As part of Safe Work Australia month, or perhaps coincidentally, the Australian Council of Trade Unions held its annual occupational health and safety (OHS) conference in Melbourne, Australia. On the morning of day 2, the conference heard from the Shadow Minister for Employment Relations, Brendan O’Connor. The Minister is from the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and had a sympathetic audience but he made several interesting points, particularly when he diverged from the scripted speech (which will be available online shortly) and when he took questions.
Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program
O’Connor supports the ALP position that the Home Insulation Program (HIP) Royal Commission was a purely political affair to target previous ALP government ministers. He emphasised that the Royal Commission was the last in a long line of inquiries into worker deaths and OHS prosecutions related to the HIP program and that this inquiry has achieved very little change. O’Connor said (ad libbed)
“…. that Royal Commission has not recommended any changes to the regulations or obligations on employers to do the right thing at the workplace. It’s almost worse than doing nothing, than to use the health and safety of the workers as a political weapon against your political opponent. That’s how dismissive this government is with respect to health and safety.
Let’s set up a Royal Commission. Let’s summons a former Labor Prime Minister and other Ministers but, of course, all of which we could accept and we supported the establishment of the Royal Commission if that’s what they chose to do, with one caveat – that was, go ahead with the eleventh inquiry into these tragic deaths but make sure that when there are findings about the deficiencies in the law that protects the interests of working people, particularly young workers, do something about it.
Well we’ve seen nothing. We’ll see nothing in terms of changing the law by this government because that was purely a political exercise. To me this underlines how cynical this government is when it comes to health and safety. It only saw it as a political exercise and, I’m afraid to say, you won’t see too many good policy changes as a result of that Commission.”
Later this month, the Victorian WorkCover Authority (VWA) will be releasing a document entitled “Integrated approaches to worker health, safety and well-being” (pictured right, but not yet available online). It is intended to generate discussion on how to improve workplace safety performance by breaking down the walls of various disciplines, production processes, consultative silos and institutional or organisational biases. This document builds on the overseas experience of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH – Total Worker Health program), the World Health Organisation (WHO – Healthy Workplace Framework) and others to provide an Australian context.
Those who are experienced in risk management principles may see little new in this approach and the publication’s success is likely to depend on how VWA explains the initiative and how its stakeholders, Victorian businesses of all sizes, accept the concept and believe it can work in their own workplaces.
The release of a publication advocating Integration implies that an unintegrated approach to safety management has been an impediment to change. This may be a surprise to risk managers and those who have been consulting broadly on OHS in their workplaces and those companies who have integrated systems managers with responsibility for Quality, OHS and Environment. More…
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)
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…
Australia’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 Cases” Vesela 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)
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.
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)
SafetyAtWorkBlog 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.
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)