In Australia OHS management is red tape 2

The Australian newspaper of 1 September 2009 epitomised the ideological problems with OHS in a business management context.  Page 5 has two articles next to each other:

Renewed pledge to cut business regulation” and

Building chief ‘spat on an abused‘”.

The first article reports on a speech by the Competition Minister, Craig Emerson, where it is reported that the Minister

“has pledged his commitment to removing unnecessary regulation that hampered business”.

The Minister was speaking to a business audience and has been described as less friendly to regulation than his predecessor.  OHS compliance is often bundled as an element of unnecessary business paperwork by employer and industry groups however, in this speech, the Minister spoke more of open markets.

The second article focuses on an attack on the head of the much-hated Australian Building & Construction Commission, John Lloyd, but also reports on the national union protest scheduled for 1 September 2009, concerning the weakening of OHS laws through the harmonisation process.

The article reports on a union survey:

“Unions commissioned a poll that showed 78 per cent of those surveyed agreed employers should do more to protect the health and safety of their workers, even if it led to increased costs or red tape.”

That unions would even accept that OHS compliance could be considered red tape is a great concern, and the phrase is taken directly from the ACTU media release.

Union Survey figures

SafetyAtWorkBlog is endeavouring to obtain the original survey results (over 1000 respondents (workers) taken in the last week of August 2009) but for the moment it is worth quoting ACTU Secretary Jeff Lawrence’s interpretation of the statistics.

“… this poll shows the Australian public don’t want workplace safety rights undermined.”

“The poll shows there is significant support in the Australian community for stronger rights and protections for workers and an ongoing role for unions in checking workplaces where employees are worried they are in danger.

“The poll finds 81 per cent of those surveyed agreed workers should have the right to call in help from a union to check on health and safety issues regardless of their employer’s approval.

“Seven out of ten Australians (69%) believe that injured workers should be able to take their employer to court under workplace health and safety laws.”

Business and government in Australia are harmonising OHS laws to reduce the red tape business compliance costs.  Unions believe that OHS red tape and increased business cost is acceptable.

What does this leave the safety professional who says that they can minimise the red tape associated with OHS compliance AND that safety is not a cost but an investment?  Out in the cold with the Victorian WorkCover Minister, it is suggested.

Kevin Jones

Do You Have a Policy on the Use of MP3 Players? 2

The National Transportation Safety Administration estimates that at least 25% of all automobile accidents are caused by distracted drivers.  Research has already proven that listening to music through earbuds or headphones while driving is a distraction and becoming a leading cause of vehicle incidents.  It is, in fact, now illegal to use earbuds or headphones in the states of California and New York while operating a motor vehicle.

In Australia similar research, by insurance companies, notes the same findings.  A spokesman for NRMA Insurance, John Hallal, stated that “Drivers should always be alert to what is happening around them, and by using headphones, the driver is likely to be less aware of the surrounding traffic conditions.  Headphones can totally block out other sounds. You won’t hear a siren, you won’t hear a horn – and that can be dangerous.”

So is there a good solution?  Auto makers are increasingly offering jacks to support MP3 players in their vehicles. Some have more integrated systems that allow iPod or MP3 playlists to be displayed on the dashboard and operated through buttons mounted on the steering wheel.  The problem is, not all people are buying new vehicles in a time of recession and don’t have the option for plugging their iPod or MP3 player into their vehicle.  Furthermore, drivers are still tempted to change songs on the console or MP3 player and turn their music louder; again a possible distraction while operating a motor vehicle. Driving with earbuds or headphones is considered a potential distraction/hazard and can lead to motor vehicle accidents under certain conditions.

Operators of any motor vehicle should be able to hear traffic and be aware of any driving hazards around them.  This means that any distractions while driving should be eliminated to include using earbuds or headphones. For the safety of yourself, your family and others sharing the road, your attention must be dedicated to driving the car.

