2006 interview with Dr Jukka Takala of EU-OSHA Reply

In October 2006, I interviewed Dr Jukka Takala for the SafetyAtWork podcast.  Jukka had just taken over as director of the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work from Hans-Horst Konkolewsky.

The agency has continued its important work but seems since 2006 to focus more on the EU internal requirements rather than reaching out globally as before.  This is understandable given the influx of new EU member states over that time but it is disappointing when an OHS “regulator’s” website has so many dead links to its former international partners.

The 2006 podcast is available for download.

The transcript of an earlier interview I conducted with Jukka in his ILO days is available by clicking the cover image below.

Kevin Jones

4i18 cover

Level crossings and safety management 2

Regular readers will know that SafetyAWorkBlog believes that there is little justification for road/rail crossings, particularly in metropolitan areas, and that grade separation should be the aim of any crossing upgrades.  Too often governments dismiss grade separation without serious consideration because it is usually the most expensive control option.  Regardless of expense, elimination of hazards must be considered in public safety policy and OHS.  It is only after the elimination of a hazard is seriously considered that lower order control measures are seen to be valid.

At the moment in Victoria, there is community outrage because the truck driver involved in the deaths of 11 train passengers at a level crossing at Kerang has been cleared of any legal responsibility for the deaths.  Several relatives of victims are pursuing civil action against the driver, Mr Christiaan Scholl.

The wisdom of civil action against the driver is debatable as any potential financial “win” will come from the insurance pockets of the Transport Accident Commission and not Mr Scholl.  Compensation may be gained but any hope that the action could be seen as a “penalty” is false.

The Kerang rail crossing illustrates some basic OHS issues:

Worker responsibility

The Kerang level crossing had design deficiencies that had repeatedly identified by a number of government authorities, local companies and the public.  The court case heard that the crossing was known to be dangerous.

In OHS, known hazards are controlled in a number of ways.  Clearly the rail and road traffic was not separated and engineering controls were not introduced at the time of the incident.  The owners of the crossing (and this is debated also) determined that signage was appropriate (or even perhaps “as far as is reasonably practicable”?).

Clearly signage was not adequate but there is also the issue of driver (worker) responsibility.  It was mentioned in court and repeatedly in the media that the level crossing was known to be dangerous.  Why then, would drivers continue to treat the crossing as if it was not?  The legal speed limits remained at 100kph, at the time of the incident.  The road laws clearly state that road traffic must give way to rail traffic and yet drivers have admitted to complacency.

This is perhaps the source of a lot of the community outrage in relation to the Kerang incident.  The findings in favour of the driver place all the responsibility for the incident on the inadequate design of the crossing.

Working environment

As employers have responsibility to ensure a safe and health work environment, so government has a social and legal obligation to make public areas safe.  Victorian governments for decades have neglected the hazards presented by inadequately designed or controlled level crossings.  Governments must take responsibility for inaction just as much as taking credit for action and infrastructure improvements.

Infrastructure spending had started to increase prior to the incident but the need was sharply illustrated through the unnecessary deaths of 11 rail passengers.  Many Australian governments are spending millions of dollars on rail/road crossing upgrades as a result of the Kerang incident.

Road Safety and OHS

Many OHS professionals illustrate OHS by drawing on road safety.  The correlation is very poor but the attempt is understandable – most people drive, they drive within strict laws that were learnt in training (induction), and the road laws are enforced by an external body (police = WorkSafe.  However, this relationship has no corresponding role for employers, who have a workplace responsibility.  The road user has a direct relationship with the regulator. In OHS the role of the employer is crucial.

Perhaps the Kerang incident and other level crossing incidents could be used in brainstorming to illustrate personal accountability, employer accountability and government responsibility.  It would be a worthwhile exercise to discuss whether road safety and workplace safety could share as many educative elements as some of the advocates suggest.

As with most posts on SafetyAtWorkBlog, these thoughts are a work-in-progress and debate and commentary are welcome.

Kevin Jones

Note: SafetyAtWorkBlog is not privy to any of the court evidence and must rely on media reports.  More information will be presented when available.

Does union presence improve OHS? 4

The trade union movement is an important element in the management of safety in workplaces but over the last twenty years, with the exception of a couple of industry sectors, the membership numbers have waned.  Until recently in Australia, the union movement was able to maintain a level of influence in the government decision-making process that was contrary to its declining membership.

