Safe Work Australia Week 2009 begins Reply

The last week of October 2009 is Safe Work Australia Week.  The federal OHS authority sets an overall framework for the States’ OHS promotional activities.

A media statement in support of the week, reiterated the statistics –

“More than 260 Australians die as a result of work related injuries and over 135,000 are seriously injured every year.”

Below is a list of the links for each Australian State’s acitivities.


Nice comparison on Directors’ complaints 3

In the Australian Financial Review in October 2009  there was an opinion piece (not available online) from the CEO of the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD), John Colvin, expressing concerns about the accountability of directors under legislation including the proposed OHS laws in Australia.

According to a report by Adam Schwab in the Crikey newsletter of 23 October 2009 (also not freely available online), Colvin wrote in the AFR:

“There are more than 660 state and territory laws which impose personal liability on individual directors for corporate misconduct. That is, a director is liable because he is a director, even when he may not have had any personal involvement in the breach…”

Schwab writes

“The AICD noted, the NSW courts have taken a hard-line enforcing the deemed liability laws.  According to AICD data, between 2004 and 2008, 144 company directors were found guilty of OHS offences, of which 115 of those prosecutions occurred in NSW.”

Schwab then provides a comparison of risk that I wish I’d thought of:

“That means the proportion of directors convicted over these so-called onerous laws is 0.0068%.  To compare, there is roughly a 0.04% chance of someone being struck by lightning.  Therefore, based on the AICD’s own data, company directors are six times more likely to be hit by lightning than to be prosecuted.  It also shouldn’t be forgotten, directors’ liabilities are almost always covered by indemnity insurance and most prosecutions result in a mere financial penalty.

While the NSW OHS laws result in occasional harsh results, to extrapolate one set of allegedly ill-advised laws across the country is much like a cry of wolf.”

This perspective will be an important one to remember when considering the submissions being lodged with Safe Work Australia on the OHS model laws by 9 November 2009.   The corporate submissions particularly but also those from the OHS law firms that spruiker the exposure of company directors ruthlessly whenever OHS and accountability is discussed.

Some of us remember the “glory days” when industrial manslaughter was widely considered in some Australian States. (There is a noticeable absence of controversy of the industrial manslaughter law that is operating in the Australian Capital Territory)

Also important is the point that Schwab makes about indemnity insurance for Directors and Officers, a matter that has been discussed elsewhere in SafetyAtWorkBlog.

The amount of “get-out-jail-free” options available for directors should encourage more attention to alternative, non-financial penalties for breaches of OHS law.  Over the last 24 hours the United States has been talking about replacing executive cash remunerations with stocks so that director’s incomes are reliant on the share price of the corporation which, in turn, relates to the quality of leadership from the director.

As long as Australia’s principle OHS penalties involve money, directors can buy their way out of trouble.  If Australia’s Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, can face an entire country and apologise for the bad behaviour of others, and the bad policies of other governments in relation to the interaction with indigenous peoples, why should company directors not have a similar obligation when their poor management of a workplace kills someone?  If corporate executives are that keen on leadership, let’s see them apply some of the leadership that Rudd showed, and accept responsibility when they should.

Kevin Jones

A consistent approach to developing public policy is required Reply

Australia is a Federation of States.  This does not just mean that each State is a different colour of the schoolroom map.  Each State has its own duties to its citizens from within the overall scheme of running a country.

There has always been a tension between the two levels of government and currently the management of health care facilities is the cause of friction, as reported, for instance, in The Age newspaper on 23 October 2009.   The current tension in this sector illustrates a trend that extends beyond health and into workplace safety legislation, human resources and social policy.

The Victorian Health Minister, Daniel Andrews,  is reported to have said that Canberra’s “health bureaucrats [are] remote and incapable of understanding the day-to-day needs of patients.”

“”You can never take it as a given that decision makers and policy makers at the bureaucratic level in Canberra understand how you deliver care in a bed, in a ward or in a country town, because they don’t do that: it’s not their world.”

