New safety campaign – making the invisible visible 4

hi res moving cement vwaThe last week of October each year is Safe Work Australia Week.  This theme is enacted in each State with their own resources and events.  WorkSafe Victoria is one of the more active of the state regulators and 2009 seems no different.

On 13 September 2009, WorkSafe Victoria will launch a new campaign of graphic advertisements but what makes these different is the injuries result from “simple” work activities.  They are not in high-risk industries where workers may perform high-risk tasks.  These ads concern the (mis)use of an office chair, lifting a bag from a pallet, not using the stairs, slipping on a wet floor and lifting a person.

hi res office chair vwaThere has always been the challenge of how to generate interest in manual handling injuries as they are internal or invisible, and cumulative.  WorkSafe has done well by illustrating the physical consequences of what many dismiss as “taking a fall”.  In fact, the images that are less confronting than the noise of the bones breaking or the hernia appearing.

WorkSafe’s Executive Director, John Merritt, describes the campaign this way

“There’s no ‘blood on the floor’ or spectacular images on the nightly TV news or in the morning paper, yet the consequences of these injuries are enormous for individuals, their loved ones and their employers.

“For business, the average cost of treating these people through Victoria’s workers compensation system averages $45,000 per claim.

“Individuals lose quality of life and many, the capacity to work for at least a short period, some require surgery or have permanent pain and never fully recover.

“For employers productivity is cut, there may be staff replacement costs, retraining and safety improvements to be made after the event. Industries lose people permanently.

“Identifying and preventing these issues has benefits for all.”

Merritt also provides the statistic that  60% of all reported workplace injuries* – more than 17,000 a year in Victoria – involve manual handling.

The new campaign is graphic but it is hard to see how the total costs – social, personal and business – could have been described better.  Having a worker clutch their lower back and grimace with pain has been seen in campaigns and images repeatedly for decades and a new approach was needed.  Making the invisible visible should help.

Kevin Jones

* Based on Victorian Workers compensation claims where people are off work 10 days or more and / or medical treatment costs in excess of $520.

Injuries cost business 6% of their profit 7

At The Safety Conference in Sydney in October 2009, Dr Ian Woods, a senior research analyst for AMP Capital Investors, will advise Australian employers that the cost of workplace injuries on their businesses could be around 6% of their profit.

According to a media release in support of the conference

Dr Woods signals three occupational health and safety costs of concern to investors: workers’ compensation premiums, indirect costs, and the costs of alleviating workplace incidents.

“The indirect and unbillable costs associated with workplace injuries are like an iceberg,” he says.  “They represent a huge percentage of the total cost that’s impossible to assess until you run into trouble.”

“The disruption to production caused by workplace injuries cost Australian businesses an estimated $490 million in 2000-01.  The extra administration cost another $360 million.  Incidents can also trigger loss of goodwill, strikes, recruitment issues and dozens of other immeasurable costs.  The United Kingdom’s Health and Safety Executive indicated that the cost of uninsured losses is 10 times the business cost of insurance premiums paid for the same period.

“An injury with $1,000 in direct claims costs will also bring about $5,000 of indirect costs.  Assuming a 5% profit margin, that equates to $100,000 of turnover.  This simple return on investment (ROI) illustrates how valuable preventive measures are to financial bottom lines.

“Still, there is more to investing than just the economic case for improving OH&S performance.  As well as the economic costs, inequality of benefits, costs and suffering are key issues.”

Some of the concepts sound familiar.  Around the turn of the century there was increasing interest in corporate social responsibility and ethical investments and OHS was mentioned regularly as a corporate element that investors would seriously consider.

A good example of the feeling at the time can be seen in a 2002 interview for SafetyAtWork magazine, Paul Gilding of ECOS Corporation* talked about workplace safety.  He was asked about linking workplace safety with sustainable business.