Last week the Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, told the ACTU to stop lobbying the government and instead generate innovation, enthusiasm and members by reintroducing itself to the community.  Union membership spiked in response to its anti-Howard government advertising over three years ago but any membership based on fear is unsustainable.

Paul Kelly in today’s Australian is more forthright about the trade union position in society and politics but it is clear that the union movement needs to refocus.

Health and safety representatives (HSRs) have been a major element of the enforcement of safety standards in workplaces.  Some OHS legislation in the last decade has had to emphasise non-union consultation on safety issues to balance the declining presence of HSRs.  New research from Europe has found the following

three researchers reviewed
the studies done on the matter in Europe. They
conclude that having trade union representation
leads to better observance of the rules,
lower accident rates and fewer work-related
health problems.

“having trade union representation leads to better observance of the rules, lower accident rates and fewer work-related health problems.”

Transposing these findings into a non-European context is unwise but the research could provide a model for independent research and a comparative study.

Regrettably the report is not available for free but can be purchased through the European Trade Union Institute.

Kevin Jones

Charges laid on swing stage collapse Reply

SafetyAtWorkBlog reported on a scaffolding incident in Queensland in mid-2008.  Charges have now been laid but not manslaughter charges as were called for at the time by the unions.

The workers were fatally injured on 21 June 2008 when the swing stage scaffold they were using to carry out concrete patchwork on the Pegasus high-rise, then under construction at Broadbeach, failed and fell 26 levels to the ground.

According to Workplace Health and Safety Queensland

Allscaff Systems Pty Ltd, which erected the swing stage, is charged with failing to ensure the plant was erected in a way that ensured it was safe when used properly.

Ralph Michael Smith, director of Allscaff Systems Pty Ltd, is charged with failing to ensure the company complied with its obligations under the Act.

Karimbla Construction Services Pty Limited, which built the high-rise, is charged with breaching obligations as a person in control of a workplace and as project manager.

Pryme Constructions Pty Ltd, which undertook the concrete patching, is charged with breaching its obligations to ensure workplace health and safety.

SsfetyAtWorkBlog will be following this case over the next few months.

New transport fatigue commitments Reply

Also at the ACTU Congress in early June 2009, the Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, also made commitments to improves the health and safety of transport workers.  In her speech, Gillard said

And through tripartite engagement we will be reforming independent contracting and the transport industry. 
Australia’s truck drivers work hard to make a living.  But they shouldn’t have to die to make a living.  And we will be working on safe rates to prevent them from having to take that risk. 
We will work with the Transport Workers Union and responsible employers to make sure that drivers are paid for all the work they do. 
We will make sure that payment methods and rates do not require drivers to speed or work excessive hours just to make ends meet.

And through tripartite engagement we will be reforming independent contracting and the transport industry.

Australia’s truck drivers work hard to make a living.  But they shouldn’t have to die to make a living.  And we will be working on safe rates to prevent them from having to take that risk.

We will work with the Transport Workers Union and responsible employers to make sure that drivers are paid for all the work they do.

We will make sure that payment methods and rates do not require drivers to speed or work excessive hours just to make ends meet.

Tony Sheldon of the Transport Workers Union conducted a press conference shortly afterwards and the press release said:

Transport Workers Union Federal Secretary, Tony Sheldon, said it was time to put an end to the carnage on Australia’s roads where 280 people die each year from heavy-vehicle-related incidents.

“Trucks make up 2 per cent of registered vehicles on our roads but are involved in 22 per cent of fatalities,” Mr Sheldon said.

“We need to make sure owner-drivers and employees are paid for their waiting time, for increases in fuel prices and for proper maintenance on their vehicles so they are not forced to do ‘one more load’ and push the boundaries to make ends meet.”

Australia’s transport industry have been the leaders in getting fatigue on the OHS and industrial relations agenda over the last five years.  

The implication in Sheldon’s words above is that fatigue and delivery/schedule pressures are generating road fatalities of drivers and other road users.  The Deputy PM made the same link between remuneration and safety. (If any readers can point towards the evidence behind the rhetoric, it would be appreciated).