Another question that arises is whether or not it’s safe to use MP3 players in the workplace. Increasingly, workers are wearing earbuds or headphones to block out background noise and distractions around them. Some workers find it helps reduce stress and boredom which could lead to greater productivity and worker morale.  But is it safe?

Wearing an MP3 player could be a potential hazard in situations where the cord could be caught in a piece of machinery.  Often workers with long hair are required to tie back their hair for the same reason.  An MP3 player could also influence the path taken by electricity in the same manner as wearing metal jewellery.

The safe use of MP3 players can be managed by setting a clear policy.  Although completely banning the use of MP3 players may remove the risk to injury, for tasks that are repetitive or monotonous it can keep a worker stimulated and more productive.

In conclusion, Employers need to assess the injury risk to reward potential that MP3 players pose for a specific setting or activity.  There is no blanket answer that can be applied and safety is also not the only issue, communication breakdowns among workers can develop and theft of proprietary information are just two other considerations.

Pamela Cowan

Challenges for US labor unions and lessons for all businesses Reply

Doug Henwood releases regular podcasts of his radio broadcasting and occasionally there is content that provides an interesting perspective on occupational health and safety, as does the 3CR program, Stick Together.  On August 1 2009 Henwood interviewed journalist, Steve Early, author of “Embedded With Organized Labor”. The podcast is available online. The Early interview clicks in at the 38 minute mark.

(A video interview with Steve Early is also available)

Early talks about how difficult the United States union movement has found it to maintain the enthusiastic momentum from 15 years ago.  He says that several industrial relations programs have slowed due to a lack of support from the grass roots or perhaps the exclusion of this sector in the initial planning of the programs.

As with many policy issues in the early period of the Obama government, a lot of interest is being placed on labour relations.  The government has begun discussions with labour leaders but these leaders face the challenge of gaining the government’s attention during the miasma of policy changes and President Obama has clearly stated to labour leaders, according to Early, that health care is his primary policy area at the moment.  The last month has shown the level of the challenge on health care policy.

Steve Early echoes the thoughts of Tom Bramble, an Australian academic analyst of unions, when he advocates an increased role for the rank-and-file union members.  It is in this sector that the passionate values of industrial relations and trade unionism are felt the strongest, often because it has avoided the political baggage that comes with the upper levels of the union movement.

Early reiterates that the best asset for change is an organisation’s membership.  He agrees that there is often a class-divide between the rank-and-file members and union management.  In many large organisations, senior executives are being encouraged to gain a better understanding of their organisations by jumping across the structure to (re)experience the lot of the membership.

Early says that the union movement in the 1930s resolved this by a major reconstruction of unions.  Corporations and conservative organizations are loathe to deconstruct in order to rebuild because, primarily, the executives get too comfortable.  Executives who genuinely understand their organisation, particularly those organisations that are member-based, can rebuild and remain true.

Kevin Jones

Productivity is also the Government’s aim with OHS law reform 1

A few posts back the productivity priorities of Australian employer groups toward OHS harmonisation were noted, particularly that of the Australian Chamber of Commerce & Industry.

On 25 August 2009, Australia’s Workplace Relations Minister, Julia Gillard, addressed the 15th World Congress International Industrial Relations Association.  The Minister mentioned OHS and said:

“So, our new workplace relations system is now up and running. We are close to reaching agreement with State Governments to end the fragmentation of the past and have the entire private sector by the one national workplace relations system.

Additionally, for the first time ever, after a 25-year wait, Australian businesses and workers are close to having a uniform national occupational health and safety laws. A massive step forward in achieving a seamless national economy that Australia needs to release lasting and much-needed productivity improvements.

But the legal changes are the beginning, not the end, of the reform process.

Australians should now move beyond a focus on law changes to a new focus on cultural change in the workplace. We need to build partnerships between management and workers and their unions that operate for the benefit of all.

Change of this sort is slower to take root than rapid structural reform.

It is more dependent on intangibles, including the goodwill and motivation of those who take part. But in the long run it will have an important impact on our economic prospects.

