Tasmanian Premier talks of workers compensation fairness Reply

On 26 July 2009, the Tasmanian Premier, David Bartlett spoke at the Tasmanian ALP conference.  Below is an extract from his speech in which he refers to the State’s review of workers compensation, the Clayton Report, and reflects the national industrial relations agenda by emphasising the Australian Labor Party’s favourite word of the day – “fair”.

“Delegates,

Not only must we act to keep Tasmanians safer on our roads – but so too in our workplaces.

The Labor Party began as we shall continue – as representatives of the working men and women of Tasmania.

That is why I am pleased that we have finally been able to reform the workers compensation provisions in this State, to return a fairer balance and provide the protection that workers deserve.

I have met people as Premier who have suffered terrible injuries at work.

I met a man last year who’d lost all the fingers on one hand, and yet had not been able to access the level of worker’s compensation that he so clearly and richly deserved.

That is not fair, and that’s why we’re changing it.

Unlike our opponents, who enthusiastically supported the flawed and unfair WorkChoices regime, we stand for a fair go for Tasmanian workers.

Some will say we’ve gone too far.  But this is about decency and dignity.

And it’s about respect for working people, and providing workers with the support and protections that they deserve.”

Kevin Jones

National scaffolding campaign Reply

This week a national scaffolding safety campaign was launched in Australia.  There are several sources for new and useful information about the campaign, two are below.

Mike Hammond of law firm, Deacons, has written a backgrounder on the need for the campaign and how to prepare for the compliance visits.  Hammond lists the key messages form the campaign as

  • “The campaign is designed to ensure compliance with existing workplace safety laws in relation to scaffolding;
  • Increase industry awareness of the safety issues associated with using unsafe scaffolding;
  • Recent incidents have highlighted a need to be vigilant when erecting, altering, using and dismantling scaffolding; and
  • A wide range of trades that use scaffolding are exposed to significant risks of death and injury when the scaffolding does not comply with AS 1576.”

WorkSafe WA Commissioner Nina Lyhne said in a media release on 24 July 2009 that

“The construction industry is a high risk industry. Sadly, we still see a large number of injuries and deaths on construction sites.

WorkSafe [WA] focuses a lot of attention on education as well as on enforcement to reinforce the need for improved safety.  Recent scaffolding incidents have led to the death of a number of workers and seriously injured others across Australia.

Industry is being advised of the intervention campaign, and inspectors from WA will be undertaking inspections over two months from 1 August to 30 September.”

Kevin Jones

New old US research into driving and talking Reply

The New York Times has revealed research on the hazards of driving and using mobile phones that was withheld since 2003.   The newspaper understandably focuses on the intrigue that prevented the report from being released but the content of the report has the potential to substantially change how companies “manage” the hazard of their staff using mobile phones whilst driving. Pages from original

The report, obtained through Freedom of Information and made available on the newspaper’s website, was a  substantial project for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and, according to NYTimes:

“The research mirrors other studies about the dangers of multitasking behind the wheel. Research shows that motorists talking on a phone are four times as likely to crash as other drivers, and are as likely to cause an accident as someone with a .08 blood alcohol content.”

The full report is available by clicking on the image in this post.

Kevin Jones

BHP Billiton’s safety record is again in the Australian media 2

BHP Billiton’s production report has generated some OHS-related interest in the Australian business media on 23 July 2009, but not all.  [SafetyAtWorkBlog has written several pieces about BHP Billiton's safety record]

The company’s iron ore production has fallen short of its May 2009 guidance.  Iron ore is the only division where production has dropped.  The Age newspaper reports that the five deaths “forced a production slowdown” and noted the Western Australian government’s review of BHP’s safety management.

Malcolm Maiden’s commentary in the same newspaper mentions the BHP production results but describes the five workplace fatalities as “production glitches”.   He writes

“Production glitches for both companies [BHP Billiton & Rio Tinto] might have been handled better if their iron ore operations were merged, as is now proposed.”

Safety management may have been improved.  Rio Tinto’s OHS performance is considerably better but the description of the fatalities as “production glitches” is cold.

