New Australian discussion paper on nanotechnology 3

Nanotechnology research papers are often very technical and highly unlikely to discuss the occupational health and safety impacts of the technology’s use.  The papers often rely on someone else to explain the relevance of the research.

But on 24 November 2009, Dr Fern Wickson of the University of Bergen spoke in Brisbane about nanotechnology challenges and released a discussion paper entitled “What you should know about nano“.

According to an accompanying media release from The Australia Institute Dr Wickson’s paper included several recommendations:

  • Mandatory reporting on all products containing nanotubes and other nanomaterials
  • A parliamentary inquiry into nanoST
  • Health surveillance and environmental monitoring of high potential exposures
  • Adopting a precautionary approach to the commercialisation of the technology in cases where the potential for harm has been demonstrated, significant uncertainties remain and social benefits appear marginal.

The reasons for the recommendations are explained in the paper but the paper is, refreshingly, intended to

“…introduce and engage its audience in the experiment that is nanoscale sciences and technologies, particularly from the perspectives of consumer and environmental protection and occupational health and safety.”

The links and footnotes are excellent sources of original research material including the recently released (but not available online without a fee) paper

Bergamaschi, E (2009). ‘Occupational exposure to nanomaterials: present knowledge and future development’, Nanotoxicology, 3:3, pp. 194–201.

Enrico Bergamaschi’s research paper, according to an abstract, recommends that

“…given the limited amount of information about the health risks associated with occupational exposure to engineered NP, the precautionary principle suggests to take measures to minimize worker exposures. Implementing appropriate engineering controls, using personal protective equipment, establishing safe handling procedures, together to monitor worker’s health, are all strategic elements of a risk management programme at workplace.”

Plenty to read and even more to think on.

Kevin Jones

ROPS and Quad Bikes – the failure of ATV manufacturers and OHS regulators 13

The Hierarchy of Controls has some questionable OHS applications to psychosocial hazards but it applies very well to “traditional” hazards, those involving plant.  The Hierarchy also emphasizes that the first step in any hazard control is to consider whether the hazard can be eliminated.  But what happens when the designers of equipment and plant know that a design can be made safer but do nothing to improve it?

For almost two decades some Australian OHS regulators have provided rebates to farmers to fit roll over protective structures (ROPS) to tractors to prevent deaths and injuries to the drivers from rollover or flips.  In 2009, one would be hard pressed to find a tractor that does not have its safety features emphasised as a sales benefit.  ROPS on tractors have been compulsory since 1998 in most States.

On 17 November 2009, Workplace Standards Tasmania issued a safety alert which, like the New Zealand ATV guidelines, advocates helmets and not ROPS even though OHS legislative principles say that elimination of hazards is the aim. The Tasmanian safety alert outlines the reasons for the safety alert

“Recent information shows there are, on average, 15 fatalities a year associated with using quad bikes in the Australian rural industry sector. Many more people are injured.

A recent coronial inquest into seven fatal incidents involving quad bikes (two in Tasmania and five in Victoria) has sparked a renewed call for improved safety on quad bikes.

As a result, Workplace Standards Tasmania has adopted a policy of zero tolerance of breaches of duty of care responsibilities with quad bikes.”

Zero tolerance of breaches of duty”?  The Tasmanian OHS Act places this duty on the designers of plant

(1) A person who designs, manufactures, imports or supplies any plant or structure for use at a workplace must so far as is reasonably practicable –

(a) ensure that the design and construction of the plant or structure is such that persons who use the plant or structure properly are not, in doing so, exposed to risks to their health and safety;…..

SafetyAtWorkBlog is awaiting comments from Workplace Standards Tasmania on the elimination of ATV rollover hazards.

As a terminological aside, there is a growing movement to rename All Terrain Vehicles as Quad Bikes because the fatality and injury data clearly shows that the vehicles cannot be driven in “all terrains”.

