A Declaration of lip service on OHS 1

Next month Australia hosts the G20 but there is always a lot of activity leading to this meeting and labour relations is part of that preparation.  In September 2014 the G20 conducted its Labour and Employment Ministerial meeting at which a Declaration was released that includes some occupational health and safety (OHS) information.  The Declaration is full of “weasel words” and “soft verbs” but it is worth noting so that the actions of governments on OHS in the future can be referenced, even though tangible results will be few.

On promoting safer workplaces, the Declaration states:

“Improving workplace safety and health is an urgent priority that protects workers and contributes to increased productivity and growth. We agree to take further steps to reduce the substantial human and economic costs associated with unsafe workplaces and work-related illnesses. We endorse the attached G20 Statement on Safer and Healthier Workplaces (Annex C), and we commit, as appropriate, to implement its recommendations in collaboration with governments, international organisations and social partners.”

If we were to deconstruct this statement, accepting that the paragraph is extracted from the labour relations context, the Australian Government, and other parties, does not accept that OHS is an “urgent priority”, only that improving it is.  Any government can prove that it is “improving” OHS even when controls are removed due to red tape reduction or by the ideological strategy of increasing employer control through increased flexibility. More…

Book review: Business, Environment, and Society – Themes and Cases Reply

Book coverAustralia’s Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program (HIP) spent a great deal of time looking at the design of what started as an environmental initiative delivered in one way to an economic stimulus package delivered another way.  The HIP, and the people working with it, struggled to accommodate these changes.  A new book from Baywood Publishing in the United States, coincidentally, looks at the growth in ‘green jobs” and, among many issues, discusses how such jobs can affect worker health.

In “Business, Environment, and Society – Themes and CasesVesela R Veleva writes

“Green jobs, however, are not necessarily safe jobs, and, any of the current green technologies pose significant health and safety risks to workers.  A life-cycle approach and greater emphasis on worker health and safety is necessary when promoting future policies and practices. (Page 7)

The advantage of looking at the HIP inquiries as green jobs is that it provides a broader, even global, context to the scheme. Veleva writes:

“While there is no universally accepted definition of a green job, several organisations have proposed working definitions.  The United Nations Environmental Program defines a green job as “work in agriculture, manufacturing, research and development, administrative and service activities that contribute substantially to preserving and restoring environmental quality”…. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics defines green jobs as jobs involved in producing green products and services and increasing the use of clean energy, energy efficiency and mitigating negative impacts on the environment…” (page 9)

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HIP Royal Commission – Gross Negligence and Accountability Reply

Little of the recent commentary on the findings of the Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program (HIP) have mentioned the opinion of the Royal Commissioner Ian Hanger that the Australian Government acted in a “grossly negligent” manner.  Such a comment deserves considerable analysis by a specialist lawyer but it remains a remarkable criticism in terms of obligations under OHS/WHS laws.

Commissioner Hanger wrote:

“To encourage inexperienced young people to work in an environment where there was a risk of defective electrical wiring, and allow them to install conductive material was, in my opinion, grossly negligent. It is no answer for the Australian Government to say that it was the responsibility of those young people’s employers to protect them.” (para 5.2.20, emphasis added)

Gross negligence has been equated to the term “reckless endangerment” included in Australia’s Work Health and Safety laws.  One legal website site says that:

“Reckless endangerment is the offense of engaging in activity that has a disregard for risks with foreseeably dangerous consequences.”

Commissioner Hanger’s comments certainly seem to fit reckless endangerment as the risks, not only of electrocution but simply from working in domestic roof spaces, were well known.

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HIP Royal Commission – Leadership and Culture 1

The findings of the Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program (HIP) deserve a great deal of analysis by the safety profession. Amongst the lessons are important ones concerning leadership, culture and consultation.

The final report identifies major deficiencies in the design and administration of a major project regardless of the politics and jurisdictional argy-bargy.  Although many are disappointed the report did not identify any big name politicians as the major evildoer, Commissioner Ian Hanger is brutally forthright when necessary.

