OHS and workload – follow-up 2

SafetyAtWorkBlog has had a tremendous response to the article concerning Working Hours and Political Scandal.  Below are some of the issues raised in some of the correspondence I have received from readers and OHS colleagues.

The Trade Union Congress Risk e-bulletin has a similar public service/mental health case which has been resolved through the Courts.   The site includes links through to other media statements and reports.

Australia’s Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations has launched its work/life balance awards for 2009.  The information available on the awards is strongly slanted to a work/family balance which is very different from work/life and excludes employees making decisions for the benefit of their own mental health – a proper work/life balance which is the philosophical basis underpinning OHS legislation.  SafetyAtWorkBlog is investigating these awards with DEEWR.

SafeWork in South Australia is working on a code of practice on working hours and has been providing OHS advice on this matter since 2000.

The WA government has had a draft code on working hours for some time.

A legal reader has pointed out that  “the 38 hour week issue is not set in stone …[and]  is not a maximum for non-award employees.”  So expect more industrial relations discussion on that issue over the next two years.

One reader generalised from the Grech case about decision-making at senior levels, a concern echoed by many others.

“The Grech case illustrates the gradual disintegration of effectiveness, and the employee’s own inability to recognise that it is not a personal failing of efficiency, rather an unrecognised systemic risk.

When the employee is at senior level, there is more likelihood there will be poor attention to the warning signs. Any ‘underperformance’ would be seen as a personal failing. For those of us in the safety business, it is obvious that the system itself is in need of urgent risk management.”

There were congratulations from many readers for raising a significant and hidden OHS issue.

“Many people in industry work more than 70 hour a week. This affects their health and personal relationships.”

“Overwork and under-resourcing lead to poor decision making, adverse business outcomes, and in the long term psychological and physical ill health. Both the government and corporate sectors are paying little attention to this issue.”

The workplace hazards resulting from fatigue are being addressed in several industries such as transport, mining and forestry, where attentiveness is hugely important because of the catastrophic consequences of poor judgement.

One of the issues from the Grech case is that the quality of judgement in non-critical, or administrative, occupations can be severely affected by fatigue, mental health and other psychosocial issues.  These may not affect the health and well-being of others but can have a significant effect on the individual.  OHS does not only deal with systemic or workplace cultural elements but is equally relevant to the individual worker.

Kevin Jones

[Thanks to all those who have written to me and continue to do so. KJ]

Handling trauma Reply

The Rural Health Education Foundation (RHEF) produced a DVD recently as part of its professional development program on managing trauma.  It is an introduction for rural medical practitioners on how to identify trauma and how to advise on management.  The video was produced in conjunction with the Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health and is unavailable at the moment due to a lack of funding.  However, the video, and others, are available online through a free registration at the RHEF website.

Trauma DVD 002Health and safety practitioners rarely prepare themselves adequately for handling a traumatized worker whether it is from a work experience or an issue outside the workplace.  OHS practitioners often have a linear perspective where an incident occurs, the personal damage is handled or referred on and the avoidance of recurrence is prevented.

The cycle of incident, rehabilitation and reintegration to the workplace is not widely understood in the OHS field.  The “Recovery From Trauma: What Works” video illustrates the personal and psychological cost of an incident.  Through a case study it also shows the early signs of trauma, when a worker may “not be himself” – the clues to a possible bigger problem.  One case study, John, specifically includes the impact of his situation on his work performance.

In the early stages of trauma, around a week after an incident, the video advises that people avoid

  • Alcohol and drugs
  • Keeping overly busy
  • Involvement in stressful situations
  • Withdrawing
  • Stopping yourself doing things you enjoy
  • Taking risks

If the worker is out of sorts for longer than a week, professional assistance should be sought.

The video was broadcast in February 2009 so the information is current.

The program continues with issues of post-traumatic stress disorder with additional case studies including a policeman talking about his counseling and the therapy he undertook after a traumatic event.

