Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are excellent resources for minimising harm from workplace issues, particularly psychosocial hazards. However this usually occurs after an event or an incident. This reality was emphasised recently by a media release from AccessEAP that revealed “the top five causes of workplace stress” (not available online but an article based closely on the release is available HERE) . The top 5 seems reasonable but the advice in the media release doesn’t seem to address the causes of the top 2 – Job Insecurity and Work Overload. These are difficult hazards to address particularly as the causes may originate outside the workplace but the media release indicates that to be effective safety managers it is necessary to look beyond the company’s fenceline and accept that the prevention of harm is now just as much social and political as it is occupational.
The top 5 triggers of workplace stress according to AccessEAP are:
- Job insecurity
- Work overload
- Organisational change
- Conflict with managers or colleagues
- Bullying and harassment
Such triggers are not unusual. In 2002 the Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine (JOEM) reported the following causes of stress at work: More…
In 2013 the Safety Science journal allowed open access to an article that discusses “The case for research into the zero accident vision” (ZAV). The terminology is slightly different but seems compatible with the “zero harm” trend occurring in Australia. The authors acknowledge that
“…. many companies with a good safety reputation have adopted a zero accident vision, yet there is very little scientific research in this field.” (link added)
Although the discussion revolves around experience in Finland and Finland has a unique culture, the concepts discussed are indicative of the ZAV:
- “accounting for complex contexts;
- setting up norms, rules and performance indicators;
- identifying the role of safety climate and safety culture;
- studying human behavior.”
The authors’ short discussion of context is important as it acknowledges the state of knowledge of hazards and advocates systemic analysis. It also mentions dealing with ‘normal accidents” in complex settings that leads to either looking for safer substitutes or ‘high reliability theory’ and ‘resilience engineering’. Context is vital but there is also the trap of paying too much attention to context and not enough to the hazard, a situation that can often happen with wellbeing programs. More…
On 1 July 2014, the Victorian Government introduce a mandatory drug and alcohol testing regime for the sections of the construction industry. According to the government’s media release:
“New requirements for tighter screening of drug and alcohol use at construction workplaces across Victoria will commence from 1 July, helping to ensure a safer and more secure environment for workers.”
This decision has been made on the basis of “widespread reports of workers being intoxicated, and of drug distribution and abuse” but the rest of the media release reveals other reasons for these changes including political pressure on its Labor Party and trade union opponents in the months before a close State election. Premier Denis Napthine has indicated that the move is also about cracking down on “outlaw motorcycle gangs dealing drugs on the sites”.
But are reports of potential criminality on building site enough to introduce a drug and alcohol testing regime? It is worth looking at some of the existing research on drug and alcohol use (or its absence) in Australian and Victorian work sites.
Since I heard about the Gaia hypothesis in the 1980s, I have read most of James Lovelock‘s books. I was confronted by his argument that nuclear power is undervalued as one of the cleanest and sustainable sources of power, as I have grown up listening to anti-nuclear activists like Helen Caldicott and being frightened by films like Fail Safe and Threads. I am not sure I agree with Lovelock but I respect him. In his latest book, though, he makes a couple of negative references to occupational health and safety (OHS) that are cheap shots, unfair or disappointing.
Lovelock says, on page 2 of “A Rough Ride to the Future” that the chemical industry is “now mainly run by an intelligent and usually responsible technocracy” but that
“…we may be hampered in our attempts to solve the large problems [of pollution] by the absurdly zealous application of health and safety laws.” (emphasis added)
In discussing oxygen levels in the atmosphere and how its regulation is so important, Lovelock says, in parentheses,
“We are fortunate there is no inbuilt health and safety system in Gaia, otherwise the dangers of fires would have led to the banning of its production.” (page 13)
This comment, moreso than the former, shows Lovelock misunderstands OHS regulation and application. Earlier in the book he praises the banning of chlorofluorocarbons on climatic reasons and then, absurdly, implies that OHS would advocate the banning of oxygen. It’s a cheap shot. OHS is about trying to eliminate the risk of harm and by investigating the source of the hazard, usually through the scientific method. More…
The decline of trade union influence in Australia, as membership remains low, has the sad effect of also seeing a reduced voice for some core elements of occupational health and safety (OHS) such as the importance and prominence of the “safe system of work”, the myth of the “careless worker” and the insidious hazard of impairment. These OHS issues remain significant and demand attention but who will be the new voice of workplace safety?
Impairment is a collective term that many trade unionists use for workplace hazards such as fatigue, drug use, alcohol use and other psychosocial hazards, such as stress. Impairment is a useful term as it relates to the worker’s fitness for work and the level of attentiveness that the employer expects as part of the employment contract. It also ties into the issue of labour productivity as an impaired worker, regardless of the cause of the impairment, is unlikely to be working as hard or as effectively, or productively, as the employer expects.
The downside is that using a collective term makes it more difficult to focus on specific interventions. Drug and alcohol use can be combated by a combination of preventive education and enforcement through testing but such strategies cannot be applied to fatigue or stress although both these elements may be contributory factors to drug and alcohol use. Stress and fatigue are more effectively reduced by job redesign and a reassessment of the organisational structure and morality, in other words, the establishment of a “safe system of work” as required by both the OHS and Work Health and Safety (WHS) laws.