This contrasts considerably with the coverage provided to the BHP results by the Australian Financial Review (AFR) which listed the issue on the  front page  with the headline “Poor safety record hits BHP output” (full article not available online without a subscription).  AFR says

“the safety issues overshadowed better than expected results from BHP’s petroleum and  metallurgical coal units….”

There was no overshadowing according to the writers in The Age.

The AFR article identifies a raft of safety matters that illustrates well the OHS status of BHP Billiton and emphasises just how serious the workplace fatalities are.

  • “Tensions with the WA government [over a variety of issues, including safety] have escalated…”
  • Seven BHP workers died in Australia and South Africa in 2008/09.
  • “Eleven BHP staff… died while on the job in 2008.”
  • On 22 July 2009 WA Minister for Mines & Petroleum, Norman Moore, praised BHP’s efforts to improve safety but said “It is very difficult to understand sometimes why fatalities occur within the safety frameworks that operate in most major mining companies…” said on 22 July 2009

Warren Edney, an analyst with the Royal Bank of Scotland and occasional media commentator, spoke in relation to the safety record of BHP’s Pilbara operations, where five workers died.  He said in the AFR article:

“It’s better than Chinese underground coalmining but that’s not a big tick, is it?… In part you’d say that we’ve undergone this mining boom in WA so you’ve got workers who haven’t had the safety brainwashing that other parts of the workforce may have had over the last 10 years.  Part of it reflects that and part of it may be that people get pressed to do things quicker.” [my emphasis]

It seems odd to compare the safety performance of an open-cut Australian iron ore mine with “Chinese underground coalmining”.  Similarly describing safety education and training as “safety brainwashing” is unusual.  SafetyAtWorkBlog has contacted the Royal Bank of Scotland for clarification of Warren Edney’s comments.

The AFR has almost been leading the Australian media pack on reporting of safety management in 2009,  partly due to the OHS harmonisation regulatory program and its impact on business costs.  This may also be due to some of the concerns about increased union activity on worksites under the new industrial relations legislation.  The AFR should be congratulated for discussing the OHS context of BHP’s iron ore production figures and providing a front page prominence.

Kevin Jones

The myth of the three-hour sleep Reply

The Australian media has widely reported that Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, exists on three-hours sleep per night.  He doesn’t and Professor Drew Dawson, a prominent Australian sleep researcher, discusses the exaggeration of high-flying professionals in an article at Crikey.com on 21 July 2009.

More research of  Professor Drew Dawson, Director, Centre for Sleep Research, University of South Australia, is available online.

Driving and talking 1

The issue of driving while using a mobile is a perennial issue for the media but nothing much changes.  The New York Times on 20 July 2009 carried an article on the latest research which confirms  many previous studies that using a mobile phone while driving increases the risk of an accident.

Pages from 6i17 rawNo US State has banned the practice because social use of mobile phones has become so widespread that any ban is impossible to enforce effectively.

In January 2009, SafetyAtWorkBlog reported on the recommendations from WorkSafe Victoria on the matter.  Even in their guide they would say nothing more than

“recommend that hands free calls be kept to a minimum”.

At some point for most workplace hazards, the evidence outweighs the enforcement difficulties and bans ensue.  It has happened to asbestos, it has happened with smoking, but these are decades after dancing around the most effective control measure – elimination.

Pages from 6i02 v4The industrialised world, in particular, has been wrestling with the hazard of phones and driving for well over a decade.  One report from 2002 said

“Tests carried out by scientists at the Transport Research Laboratory established that driving behaviour is impaired more by using a mobile phone than by being over the legal alcohol limit.”

The footnote to this comment said

“Previous research has shown that phone conversations while driving impair performance. It was difficult to quantify the risk of this impairment because the reference was usually made to normal driving without using a phone. “Worse than normal driving” does not necessarily mean dangerous. There was a need therefore to benchmark driving performance while using a mobile phone to a clearly dangerous level of performance. Driving with a blood alcohol level over the legal limit is an established danger.”

There are always conditions set with research findings but these are sensible and valid.

Pages from 3i13According to a 2004 report by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported by UPI (unable to find a link)

“…estimated 8 percent of all motorists — about 1.2 million drivers — were using cell phones at any given time while driving, up from 6 percent in 2002 and 4 percent in 2000. About 800,000 of those drivers used handsets and not hands-free devices.