RHEF does not try to do everything by itself and draws upon subject matter experts on trauma and recovery.  The video is a very professional production and RHEF should be supported in its initiatives.  Readers are encouraged to watch the videos online and, if you can, consider supporting RHEF financially so that these important resources can be made available to medical professionals throughout Australia.

Kevin Jones

Working Hours and Political Scandal 6

Over the last month or so, Australian politics has been scandalised by a senior Treasury official admitting to faking an email that implied political favouritism by the Australian Treasurer, Wayne Swan, and the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd.

Godwin Grech is the public servant who has admitted faking the email and there are many reasons he has put forward, and journalists have endlessly speculated on, for his actions.  SafetyAtWorkBlog will discuss a minor element of the “Ozcar affair” that has been almost entirely overlooked – OHS.

Since the scandal broke in a Senate inquiry, Godwin Grech kept a fairly low profile and was last reported to be receiving treatment in a Canberra psychiatric facility.  It has been reported that Grech has a history of physical health problems and it has been reported, in an investigation into the affair by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO), that administering the scheme was taxing on Grech.  The report says

“The under‐resourcing of the implementation phase of the policy placed at risk the anticipated policy outcomes. It also placed a considerable workload on Mr Godwin Grech, the Treasury official primarily responsible for the development and implementation of the policy measure, particularly in light of his medical condition.”

It needs to be noted that additional resources were offered to Grech to assist in administering the scheme. But Treasury was also criticised in the report.

“There were no indications that these matters, or Mr Grech’s medical condition, were given due weight in the implementation planning and delivery.”

Grech admitted to the ANAO that he had not informed his employer, the Department of Treasury, of his ongoing struggle with depression.

“What senior Treasury management did not know – as I have only very recently discovered – was that I have also been suffering from chronic clinical depression for some years, dating back to at least 2003. This had not been treated.”

Page 100 of the ANAO report has Grech quoting the OHS Act’s employer obligation to “take all reasonably practicable steps to protect the health and safety at work of [its] employees’”, and then lists his working hours required by the scheme.

“My work on the Oz Car program required me to work between 75‐85 hours per week including on weekends from late October 2008 until the onset of my bowel obstruction in early February 2009. My hours varied from 60‐70 hours per week from late February to June 2009.”

The amount of hours expected is phenomenal and there is little surprise that health problems or poor judgement occurred on this hazard alone.

However, what Grech fails to quote in the information to the ANAO is another section of the OHS Act 1991 – Section 21

“Duties of employees in relation to occupational health and safety

(1) An employee must, at all times while at work, take all reasonably practicable steps:

(a) to ensure that the employee does not take any action, or make any omission, that creates a risk, or increases an existing risk, to the health or safety of the employee, or of other persons (whether employees or not) at or near the place at which the employee is at work; ……”

Employees have a legislative obligation to not put themselves at risk. It would be interesting to know why Grech took on more than was healthy for him.

This dichotomy of choice is a crucial but difficult one for all employees in all industries.  When is it the right time to say no more or to ask for help or to say something is unsafe or unhealthy?

A further complexity to employment relations comes when industrial relations legislation specifies a maximum amount of working hours.  The Australian Government’s very recent Fair Work Act 2009 specifies maximum weekly hours of 38.  So what does this say about the employer’s OHS obligations to  civil servants, such as Godwin Grech?

The Fair Work Act says (Division 3, Section 62 (1))

“An employer must not request or require an employee to work more than the following number of hours in a week unless the additional hours are reasonable:

(a) for a full time employee—38 hours; or
(b) for an employee who is not a full time employee—the lesser of:

(i) 38 hours; and
(ii) the employee’s ordinary hours of work in a week.

Employee may refuse to work unreasonable additional hours.”

In May 2008, the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, said the following about public service workloads:

“I understand that there has been some criticism around the edges that some public servants are finding the hours a bit much ….. Well, I suppose I’ve simply got news for the public service — there’ll be more.  This Government was elected with a clear-cut mandate.  We intend to proceed with that.  The work ethic of this Government will not decrease.  It will increase.”