Impairment may have some connotations of disability but its attraction is that it is a neutral term for describing something, or someone, that is not working as intended due to an external factor. It is a good descriptor but a poor term from which to base anything more than general action.
Safe System of Work
The “safe system of work” has been a term whose definition never seemed to have stabilised in Australia’s legislation. This is partly because it has been treated similar to a workplace culture, something that is thought to exist but never really understood.
When people mention safety, they are often really talking about risk. In a similar way, people talk about the absurdity of ‘elf ‘n’ safety when they actually mean public liability or food safety or HACCP. And when some professionals talk about risk management they mean minimising the cost to the employer or controlling reputational damage.
Recently two books were released that illustrate the limitations of the current Western/patriarchal society’s approach to workplace safety. Dr Dean Laplonge has written about gender and its role in making decisions and Dr Rob Long has written his third book on risk “Real Risk – Human Discerning and Risk“. Both deserve close reading and that reading should be used to analyse how safety professionals conduct their work, the organisational environment in which they work and the cultural restrictions imposed in their technical education.
Laplonge has written a book out of the extensive research and training on gender issues in the mining industry. “So you think you’re tough? – Getting serious about gender in mining” provokes thoughts and self-analysis about gender in the workplace and safety management systems. This perspective may be part of the reason that attempts at changing safety cultures, particularly in industries where there is a strong gender imbalance – construction, mining, emergency services, nursing, teaching, struggle. (For those who cannot purchase the book, check out this free publication on the topic from the WA Department of Mines and Petroleum) More…
Recently Safe Work Australia released its first annual statement on “Psychosocial health and safety and bullying in Australian workplaces“. This is a terrific initiative but it has a significant flaw – it combines statistical data for harassment and bullying even though they are different hazards, have different remedies, are usually handled by different professions in many organisations, and have different external appeal options.
The Annual Statement itself quotes its origin:
“The Committee recommends that Safe Work Australia issues an annual national statement which updates any emerging trends of its collated data from each of the state and territory regulators, and the Commonwealth, with respect to psychosocial health and safety generally and workplace bullying specifically“. (emphasis added)
Nowhere in the Annual Statement is there any data specifically addressing workplace bullying. Bullying is always linked with harassment, contrary to the brief from the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Employment’s workplace bullying report, as I read it.
Beyondblue has just released a report into the cost of mental health in the workplace prepared by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and called “Creating a mentally healthy workplace – Return on investment analysis“. The report is interesting but of limited use for those looking for ways to make their own workplaces safer and healthier with minimal cost. The Beyondblue media release claims
“… that Australian businesses will receive an average return of $2.30 for every $1 they invest in effective workplace mental health strategies.
The research, which looked at the impact of employees’ mental health conditions on productivity, participation and compensation claims, also found these conditions cost Australian employers at least $10.9 billion a year.”
The first claim looks attractive but achieving such a return is unlikely unless the company includes the following:
- “commitment from organisational leaders,
- employee participation,
- development and implementation of policies,
- provision of the necessary resources, and
- a sustainable approach.” (page iv)
The best chance for the return on investment (ROI) will likely occur in a company that has an enlightened management, “necessary resources” and a leadership that is already likely to have mental health and a safe organisational culture on its agenda. This is a rare combination which limits the application of the PwC report findings. More…
Ministerial responsibility seems to be advantageous in financial policies but irrelevant to workplace safety going by actions by Australia’s political leaders. This week former senior (Labor) parliamentarians, Mark Arbib, Peter Garrett, Greg Combet and Kevin Rudd, will be fronting the Royal Commission into Home Insulation to explain their lack of due diligence on workplace safety matters. This is only a week after the Federal (Liberal) Government released a Commission of Audit report that promoted ministerial responsibility.
The popular perspective is that these ministerial decision-makers will be held to account for the deaths of four young workers but this is unlikely to occur because State occupational health and safety (OHS) laws establish a direct OHS relationship between employers and employees and the senior politicians did not employ anyone who was installing home insulation. The argument at the Royal Commission mirrors the chain of responsibility concept except that in work health and safety (WHS) legislation, government ministers are not covered by the definition of ‘officer’ and therefore have less OHS/WHS responsibility that anyone heading up a company or organisation.
Labour lawyer Michael Tooma has perhaps been the most outspoken critic of this, as he describes it, “purely cynical political” exercise. More…
There are very few innovations that originate from within the occupational health and safety (OHS) profession. Most of the change seems to come from the application of external concepts to workplace activities and approaches. Recently a colleague was discussing how some of the current OHS initiatives mirror the “broken windows” concept which originated in criminology in the United States. In some ways Broken Windows Theory mirrors OHS positives but it may also reflect some of the negatives or OHS dead-ends.
Ostensibly Broken Windows Theory discusses how attention to small improvements may generate cultural change. However the improvements introduced seem to have different levels of success depending on the context in which they are applied. For instance in OHS, a construction site may mandate that protective gloves are worn for all manual activity but if there is a variable level of manual handling risk, the wearing of gloves will be an accepted practice in one area but haphazard in another. The intention of a mandated safety requirement is to change the risk and safety culture of a workplace but the different levels of risk mean that the requirement can be seen as “common sense” in one area but unnecessary “red tape” in another.
The criminological application of the theory reached its peak in New York City in the 1980s and 1990s. More…