Buenos Aires Nightclub fire – Update Reply

According to a Reuters report available on-line on 20 August 2009:

“The former manager of a Buenos Aires nightclub has been sentenced to 20 years in jail over a fire that killed 194 people, the deadliest blaze in Argentine history.

The court’s decision at the end of a year-long trial was met with spontaneous outbursts of violence among relatives of the victims, with police using water cannons to disperse rioters.”

One of the most popular blog articles at SafetyAtWorkBlog over the last month – the Santika fire article – provides a useful contrast to the Buenos Aires prosecution and some practical risk control measures.

Kevin Jones

Why OHS performance targets don’t equal safe workplaces Reply

On 19 August 2009, the Australian Financial Review (AFR) published an article (not available online) about the lack of success of OHS regulators meeting their agreed performance target.  The article is based on the information provided by Safe Work Australia in its 2006-07 progress report.

Below is a chart that WorkSafe’s John Merritt showed at a recent OHS seminar which clearly shows how far the State of Victoria has to go to reach the 2012 target, and it is one of the better performing States.

vic_ohs_johnmerritt_leadership_080804 graph

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has placed its hope for improvement in the upcoming harmonised OHS laws.  Jeff Lawrence is quoted in the small AFR article from the ACTU media release:

“Australia has a long way to go before success can be claimed on achieving national targets for workplace death, injury and disease,” Mr Lawrence said.  “With proposed uniform national occupational health and safety laws, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to lift protections for workers by achieving the world’s best safety standards for the entire country.”

Jeff Lawrence and the ACTU need to remember that harmonised OHS model laws have never been about improving workplace safety.  They are about setting the legal framework within which employers and employees improve safety in their workplaces.  Safety improvement comes from the management of risk and hazards, not whether it is easier for a union to get onsite or for a company to be more easily prosecuted or for fines to be set at record amounts.

(In fact until recently, Australian lawyers and some OHS lawyers acknowledge that fines do not work for anything other than punishment.  Other legal penalty options have been promoted for some time but these seem to have been ejected from the proposed National OHS law.)

The ACTU, and the employer groups, need to start assisting companies to reduce hazards,  not only the sites or industry sectors of their own members.  Unions are often keen on pushing corporate social responsibility but do not promote safety outside their member organisations.  So where is their own corporate social responsibility?

The principal motivator of the union movement in Australia has always been industrial relations, of which OHS is of occasional relevance.  Though it is acknowledged that in some specific union sectors, particularly the emergency services and construction, safety has a higher priority than elsewhere.

If the union movement was genuine about improving the lot of Australian workers and of the importance of safety, assisting in the education of business operators, outside their own union sector, to improve safety may show to some workers that being a member of a union may be a good thing.

As has been discussed elsewhere the OHS performance targets of the regulators are purely academic.  Former Prime Minister John Howard introduced the concept of “aspirational targets” to the Australian political lingo and the current OHS targets were set during his government.  Aspirational targets are those that you sort-of try to reach but if you don’t, it doesn’t matter, as there is no penalty.

If the regulators were genuine about reaching this target, the enforcement of OHS would be substantially different and harsher.  The technical assistance for business to improve safety would not rely on the regulators alone or some token business consulting funding.  But the targets have no big “stick”,  the legislation is in a state of uncertainty, the unions have limited influence, and the community’s awareness of workplace safety is up but still only a trickle on their decision-making radar.

The targets also have no “carrot” other than a media opportunity to say that one State OHS regulator performed better than another, and that will surely create harmony.

No enforcement + no penalty = no effort.

Kevin Jones

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]

Who is all this OHS harmonisation for? 2

The public comment phase of Australia’s review of its OHS law harmonisation process begins in September 2009.   To a large degree it is at this stage that the stakeholders can start refining their horse-trading.  It will also be interesting to watch as the distraction of the new industrial relations legislation has gone since that law was introduced.

Safe Work Australia is using the traditional limited consultative troika – government, employers and unions, and will need to give public submissions considerable weight to balance interests.

Two of the employer groups have already started setting out some guidelines and expectations.

SafeWork    -0X1.DB7490P+747ustraliaMR_Aug_2009A statement from the CEO of the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA), Mitchell Hooke, was released on 14 August 2009.  The only new element of the media release was

“The MCA has called for the National Mine Safety Framework to form the basis of national minerals-industry specific regulation within the Model OH&S Act.”