Godwin Grech could be considered one example of the Rudd Government work ethic.

In this political scandal OHS is an oblique and fringe issue but its existence cannot be ignored and it raises legitimate questions about how a Labor Government, the traditional friend of the worker, manages the safety of its employees.

Kevin Jones

Forest not required – indoor air quality and plants Reply

Ever since modern offices have relied on air conditioning for ventilation, indoor air quality has been a contentious occupational issue from other people’s smells to thermal comfort to photocopier toner dust.

The prominence of air quality in offices as an OHS issue can be illustrated by a paragraph from the 1997  edition of Officewise, when cigarette smoke remained a real hazard.  No mention was made of plants.

Air in offices may be contaminated by several different
sources, including odours and micro-biological and
chemical contaminants. In an office environment, the
quality of the air is often controlled through an air
conditioning system. A building’s air conditioning
system may be considered as its lungs. The function
of such a system is to draw in outside air, filter, heat,
cool or humidify it and circulate it around the building.
The system expels a portion of the air to the outside
environment and replaces this expelled portion with
fresh or outside air.

“Air in offices may be contaminated by several different sources, including odours and micro-biological and chemical contaminants. In an office environment, the quality of the air is often controlled through an air conditioning system. A building’s air conditioning system may be considered as its lungs. The function of such a system is to draw in outside air, filter, heat, cool or humidify it and circulate it around the building. The system expels a portion of the air to the outside environment and replaces this expelled portion with fresh or outside air.”

The focus was (pre-green buildings) on mechanical ventilation but even in the 2006 edition there was no mention of the any benefits from indoor plants.

A haughty OHS response to these issues would be to just open a window and eliminate the hazards.  But the capacity to open office windows has not been available for several decades whether it is for the reasons of comfort or to eliminate the risk of people jumping through windows or for energy efficiency or security, is debatable.

Throughout the “closed environment decades” there have been plant advocates.  There have long been claims that plants are calming and increase productivity although some of the sick plants in some offices are evidence only of coffee dregs and in the 1980’s, cigarette butts.  Robin Mellon of the Green Building Council Australia puts the value of plants in the workplace context.

Finally there seems to be some evidence about the air filtration capacity of plants indoors.  According to a recent media statement from the University of Technology Sydney (via a company who supplies plants to offices), research has been undertaken that shows “that any plants can improve indoor air quality and the size of the pot or plant does not matter above 200mm. Adjunct Professor Margaret Burchett says

“We have found that a plant in a 200mm pot is as effective as one in a 250mm or 300mm in removing Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and it seems that any plant will perform as well as others… This is important news – it means that any indoor room or office which is air-conditioned or closed for much of the time, can really benefit from having just one 200mm pot plant.”

A 1998 interview with Professor Burchett on the benefits of plants is also available online.

The new information on this issue is the filtering capacity of an individual plant in a room.  This is useful as workplaces will not need forests to assist in controlling the hazards presented by mechanical ventilation in modern buildings.  There are many reason, however, for having plants in workplaces.  Not only are they pleasant to see, they can also indicate a company’s green aims and credentials, particularly if in a more recent office block.

Let’s hope that the movement towards “safe design” for OHS purposes includes plants.

Kevin Jones

Depression and workplace stress rehabilitation 1

In January 2009, SafetyAtWorkBlog reported on the end of a political saga involving parliamentarian Paula Wriedt.  Ms Wriedt has since become a spokesperson for the treatment of depression and on 10 August she spoke with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation about more resources for the treatment of mental health issues in the young.

Kevin Jones

Firefighter trauma 5

A major element of risk management  is business continuity.  This requires considerable planning, disaster recovery resources, and a long-term focus.

In early 2009 parts of Victoria, some not far from the offices of SafetyAtWorkBlog, were incinerated and across the State over 170 people died. In a conservative western culture like Australia, the bush-fires were the biggest natural disaster in living memory.