  • Handheld cell phone use increased from 5 percent to 8 percent among drivers aged 15 to 24 between 2002 and 2004.
  • Use of cellular-phone handsets increased from 4 percent to 6 percent of female drivers, while the number of men talking on handheld cell phones while driving remained constant at 4 percent.
  • Motorists were more likely to use a cell phone while driving alone, but drivers with children in the vehicle were just as likely to use the phone as those without children in the car.”

For those readers who like dollar figures, the same UPI article stated

“A 2002 study by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of Harvard University’s School of Public Health, found drivers using cell phones caused 1.5 million accidents annually resulting in 2,600 deaths and 570,000 injuries.

Researchers estimated banning cell phone use in vehicles would cost $43 billion a year in lost economic activity.”

Pages from 2003-119[The only HCRA report on the website is is a 2003 study - Cohen, J.T. and Graham, J.D. A revised economic analysis of restrictions on the use of cell phones while driving. Risk Analysis. 2003; 23(1):5-17.]

A September 2003 report from NIOSH lists a range of driver hazards related to work activities and is worth downloading.  Pages 51-555 deal specifically with phone use.

(If any reader knows of a literature review on this topic, please contact SafetyAtWorkBlog)

This workplace hazard has been around for so long that in the opinion of SafetyAtWorkBlog, when someone is driving a work vehicle 100% of their attention should be on the principal task at hand – driving.

Achieving this realistic aim can be helped by

  • not passing on mobile phone numbers when one knows the person is driving.  The low tech alternative of taking a message works.
  • having employees turn off the phone while driving. (The phone does have an OFF switch)
  • not fitting workplace vehicles with hands-free units.
  • reminding employees of the safe driving policies of the business; and
  • enforcing those policies so that employees know that dangerous acts will not be tolerated or compensated by the company.

Above all, employees must be informed of the risks involved with distraction, must be reassured that employers will support safe actions, and must realise the affect on other drivers and their families from their own mistakes.

Kevin Jones

Aspirational targets are next to useless put politically expedient 1

Further to the recent blog article on New South Wales WorkCover statistics,  SafetyAtWorkBlog has been provided with a copy of the official Comparative Performance Monitoring (CPM) report that was released in August 2008.  These figures are used to measure performance against the National OHS Strategy 2002-2012.

SafeWorkAustralia has told SafetyAtWorkBlog that the next edition is due in October 2009 (just in time for Safe Work Australia Week – what a coincidence!) after it has been discussed at the next scheduled Workplace Relations Ministers Council amongst other meetings.

Most organisations, including political ones, have key performance indicators for managers and the companies themselves, to measure the likelihood of meeting the target.  This may involve additional remuneration, awards or any other type of recognition.  If the target is not reached, there are repercussions – loss of potential bonus, loss of job….

The National OHS Strategy has no reward for achievement other than a warm, fuzzy feeling.  Nor does it have any penalty except the same warm, fuzzy feeling with perhaps a few less degrees of warmth or duration.

According to the media release from the then-National OHS Council in May 2002, the “indicators of success” are

  • “Workplace parties recognise and incorporate OHS as an integral part of their normal business operations
  • Increased OHS knowledge and skills in workplaces and the community
  • Governments develop and implement more effective OHS interventions
  • Research, data and evaluations provide better, timelier information for effective prevention”

The release also said

“There are five initial national priority areas for action to achieve short-term and longer-term improvements…. The priorities are:

  • reduce high incidence/severity risks;
  • improve the capacity of business operators and workers to manage OHS effectively;
  • prevent occupational disease more effectively;
  • eliminate hazards at the design stage;
  • strengthen the capacity of government to influence OHS outcomes”

These are classic “aspirational targets” that have no penalties for failure.  The targets themselves were discussed in the previous blog article.

According to the 2008 CPM report summary

“The reduction in the incidence rate of injury and musculoskeletal claims between the base period (2000–01 to 2002–03) and 2006–07 was 16%, which means the interim target of a 20% reduction by 2006–07 has not been met.  It is also below the rate of improvement needed to meet the long term target of a 40% improvement by 2012.  The rate of decline in the incidence of claims will need to accelerate in future years if the target is to be achieved.  Four jurisdictions however, met the interim target of improvement: NSW with 29% improvement, the Australian Government with 27% improvement and South Australia and Seacare each recorded 24% improvement.  Although these four jurisdictions recorded improvements higher than the 20% required, considerable efforts will be required by all jurisdictions if the national target is to be met.

