Resilience, stress and safety management Reply

The July 25 2007 SafetyAtWork podcast is now available for download.  It includes an interview with Michael Licenblat where we discuss the psychological approach to individuals taking control of their own safety, the benefits of wellbeing programs and the changing workplace.

On listening back to the podcast today, I was struck by several issues he raises:

  • Michael is one of the few wellbeing gurus who directly link the management of stress to the productivity of the worker.  He displays more awareness than many others of the “proactive” OHS context of this approach to human capital.
  • He discusses why it is difficult for all of us to say no to some work tasks, even if  the task is high risk and may injure ourselves and others.
  • He states two core elements of workplace cultures that seem to revolve around the established OHS obligation of consultation.  Perhaps OHS managers can become real agents of change by cranking up consultation.

Kevin Jones

Environmental tobacco smoke, workplace stress – podcast 2006 Reply

In 2006, one of the earliest editions of the SafetyAtWork podcast featured several speakers on issues that remain topical.  The podcast is available for download

Anne Mainsbridge, currently a Solicitor with the Public Interest Advocacy Centre talks about her report on environmental tobacco smoke.

This is followed by Associate Professor Tony LaMontagne of the University of Melbourne talking about a systematic approach to managing workplace stress.  This was a report that was published by the Victorian Health Department and, as such, slipped by many OHS professionals.  The report is now available for download

The audio production is rough for such an early podcast, and I apologise, but I think you will find the content of interest.

Kevin Jones

Decency at work Reply

In 2001 the House of Lords was presented with a Dignity At Work Bill.  This seemed a great idea for unifying different elements of the workplace that can contribute to psychosocial hazards.  This would be a similar approach to using “impairment” to cover drugs, alcohol, fatigue and distraction.  However, it never progressed.

Regular readers of SafetyAtWorkBlog would note an undercurrent of humanism in many of the articles but it is heartening to see this in other articles and blogs.  Maud Purcell of Greenwich Times provides an article from early May 2009 on dignity in the workplace in a time of economic turmoil that you may find of interest and use.

Kevin Jones

Workplace bullying possibly increasing 3

A United States report draws a parallel between increasingly difficult economic situations and an increase in workplace bullying.   This video report is lightweight but is a recent airing of the issue with a different approach.

The angle taken in the story is that of a “pink elephant” that women are just as likely to bully their workmates as men are.  Some of the speakers in the video try to relate female bullying to issues of female empowerment but bullying is more often a reflection of personal nastiness than a social movement.

Bullying received increased focus when workplace culture emerged but rather than a gender issue, our increasing intolerance for bullying is coming from a broader cultural movement than just through the workplace.

The video report originated through research undertaken by the Workplace Bullying Institute, an organisation that has existed for sometime and has very recently upgraded its website.

Kevin Jones

Fatigue is the biggest threat to a person’s safety Reply

Not so long ago, it was considered a legitimate criticism to blame the individual for “doing the wrong thing” at work.  Depending on the type of worksite, this was considered “human error” or “bloody stupid”.

Fatigue is an interesting illustration of how occupational health and safety must cope with new perspectives on established hazards.  Australian OHS legislation operates on a responsibility to manage the systems of work in a workplace, of which only one element is the worker.

A good incident investigation goes beyond the incident to see what led up to a worker acting the way they did, the reasons behind the decision.  Instead of “tell me about your childhood”, OHS practitioners can legitimately ask “tell me about your sleep patterns”, or “tell me about your second job”, or “tell me about your relationship with your partner”, as these can be contributory factors to the decision made on the day or the work environment at the time of the incident.

Some recent AAP articles provide interesting examples of the different contexts in which fatigue as a workplace issue can manifest:

Ambulance Employees Australia (AEA) said weary paramedics had fallen asleep at the wheel and administered wrong drugs because they did not have enough time off between shifts.

They have called for a minimum 10-hour break between shifts, compared with eight hours under the current award.

But Ambulance Victoria has said the fatigue issue was one of 175 union claims, which it said sought $800 million from pay talks.”

Investigators examining the near-catastrophe at Melbourne Airport last month are exploring whether fatigue was a factor after being told the pilot had barely slept the day before the flight.

