The demographic challenges facing OHS management Reply

The best OHS advice, or rather innovative thinking, is frequently coming from those experts from outside the traditional OHS background.

A case in point could be a presentation made by prominent Australian demographer, Bernard Salt, at one of the many Safe Work Australia Week events in South Australia.   Salt provided enough information about population changes that OHS professionals and regulators became uneasy about many of the challenges that they will face in the next few decades.

Consider yourself how the following facts provided by Bernard Salt will affect the way you manage safety in your workplace:

  • A ‘demographic fault line’ occurs in Australia from 2011, when the baby boomers start retiring.
  • More older workers will be in a position to retire than there will be younger workers to replace them.
  • Older workers will stay at their jobs for longer rendering them susceptible to body stressing and similar injuries.
  • Many older workers will scale down their work to a few days or one day a week, and as a result may not be fully attuned to the workplace safety risks.
  • To top up the Australian workforce (and tax base) a substantial migrant intake will be required.
  • These prospective workers (and entrepreneurs) will need to be educated in the Australian OHS culture.

If the OHS profession is to truly be “proactive”, it is these sorts of forecasts that should be anticipated.

Kevin Jones

SafeWork Australia releases six workplace statistical reports Reply

In early September 2009, Safe Work Australia released four national statistical reports.   On 19 October 2009 a further six in the 2005-06 stats series were released:

It is not possible to provide the executive summaries of each report in this instance but there were several issues of particular interest as listed in the media release that Safe Work Australia:

  • “part-time workers in the retail trade industry recorded a frequency rate of injury nearly double that of full-time workers
  • agriculture, forestry and fishing workers experienced the highest rate of injuries, with 109 injuries per 1000 workers
  • employees in the construction industry recorded a similar rate of injury to self-employed workers. Similarly there was little difference in rates of injury between those working on a contract and those not working on a contract
  • young workers (15 to 24 year olds) in the manufacturing industry recorded an injury rate 44% higher than the corresponding rate for young workers in the Australian workforce as a whole, and
  • transport and storage workers aged 35 to 44 years recorded an injury rate 75% higher than the rate recorded by all Australian workers of this age.”

Kevin Jones

CFMEU, IPA, Gretley Mine – political lessons 2

Readers outside of  New South Wales may vaguely remember that in 1996 four miners died in a coalmine in the Hunter Valley 0f New South Wales.  They may also remember that the was some press about the prosecution of some directors of the mining company.  It was one of those incidents and court cases that should have gained broader attention that it did.

As OHS stakeholders in Australia ponder the ramifications of the Government’s proposed Safe Work Bill, it is important to also ponder the legal legacy of the Gretley mine disasater.  It may provide non-NSW and non-mining readers with a better understanding of the resistance to the new harmonised laws from the mining industry in both New South Wales and Western Australia.

Cover ARTAndrewVickersOpinionPiece091009On 15 October 2009, Andrew Vickers of the Construction Forestry Mining & Energy Union used the Gretley saga as a justification to call for the harmoinised legislation and support systems to allow for variations to meet the special needs of the mining sector.

cover PHILLIPS        5.04925E-210RETLEYOn the other side of political fence, Ken Phillips of the Institute of Public Affairs, a conservative thinktank, produced a document about the politics of the Gretley saga.  The publication was supported by a video, available below. Phillips’ paper is a useful illustration of business’ opinions of the unions and New South Wales’ OHS legislation.  This legislation is a centrepiece to the ACTU and union movement’s concerns and opposition to many elements of the current draft Safe Work Bill.

Prominent sociologist, Andrew Hopkins, has written about the OHS management issues raised by the disaster and its aftermath.

SafetyAtWorkBlog believes that these political and safety resources can provide a primer to many of the issues being discussed in the current debate on OHS laws.

Kevin Jones

Mobile phone cancer link still unclear Reply

A new research study into the possible health effects if using a mobile phone remains inconclusive.  According to a report in the Journal of Clinical Oncology,

“The current study found that there is possible evidence linking mobile phone use to an increased risk of tumors from a meta-analysis of low-biased case-control studies.  Prospective cohort studies providing a higher level of evidence are needed.”