The number of fatalities recorded for 2006–07 is lower than in previous years, increasing the percentage improvement from the base period.  The incidence of compensated fatalities from injury and musculoskeletal disorders decreased by 16% from the base period to 2006–07, thus the interim target of a 10% reduction by 2006–07 has been surpassed.  The national incidence rate is still ‘on target’ to meet the 20% reduction required by 2011–12, however there is a considerable amount of volatility in this measure and consistent improvement is required.

The National OHS Strategy also includes an aspirational target for Australia to have the lowest work-related traumatic fatality rate in the world by 2009.  Analysis of international data indicates that in 2006–07, Australia recorded the sixth lowest injury fatality rate, with this rate decreasing more quickly than many of the best performing countries in the world.  However, despite this improvement, it is unlikely that Australia will meet the aspirational goal unless substantial improvements are recorded in the next few years.”

The federal government can react in several ways if the signatories to the strategy fail to meet the target in 2012:

  • Blame the previous government who was in power at the time of the strategy;
  • the large number of parties to the strategy made it impossible to coordinate;
  • The political climate has changed so much  that the targets reflected unreasonable expectations; or
  • The economic climate has changed so much that the targets reflected unreasonable expectations.

Unless all the parties renew their efforts (and their budgets) in order to reach the targets in 2012, from 2009, which is highly unlikely, 2012 is going to have an OHS “elephant in the room” and it will have been white.

Kevin Jones

An OHS look at the Fair Work book 2

On 9 July 2009 I wrote in SafetyAtWorkBlog

“The  Fair Work Act has no relevance to occupational health and safety, so why mention this on SafetyAtWorkBlog?”

The Fair Work Act changes the negotiating and consultative structure of Australian workplaces stemming from changes in industrial relations law.

Fair Work Book cover 002A book that came across my desk this morning suggests several other overlaps of OHS and IR in the new regime.  Federation Press sent a copy of  “Fair Work – The New Workplace Laws and the Work Choices Legacy“, a book edited by Anthony Forsyth and Andrew Stewart.

In Andrew Stewart’s chapter he talks of how the New South Wales Industrial Relations Commission made several extreme rulings on the application of State OHS laws to federal employees.  He states that the government of Kevin Rudd has progressed OHS legislative reforms considerably by the government has “not indicated any interest in taking over the field itself”.  The reticence has seemed strange and I was one of those who tipped a greater role for Comcare as a  body for national OHS oversight.

Stewart has interpreted the government’s suspension of Comcare licences for national workers compensation coverage as  illustrating the government’s interest lies

“in streamlining workers compensation for multi-State employers, rather than imposing a national regime”.

Ron McCallum is an Australia labour academic who always demands attention. Stewart includes a particularly salient reference

“Ron McCallum, for example, has argued that labour laws that are centred around corporations are unlikely to retain a ‘wholesome’ balance between employers and employees.  Ultimately, he suggests, such laws are likely to become ‘little more that a sub-set of corporations law because inevitably they will fasten upon the economic needs of corporations and their employees will be viewed as but one aspect of the productive process in our globalized economy.”

The path to fairness is likely to continue to be rocky even during the terms of a government that originated from the labour movement.

NES

Jill Murray and Rosemary Owens write a chapter focusing on the Safety Net, a set of legislated minimum standards – National Employment Standards (NES).  These standards are not “lines in the sand” and have purposely been given inherently flexibility.  One of the issues discussed by Murray & Owens is maximum working hours.

This is particularly important to those of us who are trying to manage the issues of fatigue and impairment in workplaces.  The authors state that it remains between the employer and employee to determine what hours, additional to the 38-hour working week, are “reasonable”.  Some of the relevant safety factors in determining reasonableness are listed as

  • “Occupational health and safety risks”
  • “Personal circumstances, including family responsibilities”, as well as
  • “Needs of the workplace or enterprise” and
  • “any other relevant matter.”