Five recent fatalities involving quad bikes, mentioned in the safety alert, should spark some investigation into whether the design of the plant contributed in any way to the fatalities.  Yet the safety alert makes no mention of design other than, tenuously, encouraging farmers to make sure

“…your quad bike is properly maintained and used according to the manufacturer’s specifications.”

This is a reasonable statement but if it was possible to make the vehicle safer, to save one’s own life and livelihood, by adding a ROPS, why wouldn’t you?

The manufacturer’s specifications are certain to be suitable to that quad bike but what if the quad bike design is itself not “fit for purpose”?  Plenty of other machines and vehicles are being redesigned to accommodate poor or inappropriate driver behaviour.  What makes quad bike so sacrosanct?

Victoria had a major opportunity for reform in this area through a parliamentary inquiry into farm deaths and injuries in August 2005.  Many farm safety advocates had high hopes for major change on ATV safety but design changes were not recommended.

According to the farm safety report

“Some witnesses suggested that roll over protection structures for ATVs should be made compulsory. Others, particularly representatives on behalf of the ATV industry, argued that fitting of a roll over protective structure to an ATV would adversely affect the handling and utility characteristics of these vehicles.”
Extensive research was undertaken by the Monash University Accident Research Centre which found
“…that, in the event of an ATV accident, “if the occupant is adequately restrained [with a suitable safety harness] within a protective roll over structure, the severity of [injuries caused during] the roll over event is dramatically reduced.”
Contrary evidence on ROPS was presented on behalf of the vehicle manufacturers.  The Parliamentary Committee understandably found
“To the Committee’s knowledge, there is no existing example of a roll over protective structure device that satisfies requirements for driver protection without substantially reducing the handling characteristics of ATVs. This report cannot, based on available evidence, make any recommendations concerning the fitting of roll over protective structures to ATVs.”
The UK’s Health & Safety Executive in 2002 undertook a detailed survey on the issue of ROPS and, among many recommendations said
“The use of the “safe cell” technology offers a number of imaginative approaches as alternatives to traditional structures, particularly for smaller machinery, and should not be overlooked.  Their contribution could be invaluable if relevant techniques were validated and became legally acceptable.”
Farmers, equipment manufacturers and OHS advocates are understandably confused when there is conflicting information (but then uncertainty breeds stagnation which is likely to advantage those who do not want change).
An investigation into ATV safety funded by the New Zealand Department of Labour in 2002 provided the following conclusion

“… it appears that the risk of using ATVs is significant, however there are some possible measures that could be put in place to reduce injuries, particularly those that are more severe and/or fatal. It seems that appropriate training is the most promising factor particularly because of the strong impact human behaviour has on the outcomes of the accidents.

In addition, the high risk for a fatal outcome when ATVs are rolled over, pinning the driver Reducing Fatalities in All-Terrain Vehicle Accidents in New Zealand underneath, suggests that further consideration and research is needed regarding the use of ROPS and/or any other measures that can prevent an ATV from rolling over.”

