Trade union OHS protests are shortsighted Reply

On the eve of the ACTU Congress, the construction unions have threatened disruptions to building sites in, not surprisingly, New South Wales. This State was always going to be the one with the most to give up for the sake of national harmonisation of OHS laws.

It is reported in the Australian Financial Review on 2 June 2009 (page 11, not available online) that the CFMEU acting state secretary, Jim Tulloch, has said

“This is a line in the sand issue for trade unions……There’s a lack of leadership at the federal level and lots of states have been coerced into signing something that they are going to be held accountable for.”

This may be the case and the CFMEU may be positioning themselves prior to the ACTU Congress but the disruption is a risky strategy.  Not only would any of the action be illegal, the Federal Government has yet not abolished the draconian Australian Building & Construction Commission (ABCC).  Union protesters are likely to find themselves again in front of the ABCC being forced to answer questions.

The national OHS system is still being finalised but the union action will serve little purpose other than confirming the political perspective that the New South Wales government is overly influenced by the union movement.  Surely by now the union movement has learnt there are other ways to achieve aims than by confrontation.

Kevin Jones

Offshore industry regulator performance 2

Australia’s National Offshore Petroleum Safety Authority (NOPSA) has released a report of its own OHS performance based on data from 2005 to 2007.  NOPSA has been in the public eye far more than normal due to the Varanus Island explosion and the various investigatory reports.

The report seems to indicate that, as a regulator, NOPSA is performing to expectations.  NOPSA’s CEO John Clegg has acknowledged that the  industry is below the level of its overseas counterparts.  This is peculiar given that other Australian resources industries, like mining, are ahead of other countries and that safety in the offshore industry has had a high profile ever since Piper Alpha.

The report identifies challenges that are difficult but not very surprising:

  • improving leadership – strong leadership is required for the Australian industry to move to the next level
  • dealing with a shortage of skilled personnel
  • managing ageing facilities and minimising gas releases

It will be very interesting to watch the benchmarking of NOPSA and its future role through the OHS harmonisation process that Australia is undergoing.

Below is the full report and the performance summary.

Kevin Jones

NOPSA 2007-08 cover

   NOPSA summary 2007-08

The latest OHS advice on managing swine flu Reply

Some time ago SafetyAtWorkBlog was critical of OHS regulators releasing swine flu information because the advice was not being easily translated in the workplace, and some of the advice was just silly. 

Workplace_Guide_to_Managing_an_Influenza_Pandemic_Page_1Much better advice is available from the New South Wales government however, curiously, the Workplace Guide to Managing Influenza Pandemic has been issued by the Department of Commerce.  The department’s Office of Industrial Relations has released the document which makes more sense however the release seems to be contrary to WorkCover New South Wales who defers to the NSW Health Department, surely the most logical central point for communication on this public health issue.

There are too many “experts” on the workplace impact of swine flu influenza and pandemics.  SafetyAtWorkBlog has kept out of this issue as we share the position of WorkCover NSW – defer to the State or National authorities.

However, some companies feel obliged to be seen to be doing something, anything, about swine flu and their half-cocked measures are discrediting their overall process of safety management.

One national company recently issued a new policy advice to all staff on swine flu.  The policy was little more than a cut and paste from an official fact sheet.  It added little to the employees’ knowledge of the hazard and in no way answered staff questions such as 

  • If my child’s school is closed due to a swine flu threat, what type of leave am I entitled to take?
  • The company has provided annual influenza vaccinations.  Will I need re-vaccinating in the event of swine flu and will the company cover this cost?
  • In what circumstances can my employer send me home?

Not only was it next to useless, the company had the cheek to include its own corporate logo on the policy.  Public health and OHS information is usually flexible in its reuse but somebody in the company looks like they are empire-building rather than managing their staff.

People want advice on how swine flu will disrupt their lives and working lives, not information on swine flu itself.  Employers should leave the health information to the health authorities and concentrate on the management of the disruption and potential health threats within their area of expertise, their own workplaces.  

If employers raise expectations by issuing policies in areas outside of their expertise, they begin a spiral of the demand for information that it may be impossible to satisfy.

Kevin Jones

A slap on the wrist – Varanus prosecution 4

The West Australian government has finally decided to prosecute Apache Energy over the Varanus Island explosion in 2008.  Many people are asking if the effort is worth the bother as the maximum penalty possible is a measly $A50,000.

Comparing the disruption to the state’s gas supply to the Esso-Longford explosion, which generated a Royal Commission in Victoria, it illustrates the difference in having an explosion in an isolated area, that does not kill or injure, and that allows a government to ensure domestic gas supplies.  One could argue that a major difference was also that WA did not rely solely on a single gas source.