Pages from Safe Companies Ecos Corporation March 2002 coverPG: This is a real fascination for us.  We first came across workplace safety as a major issue for one of our clients, DuPont, where safety culture is so embedded in their business that you can’t walk into their offices without picking it up.  We realised that, as sustainability experts, we had hardly ever come across that issue.  The people who talk about sustainability also talk about corporate social responsibility, human rights in developing countries, climate change, biotechnology, ethics, every issue you could think of but they very rarely, except in a token way, talk about workplace safety.

We first thought why should this be a sustainability issue and then we thought why wouldn’t it be?  We’re talking about the way corporations behave, the effect they have on society, the effect they have on the community they work in, yet we’re not talking about the fact that they are killing and hurting their own people.  This is a surprising omission when it is so fundamental to sustainability.

This perspective has transformed into the widespread advocacy of “safety culture”.

2i14-3 horstAround 2001 Westpac Banking Corporation was developing an OHS index that measured the share performance of the top 100 companies.  Interest in this has faded over the last ten years to such an extent that it is difficult to locate any reference to it.  However, the Westpac index was discussed at many OHS conferences at that time and gained overseas attention as shown in these comments by the former Director of EU-OSHA, Hans-Horst Konkolewsky to Safety At Work magazine in 2001. [Full interview is available]

Q: One of Australia’s major banks, Westpac, is establishing an OHS index that shows relations between this index, the All Ordinaries share index and a company’s share performance. Have you seen this sort of thing in the European region?

HHK: We haven’t seen it explicitly. This bank has taken the lead. I saw on my way to Australia that there seems to be an F4 investment initiative to assess companies’ performance but more broadly with environmental performance, social performance, child labour issues, but also safety and health.

This is one of the many ways we can improve awareness and create a preventive culture starting through the investment area. In Europe, we have had quite a number of different approaches where companies have issued social statements or accounts where they have informed about their employees’ satisfaction with their work, working conditions, customer satisfaction with servicing, their relationship to the society, activities related to employment problems and so on. There are a number of examples that point in the same direction.

I must say that I believe that this can be a rather strong movement if investors and customers, through their demands and market mechanisms, can improve safety and health.

A capital-idea coverA more detailed report that places OHS strongly within the CSR discipline is a 2002 report, now available through an Australian Government website, called “A capital idea -Realising value from environmental and social performance“.

Dr Wood’s presentation will build on these reports and the work of overseas OHS organisations in trying to provide a cost estimate for workplace injuries.  Let’s hope that there are specifics and that there is enough audience enthusiasm to generate a sustainable interest.

Kevin Jones

* cannot verify that this report is still available online

SafetyAtWorkBlog gets praise for independence Reply

Today, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) released a four-page document criticising the campaigning techniques and statistical foundation of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU).  Nothing unique in that ideological battle, however, what grabbed our attention was that SafetyAtWorkBlog is mentioned specifically.

ACCIBriefing_8Sep2009 coverI contacted the ACCI this morning and thanked them for reading the blog and for describing SafetyAtWorkBlog as a “respected website”.  We’ll accept praise from anyone as our major indicator of success mainly comes from the steady increase in our readership statistics.

The ACCI makes considerable mileage out of a SafetyAtWorkBlog article that discusses the survey results that the ACTU released in support of some of its campaigning for further changes in the national OHS laws that are currently being drafted.

Several comments are useful in relation to the ACCI paper

SafetyAtWorkBlog obtained the survey results by requesting them through the ACTU and being provided them by Essential Media.  We have a policy on any media releases that quote statistics.  If the statistics are not readily available, or at least the relevant OHS parts of survey results, we do not usually report on the issues raised or we make a point of stating that the statistical assertions are not able to be verified.

The ACCI paper echoes many of the points raised in the blog article.  Our main point was to question the wisdom of using statistics as support for a campaign when the statistics do not, necessarily, support the  campaign objectives, or, in the least, may provide alternative interpretations.

The Essential Media report provided to SafetyAtWorkBlog could have been more detailed and the ACCI certainly wants more than we have seen.  Releasing such a paper criticising the ACTU for not sharing research data puts the ACCI in a position now where it cannot deny the public release of its research data, at least, on matters relevant to OHS.  The questions from ACCI have set a precedent for openness and information sharing.