One Australian manufacturer accepted the challenge and has designed a ROPS for ATVs that shows enormous promise. QB Industries has developed the Quadbar, a passive roll over protection structure.  A demonstration video is available to view online.
It is understood that the Australian distributors of ATVs are not supportive of the safety innovation of QB Industries.  Apparently the distributors believe that the Quadbar increases the risk to the rider and that the safety claims are misleading.  The distributors are also concerned that the Quadbar may jeopardise the manufacturer’s warranty.
These concerns may be valid but surely these need to be independently tested and, if the device saves the lives and limbs of farmers and other riders, incorporated into the design in such a way that the vehicles become safer, regardless of the actions of the individual.  After all, the safer design of motor vehicles has progressed substantial from the days of Ralph Nader’s investigations in the 1960’s to such an extent that safety is a major sales strategy.
One independent test conducted for QB Industries by the University of Southern Queensland reported this about the QuadBar:
  1. The Quad Bar did not impede rider operation of the quad bike during normal operation (based on limited riding by the Chief Investigator).
  2. In low speed sideways roll over, the Quad Bar arrests the roll over and prevents the ATV from resting in a position that could trap and asphyxiate the rider.
  3. In higher speed sideways rollover, the Quad Bar impedes the roll over and prevents the ATV from resting in a position that could trap and asphyxiate the rider. In all tests the Quad Bar provided some clearance between the ground surface and the ATV seat so the rider would be unlikely to be trapped in this space.
  4. In all back flip tests, the Quad Bar arrested the back flip and the quad bike fell to one side.
  5. There were no conditions where the ATV with the Quad Bar fitted rested in a position that was more detrimental to rider safety than the ATV without protection.
If this device did not exist, the advocacy of helmets as the best available safety device  may have been valid but this design has the potential to eliminate the hazard and not just minimise the harm.  Surely it is better to have a farmer walk away from an ATV rollover that to break a neck or have a leg crushed.
The battle that QB industries has had, and continues to have, with quad bike vehicle manufacturers is beginning to reveal tactics by the manufacturers that are reminiscent of those of James Hardie Industries with asbestos and the cigarette manufacturers over lung cancer.
The approach of the OHS regulators to ROPS for ATVs must be reviewed because the dominant position seems to be that helmets are good enough, that no one is striving to eliminate the hazard or and that the Hierarchy of Controls does not apply.
QB Industries has followed the OHS principles and has designed a ROPS that warrants investigation, and the support and encouragement of OHS regulators.  The longer this investigation is ignored, the more people will be killed and injured when using these vehicles.  To not investigate this design would be negligent.

Unpaid overtime is the new danger money 1

In Australia there is increasing pressure to work more hours than what one is paid for. Many different organisations use this fact to push for various improved benefits, in many circumstances the statistics are used in support of wage improvements.

But working beyond contracted hours will certainly affect one’s work/life balance as there are only so many hours in the day and if work dominates one’s life, family time or rest will be sacrificed. The imbalance leads to a range of negative psychological and social actions. An article in Wikipedia on working time summarises this.

“In contrast, a work week that is too long will result in more material goods at the cost of stress-related health problems as well as a “drought of leisure.”  Furthermore, children are likely to receive less attention from busy parents, and childrearing is likely to be subjectively worse.  The exact ways in which long work weeks affect culture, public health, and education are debated.”

Australia has yet to have the debate on the matter of working hours that has been seen in Europe and England but the issue exists very much in Australia, although it has yet to gain any traction.

According to a media report by the Australian Council of Trade Unions a new research report by the Australia Institute

“… found that each year, the average full-time Australian worker does 266.6 hours of unpaid overtime, or an extra six-and-a-half working weeks…. The think tank estimates that through unpaid overtime, workers are forgoing a total of $72.2 billion in wages or 6% of GDP.”

The Australian Institute report found the following

  • Forty-five per cent of all Australian workers, and more than half of all full-time employees, work more hours than they are paid for during a typical workday.
  • Unpaid overtime is more common among people who work a ‘standard’ business workday (that is, not shift work) and among white-collar workers.
  • Workplace culture is a dominant contributing factor, with 44 per cent of people who work unpaid overtime saying that it is ‘compulsory’ or ‘expected’ and another 43 per cent saying that it is ‘not expected, but also not discouraged’.
  • Across the workforce, the average employee works 49 minutes unpaid during a typical workday.
  • Full-time employees work 70 minutes of unpaid overtime on average, while parttime employees work 23 minutes.
  • Men work more unpaid overtime than women (63 minutes versus 36 minutes a day). Men with young children work a great deal more than women with young children (71 minutes compared with 30 minutes).
  • Unpaid overtime increases with income: people in low-income households work an average of 28 minutes of unpaid overtime a day compared with 61 minutes for people in high-income households.
  • When asked what would happen if they didn’t work unpaid overtime, most say that ‘the work wouldn’t get done’, suggesting that the demands placed on employees are too much for many people.
  • A majority of survey respondents who work additional hours said that if they didn’t work overtime they would spend more time with family, and many said that they would do more exercise.