Murray & Owens say that to determine reasonableness is almost impossible to negotiate between individuals because there is no priority allocated to each of the eleven criteria.    The authors say

“… this kind of conflict is exactly what the provision must confront: a business might have urgent demands on production, yet an individual worker has to get home to cook tea for the family.”

Murray & Owens go on

“By placing the potential to expand working hours in the hands of the parties at the workplace, the NES, like WorkChoices, really mean that whoever holds the greater power (and, perhaps, knowledge of their rights) is likley to prevail, notwithstanding any calculation of reasonableness.”

Here is the opportunity for the union movement to generate additional members and in an industrial relations climate that allows fro greater access to employees.  It is rare to find any individual who understands their own employment rights sufficiently to negotiate by and for themselves.  The union movement could again become the “Friend of the Workers” by actually being the friend of workers and doing some solid footwork.

The Fair Work book is far more than this short article indicates.  I only received the book this morning but am promising myself that I will read the rest.

As safety management broadens itself to cover psychosocial risks, it increasingly overlaps industrial relations, a workplace element that, with luck and a bit of work, could have been avoided by OHS professionals in the past.  That is no longer the case and OHS professionals must understand how industrial relations changes will affect their own workplace and how they do their jobs.  The Fair Work book is a great place to start.

Kevin Jones

“Union safety”? 2

Reading an article about CFMEU organiser, Joe McDonald, today illustrates an important differentiation to be kept in mind.  A unionist’s benchmark for safety compliance may differ from that of the employer, regardless of the fact that the employer has the major legislative obligation to establish a “safe and healthy work environment”.

Joe McDonald pledges to keep his members safe.  A spokesperson for the construction company said

“…there were some safety issues at the site but said they were being addressed when the union walked out.”

How does walking away from OHS consultation improve safety?

The cause of the confusion on “safety” comes from the weakening of prescriptive legislation and codes to accommodate operating costs, and in the increase of the  “reasonably practicable”  test.

The union movement in New South Wales had the most extreme level of OHS regulation in Australia.  It was hated by the business sector and has been weakened by the government as a result of federal pressures and aims but, the fact that New South Wales has achieved a 2% reduction in the injury incident rate, may add weight to the unions’ desire to retain the legislation.

There is a fundamental dichotomy of regulatory and operational approaches in OHS management in Australia currently that the harmonised OHS system may only exacerbate.  It is now up to the Safe Work Australia boffins to keep an open mind in harmonisation negotiations but to also remained focused on the aim of any OHS legislation which is to keep people safe.

Kevin Jones

Statistics traps and a soft “warning” 1

In the Sydney Morning Herald on 17 July 2009, Kirsty Needham reported

“Total injuries rose by 2339 (2 per cent) to 142,542″

The media release from the Minister, Joe Tripodi  on 15 July pointed out that the injury rate actually fell by 2%.  An important point for the article and an error that has already been pointed out to Kirsty by others in New South Wales.  Sadly, the error is understandable to those of us who dip into the statistical reports. (SafetyAtWorkBlog reported on the NSW stats previously)

However, this should not be case.  Statistics should be supported by clear analyses that allow the layperson to understand, particularly, whether their government agencies’ efforts are providing  positive results.

Business “warning”

The alert to New South Wales businesses Kirsty refers to is the regular WorkCover News sent out to businesses in hard copy but also available for download.

Below is an excerpt from the article “Safety matters in hard times

“Many businesses in NSW and across the country are feeling the effect of the global financial crisis. Some employers are cutting costs and workers want to know what that means for them. For the good of your pocket as well as your people, it’s important you uphold safety at work.

Hard times can hit in a number of ways, and nowhere is this more evident than in the workplace. Some businesses might cut their stationery budget; some might put projects or recruitment plans on hold; others might consider a complete restructure. These decisions can affect more than the bottom line.

One thing to consider is the health and safety of your workers. Pressure and change can cause stress and anxiety. If your workers are distracted they may make mistakes or put themselves at risk. If your workers feel insecure, they may not tell you about new hazards. If you take on jobs you don’t have the capacity to deliver, your equipment and people may not cope. Any of these factors could take a human toll.”

As the newsletter is one of the few that Australian OHS regulators publish in hard copy nowadays it is worth registering for.  For non-Australian readers, the site is worth bookmarking if overseas.

Kevin Jones