Whether marching in the streets in support of an OHS campaign is effective, or warranted, or not is almost a moot point.  Many of the televisions stations covered the union marches in Australia earlier this week.  The 7.30 Report felt there was enough of a profile raised by the union campaign that it followed up many of the concerns raised with a long article in its show on 8 September 2009.  The media exposure has been able to further raise the profile of OHS as a contentious issue that is being acted upon by government.  It should raise the “seven out of ten” OHS awareness factor, quoted by the ACCI, a few points at least.

Given the criticism of the ACTU, one could genuinely ask, how the ACCI is increasing awareness of OHS matters in the community as well as its membership?  It is not expected out in the streets but the occasional media release or four-page rebuttal does not have the same affect as a march of hundreds of people on the television.

In all of this to-ing and fro-ing, SafetyAtWorkBlog takes pride in its independence and as a forum for expressing views on a social and industrial issue that has only ever before been discussed by political ideologues from fixed perspectives.

Perhaps safety professionals could apply the wisdom of Oscar Wilde to safety

“The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

It seems to me that OHS has not been talked about for far too long.

Kevin Jones

Television report on the status of Australia’s OHS law negotiations 1

The 7.30 Report on September 8 2009 broadcast a fairly long story on the current status of the negotiations on Australia’s new OHS laws.  They interviewed the major players and took good advantage of the recent union street protests.  The video and transcript are available online.

Kevin Jones

Lawyers identify contentious OHS law elements Reply

The Safety Conference scheduled for Sydney at the end of October 2009 has finally got an OHS issue that is contentious and is also a work in progress.  The unions are starting to make noise on the OHS laws.  The employer groups are manoeuvring cautiously.  The safety professionals are largely silent (again) but the lawyers – the group with perhaps the most to gain from the new harmonised OHS laws – are set to analyse and debate.

A media statement from the conference promoters was distributed on September 8 2009 and, very differently from most media releases, is informative without being pushy.  Below is the body of that statement:

Three issues are set to dominate discussion: the burden of proof, the personal liability of company officers, and the impact on prosecutions. Neil Foster, senior law lecturer from the University of Newcastle, believes personal liability is at the heart of the changes.

“The harmonisation process seems to have been driven by directors’ fears of personal liability and the hope that there would be some watering down of the laws,” he says.  “In my view, the Model Act inappropriately waters down the personal responsibility of company officers, although I do support some of the proposed changes in this area, including the acknowledgement that the officer has obligations to exercise due diligence to protect the workers. But with the change to the current onus of proof provisions, it is quite possible that guilty people will now escape justice.”

Michael Tooma of Deacons law firm, who will moderate The Safety Conference’s harmonisation panel discussion, says that while current state laws differ in their approach to the approach to personal liability of officers, all will be reshaped by the proposed Model Act.

“Despite the range of liabilities, all have one thing in common: the officer will be personally liable only if their company commits an offence,” Mr Tooma says. “The new regime does not require this.”

“Under the approved recommendations for the new OHS laws, officers will be liable if they fail to exercise due diligence. That is, the duty has been recast as a positive obligation on officers to proactively ensure compliance with OHS laws rather than an attributed liability in the event of a breach by the company. This is a landmark shift in approach which will have a significant impact on OHS enforcement and compliance.”

The definition of “due diligence” may also be contentious.

“The Workplace Relations Ministers’ Council (WRMC) did not approve the recommendation for a definition of due diligence,” Mr Tooma says. “The Committee had recommended that due diligence be defined in line with existing case law on its meaning, drawn largely from NSW where the term has been in use for almost 30 years.”

“Instead, WRMC preferred to rely on the Courts to interpret due diligence. Practically, that means that the true harmonisation of the scope of the personal liability of officers may have some way to go as each State Court and Territory Court attempts to interpret due diligence in the context of the case before it until a case is brought to the High Court so that an authoritative determination of that term is made which is binding on all state and territory Courts.”