The report clearly states that allowing “unpaid overtime” has a strong cost in social and individual health but there is an OHS perspective that over gets overlooked due to public health and industrial relations dominating the issue.

In a media statement from October 2009, as an example, Deloittes quoted some scientists, in support of a anti-sleep device, on statistics that have been bandied around for some time:

“…scientists equate fatigue to blood-alcohol levels: if a person has been awake for 18 hours, it’s the equivalent of having a .05 level of alcohol in their body; if they have been awake for 21 hours, it’s equivalent to a.08 level.”

There are several further examples on negative health impacts in the Australia Institute report.

It can be strongly argued that by allowing, or expecting, “unpaid overtime”, employers may be encouraging workers to travel home while impaired and that employers are creating a work/life imbalance by requiring “unpaid overtime”.   Certainly it could be argued that even during unpaid overtime, the cognitive function of the employee is less than expected, or even have the worker unfit for work.

Arguing about unpaid overtime clearly makes the debate one of money not safety or wellness or the social contract, and this is the argument’s inherent weakness.

Arguing for compensation for “unpaid overtime” is arguing for “danger money” – how much money will a worker accept in order to keep working into the unhealthy and dangerous hours beyond their regular contracted hours?  This type of argument disappeared almost twenty years ago in Australia when the Australian awards system was reformed to remove allowances in relation to working at heights, picking up roadkill, or working in excessive heat.   It was agreed that “danger money” was inappropriate and that OHS principles demanded the risks involved with these tasks be reduced rather than “paying workers” to place themselves at risk.

ACTU Secretary Jeff Lawrence, in his media statement in support of Go Home on Time Day, and The Australia Institute in its media statement on its report both underplay a major point in the debate on working hours when they argue in economic terms.  Lawrence says

“If the work demands are too much to complete in a normal working day, then employees should be paid for their extra hours, or their employer must hire more staff.”

The institute mentions wellness in passing but emphasises in its media release

“..the 2.14 billion hours of unpaid overtime worked per year is a $72 billion gift to employers and means that 6% of our economy depends on free labour.”

Employing more staff is preferable but removing the culture of unpaid overtime is far more important.   Arguing on the basis of economics, ie “being paid for their extra hours”, may expose the worker to greater risk of injury or illness at the workplace or on the way home.   Quality of life, work/life balance and personal health and safety are stronger arguments for “going home on time”, arguments supported by The Australia Institute and the Australian Greens.

Kevin Jones

Tasmania’s workers compensation changes pass 1

It is easy to forget that workers compensation is clicking along during this intense period of analysis of OHS laws.  Workers compensation legislation passed through Tasmania’s House of Assembly this week (it still needs to get through the Legislative Council).  The Minister for Workplace relations, Lisa Singh, highlighted the following components of the changes in a media release on 6 November 2009.

“The key reforms will:

  • Improve access to common law damages for compensation by reducing the whole of person impairment threshold from 30% to 20%;
  • Amend the first step-down to 90% of normal weekly earnings rather than 85% of normal weekly earnings;
  • Delay the operation of the first step-down, so that it comes into effect at 26 weeks of incapacity rather than 13 weeks;
  • Streamline the management of injury and illness to deliver better health and return to work outcomes for injured workers and lower costs to employers;
  • Foster and reinforce a return to work culture among employers, workers and other stakeholders;
  • Provide greater income security for injured workers by increasing the duration and reducing the “step-down” of weekly compensation payments for injured workers;
  • Increase lump sum compensation up to $250,000 for permanent impairment or death to levels more comparable to those provided in other states and territories;
  • Provide additional financial incentives for workers and employers to participate in rehabilitation.”

The reforms are based on the Government’s response to the recommendations of Victorian consultant Alan Clayton and the Return to Work and Injury Management Model developed by the WorkCover Tasmania Board.