According to one media report

Apache spokesman David Parker said it would vigorously defend the matter. “The explosion was an unfortunate and unforeseen event”.

Explosions often are unfortunate and usually unforeseen but adequate maintenance requirements of pipelines are foreseeable, just not often profitable.

Apache Energy, a subsidiary of the US energy giant Apache, has not been the most transparent and helpful corporate citizen as it has taken Federal Court action that impedes the government’s investigations.

Kevin Jones

More on the Varanus pipeline can be read by searching for “Varanus” in the search function to the right of this blog page

Worst Case Scenarios and Pandemics – 2005 interview Reply

In 2005 I had the great opportunity to spend some time with Peter Sandman, a world renowned risk communicator.  We spoke about worst case scenarios and risk communication in those times of avian influenza and smallpox threats.  The interview has gained additional poignancy in this time of swine flu.  

Although the audio is “noisy” as Collins St in Melbourne had more traffic on a Sunday morning than I expected, I think some readers may find this excerpt very useful at the moment.

Click on the magazine’s cover image below to download the interview transcript.

[For Peter Sandman's current commentary on swine flu, see http://www.psandman.com/index-infec.htm#swineflu1 and especially http://www.psandman.com/col/swinecomm.htm]

or Peter Sandman’s current commentary on swine flu, see

 

Kevin Jones

6i11 cover

The new generation of foolhardy reporters Reply

In 1975 five Australian reporters were killed while covering the armed dispute between the Indonesian military and, what used to be called “freedom fighters”, the Fretilin in East Timor.  An indication of how circumstances can change is that José Ramos Horta, the current President of East Timor was a founder and former member of Fretilin, the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor.

Since that time, in particular, in Australia, the issue of safety of media employees has gained considerable attention, primarily through the work of the journalist’s union, the MEAA, and the international Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma

But there are a new generation of freelancers and writers who come to reporting from outside the tertiary journalism courses (this writer included) who do not have the benefit of accessing the wisdom and advice of experienced reporters.  These writers (I do not apply the term journalist  even to myself) see the excitement of reporting from exotic locations and areas of conflict.  New technology of recording and distribution only encourages them because it makes the reporting process easier or, at least, makes it easier to provide content, the quality of the content is often questionable.

A new book is being released in Australia concerning the Balibo Five and the author spoke to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.  Tony Maniaty, who was in Indonesia at the time and spoke with the Australian reporters, touches on the risks to which the new generation of reporters are willingly exposing themselves.   His comments are timely and reinforce the importance of what used to be called listening to the wisdom of elders but now seems to be mentoring.  His comments apply to all occupations and professions.

A feature film is being made about this period and the events surrounding the Balibo Five.  Maniaty attending the shooting of the film and spoke about this in a Youtube video, ostensibly for the promotion of his book. 

Kevin Jones

 

 

Lack of restraint – Australian approach, Singapore deaths 1

sa0200906[1]_Page_1The Northern Territory OHS  authority issued a guidance this week about unrestrained travel in work vehicles, a practice many of us stopped some time ago.  Obviously not everyone has.

The NT guidance is a curious document as it strongly advocates that employers assess the hazards of unrestrained travel and decide the appropriate control measures.  This advice is in line with legislative requirements and safety management protocols but clearly the authority has much clearer advice.  The document is headed 

“No seat – No belt – No ride”

The assessment has been done and the heading gives the best advice.  In OHS profession speak – if there is no seat for a passenger and/or no seat belt then NT OHS says allowing someone to travel on or in the vehicle is not acceptable.

Australia can often be glib about workplace incidents as it always looks past its region for comparisons from the US or Europe rather than looking at its immediate neighbourhood.  

Singapore’s Strait-Times reported in May 2009 about the real consequences of unrestrained travel after

“…three foreign workers sitting in the back of a lorry died after it crashed into the back of a trailer. A fourth man in the front seat also died.”

The article goes on to list the law changes that Singapore has introduced but, more interestingly, tells how much more complicated the issue is than in Australia due to the level of foreign labour.

Kevin Jones

Should OHS regulators be involved in the competence of professionals? 6

WorkSafe and the Safety Institute of Australia are at the forefront of pushing for a defined level of competence for the safety professional.  WorkSafe identified this need many years ago and has been working on establishing alliances with safety professions since then to achieve its aims.

Significantly similar issues have been discussed in the United Kingdom over a similar period however, in that process the WorkSafe equivalent, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), have chosen not to participate.  According to a recent article in HEALTH AND SAFETY AT WORK, the HSE has stated its position

“Speaking at IOSH’s recent conference, HSE chief executive Geoffrey Podger was adamant that the general description of competence in the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 (MHSW) Approved Code of Practice (ACoP) is sufficient. “I don’t think it helps the whole health and safety system if HSE tries to over-define the area,” he said, adding that there is still a “huge opportunity” for the professional bodies to work on their own definition.”