Michael Selinger of Holding Redlich Lawyers points out that company officers found guilty will face increased penalties, rising from the from the current maximum in NSW of two years in prison or fines of $55,000 to fines of up to $600,000 for an individual and five years in prison.

New South Wales employers, however, may enjoy some relief as the burden of proof shifts to prosecutors.

“The new Model Act will have a more significant impact on New South Wales employers than those in any other states because the Model Act is largely based on the Victorian and Queensland Acts,” says Mr Selinger.

“For New South Wales, the onus of proof will move away from the employer as a result of the inclusion of the qualifier of ‘reasonably practicable’ in the general duty to ensure safety under the Act. When it comes to proving liability, the prosecutor will now need to show the employer has not taken all reasonable steps to prevent injury.

“In 95 per cent of cases, shifting the burden of proof to the prosecutor won’t affect the outcome. This is because when an injury occurs, employers examine the workplace to see what actions need to be taken to prevent a recurrence – by doing that, they show that there were reasonable steps that could have been taken, which makes it easier for the prosecution to prove liability. To some extent, there’s always been this tension between trying to improve the safety system and protecting your legal position.”

“The legislation in NSW has historically been enforced more vigorously than in other jurisdictions but most OH&S regulators only initiate a prosecution if it is in the public interest and they have a good prospect of success. Under the new Act, there’s likely to be more of an emphasis on education and cooperation between the regulator and business. We won’t really know the answer to whether there’s likely to be fewer prosecutions until the new Act is implemented – at the end of the day, how it is enforced will be the key factor. The regulator will still have plenty of enforcement tools and there is likely to be a uniform enforcement policy applied across the country.”

On the other hand, Neil Foster believes the onus of proof belongs with employers.

“The Model Act has been legitimately described as ‘a race to the bottom’,” Mr Foster says. “The onus of proof should be placed on employers because they have the greatest control over safety: how hard people work; safety procedures; how money is spent; and safety policies. There is still a lot of carelessness in workplaces and WorkCover sensibly doesn’t launch prosecutions unless there’s a good chance the employer is guilty and hasn’t taken reasonable precautions. I think the NSW safety system has been working well.”

Scarlet Reid, special counsel for Henry Davis York says the impact of reversing the onus of proof is uncertain.

“From a practical perspective, this could make convictions more difficult to obtain in New South Wales,” she says.  “In the absence of any changes that stipulate which courts hear prosecutions at first instance, it remains to be seen if this is in fact the case. It is questionable as to whether real uniformity can be achieved without examining this important issue.”

Ms Reid says employers were likely to benefit from other changes under the proposed Model Act.

“Defendants in NSW and Queensland should benefit from the proposed expanded appeal rights,” she says. “Defendants in NSW may also find comfort in the proposal to abolish the prosecutor’s right to appeal against an acquittal.”

If employers are winners under the changes, unions, who will lose the right to launch prosecutions, protest vigorously against the proposed Model Act, claiming it would be detrimental to safety. Neil Foster agrees.

“The changes to be brought in under the harmonisation process send a message from government to employers: safety’s been too tough and that we’re not so worried about it anymore. It’s very sad.”

Kevin Jones

Business drops opposition to Australia’s new OHS laws Reply

A story on the front cover the Australian Financial Review on 8 September 2009 lists the “wins” of the union movement in its negotiations on new national OHS law.  But it is the last couple 0f paragraphs on page 8 that are most surprising.  The article says

“The coalition dropped its previous opposition to the SafeWork Australia bill, allowing it to pass in its original form, limiting the number of unions and employer representatives on the body to two each and giving Ms Gillard [the Workplace Relations Minister] a veto on the appointment of these representatives.”

This seems to be a considerable backtrack on the strong opposition and media statements coming from employer groups over the last 12 months.  One wonders what trade-off the industry associations have managed to obtain.

The changes reported are not very radical for those familiar with the Victorian OHS laws – leave for OHS training and greater protections for union members.  But the union movement has (yet) to get a reverse onus of proof or rights to prosecute.