Emirates pilots are permitted to fly a maximum of 100 hours each 28 days and the pilot was also almost at the legal threshold of the number of hours he was able to fly.

Emirates has issued a statement saying safety was a top priority for the airline.”

A higher priority than a good night’s sleep apparently!  Clearly it is the spread of hours that is the issue not the total over a fixed period.

Both these examples relate to workers’ interactions with the public and reflect the complexity of OHS’s spread to public safety.  

It seems that every investigation now automatically assesses the fatigue level, or impairment, of the participants in incidents in the same way mobile phone records are checked in car accidents and blood-alcohol levels or drug testing in some industrial events.

If your OHS professional does not consider psychosocial issues in developing safety management plans or incident investigation, seek a second opinion, or better yet, make sure the first opinion is comprehensive.

Kevin Jones

Mental Illness and Workplace Safety Reply

Reports in the Australian media this week indicated that “nearly half the population has a common mental health problem at some point during their lives”.  Safety professionals and HR practitioners should take note of these statistics and hope that it does not manifest in their shift, even though it is likely.

The difficulty with trying to manage or anticipate mental health issues is that they seem to have evolved over time and multiplied.  There is the common phrase of “trying to herd cats” and it seems that mental health issues are the cats.  One could apply lateral thinking and propose the solution is to get a dog but will the dog herd a cat that doesn’t look like a cat, smell like a cat, or worst scenario of all, a cat that resembles a dog!

Because of the fluctuating psychiatric states of everyone everyday how does one recognise when a mood swing becomes a mental health issue.  Does one take everything as a mental health issue and waste time on frivolous matters?  Or is there no such thing as a frivolous matter?

In the one article there are these confusing and inconsistent terms for mental health:

  • “common mental health problem”
  • “mental condition”
  • “non psychotic psychiatric problems”
  • “mood disorder”
  • “anxiety disorder”
  • “mental health disorder”
  • “substance abuse or dependency”
  • “mental disorder”
  • “mental illness”
  • “psychiatric condition”

In this report it is unlikely that the synonyms have been generated by the journalist as the data quoted is from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, but it indicates the confusion that safety professionals can feel when they need to accommodate more recent workplace hazards – the psychosocial hazards.

The list above does not include the “established” hazards of bullying, occupational violence or stress.  The fact that there may be a clear differentiation between mental health symptoms and mental disorders but that needs to be clearly communicated to those who manage workplaces so that control resources can be allocated where best needed.

The article referred to above provides interesting statistics and there are gems of useful information in the ABS report but the article provides me with no clues about how to begin a coordinated program to address the mental health issues in the workplace.  It is an article without hope, without clues, without pathways on which the professional can act.

There is no doubt the psychosocial hazards at work are real but the advocates of intervention need to clarify the message.

Kevin Jones

(This blog posting does not discuss the recent changes to compensation for defence personnel and soldiers for mental health from combat, but mental health in that “industry” is a fascinating comparison to what occurs in the private sector.)

Sex trafficking and brothels 2

Every employee has the right to a safe and healthy work environment.  It was this statement and belief that pushed me to providing OHS advice to the legal brothel industry in Victoria.  The industry is frowned upon by most but used by many, and yet the OHS support for the industry is far less than that provided for many other legal businesses.

Over the years sex trafficking, or slavery, has gained a lot of attention, more so, in my opinion, than other examples of illegal migration and worker  exploitation.  Articles in The Age newspaper today report on approaches to brothel owners and managers from people who have women for sale.  Regardless of the industry in which this occurs, this practice is abhorrent and the full weight of the law should be focused on these slave traders.

But a point that is getting lost in the wilderness is that not all women working in brothels are illegal.  Almost all choose to work there for the same reasons anyone works anywhere.  Many academics, and Australia has some of the most rabid, see all sex work as exploitation, as slavery and degrading to women.

The question for safety professionals and advocates is whether the nature of the work discounts the workers’, and employers’, access to legitimate safety advice?  Can the moral switch be flicked off, even for a short time, in order to provide workers in this industry with the same level of occupational health and safety as any other worker can rightfully demand?  Does the switch need turning off?

