Book review: Business, Environment, and Society – Themes and Cases Reply

Book coverAustralia’s Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program (HIP) spent a great deal of time looking at the design of what started as an environmental initiative delivered in one way to an economic stimulus package delivered another way.  The HIP, and the people working with it, struggled to accommodate these changes.  A new book from Baywood Publishing in the United States, coincidentally, looks at the growth in ‘green jobs” and, among many issues, discusses how such jobs can affect worker health.

In “Business, Environment, and Society – Themes and CasesVesela R Veleva writes

“Green jobs, however, are not necessarily safe jobs, and, any of the current green technologies pose significant health and safety risks to workers.  A life-cycle approach and greater emphasis on worker health and safety is necessary when promoting future policies and practices. (Page 7)

The advantage of looking at the HIP inquiries as green jobs is that it provides a broader, even global, context to the scheme. Veleva writes:

“While there is no universally accepted definition of a green job, several organisations have proposed working definitions.  The United Nations Environmental Program defines a green job as “work in agriculture, manufacturing, research and development, administrative and service activities that contribute substantially to preserving and restoring environmental quality”…. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics defines green jobs as jobs involved in producing green products and services and increasing the use of clean energy, energy efficiency and mitigating negative impacts on the environment…” (page 9)

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Dangerous personalities making work unsafe – really? 14

Pages from dangerous-personalities-making-work-unsafe-1Australian recruiting firm, Sacs Consulting, has released the findings of a survey entitled “Dangerous Personalities making work unsafe“.  Such surveys are predominantly marketing exercises and usually, as in this case, there is a limited amount of data available but the results are often broadly distributed and add to the discussion about workplace safety.

The headline itself is a red flag to occupational health and safety (OHS) professionals who are old enough to remember the debate about “blaming the worker” for OHS breaches, injuries and illnesses.  Most safety managers and corporate safety programs are applying a “no blame” philosophy to combat the worker focus but the reality is that workers are still being blamed and being dismissed for safety breaches.  The Sacs Consulting survey confirms the growing worker focus by looking at the personal rather than the organisational.

The Sacs study found:

“…that some people still ignore OHS rules and act unsafely in the workplace, whereas others value their own safety and that of their colleagues so actively that they try to improve the safety of their workplace. Using personality and values testing, the study was able to predict whether an individual is more or less
likely to be safe at work.” (page 1) More…

“Put the human being first” 13

One of the most contentious issues in safety management is the treatment of workers compensation claimants.  On 18 August 2014, a small qualitative research report into this area was launched in Melbourne.  The report, “Filling the Dark Spot: fifteen injured workers shine a light on the workers compensation system to improve it for others”* identified four themes in the workers’ stories:

  • a sense of injustice
  • a lack of control and agency
  • loss of trust, and
  • loss of identity.

These themes, or at least some of them, are increasingly appearing on the occupational health and safety (OHS) literature.  To establish a successful sustainable workplace culture, one needs to establish and maintain trust.  Workers also seem to need some degree of control, or at least influence, over their working conditions and environment.  Also workers, and managers, need to receive a fair hearing, what most would describe as “natural justice”. More…

Book review: The Financial and Economic Crises and Their Impact On Health and Social Well-Being 1

Book Cover NavarreAny of the books written or edited by Vicente Navarro are worth serious consideration.  The latest book, edited with Carles Muntaner has the daunting title of The Financial and Economic Crises and Their Impact On Health and Social Well-Being but it is the content that is important.  The editors’ social class analysis may be unfashionable in some areas, or even anachronistic, but the perspective remains valid, as they write:

“…any explanation of the current crisis requires incorporating a social class perspective so as to understand the modus operandi of the economic-financial-political system.” (page 4)

The book though is about the effects of the crisis on health and well-being and there is much to learn.  More…

WHS, performance indicators, annual reports and other thoughts 2

Macquarie University researcher Sharron O’Neill is traveling around Australia refining, through consultation and seminars, her research into Work Health and Safety (WHS) Due Diligence. In a Melbourne seminar this week O’Neill, and her colleague, Karen Wolfe,  provided thought-provoking discussions on three principal areas:

  • Due Diligence,
  • Performance Indicators, and
  • Reporting.

Below are some of my thoughts that they provoked.

WHS Due Diligence

WHS Due Diligence is still a poorly understood concept.  Part of the reason is that the major explainers of due diligence seem to be, predominantly, labour lawyers who, not surprisingly, emphasis the legal requirements and origins rather than the safety elements and application.  There are few safety professionals who are explaining due diligence; rather they are discussing OHS/WHS in the context of due diligence.

One colleague explained how an established organisation employed her as their first dedicated OHS professional around the same time as due diligence was being discussed  as part of the national OHS harmonisation process.  By looking through the company’s existing system of work, More…

Harm prevention needs to look beyond the individual into the corporate and the systemic 4

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…

Zero Accident Vision and its OHS potential 4

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…

Where is the evidence for new moves on drug and alcohol testing? 10

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.

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A rough ride on OHS 2

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 voice of OHS is being reduced to a squeak 14

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

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.

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