One of the aims of the harmonisation movement is to minimise regulations for specific industry sectors.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce & Industry was more expansive in its statement of 5 August 2009.  The ACCI overstates the cost burden of OHS legislation in each State.  The Model OHS Law Review Panel found overwhelming similarities between the legislations but acknowledged that the variations would be difficult to resolve.

ACCIHarmonisation-ACCIPerspective CoverThe following quote from the ACCI statement illustrates the value of the ACCI perspective and also its major shortcoming.

“However, harmonisation of legislation is not of itself the solution to the compliance burden problem, but rather it will be the final content and quality of the model legislation and the approach to its implementation and enforcement that will be the critical determinants as to whether or not productivity gains are in fact realised in practice.”

It is accurate to say that the success of the legislation will be gauged by its implementation and enforcement.  However, the conservative  ideology of the ACCI is on show when it states that the harmonisation is intended to provide productivity gains.  OHS legislation’s first aim should always be to improve the safety and health of the workforce which, in turn, increases productivity.

ACCI and other employer associations too often jump the safety element and go straight to productivity yet it is the safety of employees that is by far the greatest value that employers share with the community and the unions.  Elsewhere in the ACCI statement, the importance of safety is acknowledged but the communication of priorities is muddled.

The ACCI also says “OHS laws should never be used as a vehicle to drive other agendas,” and then goes on to push issues of industrial relations and union behaviour that are not the core focus of the OHS model legislation process.

The ACCI statement closes on a more philosophical approach to OHS.  It talks about “cooperative development”, “safety culture” and  “continued engagements” but its own cooperation can be seen as conditional in the majority of the statement.

There is one statement that all involved in OHS law reform should consider. The ACCI states that practical and easily understood regulation is required.

“This is particularly important for the majority of employers who operate only in one jurisdiction and who will not receive a direct productivity benefit under harmonisation but who will bear the cost of understanding and complying with a new OHS Act and regulations.”

Not much will change for those companies who operate in a single State of Australia.  It is also useful to note that the vast majority of businesses in Australia are small- and micro-businesses  for whom all of this national hoo-ha is almost totally irrelevant.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics said in a webpage that was updated in September 2008 that

“Small businesses comprise the vast majority of Australian businesses. The importance of the small business sector to the Australian economy is recognised by researchers, government and policy makers as well as the business community as a whole. It is acknowledged that the characteristics and business drivers of small business are potentially very different to those of larger businesses and as such require specific, targeted policy initiatives. Central to the development of effective policy initiatives is a sound understanding of the nature and characteristics of this sector of the business economy.”

The employer associations do not represent the largest employment sectors in Australia – small businesses, micro-businesses and home-based businesses.  Nor do the trade unions.  So who exactly are the biggest beneficiaries of this whole OHS harmonisation process?

Kevin Jones

CertIV OHS training in Beijing Reply

Several years ago I met an OHS professional from Singapore, Daniel LO.  Daniel relocated to Australia and has continued his OHS career.  Last month Daniel conducted a Certificate IV OHS course for the Sinopec Corporation.  As China becomes even more important to the world economy, pressure is increasing to show an acceptable commitment ot workplace safety.  We, in the West, have seen this most in China’s coal mining industry and some of its manufacturers, particularly for some global brands.

In talking with Daniel last week, he offered a short article on the training course he instigated and conducted.  Daniel is an asset to Australia and will be one OHS professional to watch.  Here is his contribution:

An OHS Professional Report on Safety Developments in China

Since China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation in December 2001, there has been much pressure from the international community for China to raise its Occupational Health and Safety standards.   The introduction of the Safe Production Law in 2002 and more recently the adoption of the Law on the Prevention and Control of Occupational Diseases in 2008 is the response of a determined government, to ensure that its regulatory framework catches up with the nation’s unprecedented economic growth.

Heeding this call to protect workers’ safety and health by investing in OHS training is state owned enterprise – China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation – one of the largest state-owned major petroleum companies in China, The company has made it to the top ten ranking by Fortune Global 500, is also known as Sinopec Corp, and is listed in the Shanghai, New York and Hong Kong Stock Exchanges.

In July 2009, as an OHS professional with bilingual ability, Daniel Lo personally negotiated, prepared and delivered the first ever CertIV in OHS in Sinopec (Beijing).  This flagship competency-based training and assessment  is also part of Sinopec’s policy of “Safety First, Prevention Foremost, All Involvement and Comprehensive Control," to achieve a better Health Safety and Environment (HSE) performance.  Participants for this training are project managers, safety managers and supervisors from various oil fields in Saudi, Sudan, Ecuador, Yemen, Iran, Nigeria, and China.  The key success of this program has been the training and sharing of occupational safety and health management system in context of China’s language, culture and history.