The statement at the start of this blog, that is reflected in OHS legislation around the world, is not selective, it applies to all.

The legal brothel industry has a long way to go in achieving the levels of OHS compliance that other small businesses have already gained.  The established hazards of manual handling, ergonomics, noise, etc are largely dealt with but consider those issues that have entered the occupational area over the last decade or so.  

Ask yourselves how would the owner of a legal brothel, a business where (predominantly) women have sex with multiple partners over their shift, deal with these contemporary hazards:

  • Stress
  • Bullying
  • Fatigue
  • Drugs and alcohol
  • Security

And then ask yourselves how the OHS profession and discipline would deal with these workplace issues?

  • Sexually transmitted infections
  • Sprains and strains
  • Hygiene
  • Personal protective equipment
  • Working in isolation

I judge the success of safety management systems in companies by the level of knowledge the most isolated worker has about safety in that workplace.   I ask the teleworkers, the night-shift workers, the security guards, the cleaners, the maintenance staff…  These employees, if a safety management system is working properly, should have the same level of safety knowledge, and the same level of access to OHS support, as those workers on day shift in a  head office.

I also judge the safety profession and the regulators on the success of their safety initiatives, the level of their safety commitment, by looking at how OHS is accepted and implemented at those industries on the fringes of society, like the brothel industry.  If the workers in these industries and the owners of these businesses are treated differently because of the nature of the work, we need to reassess our commitment to safety and the professional vows many of us took to ensure everyone has a safe and healthy work environment.

Kevin Jones

A March 2008 podcast on the issue of sex trafficking in Australia is available HERE 

 

 

Happiness is a warm million Reply

The Australian newspapers in late-February shared the “outrage” of politicians and then the community over training that was provided to public servants by the American “happiness guru” Professor Martin Seligman.

The cost to the taxpayer seems exorbitant but the psychologist was from the US and was training delegates for many days.  It is not unusual for US experts to charge over $US600 per hour plus travel and accomm0dation.

The Community & Public Sector Union‘s Assistant National Secretary Paul Gepp noted  in a media statement that news of the expensive conference, which paid an American psychologist’s team more than $440,000, came with news of more layoffs of  public servants, as 100 lost their jobs in the Crime Commission. 

“Public servants are working hard to keep essential services going, keep our communities safe and make the stimulus package work,” said Mr Gepp.  “Million-dollar, feel-good conferences don’t help get these jobs done. If the Government is looking to cut, we suggest it starts with junkets like this.” 

The OHS context of this furore comes from the reasons for the training and whether the same benefits could have been obtained at a reduced price.

Media reports say that in parliament on 26 February 2009

“[Deputy Prime Minister, Ms Julia] Gillard attacked Liberal frontbencher Andrew Southcott for attempting to “parody” Professor Seligman, who she described as a “noted educationalist”.
“He is the leader in the development of (a) resiliency program that has been shown to make a difference to mental health issues amongst young people, including issues like anorexia and depression.  That is actually serious and ought not to be cat-called about.”

SafetyAtWorkBlog has written previously about the workloads of the public sector under the Rudd government and how the government has chosen not to set reasonable production targets.  The Seligman seminars are an example of trying to treat the symptoms and not the cause.   Seligman’s programs are not the issue here as the results claimed may be absolutely justified.  

Part of the problem for the government is timing, and in this, it shares a lot with behavioural-based safety programs.  Whenever a company introduces a wellbeing program, or a happiness seminar, or resilience training, or a team-building extreme sports excursion, it indicates to me that either the company is one that has already tried the traditional approaches to controlling workplace hazards, hasn’t  the faintest ides what to do to improve the safety in their workplace , or has too much money in its human resources budget and needs to spend it by the end of the financial year.

Regrettably, the money spent on public service mental health has been poorly targeted and papers over the cracks whilst ignoring the structural instability of how it manages its people.