This argument echoes some of the concerns being raised over the national harmonisation of OHS laws. In such a large country as Australia there are going to be cultural, demographic and geographical variations that a centralised system cannot service.  The Federal Government is hoping to harmonise workplace safety but it has already taken over industrial relations and is strongly threatening a takeover of health.  Why the inconsistency?

On 22 October 2009 at the HR Leadership Awards ceremony in Melbourne, the CEO of Carnival, Ann Sherry, said that centralised policy makers in Canberra are making important decisions from within a rarified world.  Sherry is a member of a review panel into the Australian Public Service (APS) and she identified several features of the APS, and shortcomings, as the service aims to become “world’s best practice in public administration”.  Amongst them:

  • 42% of public servants are younger than 45 years;
  • a highly educated workforce;
  • senior public service positions are centered in Canberra.

The last characteristic Sherry said has led to a disconnection between service design and delivery, echoing, to some extent, the concerns of Daniel Andrews on health policy.

It seems that there are many reviews and investigations occurring into how various industries and sectors in Australian business and government should be structured for the future, a future that is likely to be very different, climatically, economically and demographically.  But there is not a consistency in approaches, or at least one that is readily understood, even though the Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, talks repeatedly about “nation building“.

The Australian Government has the best chance in a long time to set the country on a path of sustainable growth.  The United States, under President Barack Obama, has a similar opportunity.  Governments have an obligation to plan for the long-term benefit of their countries ands citizens, not the short-term gains of their political donors, political parties and lobbyists.  This obligation  is as relevant in occupational health and safety as it is anywhere.

Kevin Jones

Greens keep fighting ANSTO on nuclear safety Reply

The Australian Greens Senator Ludlam is not resting on his “wins” against the Australian Nuclear Science & Technology Organisation.  On 22 October 2009, Ludlam issued a media statement.  Some quotes are below:

“If ANSTO believes its record is clean, it should make public the incident reports rather than waiting for the issues to be raised in Senate committees,” said Greens spokesperson on nuclear issues, Senator Scott Ludlam.

Good point. If one places this incident in the realm of workplace safety, the incident still would not become public.  OHS authorities usually only make public incident details after prosecution for, probably, sound legal reasons.  On OHS principles, issues that have relevance to other worksites should be communicated and, in some cases and industries, safety alerts are issued, but should a public notice be made of each incident that is reported? Probably not as disinterest and complacency would soon emerge.

“The ANSTO statement confuses the issue by referring to imaginary claims of a ‘spill’ and seeks to downplay an incident by noting, “The quantity of medical isotope in the vial was 1/10 of a teaspoon”.  The quantity of material exposed is irrelevant: as ANSTO well knows, it is the level of radioactivity of a given sample that matters, not how many teaspoons may have been dropped.

Agreed to some extent.  Quantity does not equal risk.

“ANSTO is also aware that there is no safe level of ionising radiation… as confirmed by the National Academies of Science BEIR VII report on “Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation“.

There are umpteen instances of arguments over “safe levels” in OHS and environmental management.  It is likely that the Australian Greens will become more vocal when the determination of “reasonably practicable” becomes more widely applied throughout Australia.  Exposure levels are arguments that cannot be won in the short term and vary considerably as research continues


“ANSTO’s whistleblower policy states that disclosure of threats to the health, safety and welfare of staff, and/or the general public is in the public interest.”

The environmental sector has relied on whistleblowers for decades – Silkwood, Brockovich, being obvious examples – or at least, relied on those who persist or become obsessed.

The call here by the Greens is likely to have many companies reassessing the application of their whistleblower policy, should they have one.  OHS doesn’t usually work through such a policy but it is an approach that may require reanalysis in line with the expansion of OHS law into the traditional areas of public liability.

One would hope that a corporation’s sense of social responsibility would be applied in such worker and public health matters.  Given the secrecy over nuclear power leaks and spills at England’s Sellafield plant, an important part of England’s weapons program for many decades, the Greens’ suspicion can be easily understood.

Kevin Jones

Unintended consequences of inadequate preparation 3

The Australian Government instigated a rebate scheme f0r ceiling insulation for domestic homes in order to the climatic impacts of heating one’s home.  The rebates effectively make insulation free and, as a result, there is a boom in  insulation installation.