This position is considerably different from that in Australia where WorkSafe is now closely working (some would say too closely) with the SIA in developing standards and protocols that it and its partners want to operate nationally. Its aim seems to be similar to one the HSE and Health & Safety Commission established in 2007 – “Mapping Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Professional Body Activities in Scotland”.  It is worth looking at the page to see the list of safety professional bodies who are listed, the services offered and the membership databases.

Pages from externalproviders[1]A crucial HSE document is the “HSE statement to the external providers of health and safety assistance”.  Its statement that competence should be a goal rather than a benchmark should worry the Australian competence lobbyists.  In the Ponting article above, IOSH calls for more clarity but, as discussed elsewhere in SafetyAtWorkBlog, OHS legislation clearly states it is the employers’ ultimate responsibility to establish a safe and healthy work environment.  They may choose assistance from competent people but why should it be the regulator that establishes this?  The professional bodies such as IOSH and SIA have existed for decades.  Have they not determined levels of competency for their own members by now?

Geoff Hooke of the British Safety Industry Federation says

“when you ask how you measure competence, the simple answer is: with great difficulty”.

In general, shouldn’t the response from OHS professional associations be along the lines of

“we believe that all members of the XXX Association are competent within their fields and we would not hesitate in recommending our professional members in providing competent advice to companies…”?

These organizations who are calling for a clear definition are often the same organizations that are in support of “as far as is reasonably practicable”, a vague management concept that can be defined and re-defined depending on which judge hears which OHS prosecution. – the antithesis to the prevention principles of OHS.  One cannot call for certainty in one area while advocating flexibility in another.

The UK Works and Pensions Committee was right in saying that more control is required on external consultants and clearly lobbed the responsibility on the professional bodies.

Ponting’s article concludes that it is the job of the professional bodies to organize accreditation and the maintenance of that accreditation but acknowledges that it is politically fraught.  That is not enough reason to look to the regulator to solve the problem as it only makes the regulator the target of criticism over the process and the results.  The professional bodies themselves must work to a commonality of purpose and relinquish years of demarcation and, sometimes, schism.

The Australian safety professions would ultimately gain far more credibility for themselves and their professions if they too took it upon themselves to define accreditation, audit their members’ competencies and assist in the maintenance of skills.  In that way Australia may gain a safety profession of which everyone can be proud.

Kevin Jones

Insights into crisis decision-making and communications – Victorian Bushfire Royal Commission Reply

There’s an opportunity to follow the hearings of the Victorian Royal Commission on last summer’s horrendous bushfires via a live web stream. Here is the link to the Commission’s home page: http://www.royalcommission.vic.gov.au/ The “live stream” link on that page takes you to a live broadcast of the hearings underway at the time.

Fortunately, the catastrophe of the summer’s bushfires don’t happen often (unfortunately, the enormity of some people lighting fires does happen too often). What is even more rare is for us to be able to listen to first-hand witness experiences of decision-making in extreme conditions and to gain insights from listening to those experiences.

I often have the Royal Commission’s live stream running in the background while doing other work. I do that because I’d prefer to hear the witnesses reports directly. Of course, there will be a final report, but hearing the tone and context of the questions and answers are the sort of things that can be very difficult to recreate in a written report.

Monitoring the live stream is highly recommended for all safety professionals; doubly so for those people who work in larger businesses or organizations. A rare chance to observe and compare decision-making processes and lines of communication in complex situations to see what did and didn’t work.

Col Finnie
col@finiohs.com
www.finiohs.com

The OHS recommendations the Australian Government rejected 1

According to the Communiqué of the Workplace Relations Ministers’ Council on 18 May 2009, the following issues should be considered when drafting the new OHS legislation

“Application of the primary duty of care to any person conducting a business or undertaking

The panel recommends that the primary duty of care should be owed by any person conducting a business or undertaking.  The objective of this recommendation is to move away from the traditional emphasis on the employment relationship as the determiner of the primary duty, to provide greater health and safety protection for all persons involved in, or affected by, work activity.  Care needs to be taken during drafting to ensure that the scope of the duty is limited to matters of occupational health and safety and does not further extend into areas of public safety that are not related to the workplace activity. “

The first part of this is recognition of the variety of workplaces Australia now has, the number of people within worksites who are not employees and the previous issues of OHS and unpaid volunteers.  It seems to expand to matters of public liability but then, curiously, pulls back to emphasise occupational health and safety.  As Michael Tooma has noted, circumstances seem to have passed beyond the arbitrariness of the occupational categorisation. More…