The media release from the IR Minister crows about the Conservatives’ backdown and says little else other than marking the passing of the legislation.  Ultimately the biggest benefit of this legislation is clarifying the status of Safe Work Australia.

UPDATE: ACCI media statement

The Australian Chamber of Commerce & Industry has released a conciliatory media statement making no reference to its previously strident opposition.  The only semi-interesting content (other than the fact of the statement itself) is its reiteration of OHS being a shared responsibility and the need for Safe Work Australia to ensure its independence.

“The message that working safely requires everyone to take their responsibilities seriously now has a better chance of becoming a co-ordinated national message, with parallels to the mutual responsibility message that features in road safety awareness and safe driving campaigns.”

Kevin Jones

Finger injury causes hefty new safety agenda for John Holland Rail 3

Comcare has instigated a hefty list of enforceable undertakings (EU) against John Holland Rail (JHR) after a contractor, Jack Wilmot, needed a finger amputated after a workplace injury.

According to the report on the Comcare website

“…an apprentice boilermaker was involved in an incident which resulted in crush injuries to his left index finger at a JHR facility located at Kewdale, Western Australia.”

Cover John_Holland_enforceable_undertaking_legal_documentComcare’s investigation report

“found that JHR failed to ensure the apprentice, had received adequate training, supervision and instructions in the task he was undertaking when injured.”

Stephen Sasse, Director of John Holland Rail, signed off on the enforceable undertaking at the end of August 2009.

Below are some of the mandatory safety improvements

  • maintain the new supervisory structure implemented at the Kewdale facility shortly after the incident
  • implement and adapt the safer systems of work across JHR workplaces within two months of signing the EU
  • conduct a risk assessment of all major activities undertaken by JHR to determine and identify those which should be classified as ‘high risk activities’ (HRAs) within six months of signing the EU
  • eliminate where reasonably practicable to do so, all HRAs and otherwise apply appropriate control measures to the balance of the HRAs, within six months of signing the EU
  • provide training regarding safer systems of work to all JHR employees who undertake rail plant maintenance activities as part of their duties within eight months of signing the EU
  • commence implementation of the Rail Safety Business Plan 2009 at all JHR workplaces by 31 September 2009 including commencing work on each of the 28 strategic initiatives within the stated timeframes.

Some of these tasks would be impossible to undertake from scratch.  A response from John Holland Rail and/or John Holland Group is being sought.

Enforceable undertakings are a feature of financial and OHS legal processes.  In Queensland and Victoria an EU is

“… a legal agreement in which a person or organisation undertakes to carry out specific activities to improve worker health and safety and deliver benefits to industry and the broader community.”

John Holland Group has been proud of its OHS record for many years and has had the benefit of Janet Holmes a Court as a safety champion within and outside the company.  Holmes a Court spoke of her commitment to safety at the 2009 Safety In Action Conference which was hosted by the Safety Institute of Australia (SIA) of which John Holland is a Diamond Corporate Partner ($A25,000 minimum donation).

Only last week the SIA, proudly announced a Diamond Corporate Partnership with John Holland Group which commits the company to, amongst other commitments,

  • “Act and work responsibly and competently at all times to improve health and safety in workplaces and ensure they do no harm.
  • Give priority to the health, safety and welfare of employees, employers and other workplace health and safety stakeholders in accordance with accepted standards of moral and legal behaviour during the performance of their duties.
  • Ensure the health, safety and welfare of employees, employers and other workplace health and safety stakeholders takes precedence over the professional member’s responsibility to sectional or private interests.
  • Ensure work by people under their direction is competently performed and honestly and reliably reported.
  • Ensure they do not engage in any illegal or improper practices.”

It is suggested that for next year’s Safety In Action Conference, the SIA asks a JHG representative to discuss the above enforceable undertakings as a case study of inadequate safety management and the related organisational and financial costs.

Kevin Jones

[Note: Kevin Jones was involved in the promotion of Safety In Action 2009]

NZ proposes new exposure levels on formaldehyde Reply

The New Zealand of Department of Labour is continuing its negotiations on new exposure levels for formaldehyde.