So over the coming months and years we will be looking at ways of embedding change through workplace relations, innovation and leadership practices in workplaces.” [my emphasis]

Minister Gillard talks of OHS law reform in the same productivity terms as the employer groups.  This may be down to the audience at the conference and the congress’ theme as well as industrial relations being the main focus of the government’s reform agenda but it is an inclusion that, for fairness, it was worth highlighting.

Rather than taking the OHS paragraph by itself, it is telling to see the section in the speech that includes the only direct mention of OHS law reform.  Minister Gillard continues to emphasise the process of establishing harmony across industrial relations as much as in OHS law.

She also is clearly up on the latest business lingo, even though some of the phrases have a cloudy definition –

  • “cultural change”
  • “intangibles”
  • “innovation”
  • “leadership”
  • “collaboration”

The Minister rightly states that law reform is at the end of one process but often at the start of a far more difficult reform process.  There is no guarantee that the new OHS will have a smooth entry and, as with any law, the best test for its suitability is in the Courts, sadly.

Kevin Jones

US workplace fatality statistics – 2008 Reply

Preliminary data on workplace fatalities was released recently by the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) program in the United States.  Economic pressures have reduced the size of the workforce which, the data indicates, decreased fatalities.  Good news in one way but only status quo if one is looking at long-term trends or for some benefit from government workplace safety initiatives.

Benchmarking and statistics junkies will be able to extract a great deal of information from the preliminary data.  The chart below is a good example of the level of detail available.

cfch0007 chart

There was a passing mention in the media release which caught our attention – workplace suicides.  The media release states:

“Workplace suicides were up 28 percent to a series high of 251 cases in 2008, but workplace homicides declined 18 percent in 2008……

Workplace suicides rose from 196 cases in 2007 to 251 cases in 2008, an increase of 28 percent and the highest number ever reported by the fatality census. Suicides among protective service occupations rose from 14 in 2007 to 25 in 2008.”

Regular SafetyAtWorkBlog readers will understand that work-related suicides is an area that we consider under-researched, so the figures quoted are of particular interest although only a minor part of the statistical report.  It would be great if the Bureau of Labor Statistics revisited its 2004 analysis of workpalce suicides in light of this considerable statistical increase.

Kevin Jones

Public Comments – Fishing and Legionnaire’s 1

WorkSafe Western Australia has two documents currently open for public comment.   One concerns a draft code of practice  for the prevention of falls from commercial fishing vessels.  The other may have a wider appeal as it is a draft code of practice for the prevention and control of Legionnaires’ disease.

man_overboard coverThe man overboard code is an example of established hazard management and risk control options for a niche hazard in a niche working environment, however, it is often in these areas where procedural and technical processes are most easily recognised.  The draft code is in a format, and has a degree of clarity, that encourages discussion and examination.

Readers may find some useful information for those workers who work alone or in isolation, for those who need to undertake tasks at nighttime and in intense darkness, and for those workplaces that require a strict induction for new workers.

LEGIONNAIRES__Public_comment coverSimilarly, the Legionnaire’s code of practice builds on established risk management concepts and shows that businesses still need to prevent legionnaire’s infections even if there is a regulatory/licensing system in place for cooling towers.

On a formatting note, both these draft codes could have benefited from the regulators embracing more of the Web 2.0 concepts.  The PDF files do have some hyperlinks for some more information or emails but there could be a lot more effort put in to making the drafts a hub for the documents’ references.  For instance, mentions of legislation could lead to online versions so that those commenting online can flick back and forth from reference to topic.

[Just imagine how much more helpful a code of practice with such functionality could be to a small business – wiki + blog+ safety = better compliance]

In the Legionnaire’s draft there are tags on page 36 that could lead to the online text of the Acts referred to.  The tags are a good idea but could use increased functionality.