The is a Royal Commission into the Victorian Bushfires that is illustrating many of the disaster planning and community continuity needs in risk management.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s “7.30 Report” provided a report on 5 August 2009 which originates from the views of the community and the volunteer firefighters.  One of the issues relevant to safety professionals and risk managers is the psychological impact on volunteer workers.  Many in the report talk of trauma.  Many in the disaster areas have not returned and their are many who remain psychologically harmed.

When a workforce is so closely integrated with a community, rehabilitation is a daunting task and changes a community forever.

Overseas readers may have experienced their own natural disasters such as hurricane Katrina, earthquakes, floods and wildfires.  Many of these stories are reported around the world.  In the recovery phase of any disaster, businesses need to rebuild but are often rebuilding with damaged people.  It would be heartening to see the OHS regulators and OHS professions becoming more involved over the long recovery period.

Kevin Jones

Australia’s “Find a Psychologist” directory Reply

Several OHS regulators in Australia, OHS professional associations and trade union have directories for OHS advisers.  Most of them are in the traditional OHS areas of guarding, engineering, chemical safety…..  Psychosocial issues such as work stress or workplace bullying haven’t featured as much.

The Australian Psychological Society (APS) has a very good searchable directory for its members.  The search results provide a brief table of those psychologists for the subject area in your region with a good amount of information on individual listings on the click-through.

A great feature is to locate someone within a radius of one’s town or suburb.  The Society has thought about the geography  if Australia by including a 200 kilometre radius option.

On a brief search for psychologists who specialise in work stress or workplace bullying, the large Australian capital cities had plenty of listings.  Darwin came up empty as did Cairns, Alice Springs and Broom but these are remote locations and there may be psychologists in those areas who could provide assistance on workplace psychosocial issues, just not as specialists.

The “Find a Psychologist” directory is very easy to use and could be used by other member organisations as a template for their own databases.  The APS website should be flagged by Australian OHS professionals who need he services of psychologists for workplace psychosocial assistance.

Kevin Jones

New Work/Life Research Reply

There seems to be new institutes and academic schools popping up regularly over research into the issue of work/life balance.  Recently one of the oldest and most prominent of the institutes, the Centre for Work + Life at the University of South Australia, released new research data.AWALI--full cover

The latest Australian Work and Life Index (AWALI) was released in late July 2009.  The executive summary identifies several important issues relevant to OHS:

“Three years of data about work-life interference in Australia tell us that many employees experience frequent interference from work in their personal, home and community lives, many feel overloaded at work and feelings of time pressure are also common and growing.”

“Work hours are central to work-life interference….. Many Australians are a long way from their preferred working hours and the 2008/09 economic downturn has not made any difference to the incidence of this mismatch.”

The work by Barbara Pocock and others at the Centre is characterised by recommendations for improvements rather than simply describing a situation.  In this data the researchers say

“Our AWALI reports over the past three years suggest that employers and public policy makers can help workers deal with work-life pressures.  This involves improving the quality of supervision and workplace culture, controlling workloads, designing ‘do-able’ jobs, reducing long working hours and work-related commuting, increasing employee-centered flexibility and options for permanent part-time work, improving the fit between actual and preferred hours and increasing care supports.”

It is obvious from these comments that OHS professionals need to work hard on these matters to create, or maintain, their workplace safety cultures.

Kevin Jones

Absence management data misses the OHS mark Reply

Managing workplace absenteeism often ignores the OHS issues that are integral to the issue.

4926AbsenceSRWEB2 coverOn 20 July 2009 the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development released its findings on the issue in its annual Absence Management Survey.

The media statement identifies the reasons for short- and long-term absences.

  • “The main causes of short-term absence are minor illnesses such as colds and flu, stress and musculoskeletal conditions
  • The main causes of long-term absence are acute medical conditions, stress and mental health conditions and musculoskeletal conditions and back pain.”

However, the media statement identifies no measures to counter these workplace hazards, preferring to focus on ancillary factors such as job security.