As with any boom in any industry, there is an influx of new workers.  The Australian newspaper reports the death of an installer in Brisbane in mid-October 2009 and the shortcomings this death illustrates.

The article says that the rebate scheme has been so popular that fibreglass batts are not available so installers are using foil-based reflective insulation.

Master Electricians Association president Malcolm Richards said the foil-based products should be banned in established homes because untrained installers were stapling foil on to live electricity wires.  He said the practice was the cause of last week’s tragedy in Brisbane and electricians were being increasingly called on to repair dodgy work.”

Firstly, electricians are always being called on to repair the botched electrical work of others.  Secondly, it’s not the fault of the foil suppliers so it seems unfair to ban a legitimate insulation product.

The Master Electricians Association is facing the problem that others face every day, unqualified workers doing the work normally undertaken by qualified workers.

The political opportunism by some in this article is regrettable.

The Australian Government should have learnt from its computers-in-schools initiative/debacle that there are ancillary costs with any government program and that these costs should be considered in the policy development and/or have relevant organisations consulted so that the necessary support services are prepared for the plan’s launch and operation.

The computers-in-schools program did not consider the software costs to use on the free computer for ever secondary school student.  The LPG conversion rebate did not consider the scale of demand.  The solar panel rebate scheme was cancelled even though the demand was great.  The home insulation scheme has drawn inexperienced installers into the industry.  All good intentions harmed through poor planning and some of that harm can be the death of workers.

Kevin Jones

Employer concerns on OHS law review 3

In support of the Safety Show mentioned in a previous article, the organisers have issued a media release which provides illuminating quotes on the issue of the Australian Government’s program for review of OHS laws:

One of those keen to comment is exhibitor at The Safety Show and chief executive of the Australian Federation of Employers and Industries, Garry Brack [significantly NOT a speaker at the Safety Conference ED.].

“We are concerned about the content of the model laws,” Mr Brack says. “New South Wales’ OHS Act is the most difficult piece of legislation in the developed world and we believe this is a lost opportunity to wind up with more balance.”

“If an employee does the wrong thing, the employer is found guilty. We’re not arguing that employees should be prosecuted but reject the notion that employers should be liable when employees fail to meet safety requirements.”

Clearly Brack has not compared the NSW OHS Act to the Federal Taxation legislation.

Brack reflects many of the perspectives of those who deal with OHS in the State of New South Wales.  The pent-up frustration is clear and the employers do not believe the reassurances from the Federal Government.

Brack also illustrates the desire for prescription in OHS law.  If people, in this case employers, know how to comply with a law, they are more likely to do so.

“Smaller employers don’t have the financial resources and in-house expertise to interpret what is ‘reasonably practicable’. They say ‘Tell us what we have to do’. They don’t wanted to return to the lunacy of years ago where every nut and bolt was defined but they do need a more prescriptive approach and help from regulators.”

He highlights a concern about the OHS laws shared by SafetyAtWorkBlog, small business has always struggled to provide an appropriately safe workplace.  “Reasonably practicable” does not help.  However, Brack’s desire for prescription is nostalgic at best, some would say fantasy.  This government has no intention of taking a seemingly regressive step to prescription and Brack has been aware of this for years.  At some point one has to accept reality and work with what is being offered.


Another exhibitor discussed the expectation that States will still add their own variations to the model OHS laws.  This option has never been hidden by the government or the various review panels.  In fact, this flexibility has been a major point in the government’s choice on harmonisation rather than uniformity.

“National legislation is highly desirable to avoid the massive duplication of work for national organisations,” Mr [Bill] Henman [of the College of Warehouse Training] says. “Unfortunately, the legislation will be enforced by various state jurisdictions and this will result in variation between states in interpretations, penalties and the finer points of the legislation. The devil is in the detail. [ED. please kick the next person who uses this cliche] Different penalties in different states currently affect the priorities of safety managers and standardised penalties would provide better outcomes.”