Lastly, the Legionnaire’s code references eight Australian Standards and publications.  It is a reasonable expectation that, for this hazard, industry submissions will be the majority and those parties already have the Standards.  However, if a broad consultation is required, many interested parties may find purchasing these Standards a substantial cost burden,  which SafetyAtWorkBlog calculated to be at least $A390 for the PDF versions.

Kevin Jones

More thoughts on Standards Reply

Australian Standards have two, almost, distinct categories of standards – technical and management.   A safety colleague reminded me of the distinction recently, a distinction that greatly helps the debate of Australian Standards’ authority.

Perhaps there continues to be a role for some Standards, such as construction-related standards, that deal specifically with the environmental climate and peculiarities of Australia.  Bushfire-rated housing is an example that comes readily to mind.

My colleague also pointed out that as Australia has stopped manufacturing many articles of plant, the importation of plant from Asia and Europe has increased.   In the government’s chase for the reduction in red tape, the need to re-engineer, in some cases, plant to local regulatory standards that “mirror” European standards seems to be an easy target for reform.

The previous article on standards should, perhaps, have ended questioning the management standards as these standards are those most readily supplanted by internationals – the ISOs and the BS.   The challenge for Standards Australia is that thes Australian versions of the management standards are their biggest sellers.

Kevin Jones

The future for Standards Australia will be hard 8

SafetyAtWorkBlog has written elsewhere of how the global financial crisis has caused OHS related programs to be revised.  The latest bulletin from Standards Australia indicates the impact of the financial pressures on its plans and the reduction in the value of their investments has come at a time of other worrisome changes.

(In this article there is a focus on the safety-related Australian Standards.)

Bulletin_1_Standards_Australia_170809_Page_1According to the 17 August 2009 bulletin, Standards Australia has lost $A70 million from its investment portfolio since November 2007.  This has caused it to introduce a “New Business Model”  which reduces Standards Australia’s operating costs and also increases the costs to many of the voluntary participants on committees that develop Australian Standards through the new consultative strategies.

Hopefully during the period of reflection caused by the financial threats, Standards Australia should have considered whether it is worth continuing, at all.

Following are some ruminations about safety-related Standards and their applicability.  These may be relevant to quality, risk and environmental Standards, also.

  • Australia is a very small market for Standards compared to Europe and the United States, in particular.
  • The management professions are becoming more globalised.
  • Manufacturing is becoming more globalised.
  • Europe can draw upon a broader range of expertise in the development of management standards, than can Australia.
  • Several International Standards could be applied in Australia allowing for an international “compliance”.  Some Standards are already in place and promoted by companies as somehow more legitimate that the Australian Standards.
  • Safe Work Australia has informed SafetyAtWorkBlog that:

“The application and use of Australian Standards in model OHS regulations has not yet been decided and will be considered by the Safe Work Australia Council’s Strategic Issues Group”

  • SafetyAtWorkBlog has heard from a South Australian colleague that SafeWorkSA is considering replacing OHS Standards referenced in legislation with codes of practice. (SafetyAtWorkBlog has sought confirmation of this from SafeWorkSA)
  • Australian Standards can be expensive for small businesses, who may have the greatest need for OHS management standards, whereas government publications, such as Codes of Practice are generally free.

Australian Standards are important for many industries, particularly, those that are required to be audited and/or accredited.  Needless to say there is a considerable secondary industry of auditors for these sectors.

All Australian Standards are only guidelines but many have been granted legislative clout by being referenced in law.  As mentioned above a considerable industry has developed in support, providing some legitimacy to the guidelines through weight of numbers.

Safe Work Australia recognised the important role of Australian Standards, but with several qualifications:

“The COAG [Council of Australian Governments] Guidelines recognise that the use of prescriptive requirements, such as those in Australian Standards, while not preferable, may be unavoidable in order to ensure safety.”