Daniel LO is presently engaged as a senior OHS consultant by IFAP.  He has an MBA, BSc in Mechanical Engineering, Specialist Diploma in OHS, CertIV in OHS, Diploma in Information Technology, Advanced Certificate in Training and Assessment.  He is also a Certified lead auditor for OHSAS18001.

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

River death leads to OHS prosecution 3

The prosecution of a New Zealand adventure company, Black Sheep Adventures, over the death of Englishwoman Emily Jordan has received more press in England than in Australia but the case should be watched by all OHS professionals.

One report provides a useful summary of the fatal incident

“Emily Jordan drowned while riverboarding on the Kawarau river in New Zealand’s south island in April last year [2008].

The 21-year-old former Alice Ottley School (now RGSAO) pupil was travelling with her boyfriend after graduating from Swansea University with a first class degree in law.

The riverboarding company Black Sheep Adventures Ltd and its director Brad McLeod have been charged with failing to ensure the actions or inaction of employees did not harm Miss Jordan.”

The same article is an illustration of the importance of regular communication with the family of the deceased by the Authorities, even if the parties are on opposite sides of the globe.

The family established The Emily Jordan Foundation and a eulogy about Emily is available which provides a clearer understanding of what was lost in this tragedy.

Black Sheep Adventures have also been charged under the Health and Safety Employment Act 1992, with failing “failure to take all practical steps to ensure the safety of employees and the prevention of possible hazards.”  The company and its director have pleaded not guilty.

The Birmingham Post is continuing to cover the case including the start of the trial due for next week.

Maritime New Zealand who are prosecuting the company instigated a review of the river boarding industry in late 2008.

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

Do health professionals make the best OHS leaders? Reply

David Michaels has been nominated by President Obama as the new Assistant Secretary for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the Department of Labor.  (A brief profile of Michaels is available HERE.)  A posting at a US Workers’ Compensation website links through to a discussion on the potential impacts of the Michaels’ appointment.

There are several telling quotes in the podcast.  Sidney Shapiro, a law professor at Wake Forest University, says that OHS achieves more when run by someone with a health professional background.

“…I think it’s important that we know that David Michaels is a health professional.  And I think OSHA’s done best when it’s had administrators from the public health community.  It is, after all, a public health agency.  More times than many of us would wish, it’s been headed by someone who’s been an adamant critic of OSHA and has come from industry or been an industry lawyer.”

Whether this position can be applied to regulators in other jurisdictions is an interesting question.

The Chair of the UK HSE Board, Judith Hackett,  has a background in petrochemicals.  The CEO of the HSE, Geoffrey Podger, has a background in the civil service, health and food safety.   The chair of the Safe Work Australia Council, Tom Phillips was the former CEO of car manufacturer, Mitsubishi, and has served on a range of industrial company boards in South Australia.  The Chair of WorkSafe BC board, Roslyn Kunin, harks from human resources and the labour market.   Greg Tweedly CEO of WorkSafe Victoria has a background in insurance and compensation.  Nina Lyhne of WorkSafe WA comes from road safety and compensation.

This unrepresentative sample shows a mix of experience and not all from health promotion.  If the list was comprehensive, it would be interesting to see if Shapiro’s comments stack up and to see how many trade union officials have moved to “the top” or will simply remain “on the board”.

The Living on Earth podcast includes the following quote from Michaels from some time ago:

“What polluters have seen is that the strategy that the tobacco industry came up with, which essentially is questioning the science, find the controversy and magnify that controversy, is very successful in slowing down public health protections.  And so the scientists who used to work for the tobacco industry are now working for most major chemical companies.  They don’t have to show a chemical exposure is safe.  All they have to do is show that the other studies are in question somehow.  And by raising that level of uncertainty, they throw essentially a monkey wrench into the system.”

This statement could generate optimism for OSHA’s future but there are many examples of the views of environmentalists changing once they move into the corporate world.  Politicians like Australia’s Minister for the Environment, Peter Garrett, is an obvious recent Australian example.  Harry Butler in the 1970s was roundly criticised for “selling out” to the petrochemical industry.

However, the appointment of David Michaels pans out, it will be an interesting one to watch, particularly if the US Democrats can stay in power for more than Obama’s two terms.

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