Alan has been a prominent advisor on workers compensation to governments around Australia for some time.  His Tasmanian review and recommendations were in 2007 and are available online.  The Government’s response is also available.

The Minister has said

“With the range of views that were put forward during consultation I am confident that this legislation strikes the right balance of fairness for workers and their families and support for employers and business.”

Simon Cocker, of Unions Tasmania, said in response to the Bill:

“The Workplace Relations Minister is to be congratulated for pursuing these improvements which will ensure that injured workers are better supported when they return to work and are paid more appropriate rates of compensation while off work.”

“The step-down provisions that currently operate have been shown to be unfair and place injured workers and their families under financial stress at a time when they are often struggling to cope with the impact of a serious injury.”

“Delaying the step down and softening its financial impact is an improvement.”

The Australian Government paid considerable attention to the Victorian OHS Act  because it was the most recent review of that legislation.  If the government continues this trend, the Tasmanian changes may be very significant for the rest of the country.

Kevin Jones

UPDATE: 19 November 2009

Tasmanian workers’ compensation laws passed the Legislative Council on 18 November 2009.

Work-related suicides in Europe Reply

The Irish Times has reported on a speech made by Dr Jukka Takala, Director of EU-OSHA, in Spain in November 2009.

“[Dr Takala] said since the publication of a recent study showing a very high level of work-related suicides by French Telecom workers, there was an urgency about getting this information. “Personally, I favour a system such as they have in Japan where the families are compensated for the suicide of a relative, and the debate has already started in this organisation and in the commission and some of the member states,…”

It is not uncommon in OHS to hear calls for further research and more research on work-related suicide is definitely needed.  (Australia has some very good work in this area.)

Caution has to be voiced on the risk that suicides be seen as the mental health version of workplace fatalities.  Research and OHS statistics often focuses on fatalities for various reasons including that the statistics are easy to quantify.  If a worker dies from being crushed by a machine, its a workplace fatality.  There is a trap in terms of suicides where the cause and effect is not so clear, or mechanical.

Only recently have workplace fatalities begun to be investigated with consideration of the social or non-work contributing factors.  If the machine operator was pulled into the machine because they were inattentive, why were they inattentive?  In terms of suicides, the agency of injury will be fairly obvious but the contributory factors could be far more complex.  And if the suicide victim has not left a note explaining the reasons for their action, it is even harder to determine “cause”.

Looking at suicides runs the risk of  not paying enough attention to the mental health issues that have not reached the suicide level.  The focus should not be researching suicides but researching the combination of issues leading to suicide.  It is a much greater challenge but is likely to have more long term benefits.

Takala’s comments about family compensation and the need to acknowledge the reality of work-related suicides gained the attention of The Irish Times because they meet the imperatives for a newsworthy angle.  Takal’s speeches at the Healthy Workplaces European Summit 2009 covered much greater territory than the Irish Times article and should be read to better understand the comment’s context.

There are hundreds of work risks that require assessment and psychosocial hazards is one of those areas.  A full list of speakers at the conference is available by looking at the program.  Abstracts of most presentations are available for download.

Kevin Jones

The meaning of work Reply

A weekly radio program broadcast on Australian community radio station 3CR, Stick Together, broadcast a lecture by Barbara Pocock on the meaning of work.

Barbara Pocock is a leading workplace researcher and remains the voice on work/life balance.  She is always worth reading and listening to.  It is impossible to management workplace safety without continuing to learn what work is and how people look at work.  A podcast of the Stick Together program is available for download.

Pocock says that many of the perspectives on work are negative and is therefore approached as a chore.  She talks about how laborious jobs have declined in relation to technology and client demand and discusses

  • “efficacy, identity, contribution, vocation
  • social connection
  • opportunity to learn
  • positive spillover from work”

Kevin Jones

Pure research and applied research on shiftwork 2

At secondary school there used to be a pure science and applied sciences.  Pure dealt with concepts and applied concerned the application of the concepts.  This dichotomy exists in most disciplines and occupational health and safety is no different.