Standards Australia must have realised by now that the days of automatic legitimacy through referencing in legislation may be numbered for many of their Standards .  Their previous operating model has had to be thoroughly revised, government and business are fierce on reducing red tape, international standards have been developed that can be applied in Australia, and contributing organisations are reviewing their own costs of participation.

In fact so keen is the government on the reduction of red tape that it established an Office of Best Practice Regulation in the Department of Finance.  On Finance’s website is a clear statement of aim:

“The Government has committed to reducing the regulatory burden on Australian businesses, non-profit organisations and consumers.  This is consistent with larger commitments to address impediments to Australia’s long-term productivity growth.”

Employer groups have identified industrial relations and OHS requirements as “impediments”.

There is no doubt that in many circumstances technical standards are essential reference documents for improving safety, in particular, and for showing that workplace safety is being managed in a systematic and verifiable manner.  The big question is whether those technical standards should be those produced by Standards Australia.

Kevin Jones

Beware Greeks bearing lasers Reply

For some years now, laser pointers have been misused in a range of activities, from the football field and to cinemas but, most significantly and in an OHS context, towards the pilots of aircraft. (A good summary of the significance of the hazard can be found at Wikipedia)

One example of government response to the hazard can be seen from a media release of the Queensland government in 2008.

The latest incidence of laser pointers and pilots comes from Greece only last week.  According to a report in Kathimerini:

“Two boys aged 13 and 14 were arrested on Saturday [15 August 2009] on Rhodes for forcing a pilot to abandon a landing at the Dodecanese island’s Diagoras Airport because they aimed a laser pointer at the airplane’s cockpit. The pilot of the flight from Alexandroupoli was forced to land on his second attempt.”

More details of the event are, of course, included in the news report.  The most curious piece of information is that police have also arrested the boys’ parents.

Kevin Jones

Why isn’t safety and health a continuum in a worker’s life? Reply

Several years ago I attended a safety seminar hosted by Seacare.  Maritime safety is not part of my “brief” but safety is, and I was seeking alternate perspectives on my specialist area.  Seacare conducted a session where the treatment and management of an injured worker was work-shopped from incident to return-to-work.

It was the first time I had seen a panel of experts deal with the life of a worker across the injury management continuum.  The session showed the necessity to communicate across several disciplines and to always keep the focus on the injured worker.  I had never seen a better example of risk management in relation to an  employee’s welfare.

If only the real world was as organised.

WorkLife Book Covers 003Work/life balance in Australia is skewed towards those workers who have young families or a role as a carer.  This is due to work/life balance evolving from the feminist and social concepts of the 1970s and in response to the increased number of women in paid employment.  Barbara Pocock sees these matters in the 1970s as themselves a reaction to the “male-dominated employing class” that, in one exampled, believed that 3 month’s long-service leave was more important than maternity leave. (p212, The Work/Life Collision)

Work/Life Balance Origin

(Wikipedia has a peculiar article on work/life balance that has some interesting points and reference links but then undoes its good work by relying on a couple of major sources and many of them are commercial consultants.  That the Australian work in this area is not referenced, indicates a major deficiency.  Please note that the concept of balancing work life and non-work life existed well before “work/life balance” was first used.  SafetyAtWorkBlog would point the concept’s origin to around the same time as Australia’s introduction of the eight hour day in the mid-1800s or even earlier with Robert Owen in the UK calling for a 10-hour day.)

WorkLife Book Covers 005In the 2000s the emphasis remains not on work/life balance but work/family.  As a result, work/life balance will remain an issue handled in the management silo of human resources and being seen as relevant to a lifestage of an individual rather than the individual themselves.  There is also an inherent gender bias that could be minimised if the silo was removed.

The Seacare workshop illustrated for me that an injured worker is managed by different silos throughout their rehabilitation.  Wherever possible the employer outsources this management to experts in OHS, trauma counselling, medicine, physiotherapy, return-to-work coordinators, and other specialists.  The common element through all of these silos is the individual and that person’s health.