Kevin Jones

International Women’s Day (of safety) Reply

The global theme for the 2009 International Women’s Day (8 March 2009) is 

“Women and men united to end violence against women and girls”

The organising committee is at pains to stress that although this is a global theme, individual nations, individual states and organisations are able to set their own themes.  Some themes already chosen include

  • Australia, UNIFEM: Unite to End Violence Against Women 
  • Australia, QLD Office for Women: Our Women, Our State 
  • Australia, WA Department for Communities: Sharing the Caring for the Future 
  • UK, Doncaster Council: Women’s Voices and Influence 
  • UK, Welsh Assembly Government: Bridging the Generational Gap

Given that Australian health care workers suffer occupational violence, amongst many other sectors, and that employers are obliged to assist workers who may be subjected to violence at work or the consequences of non-work-related violence, it seems odd that so often the major advocates of International Women’s Day remain the unions.

It is also regrettable that many of the themes internationally and locally are responding to negatives rather than motivating action from strengths.

As is indicated from the list above, the public sector agencies are keen to develop programs around the international day.  The societal and career disadvantages of women are integral to how safety is managed.  

Stress, violence, adequate leave entitlements, security, work/life balance, chronic illness – all of these issues are dealt with by good safety professionals.  Perhaps a safety organisation or agency in Australia could take up the theme of “Safe work for women” and look at these issues this year using gender as the key to controlling these hazards in a coordinated and cross-gender fashion.

In support of women’s OHS (if there can be such a specific category), readers are reminded of an excellent (and FREE)  resource written by Melody Kemp called Working for Life: Sourcebook on Occupational Health for Women

Kevin Jones

Workplace bullying – interview with Lawrence Lorber (2002) 1

In April 2002, I interviewed Lawrence Lorber of US law firm Proskauer Rose on workplace bullying.  It was at the height of the Enron collapse and corporate behaviour towards staff was gaining a lot of attention.  Over the last fortnight I have been researching some of the management books and concepts concerning leadership, emotional intelligence, modern expectations of managers – all of which could be thrown into “workplace culture.”

As I was reading back issue of the SafetyATWORK magazine, I used to published, there seemed to be valuable comments from Lawrence that remain relevant.  Below is an extract of the interview.  The full interview is available HERE

SAW: In Australia, the approach to workplace bullying seems to be coming from a systemic management system rather than one relying on psychological assessment.

LL: The highly competitive and highly contentious nature of what is coming out about Enron, the “up or out” atmosphere is one aspect of a system that can lead to managers or co-workers to engage in bullying. The characteristics of being tough or abrasive may be necessary to get ahead in the organisation. The environment can encourage or create bullying tendencies. However, not everybody turns into Attila the Hun in a highly competitive environment. Others survive without taking on the attributes of the bully.

Psychological testing is frequently applied in the States with regard to executive promotions. Dealing with bullying does require a combination of the systemic and individual approach. I work for some companies who are publicly perceived as fairly aggressive, there are tough people there who I might not want to work for but they are effective. They might be perceived as bullies. But looking at bullying as an environmental issue does mask the problem.

SAW: Managers sometimes need to motivate a staff member, perhaps, by rebuking them. The receiver of the rebuke may perceive that as bullying. How can we balance these perceptions?

LL: There were management books in the States in the 1980s, which encouraged management by intimidation. At one point that was the vogue. After the movie PATTON came out, everyone wanted to be General Patton.

If you look at a harsh manager who is demanding in an abrasive manner, that could be bullying.

How do you define bullying? Do you define it by your own reaction? A very US example is sex harassment. Is harassment in the eyes of the beholder? Does it have to be a reasonable woman who believes she is being harassed? In the circumstance where the bully is a male and the recipient is a female, frequently that becomes harassment.

SAW: That is a problem for the managers where for the last 30 years, harassment, bullying and discrimination has been handled outside the OHS field, in Human Resources. Now there are national and international moves to combat bullying because of the stress at work issues. I haven’t seen that approach in the United States.

LL: Here it’s not health and safety. Our definition of harassment is an “intimidating atmosphere”. That can also be a definition of bullying.

I don’t think it will be considered as a health and safety issue because workplace stress is not a field that is devoid of regulation. It is simply being regulated in a different context-employment discrimination and to a lesser extent under the disability laws. 

 

SafetyATWORK magazine April 2002 cover image

SafetyATWORK magazine April 2002 cover image