Both elements are equally important, research should be able to be applied for social benefit and applied sciences constantly needs new information to try.

Some pure research was supplied to SafetyAtWorkBlog last week from the publishers of the Chronobiology International The Journal of Biological and Medical Rhythm Research, a publication not usually on our reading list.  Within this research on shift work was a useful summary of some of the issues shift work and health issues that OHS Managers must deal with.

The article is called “Wearing Blue-Blockers in the Morning Could Improve Sleep of Workers on a Permanent Night Schedule: A Pilot Study” and was published on 12 November 2009. It’s aims are below:

“The circadian clock is most sensitive to the blue portion of the visible spectrum, so our aim was to determine if blocking short wavelengths of light below 540 nm could improve daytime sleep quality and nighttime vigilance of night shiftworkers…..Blue-blockers seem to improve daytime sleep of permanent night-shift workers.”

The role of the circadian rhythm would be familiar to most readers who have had a role in managing shift workers or fatigue but it is difficult to see how the aims and findings of the research can directly assist safety managers.  The article’s introduction gives a great summary of the hazards of shift work and the research references.  It says

“In our modern society, working at night has become unavoidable in many fields. Night work is not only associated with acute (Giebel et al.,2008) and chronic health problems (Haus & Smolensky, 2006), but also with social impairment (Wirtz et al., 2008), lower performance (Rosa et al., 1990), increased risk of error (Gold et al., 1992), and industrial (Frank, 2000; Ong et al., 1987; Smith et al., 1994) and road accidents (Akerstedt et al., 2005; Folkard et al., 2005; Ingre et al., 2006; Novak & Auvil-Novak, 1996). Essentially, the most frequent complaints among shiftworkers are the lack of proper sleep during the day and lower vigilance while working at night (Akerstedt et al., 2008; Shield, 2002).”

The report goes on to explain the research study and how blueblocking helps eye discomfort, visual acuity and other shift-related issues but applying the OHS perspective to the hazards associate with shift work would require one to ask whether the shift work is required in the first place.  The decision-making process would then descend through the hierarchy of controls to possibly, engineering or administrative controls, where the Chronobiology International research may have some application.

The Chronobiology article is a good example of academic research into a particular problem.  It does not provide a particular practical solution but it provides an option that an OHS professional could consider by itself or in conjunction with other measures.  It may be that a major solution could only come through a combination of minor solutions.

The context of the research’s application is understandable even if most of the study is too technical for the usual OHS professional’s mind but along the way the “pure” science has provided a very contemporary summary of shift work safety research as well as a possible control option.

Kevin Jones

Global OHS statistics and trends Reply

It is very easy to forget that workplace health and safety is a global issue.  The pressures of work and the daily OHS issues can constrict our perspective for so long that we are surprised when we are reminded that people work everywhere and are therefore in danger in some way.

An article (citation below) from the  Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health released online on 12 November 2009 is just one of those reminders that we need every so often.  The article is called “The global and European work environment – numbers, trends, and strategies” and says

“We have estimated that globally there are 2.3 million deaths annually for reasons attributed to work.”

For the statistics junkies, the article goes on to report that 1.95 million of the annual deaths are due to illness and

“The average rate of disability and absence from work can be some 25% of the workforce in Europe.”

“The biggest causes of work-related illness in Europe are musculoskeletal diseases and psychosocial disorders (mental health)….”

“Work-related stress….affect(ed) an estimated 22% of EU workers in 2005…”

By looking at a variety of statistical records, the authors conclude that

“In the present political situation and serious economic downturn, legal measures need to be supplemented with economic justification and convincing arguments to reduce corner-cutting and avoid long-term disabilities, premature retirement, and corporate closures due to a poor work environment.”