OHS & Work/Life Conflict

WorkLife Book Covers 001Occupational health and safety has a big advantage over work/life balance in that it focuses on the individual first.  Employers must provide for the health and safety of the worker and, by and large, employers get the safety obligation right.  This part of the process has long-established practices based principally on engineering solutions – stopping things falling on a worker, stopping the worker falling into machinery, stopping the inhalation of toxic dust – effectively “blue collar” solutions to “blue collar” hazards.

The mental health of the worker was not a big concern.  This is partly because in most of Australia, legislation only ever related to health and safety, and rarely to welfare.  Where welfare was a legislated consideration for the management of workers, the social context of the worker was acknowledged myuch earlier and work/life issues began to grow.

The regrettable element of this evolution was that “health” remained a narrow workplace definition instead of embracing the “welfare” or mental health of the worker.  If health had been supported by a definition that included welfare in all Australian States’ OHS legislation, the mental health needs of workers and the social contexts of worker management would have been discussed much earlier and in parallel.

Work/Life Balance Awards – A Missed Opportunity

An example of the divergence and the need, in my opinion, to reintegrate work/life balance and occupational health comes from some correspondence I have had with the organisers of the National Work/Life Balance Awards in the Australian Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR).  Until very recently, these awards were called the National Work and Family Awards.

WorkLife Book Covers 004DEEWR includes in its structure Safe Work Australia, the organisation responsible for monitoring OHS across the country.  It seemed odd to me, from the big holistic picture, that DEEWR has not included Safe Work Australia in the judging panel for the 2009 Work/Life Balance Awards.  DEEWR advised me that it believes the OHS experience of two of the judging panel, the Australian Council of Trade Unions and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, was sufficient.  Perhaps but why not draw on the OHS expertise of one’s own staff as well?

It also seemed odd that one organisation would conduct two national awards programs – the National Work/Life Balance Awards and the Safe Work Australia Awards.  DEEWR advised me that

“The [National Work/Life Balance Awards] recognise organisations that are outstanding in achieving positive outcomes through the implementation and communication of work-life balance policies, practices and initiatives which meet the needs of both the employer and its employees. The Safe Work Australia Awards focus on OHS more broadly and recognise businesses and individuals for their outstanding efforts in OHS and for making safety a high priority in their workplace.”

If the Safe Work Australia Awards focus on “OHS more broadly” why not have one set of awards that acknowledges both the work and social contexts of employees?  This is harder to answer when

“Applicants for awards must consent to an assessment to determine whether they have complied with the Fair Work Act 2009, the Workplace Relations Act 1996 and any relevant state or territory legislation, award or other industrial instruments” [my emphasis]

This would surely include the OHS legislation of each State and the Commonwealth.

DEEWR does not involve any of the state OHS regulators in the awards process.  The judging panel does not analyse the workers’ compensation premium awards rates of award contenders.  State regulators could surely provide a useful perspective as it is mostly under their jurisdictions that businesses are prosecuted for OHS breaches.  Worker’s compensation premiums are used by all regulators as a major (sometime the only) indicator of safety performance and for targeting of enforcement programs.  The judges of the National Work/Life Balance Awards do not.

OHS professionals and return-to-work coordinators acknowledge that the non-work life and mental health of workers are important elements in regaining a fully-functional employee.

DEEWR made the decision to rebrand the awards to Work/Life instead of “work and family”.  This does not reflect the complex interrelations of the social and individual contexts of the health and safety of individual workers.

DEEWR is coordinating the reforms of laws into both OHS and workers compensation.  The Australian Government is working on legislative harmonisation across all legislative jurisdictions in workplace health and safety.  These OHS laws are likely to extend employer obligations well beyond workers to the public and those potentially affected by work practices..

However DEEWR is missing a major opportunity to set the agenda for the future by acknowledging that the impacts on an individual of the work life and the home life should be managed across the social and employment disciplines.

Kevin Jones

The images included in this posting show some of the many terrific books dealing with, or mentioning, work/life management.