The challenge for the TWU and, to a lesser extent, the governemtn is that unions represent a minority of transport drivers and so the coverage of union rules and codes of conduct have limited effect.  That is not to say that the limited effect is not important but the Deputy PM told the ACTU Congress what it needs to do to make these OHS and IR changes a reality.  

Gillard told the congress delegates that they needed to get out into the community and start building membership, as membership is strength.  This is particularly important on those policies and initiatives such as OHS and transport safety, where there is broad community impact.  

Some of the proudest achievements in the Australian trade union movement have come from those social contracts that have improved living conditions and health, not only just salary levels, to those workers in Australia who struggle to stay financially viable.  The union movement needs to reinvigorate its members and itself to improve the quality of life for all and not just the pay packets for some.

Kevin Jones

Australian Minister’s latest comments on OHS law reform 3

Last week the Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, spoke at the ACTU Congress for 2009.  Industrial relations was clearly the principal agenda issue but Gillard did mention OHS.  The relevant OHS text of her speech is below.

For those wishing more information about her rowdy reception, coverage is available at several Australian news sites.

The OHS content got no mention in any of the mainstream press and some of the political websites also ignored it.  

Prior to the Deputy PM’s speech, the congress held a minute’s silence for all those who lost their lives through traumatic injuries at work.  The Deputy PM was presented with a petition (details to come). 

During the silence, two relatives of  young construction workers in Queensland who had died, were on stage.  On screen a role call of the dead scrolled slowly as a backdrop.  

Occupational Health and Safety

Friends, as representatives of working Australians you know that nothing is more important to them than safety at work.

Recently State Ministers for occupational health and safety and I reached a vital reform milestone: agreement for the creation of a uniform national occupational health and safety regime. 

This is a massive advance for workplace safety. As you will recall, the first, but ultimately unsuccessful steps towards a uniform occupational health and safety regime were taken by the Hawke Government in 1984.  25 years is too long to wait for better laws to cut preventable workplace deaths and accidents.  But we are now primed to achieve a great outcome for Australian workers and businesses alike. 

Under current occupational health and safety laws, only four jurisdictions allow workers to stop unsafe work – Western Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the ACT.  This represents approximately 14.5% of Australian workers. The new occupational health and safety laws will extend this right to all Australian workers.

For too long employers have thought that they could cut costs by cutting corners on health and safety.  Under these new laws every employer will understand that cutting corners comes at a huge price. 

The penalties under the new occupational health and safety laws will far exceed existing penalties in today’s legislation in Australia.  Currently, the highest maximum fine for a corporation is $1.65 million.  In some jurisdictions the maximum is significantly less.  Under the new laws, the maximum will be increased to $3 million, almost double the largest penalty in the country today. 

Through the tripartite body, Safe Work Australia, you will be partners in developing the model laws for this new national system. 

Kevin Jones

Harmonising workers compensation Reply

Gabrielle Lis raised an issue in an article for Return To Work Matters that deserves to be seriously considered.  The Australian Government is set on a path of harmonising OHS laws through the coordination role of Safe Work Australia.  One of the key policies  for Safe Work Australia is also to 

“develop proposals relating to… harmonising workers’ compensation arrangements across the Commonwealth, States and Territories…”

Wow, this is more of a challenge than harmonising OHS laws.  As Gabrielle writes

“Workers and employers don’t always see eye to eye on the issue, not to mention the differing interests of big businesses and small and medium enterprises, and the entrenched positions of the states and territories, who all tend to prefer “how we do things” to how things might best be done.”

Safe Work Australia is going to be dealing with over a dozen worker’s compensation insurers, around half a dozen workers’ compensation bureaucracies and thousands of stakeholders in the compensation, insurance, healthcare and return-to-work sectors.

This challenge is phenomenal and will not fit into any short-term schedule.  This challenge differs from OHS in that it directly involves money, millions of it.  The negotiations on OHS between government, unions and employer groups will be nothing compared to when the insurance companies move in on workers compensation.

Kevin Jones

(Disclaimer: Kevin Jones is a regular columnist for www.rtwmatters.org)

Not another Australian swine flu website!? 3

Recently in 2009, the Health Services Australia company launched a new swine flu website.  