The relationship between fatalities and other outcomes of work injuries and illnesses

The researchers advocate an integrated approach to managing safety in a workplace and list a “toolbox” of suggested areas.  Many of these are already in place in many management systems.

This sort of global data is not going to change the management or operational practices in individual workplaces.  That change will mostly come in response to site-specific events or initiatives.  Governments need to know these statistics and trends so that they may plan strategic programs or structure their legislation but it is equally important for citizens and OHS professionals to be aware of this data for it is the citizens who hold governments accountable.

Kevin Jones

Takala J, Urrutia M, Hämäläinen P, Saarela KL. The global and European work environment – numbers, trends, and strategies. SJWEH Suppl. 2009;(7):15–23.

The “suitably qualified” challenge on OHS 4

A quick survey of some of the public submissions on the development of Australia’s model OHS Act illustrates the challenges facing the government after it decided not to include a requirement for only people who are “suitably qualified” in OHS to provide advice to business on workplace safety.

Organisations across the political spectrum have spoken in favour of including “suitably qualified” but “suitably qualified” is in the eye of the beholder.  Several labour and trade union organisations believe that health and safety representatives (HSRs) are “suitably qualified” or “suitable qualified” people should assist HSRs in their work.

The Queensland Council of Unions says

“The WRMC [Workplace Relations Ministers Council] committed itself to a Model Act of the highest possible standards. In order to achieve this, the appointment of suitably qualified persons based on the Queensland model should be reconsidered and the recommendations of the Review implemented.”

Queensland’s OHS legislation had a system of Workplace Health and Safety Officers who were required by every company that had over 30 employees.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions said a PCBU [person conducting a business or undertaking] should

“…employ or engage persons who are suitably qualified in relation to occupational health and safety to provide advice to the PCBU concerning the health and safety of workers of the PCBU.”

The Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union says there should be an “employer obligation to engage a suitably qualified person to assist in H&S”.

Others see “suitably qualified” as a criterion that limits who would qualify for an OHS Entry Permit and what their powers can be.  Wesfarmers Industrial Safety wrote:

“We contend that OHS Permit Holders must be competent to provide OHS advice and must provide a valid reason to justify entry, the only valid entry criteria being to assist the resolution of a reasonably suspected, specified contravention of the Health and Safety Act.   To be effective they must comply with and support site/organisational procedures to enhance site health and safety outcomes and must not intentionally and unreasonably hinder or obstruct any business/undertaking or intentionally intimidate or threaten any business/undertaking or employee.

Suitably qualified in this context must also contemplate that they must not disclose information obtained in accordance with the OHS permit for any purpose other than to assist the resolution of the suspected contravention and must not take copies of documents: if serious concerns exist the Regulator can be requested to attend the site, they will request copies of relevant documents if required.

Additionally, the OHS permit holder and any organisation they represent must be held accountable for the actions taken by the OHS Permit holder.”

There are several challenges for the Australian Government on this issue of “suitably qualified”.  Firstly, it needs to decide whether it can reverse its decision not to include a “suitably qualified” element into the legislation.  To do this it would need to acknowledge that the reasons for exclusion do not match the sensitivities of the community.  This could be embarrassing but also indicate a flexibility and capacity to respond to community concerns.

The government also needs to determine where “suitably qualified” fits.  Should and HSR be suitably qualified or should this only reflect the OHS professionals?  In both cases it puts the governmental up against the commercial training organisations and the university educators (the OHS professional associations have far less clout).

Some academics see the lack of the inclusion of “suitably qualified” as providing a lower level of workplace safety.  Many of these submissions see “suitably qualified” as existing well above the level of HSRs to the professional level.

Professor Mike Capra of the University of Queensland, and other tertiary educators made the following plea:

“We the undersigned Professors of Occupational Health and Safety strongly recommend that the words “suitably qualified”* be inserted as appropriate in the model legislation in relation to the acquisition of advice regarding the health and safety of workers.