Henman needs to read the legislation and supportive documents to see that standardised penalties are proposed.  Though Henman is considering one of the most important issues that does not seem to be in consideration in much of the commentary on the legislation to date – improved safety.

“It’s very hard to say whether these new laws will make workplaces safer. The culture of those less safety conscious workplaces where the employer bends the rules has to change. One would hope the new laws will help engender better safety cultures.”

The Master Builders Association of NSW‘s OHS risk management officer, Tim Stootman, echoes the perspective of Garry Brack, looking at the  legislation through the experience of a New South Wales employer:

“Master Builders supports the review of OHS laws and believes that this is an opportunity for better, rather than greater, OHS regulation,” Mr Stootman says.  “Better, rather than greater, regulation will assist to improve OHS performance in the construction sector.

Master Builders supports the rejection of what could be called a ‘highest common denominator’ approach to OHS duties.  Essentially, this approach would have seen an absolute duty of care on employers to ensure the health and safety of their employees and provides unions with the right to bring a prosecution for a breach of the OHS law, the latter a provision adopted in recent changes to the law in the ACT.

The Draft National Model OHS Act is a positive step towards harmonisation of OHS laws in this country.”

Submissions to the government on the draft Safe Work Bill are being regularly posted at the Safe Work Australia website.  SafetyAtWorkBlog is watching the submissions and will draw attention to some of the more useful comments in the submissions.

Kevin Jones

Accusations of poor nuclear safety Reply

Australia does not (yet) have nuclear power but its most prominent nuclear reactor is at Lucas Heights in Sydney.  On 21 October 2009, the Australian Greens Senator Scott Ludlam was told that several incidents had occurred at the reactor since 2008.

According to a media release from the Greens, Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) revealed that

  • “A major recent event involving a vial being dropped and left unreported for up to three hours leading to exposure by workers.
  • An internal audit found gross deficiencies in safety procedures.
  • Management was unaware some workers present during the incident had not completed OHS induction training or a radiation safety course.
  • Procedures required upgrading since the incident.
  • Other incidents have occurred since and procedures are constantly being upgraded.”

A short AAP article on the comments is also available online.  The article is likely to gain considerable media attention through the inclusion of the following comment

“A spokesman for Senator Ludlam told AAP that if safety procedures could not be followed at Australia’s nuclear reactor, “God help” Australia if ANSTO was put in charge of a full scale nuclear power facility.”

It seems unfair to put out this story without some response from ANSTO.  Late this afternoon ANSTO released a detailed response to the Greens claims and AAP story which it claims were full of inaccuracies.  Below are some extracts of the statement which is available here in full.

“No incident of the type reported took place at the OPAL reactor.  An incident did take place on 28 August 2008 at ANSTO’s radiopharmaceutical production facility.   This was not a spill and no staff were exposed to significant radiation doses.   The incident took place in a shielded manufacturing enclosure.”

“ANSTO acknowledges that conservative decision making was not used at the start of this incident. Procedures have improved since as acknowledged in the Greens’ press release.”

“The quantity of medical isotope in the vial was 1/10 of a teaspoon and when the vial was dislodged the worker initially attempted to retrieve it and notified his supervisor within 30 minutes of the initial incident.   The vial was finally retrieved after three hours.   Molybdenum-99 production did not continue following the incident.”

“Incident reporting is a standard practice in the radiopharmaceutical manufacturing environment.   Senator Ludlam appears to have confused the reporting of incidents with an assumption of these incidents being severe or hazardous to workers.  This is not the case.”

Nuclear issues always need to be taken seriously and, as with any incident, must be investigated appropriately.  The Greens have made, understandable, political mileage out of the information revealed in the Senate hearings.  The comments match the interests of its constituents and members.

What it also indicates is that Australia has yet to enter a nuclear energy debate that has already been experienced in Europe and elsewhere over the last thirty years or so.  As nuclear energy becomes an increasingly important option for Australia in response to climate change, the debate is likely to be furious.