The HSA site is run by a private health services company and came to the attention of SafetyAtWorkBlog through a news item by the OHS Commissioner of the Australian Capital Territory.   The ACT OHS Commissioner may not be endorsing the site but the HSA website is described positively.  The Commissioner’s site says

“The site provides information on the risk of flu – pandemic, swine, avian and seasonal varieties – expanding upon information previously published on their avian influenza site.

It also includes the latest health alerts, FAQs, useful links and information on travel health services relating to flu which people may find of benefit.”

For further information on www.fluthreat.com.au SafetyAtWorkBlog followed the trail from fluthreat to HSA which then lead to the site of one of Australia’s largest private health insurers, Medibank Private.  The two companies merged only recentlyon 1 April 2009.

Health Services Australia is listed on the fluthreat site  as the copyright holder but Medibank Private is not mentioned.

The HSA site which includes a prominent link to http://www.fluthreat.com.au does mention Medibank Private, in a mediarelease link on the home page but more succinctly, but almost in passing, under Governance and Structure:

“Health Services Australia Limited (HSA) and its subsidiaries are owned by Medibank Private Limited (Medibank).”

It seems very odd that the ACT OHS Commissioner should be directing Internet visitors to a privately run influenza information website instead of to the influenza information from authoritative websites such as the Australian Department of Health and Ageing, the ACT Dept of Health, the Federal Government’s dedicated swine flu site – healthemergency, or even the the World Health Organisation.

[SafetyAtWorkBlog has repeatedly tried to contact the ACT OHS Commissioner's office but gets an answering service each time.  The media spokesperson for HSA Group and Medibank Private has not yet returned calls]

Kevin Jones

Audit report says “could do better” 2

Cover of 20090603_workcover_full_reportOn 3 June 2009, the Victorian Auditor-General released the audit report, CLAIMS MANAGEMENT BY THE VICTORIAN WORKCOVER AUTHORITY.  The objective of the audit was to assess the effectiveness and efficiency of VWA’s claims management.

The report found that the current claims management model 

“has not substantially improved RTW [return-to-work] outcomes, or the effectiveness of agents’ case management practices”

Although the report notes that the system has not deteriorated.

The report also says

“Agents’ case management practices, on average, were considered generally adequate, however, there is substantial scope for improving agents’ performance.”

“Adequate” is not a ringing endorsement of the system and the workers’ compensation agents should pay particular attention to criticism of their performance.

Safety managers and professionals have been trying to incorporate psychosocial hazards into their safety management processes but it seems that agents are having similar problems:

“Agents did not systematically consider psychosocial barriers to RTW such as attitudes toward recovery, stress, anxiety, workplace issues, substance abuse, and family matters, when assessing the injured worker’s status, needs and risks to recovery. In most cases assessments were narrowly focused on the physical injury and its impact.”

The report notes that many issues raised are already being addressed by the Victorian WorkCover Authority.

Almost the only statements made on the workers’ compensation scheme by the State Ministers over the last decade have related to premium fluctuations, how the business costs of the system are being controlled or unavoidable.  However it seems now that the system has only been cruising, but not improving, or keeping up with the contemporary workplace hazards and employee needs.

The white collar public service, in particular, has a high incidence of stress-related claims.  The reality of the hazard has been acknowledged through preventative guidance notes from the OHS regulators and the general growth in the work/life balance movement.  Yet in 2009, the workers’ compensation agents  are criticised for giving this hazard insufficient attention.

Even when an audit report is politely critical, it remains critical and demands attention.

Kevin Jones

Union movement misdirects on OHS Reply

According to an AAP report on 3 June 2009, the ACTU is forecasting action on the matter of workplace deaths.  Although the issues is heartfelt and important, the Australian union movement mostly discusses OHS in relation to its opposition to the Australian Building and Construction Commission.  The AAP report is a good reflection of this.

ACTU secretary Jeff Lawrence states that the rate of workplace fatality is unacceptable but is then quoted as saying

“The high level of deaths and injuries in the construction industry is a national disgrace and yet safety standards have got worse in the period the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) has operated.”

It has never been the role of the ABCC to regulate workplace safety obligations.  That obligation sits with the State OHS authorities and maybe the Australian Safety & Compensation Council (now Safe Work Australia).The union movement has been instrumental in improving safety on worksites throughout Australia but Jeff Lawrence’s misdirection to the ABCC does a disservice to the efforts of OHS professional and health & safety representatives.

Kevin Jones