Willmott focuses on a comparison between absenteeism in the public and private sectors.  The difference is statistically interesting, perhaps, but does not address the causes of absenteeism.

Willmot also illustrates the dominant HR position on absenteeism.

“Effective absence management involves finding a balance between providing support to help employees with health problems stay in and return to work and taking consistent and firm action against employees that try and take advantage of organisations’ occupational sick pay schemes.”

This manages the effect of the problem but not the problem itself which CIPD’s own research has identified as musculoskeletal conditions, stress, mental health and, to a lesser extent, colds and flu.

The comments by the Senior Public Policy Adviser for the CIPD, BenWillmott, are a good example of how some human resources or management organisations miss the health and safety element.

The CIPD does acknowledge the importance of workplace health and safety as illustrated by its reply to the Health & Safety Executive’s draft strategy.  It also says in the Absence Management Survey that, in the return-to-work context:

“The involvement of occupational health professionals is identified as the most effective approach for managing long-term absence…”

However even though it sees itself as the “professional and accreditation body for the UK HR profession [which represents] over 130,000 HR professionals at every level of business and in every sector”, it hesitates to take a leadership role in health and safety.  It’s a pity because applying the apparent professionalism of the Institute and its membership strength to OHS could achieve great social and business efficiencies.

For those wanting to look at comparison data, CIPD makes available its previous surveys for download.

Kevin Jones

Maintain instead of repair Reply

Every country has its share of high-fliers who “burn out”.  Many fade away from the public eye with their careers over.  Frequently this path to wealth and prominence is not perceived as a workplace health or safety matter.  Some people decide that the health trade-off of multi-million dollar salaries is worth it.

Sadly the psychological reality of this personal decision is often masked by clichés.  Frequently, executives say that a major motivation for their decision is “to spend more time with my family”.  Many executives may believe this to be a major part of their decision, but regrettably, this worthy sentiment has become a cliché – the equivalent of a beauty pageant winner working toward “world peace”.

The family-time phrase/reason/excuse signifies an important element of the executive’s personality.  They were willing to sacrifice decades of their relationship with their partner and to be absent from the development of their children for money.

If any of these departing executives use the family-time phrase in the same departure speech or media exit-interview  as regaining “control of their lives” to “re-engage with the most important people in my life”, ask the executives, or politicians, “how do you justify ignoring your family over your career?”.

In some cases one could be more specific.  “Do you think that your multi-million career was related to your daughter’s persistent attempts to kill herself?”  “After being absent so frequently and for so long, are you still justified in describing your marriage as a loving relationship, or your partner as your ‘soulmate’?”  “Was your million-dollar salary really worth it?”

Int he wake of the self-generated corporate financial crisis, some corporate executives are re-examining their ethics and morality.  Not enough are going through this but it’s a start.  Most say they operate for the benefit of shareholders but they cannot deny the reality of massive remuneration for their efforts.  What they are ignoring is the individual cost to their loved ones of these efforts.

Should we look up to the billionaires who sacrifice the wellbeing of others they say they love to chase the dollar?  Are these the paragons of our society?

People are trying to maintain or establish a work/life balance.  (There are several articles at SafetyAtWorkBlog that report on this movement.)  But the reality is that to achieve a work/life balance, one must be prepared to sacrifice income.  This may involve the necessity of achieving a certain stage in one’s career that is not the top, but still a position of value in the company and, equally important, of value to one’s family and even one’s own psychological well-being.  If one’s colleagues fail to understand this decision, the workplace culture is faulty, and probably irreparable.

If the ultimate ideal is to have a happy, functional, and sustainable community, one must examine one’s own motivations, and one’s own personal priorities.  Everyone must consider whether we want to emulate those who sacrifice their family’s welfare for money or whether we support those who rebut the “glory of the high-achiever” and emulate those who love their family enough to spend time with them through their career.  Maintenance is easier than repair in life as in safety management.

Kevin Jones