Basically this is saying there is a bit of evidence but more research is needed.  In the context of cancer risks from using mobile phones, status quo remains.

Although only the abstract of the research is available online for free, a long discussion is available at Australia’s ABC website. The significant issue in this article is that “high quality” research found evidence of a possible cancer link and “low-quality” research found none.

If one is not a medical researcher, as SafetyAtWorkBlog is not, this research provides no practical guidance for the reduction of risk.  In fact, it goes some way to fostering the layman’s suspicion of research.

If one has the task of minimising the (perceived) risk of receiving cancer for workers using mobile telephones, this study is useless.  In reducing the increasing concerns from staff about this occupational hazard, this study is useless.  The research does indicate that, at least, research is continuing but it adds nothing to the state of OHS knowledge needed to manage the potential hazard.

“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”* seems to fit the situation of mobile phones and cancer.

Kevin Jones

*  Both Carl Sagan and Donald Rumsfeld have used this phrase.  Allocate credit to whichever you choose

The bad news and the good news of New Zealand agricultural safety 1

On 8 October 2009, New Zealand’s Department of Labour issued a press release that stated

“New research confirms the importance of work in agriculture safety and health. The research by Otago University’s Injury Prevention Research Unit found that the rate of serious injuries and fatalities on New Zealand farms has remained high in contrast to declines in other industries over the past two decades.”

The release states that DoL continues to place a high importance on preventative action in the agriculture sector, an undeniably important economic sector for New Zealand.

OR72 coverHowever, what was most noticeable was that

“the rate of serious injuries and fatalities on New Zealand farms has remained high in contrast to declines in other industries over the past two decades.”

Surely this is not a good news story.  Twenty years of preventative interventions in the agriculture sector have not been as successful as those in other industries.

SafetyAtWorkBlog contacted DoL for clarification.  The commitment of DoL to the agriculture sector was re-emphasized.  DoL responded very promptly to our enquiries and provided links to additional information including the original research report.

Part of the Otago University project was a literature review in the sector from 2000 to 2008.  The major findings were

  • “The most common mechanisms for serious non-fatal injury and fatal injury include agricultural machinery (including vehicles –tractors, ATVs), livestock and falls for all age groups, in all three regions under review.
  • The exposures and risks of disease in the agricultural sector currently being researched and where researchers agree there is a need for further research include:
    • exposure to dust and organic materials and the relation to respiratory disorders;
    • exposure to pesticides, herbicides and insecticides and associations with various cancers including: non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma; prostate cancer, breast and ovarian cancer, leukaemia, multiple myeloma and brain cancers;
    • environmentally associated cancers (for example, skin cancer and cancer of the lip) and their association with production practice.
  • Occupational fatalities in agriculture remain high, despite decreases in occupational fatality rates for other industry groups, in all three regions over the last decade. The research demonstrates that there are various groups that are particularly at risk, these include:
    • men in all age groups;
    • older workers/farmers;
    • migrant and seasonal workers;
    • youths (particularly those aged between 11-15 years and male)
    • Children (particularly male children)
    • Farm-owners and managers, with respect to intentional fatal self harm injury) again predominantly men.”

Several other surveys were undertaken, one by telephone.  Those results are also telling.  Amongst the results was this paragraph concerning injuries:

“With respect to injury, thirteen percent (13%) of farmers from the AgriBase™ sample had had an injury, in the three months prior to interview, which had restricted their activity for a half a day or more and/or which required medical treatment from a health professional.  Generally these injuries were reasonably serious and respondents reported work capacity was poor following injury.  For two-thirds of those injured it was over a week before they could resume normal farming duties; yet only a third of these respondents made a claim to the Accident Compensation Corporation.”

Key findings of the report for governments include

“….there is no long term prevention strategy for injury and disease that specifically addresses the agricultural sector.”

“The dominant stereotype of the farmer as being rugged, independent and self-sufficient (and masculine) is also largely uncritically accepted by many stakeholders. These and associated stereotypes about the nature of rural life and notions of rural isolation are problematic and potentially can undermine effective health interventions in this sector.”