In the introduction of the report, there are several references to what a “competent administration” would have done, clearly implying that the government of then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, was incompetent in the management of HIP. In fact Hanger writes:

“It ought also to have been obvious to any competent administration that the injection of a large amount of money into an industry that was largely ‘unregulated’ would carry with it the risk of rorting and other unscrupulous behaviour.” (para 1.1.19)

“It ought to have been obvious, to any competent administration, that such an exponential increase in work to be undertaken would require a similarly huge increase in the workforce to do it.” (1.1.9)

“The reality is that the Australian Government conceived of, devised, designed and implemented a program that enabled very large numbers of inexperienced workers—often engaged by unscrupulous and avaricious employers or head contractors, who were themselves inexperienced in insulation installation—to undertake potentially dangerous work. It should have done more to protect them.” (1.11.18)

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HIP Royal Commission – Risk Registers Reply

Cover of ReportoftheRoyalCommissionintotheHomeInsulationProgramSafetyAtWorkBlog has written previously about the evidence of Margaret Coaldrake to the Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program (HIP) given at the public hearings and also the occupational health and safety role of risk management and risk registers. The release of the Royal Commission’s final report on 1 September 2014 provides further details on a risk management process that is common to all large projects.

Commissioner Ian Hanger spent considerable time on the issue of the risk register as this was one of the crucial elements in the project’s whole decision-making process up to Ministerial level.

Risk Register

Commissioner Hanger was scathing of the risk management process that not only ignored the risk of worker fatalities but purposely dropped this risk from the register. He was unforgiving in his criticism of Margaret Coaldrake. He criticised her judgement. In working with her Minter Ellison colleague Eric Chalmers:

“it was up to [Coaldrake] to make sure that she and the people working with her were qualified to provide the service that Minter Ellison consultants had been retained to do.” (para 7.11.15)

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If everyone claimed compensation for work-related stress in Australia, the estimated annual cost would be $83 billion Reply

Lucinda Smith of Esteem People Management has made some excellent points about stress and mental health in her article – “The People Risk of Work-Related Stress“.  On determining the cost of mental stress she acknowledges authoritative government estimates but, significantly, states of the data:

“Although not fully exploring the issue of workplace stress because it only applies to accepted claims,…”

This is the core of much of the frustration in the OHS profession that injury and illness is always underestimated because data is based on workers’ compensation statistics.

Where Smith progresses the argument, though, is by comparing several important pieces of data.  Quoted in a Safe Work Australia report, Medibank Private estimated in 2008 that the direct cost of work-related stress was

“…$14.81 billion to the Australian economy, and $10.11 billion to Australian employers because of stress-related presenteeism and absenteeism.” (page 3 of the Safe Work Australia report)

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“Put the human being first” 13

One of the most contentious issues in safety management is the treatment of workers compensation claimants.  On 18 August 2014, a small qualitative research report into this area was launched in Melbourne.  The report, “Filling the Dark Spot: fifteen injured workers shine a light on the workers compensation system to improve it for others”* identified four themes in the workers’ stories:

  • a sense of injustice
  • a lack of control and agency
  • loss of trust, and
  • loss of identity.

These themes, or at least some of them, are increasingly appearing on the occupational health and safety (OHS) literature.  To establish a successful sustainable workplace culture, one needs to establish and maintain trust.  Workers also seem to need some degree of control, or at least influence, over their working conditions and environment.  Also workers, and managers, need to receive a fair hearing, what most would describe as “natural justice”. 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…

Book review: The Financial and Economic Crises and Their Impact On Health and Social Well-Being 1

Book Cover NavarreAny of the books written or edited by Vicente Navarro are worth serious consideration.  The latest book, edited with Carles Muntaner has the daunting title of The Financial and Economic Crises and Their Impact On Health and Social Well-Being but it is the content that is important.  The editors’ social class analysis may be unfashionable in some areas, or even anachronistic, but the perspective remains valid, as they write:

“…any explanation of the current crisis requires incorporating a social class perspective so as to understand the modus operandi of the economic-financial-political system.” (page 4)

The book though is about the effects of the crisis on health and well-being and there is much to learn.  More…

Where is the evidence for new moves on drug and alcohol testing? 10

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.

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