stage of a tender process. More…
[Guest post from Ross Macfarlane]
A rhetorical question: if you were an OHS advisor for, say, a Victorian construction company, would you prefer to rely on a regulatory guidance document issued in 2012, under legislation which is not in force in the State, or one which is well over 20 years old, and issued under another piece of legislation which is not in force in this State?
It is received wisdom in OHS professional circles that the continuing failure of Victoria and Western Australia to implement harmonised work health and safety laws is a triumph of politics over policy – a victim of lobbying by special interest groups, mostly of a conservative persuasion. It is a fact that the goal of nationally harmonised laws was established during John Howard’s Prime Ministership, but it is also a fact that the national model laws were adopted by the Council of Australian Government (COAG) in July 2008 (with a target date for adoption of 1 January 2012,) in a narrow window of time when Labor governments were in power in the Commonwealth and every Australian State and Territory.
I don’t wish in this article to dwell on the politics surrounding of the adoption, rejection or modification of the harmonised laws. Key ideological differences such as the magnitude of penalties and union right of entry are I believe of less consequence than the failure to adopt the common structure and common approach to regulation. Hence I want to focus on some of the anomalies and contradictions that have arisen in Victoria as a result of the laws not being adopted in this State. 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.
It is common for risk registers to be written with occupational health and safety (OHS) as a late inclusion or, as in the case above, omitted. This is often because risk management is focused on the very priorities Coaldrake mentioned – reputational and financial damage. In plain English, a project should not be embarrassing to the client, in the case of HIP, the Australian Government, and it should be completed without exceeding the budget and, hopefully, well within the budget allocated.
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The Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) recently uploaded a swag of videos to YouTube, ostensibly, to promote its upcoming conference. One video asks if it is harder or easier to inspire leadership on OHS matters. Most speakers believe it is easier because:
- there is a stronger social expectation of higher safety standards,
- managing people is more inclusive,
- technology allows more effective communication,
- leaders are coaches,
- people have a greater awareness of how to be safe.
Some believe it is harder because:
- it is more difficult to have faith in corporate leaders,
- companies have a more complex structure of accountability and responsibility,
- there is greater cynicism of corporate leaders due to the GFC in 2007.
One speaker at IOSH’s upcoming conference says “It’s easier but it isn’t easy” acknowledging past improvements and future challenges.
The IOSH videos are promoting the conference but there is food for thought in all of them. Conferences in Australia have tried similar teaser ads (some including the author) for conferences but not to the extent that IOSH has through YouTube. As safety conferences seem to be fading in both length and influence in Australia, such videos will become rarer but, as with rarity, the content may become more valuable.