“…there is a tendency for initiatives to be ad-hoc and for there to be a lack of co-ordination and coherence, and in some instances, where there are some questions around the efficacy of various interventions, an unwillingness to accept that there are problems.”

There are many others that discuss a lack of resources, dubious targeting, a lack of coordination and inter-organisational politics.

For farmers and other individuals, some of the findings include:

“In connection to this evident stoicism was a vocational identification to the work they do; most could not imagine not farming, it was not just a job.  The implications here are that they would often keep on working with an injury (such as a back condition), as doing the work was more important, not just economically, but also in terms of their identity, and an underlying belief that it would heal itself if they just kept on going.”

“Many said they were too tired at the end of a working day to read about injury and disease or to go onto the internet to learn about it either.  When they opened the paper they wanted to know about local and international news, not health matters.  This presents some real challenges for the sector in terms of disseminating information.”

The University of Otago also issued a media release on the research project.  This release reflects the tone and results of the research project much more accurately.

The whole report reflects the current status of safety in the agricultural sector in New Zealand.  It reports on good intentions in the wrong areas, a need to look beyond the stereotypes and the need for sustained intervention.

What seems to be needed is a creative and effective response from the Government that acknowledges that past strategies have failed, or at least that some of them have.  All the existing strategies need reviewing to determine which have shown promise and could succeed if appropriate resources were allocated.  Inspiration needs to be sought from within the region and from around the world.  If this has already been sought and found wanting, the sad reality will be that it falls to New Zealand to make the change.

New Zealand’s DoL may already be facing this bleak reality.  In their media statement, the Department’s Chief Adviser, Safety and Health, Dr Geraint Emrys said:

“The Department will use the findings of the research to inform policy decisions and to better target operational interventions to make them more effective in reducing the injury and death toll in agriculture.”

New Zealand could lead the world in this important area.

Kevin Jones

More on leave retention and mental health 1

The research statistics quoted in an earlier blog article have finally been located.

Page 1 from Research dataIt is important to understand the limitations of the study.  Firstly, these are not statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics so they do not have the same weight as the regularly issued Labour Force statistics.  It would be great if the government began collating this useful economic and business information.

The data released by Tourism Australia also does not include owner-operators or part-time employees.  Part-time employees account for over 3 million Australians out of a total population of 22 million*. That seems a large number to leave out of the calculation.

Nor does the study include any annual leave that does not involve travel.  So if one takes annual leave and recuperate in one’s backyard for four weeks or some quality time with the kids, this is not included.

These restrictions alone show that official statistics on leave use and retention are needed.

The Research Data has some comments specifically about the workplace

“There is a consistent and widespread perception that leave is harder to take than it used to be. Two separate shifts have contributed to this feeling: that it is harder to take time off from work and that it is more difficult to plan holidays.”

Whether it is harder to plan holidays is not relevant to SafetyAtWorkBlog but why is it harder to take time off from work? It is unclear if this is a perspective of the employee or the employer. What is easier to accept is that

“Organisations were no longer seen to factor leave-taking into employee workloads, but expected people to work 52 weeks per year.”

From an OHS perspective this is unforgivable, unhealthy and unsafe. Any companies that do this are breaching their OHS obligations of providing a safe and healthy working environment.

“People are shifting into ‘work addiction’ behaviour irrespective of how they feel about it. They’re working longer hours and are under pressure to perform. Despite a higher consciousness of the importance of work/life balance, many believe things are going in the other direction.

Rather than the onus of planning leave being on the organisation as in the past, it was viewed that this has shifted to the individual. Whereas many organisations used to have cover for people going on leave, it was seen that it is now the responsibility of individuals to organise their workloads if they want to take leave.”

Further research on what caused the change of attitude would be fascinating. It is suspected that the survey frenzy generated by the global financial crisis may be showing results soon on this issue.

What the research data indicates is that there may be “employers of choice” and one’s awareness of work/life balance is high but the reality is vastly different.   There may be financial, organisational and career barriers to achieving some form of stability in mental health and productivity.  What is undeniable is that having leave from work is as important for one’s mental wellbeing as sleep, and to neglect either is not healthy or productive.