The latest proposed exposure levels for formaldehyde are 0.3 ppm (8 hour TWA) and 0.6 ppm (STEL).  Currently the levels in New Zealand are 1ppm (ceiling).

According to US OSHA, it’s exposure standard is

1910.1048(c)(1)

TWA: The employer shall assure that no employee is exposed to an airborne concentration of formaldehyde which exceeds 0.75 parts formaldehyde per million parts of air (0.75 ppm) as an 8-hour TWA.

1910.1048(c)(2)

Short Term Exposure Limit (STEL): The employer shall assure that no employee is exposed to an airborne concentration of formaldehyde which exceeds two parts formaldehyde per million parts of air (2 ppm) as a 15-minute STEL.

WorkSafe BC says

BC‘s current 8-hour TWA of 0.3 ppm is well below levels capable of causing adverse health effects and protects the worker from the pungent, unpleasant odour of formaldehyde.

NZ DoL is also discussing dropping there exposure levels for soft wood dust from 5mg/m3 to 1mg/m3.

The cancer risks of formaldehyde have been investigated over some time and the weight of evidence shows that this chemical is a probable human carcinogen.

Kevin Jones

Fatigue, impairment and industrial relations 1

Many of the employees in the health sector in Australia have recently been negotiating new employment conditions.  It is rare for the workplace hazards of fatigue and impairment to be given such prominence in industrial relations negotiations.

A major cause of fatigue is the lack of adequate resources for relieving staff.  This issue has been identified for doctors, ambulance officers and firefighters over the last 12 months.

Many important OHS issues are identified in a recent ABC Radio interview with Dr David Fraenkel, the Treasurer of Salaried Doctors Queensland (SDQ).  Dr Fraenkel mentions the following issues, amongst others:

  • Queensland Health‘s duty of care to the public
  • Queensland Health’s duty of care to its employees
  • “wrong site surgery” due to judgement impaired by fatigue

Dr Fraenkel also shows the institutional pressures on individual doctors to not discuss the implications of fatigue.  He mentions that there is a code of conduct that impedes the discussion of issues by health care professionals.

He admits that should a young doctor leave their station to relieve their fatigue they would most likely be “called to account” for their action and their career may be jeopardised for what OHS professionals would admit is an individual taking responsibility for looking after their own safety and health.

Salaried Doctors Queensland has established a website in support of its campaign which includes some factsheets.    The print media also picked up on the SDQ media statements.

Kevin Jones

Wriedt provides context of her depression Reply

Former Tasmanian MP, Paul Wriedt, has provided an Australian Sunday newspaper with a long article that provides the context for her suicide attempt, depression and career implosion.  The full article is well worth reading and shows the combination of factors that led to her suicide attempt.

Excessive workload is mentioned several times and, although it is only one of the confluence of factors, the workloads and working hours of politicians remain untreated elements of the health and wellbeing of important social p0licy decision-makers.

If, as many safety advocates profess, safety is led from the top, politicians are doing the safety profession a disservice by not structuring their work environments and schedules to ensure a healthy workplace.

One point is not mentioned in the article.  Paula Wriedt is a spokesperson for beyondblue, the most prominent depression-related organisation in Australian.  In fact Ms Wriedt is one of the organisation’s recent “ambassadors”.

Beyondblue has advised SafetyAtWorkBlog that the Sunday Herald-Sun article was Ms Wriedt’s own work and that beyondblue was not aware of the article before publication.

The beyondblue spokesperson said that the organisation is expanding its pool of ambassadors which should be of particular interest to those working in the workplace health sector.  Ambassadors operate on a volunteer basis and may be eligible for the reimbursement of costs in specific circumstances.

[Hm, voluntary ambassadors lobbying on behalf of a health issue on a voluntary basis.  Perhaps the safety profession could offer a similar “outreach program”]

Ms Wriedt was not obliged to mention beyondblue in the article and it is clear that she sees public discussion on depression issues to be one of her own career goals, but it would have been appropriate to mention her relationship, particularly as she is a beyondblue ambassador.

Kevin Jones