Kevin Jones

Dusty switchboard safety alert Reply

The Northern Territory’s WorkSafe authority issues safety alerts infrequently so each new one is worth considering.  The alert released on 20 October 2009 concerns dust in exposed switchboard installed in remote locations.

sa0200907_000The alert is worthy of attention for several reasons but one is that electrical work in isolated locations can often be less safe than similar tasks closer to urban areas.  Some tradespeople in remote locations do only what they deem is necessary which is not always safe.

The other issue is identified in the alert itself.  Dust in electrical circuits can be a hazard in many circumstances and should be considered when installing switchboards.  The environment in which the electrical work is to be undertaken is an important consideration not only for the worker or tradesperson but also for the occupant of the house or the user of the article of plant, in the longer term.

Sometimes real bulldust is a greater hazard than political “bulldust”.

Kevin Jones

Peek-a-boo safety – Oh Dear! 8

The Australian Model OHS laws do not have duties and responsibilities that focus on the employer.  The focus is now on  a “person conducting a business or undertaking” or a PCBU.  In a legal seminar in Melbourne on 20 October 2009, this acronym was spoken as a “peek-a-boo”.  Throughout the next 60 minutes, prominent Australian OHS lawyers repeatedly mentioned the OHS responsibilities of the “peek-a-boos”.


If OHS law has not been taken seriously by some sectors now, there is no hope if this absurd terminology continues.

How will regulators and safety professionals “sell” safety in a small business person is described as a peek-a-boo?   If we’re lucky, the employer will think of a game played with young children.  If we are not lucky, they may think of diaphanous female lingerie tenuously constructed with ribbons.  If the employer is a goth, one may get away with a cool reference to a Siouxsie & The Banshees song.

One could speak PCBU phonetically as “pissy-be-u” but even that is dubious. Please delete this term from one’s vocabulary and recommend to the Australian Government that its bill-drafters look for another acronym.

Kevin Jones

Road worker seriously injured at worksite 2

The Ambulance Service of Victoria, Australia reported the injury to a roadside worker on 19 October 2009.  Below is part of their report:

A road worker is in a serious condition after being hit by a car in a road works area this morning.

Advanced life support paramedics from Jackson’s Creek were called to Derby Street in Pascoe Vale at 11.40am.  Paramedic Chris Collard said they arrived within six minutes to find the man lying on the road being helped by an off duty nurse.

‘It appeared the car had been driven into the road works area and hit the man,’ he said. ‘The 33-year-old man suffered a head injury, deep cut to the back of his head and some leg pain…. We encourage drivers to slow down while driving through road works, obey the signs and be wary of the workers on the road.’

Working only a metre or two from traffic, even in a domestic area, like the case above, presents well-known hazards, at least well-known to the workers.

WorkSafe Victoria undertook an education campaign on the issue several years ago.  The remaining website continues some good information although it is a little out-of-date.

In 2005, the Roads and Traffic Authority in New South Wales reported

“… there were 603 crashes at roadwork sites in NSW.  Ten people were killed and 356 were injured.  Injuries to road workers in NSW cost more than $100 million a year, but the financial and human toll could be much lower if drivers slowed down and observed road work speed limits.”

In around 2006, the Highways Agency in the UK began a short campaign on improving the safety of roadworkers,  Some background and the action plan is available online.  As with many government campaigns and plans, it is difficult to quantify the success.

Comments from a spokesperson for the Minister for WorkSafe, Tim Holding, in 2005 illustrate the dominant political position on anything related to road safety be it level crossings or roadworker safety – change behaviour and save the world – and yet behaviour is probably the hardest (and costliest) element in this equation to change :

“…people should stay within posted speed limits. “. . . people should concentrate at driving at or below the speed limit and . . . spend less time worrying about how many kilometres they can drive over the speed limit without getting fined…,”

In 2005 there was a minor political kerfuffle when it was revealed that speed cameras could not be recalibrated to lower speeds for application in roadwork sites.

From experience, Australia is yet to use the portable traffic light systems widely that have been applied in the UK for decades and yet the advantages are that it formally establishes buffer zones, removes flagmen from the role of frontline control and builds on a cognitive language that almost everyone has retained from early childhood – the red, amber, green signage.

Kevin Jones