What we need is hard and authoritative evidence so that those who motivate change can do so from a position of authority rather than from impressions.

Kevin Jones

*As with all statistical calculations in SafetyAtWorkBlog, please verify them from the original data. (Arts graduates can describe “alliteration” but can’t count very well) If wrong, please advise us immediately.

Handedness is not considered when investigating a workplace incident Reply

Ha01-012Robyn Parkin has completed her small survey of handedness in safety management.  Initial results are below:

  • “92% of respondents stated that their companies do not ask whether a person is left- or right-handed on their accident report form, and 77% do not consider handedness as a possible root cause of accidents.
  • 13 companies stated that they may consider handedness where ergonomics is a possible issue, eg with poor access to equipment controls.”

More details will be available in an upcoming edition of New Zealand’s Safeguard magazine.  Robyn Parkin can be contacted about her research at robyn@impac.co.nz

Kevin Jones

Comcare’s RTW performance has some worrying trends Reply

RTWMatters, an Australian return-to-work website, has analysed some of the data that has been released through the annual data – Aust & NZ RTW Monitor.  The statistics show that the Australian Government’s workers’ compensation insurer, Comcare, has performed well on some performance indicators but others are raising concerns, particularly

  • “The cost of claims has risen from $15 000 in 2005-06 to almost $20 000 in 2008-09. This is substantially higher than the national average.
  • Around 1/3 of Comcare workers can identify a person who made it harder to RTW, which is higher than the national rate. Over the last three years there has been a significant increase in Comcare employees reporting their employer has hindered return to work.
  • Over the last two years, Comcare workers have found it increasingly difficult to find the information they need to make a claim.
  • Comcare workers rated their insurer customer service lower than the national average, with communication, advice about the claim and understanding the situation rated lowest.”

Paul O’Connor, at last week’s Comcare Conference in Canberra was very upbeat but was well aware of the challenges ahead particularly for the next five years during a period when the Australian government will attempt to harmonise the OHS laws in each jurisdiction.  It should be noted that Paul has been Comcare’s CEO since 1 September 2009.  He was formerly with the Transport Accident Commission in Victoria.

O’Connor quoted the Australian Finance Minister, Lindsay Tanner, during his conference presentation.  (The Tanner quotes are from August 2009)

“It is unlikely that we will see any major reform in this area in the near future, as Australia’s various governments are grappling with the challenging task of building uniform national industrial relations and occupational health and safety systems.

“Nevertheless, the current campaign for a national catastrophic injury compensations scheme should trigger a wider debate about injury compensation in our society generally. The present system is fragmented, inequitable, inefficient and arbitrary. Reform could be some time coming but it’s certainly long overdue.”

RTWMatters has identified that more groundwork is going to be needed in the lead-up to the reform process if any measurable improvements are to be achieved.  In their media statement, they say

“Real collaboration requires that all stakeholders be able to access information to assess the impact of legislative and systems changes on workers compensation and return to work outcomes.”

The road to reform that Geoff Fary described as very difficult will be an important one to watch.

Kevin Jones

[Kevin Jones is a feature writer with RTWMatters]

23rd suicide at France Telecome in 18 months 2

Adam Sage has been following the suicides that have occurred in France Telecome for some time.  On 23 September 2009 in the TimesOnline (a week later in The Australian newspaper??), Sage provides a useful summary and cogitation on the “cluster”.

But although this number of suicides in one company should be alarming, it is not really a cluster as the suicide rate for Telecome’s employees was only slightly above the national average of 14.7 per 100,000 people.  Sage reports that France is a country with a high comparative suicide rate.  The relevance to SafetyAtWorkBlog is that Sage goes on to identify work-related factors that contribute to suicides.

He quotes a sociology professor who says the French “define themselves by their professions”.  The risk with this basis for identity is always when the demand for the profession declines, one needs to redefine and this is not easy.

Sage finds a psychoanalyst who says that his patients feel isolated at work and have no support mechanisms.

A suicide prevention expert says that often a problem at home is the suicide trigger with someone who is feeling stressed at work.