Our recommendation is based on the continuing high cost to the community in dollar terms and human suffering in relation to both work place (sic) injury and workplace induced illness which often has long latency and serious medical consequences.

Addressing such serious issues requires properly qualified professionals. The professional practice of OHS management requires skilled professionals with a sound foundation in the physical and health sciences as well as a strong knowledge base in the core OHS areas of health, safety, ergonomics, law, hygiene and toxicology and OHS management systems.

The universities across the country are offering professional entry programs at undergraduate and post graduate levels that are developing the OHS workforce. To sustain this workforce and ensure continued reduction in the societal cost of workplace injury, illness and death there must be recognition of the professional basis of OHS practice and it is imperative that this recognition is reflected in the harmonised legislation.

* Suitably qualified to be determined, as in other professions, by the relevant professional association and industry standards.”

Mike is very committed to improving health and safety of the Australian workforce and it is clear that the moral imperative is king.  But it must also be noted that education thrives on the recognition of qualifications and a legislative requirement for suitably qualified OHS professionals would strengthen the case for the viability of tertiary OHS courses which, according to some sources, are in a perilous state.

One submission questioned the sense or practicality of having an HSR trained in safety beyond the skills of the PCBU.  Shaw Idea wrote

“….the Model Act should require PCBUs to obtain advice from suitably qualified advisers. It is inconsistent to require HSRs to be trained, but not require PCBUs to either be trained or be advised by those with competence in relevant areas. The OHS consequences of incompetent or ill-informed actions by employers are far greater than the consequences of HSR actions.”

The OHS training industry has done themselves a disservice for decades by not having a formal OHS management course for safety or business managers.  There is a big difference between training an HSR to manage upward to the employer and training a manager to manage the safety of a workforce.  Leaving executive training to the tertiary sector has exposed a large vocational hole in business management of workplace safety.

It must also be stated that the editor of SafetyAtWorkBlog also made a submission to the Australian Government in which “suitably qualified” was discussed.  Below is the relevant section:

“Many safety professionals are concerned that “suitably qualified” has been omitted for the proposed legislation.  I think the reason given for its omission is poor but I do not support those who advocate the inclusion of the concept.  The push has been particularly strong from Victoria and through a couple of OHS professional associations.  No evidence has been made publicly available for the need for such a concept.  It is something Victoria has had and it is loathe (sic) to relinquish. Good OHS advice is available from good OHS advisers and caveat emptor should apply on OHS advice as with any other.

The “suitably qualified” advocates like to compare themselves to other professions like medicine yet it is recommended even from within the medical profession that second opinions be sought.  The safety profession does not advocate this very sensible suggestion.”

Kevin Jones

Coincidence or unique perspective? Reply

Since the end of the end of the public comment phase on Australia’s national model OHS laws, Safe Work Australia has been daily uploading submissions to their website.  Within the last lot of uploads was a block of around 100 submissions, all of which are marked confidential and have, apparently, been submitted by individuals.

One confidential submitter shares his name with a person who has been associated with some peculiar industrial relations behaviour.  In August 2009, during a heated industrial dispute concerning work on the West Gate Bridge, a trade unionist pleaded guilty to dangerous driving and to carrying a piece of pipe without lawful excuse, according to one media report.

A person with the same name is also listed in an order issued by the Federal Court of Australia in March 2009 that places restrictions on several people in relation to the West Gate Bridge project and the premises of contractor John Holland.

It is not possible to determine if this is a coincidence because the submission is confidential and submissions do not include contact details.  But if it is the same person, it is a shame that the OHS submission is not publicly available because a person who may have been involved in an intense industrial dispute and who may have been legally restrained would surely provide an interesting perspective on the relationship between OHS and industrial relations.

It is relatively easy to determine the politics of organisations that make submissions but when lodged by individuals political perspectives or professional connections cannot be determined, even when the submission is not confidential.  That such a large number of confidential submissions have been lodged is curious but due to due process, it is likely to remain so.

Kevin Jones