Sage provides a potted history of the privatisation of France Telecome and speaks to a current employee bemoans the loss of camaraderie.

What is surprising about this article is that it seems France, and particularly France Telecome, are way behind other Western nations in having control measures in place for employee support programs and change management.

It is not as if France is ignorant of workplace stress issues or that workplace suicides have only occurred at France Telecome.  A major reason for its experiment with the 35-hour week was to

“…to take advantage of improvements in productivity of modern society to give workers some more personal time to enhance quality of life.”

In January 2008 (well before the current financial crises), the Institute for Economic and Social Research published “Workplace suicides highlight issue of rising stress levels at work “.  After some suicides at Renault and Peugeot it assessed the issues, acknowledged the trade union assertion that

“…excessive isolation of workers due to high workloads and fierce competition leads to a malaise in companies and thus call for a reflection on choices of work organisation.”

The article also reported

“The French Democratic Confederation of Labour (Confédération française démocratique du travail, CFDT) welcomed the ‘recognition of psychological factors being the cause of an occupational accident’ as it ‘opens the way to taking into account a form of suffering and malaise that, until now, has been minimised by companies’.”

A longer-lasting improvement will only come if this recognition is built on by all social structures in France.  Perhaps it should look across the channel at how the Health & Safety Executive and the corporate sector have responded to the report by Dame Carol Black – “Working for Health” – calling for an integrated approach to health management involving work, public health, health promotion and other elements of social capital.

France Telecome held an extraordinary Board meeting on 15 September concerning its suicide rate.  It made the following commitments:

  • “The national health, safety and working conditions committee (CNSHSCT) will be meeting on Thursday next week in the presence of Jean-Denis Combrexelle, the Ministry’s Director General for Employment.
  • To stop the phenomenon from spreading, it has been decided to immediately put in place a freephone number to promote dialogue. Psychologists from outside the company will be available to listen to and talk with any employees who may be having difficulties.
  • The first meeting for the negotiations on stress will be taking place on Friday September 18. On this occasion, the employee representatives will appoint an external consultancy to conduct an audit of the situation within France Telecom.
  • These negotiations will focus on the prevention of stress and psychosocial risks in the event of geographical or professional mobility among staff. To address this issue, a forward-looking employment and skills management (GPEC) system will be set-up with a view to offering employees and their direct managers visibility over their professional development and support.”

Didier Lombard, France Telecom’s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, has set a tight timeframe for improvement.  On 15 September 2009 Lombard said

“December’s France Telecom will not be the France Telecom of today.”

Kevin Jones

UPDATE 30 SEPTEMBER 2009

Agence France Presse has reported a 24th suicide associated with France Telecom.  According to the report the 51-year-old male jumped to his death from an overpass onto a busy highway.  His suicide note to his wife expressly referred to the work environment as a reason for his action.

 

Increasing risk of silicosis in the majority world Reply

Australian safety expert and activist Melody Kemp reported from the annual meeting of the Asian Network for the Rights of Occupational Accident Victims (ANROAV) that was held in late September 2009 in Phnom Penh.

The meeting featured many stories about the increasing risk of silicosis in Asia.  Melody writes in the 27 September edition of the blog “In These Times”:

“Silicosis afflicts workers working with gems, ceramics, rock blasting, drilling and crushing, and mining. It haunts unprotected workers in glassworks, mines and foundries, as well as those who live within reach of the dust. It’s usually fatal by the time it is diagnosed.

Largely eradicated in the economic North, silicosis is now the scourge of the Global South. Millions die from the illness each year.”

The size of the growing occupational and community threat is frightening.

“China alone reports over 100,000 new cases of industrial lung disease per year, and has more than 4 million existing cases. And those are just the official figures. Even industrially advanced South Korea sees over 1,000 new cases of occupational chest disease each year, reported Dr. Domyung Paek, a pulmonary specialist from Seoul National University.”

Melody has contacted SafetyAtWorkBlog asking for assistance in attracting occupational medical experts to Cambodia and other countries undergoing rapid industrialisation.  She can be contacted by clicking HERE.

Kevin Jones