Tory leader calls for a “forensic examination” of health and safety culture 4

David Cameron, the leader of England’s Conservative Party, has spoken about the health and safety culture that he says is restricting personal and business options in England.

In the full speech, Cameron clearly outlines an ideological agenda but it is a mistake to see this as an attack on the OHS regulator.  Below is an edited summary of the most relevant bits of his speech:

“In almost every area, the Conservative Party aims to remove the obstacles that prevent people from making their own decisions.

That’s why we plan a radical redistribution of power, giving control over education, housing and policing to local people.

…there is a growing sense that too many areas of our life are governed by petty rules, regulations and tick box bureaucracy that flies in the face of common sense, undermines discretion and prevents us from getting on with our lives.

We see it in our police force,… our prisons, …our schools, [and] our hospitals

[the the over-the-top health and safety culture] is… infuriating. It … stifles judgement and discretion……is a straitjacket on personal initiative and responsibility……and is a big barrier to the creation of the big society.

…something has gone seriously wrong with the spirit of health and safety in the past decade.

…it is clear that what began as a noble intention to protect people from harm has mutated into a stultifying blanket of bureaucracy, suspicion and fear that has saturated our country…

How has this over-the-top health and safety culture become embedded in our national way of life? [emphasis added]

  • [European] bureaucratic rules
  • The Labour Government

But the biggest cause of this excessive health and safety culture is the way these rules have been interpreted and used.

What is more the problem is the perception we have allowed to develop that in Britain today, behind every accident there is someone who is personally culpable……someone who must pay.

[It is encouraged by]

  • adverts on television
  • the commercialising of lawyers’ incentives to generate litigation
  • the rising premiums and concerns of the insurance industry.
  • high-profile claims and pay-outs.

This has all helped to create a legal hypersensitivity to risk, accident and injury. And this has had a direct knock-on effect on the health and safety culture.

So it is not just the regulations from Brussels, or even the distrustful, interfering government that has created this culture, or the insurance industry, ……it is that everyone’s so worried about being sued that they invent lots of their own rules on top of the regulations that already exist.

… perhaps the most damaging consequences of this excessive health and safety culture have occurred in our society.

… the health and safety culture actively undermines responsibility.

CONSERVATIVE APPROACH

First, establish clear and specific principles about when health and safety legislation is appropriate, and when it is not, so we can evaluate whether existing or future legislation is necessary.

Second, we will propose practical changes in the law to both help bring an end to the culture of excessive litigation while at the same time giving legal safeguards to those who need them most.

HEALTH AND SAFETY CHANGES

there are three particular scenarios where this is the case.

The first is when consumers have a lack of information, or are unable to understand technical information, about a product or a service they are purchasing.

The second situation in which official action on health and safety is appropriate is where there is an imbalance of power.

The third situation in which there is a case for health and safety oversight is when someone might have a clear motive – normally profit – to put someone else in danger.

That’s because keeping people safe is often more expensive than exposing them to risk.

[REVIEW]

I have asked Lord Young to lead an extensive review on this subject for the Conservative Party. He has a track record of deregulation and cutting bureaucracy. He also has experience in the legal profession and will judge these issues with the care and attention they deserve. And he will look at everything from the working of the Health and Safety Executive, to the nature of our health and safety laws, litigation and the insurance industry.

There are some specific questions I have asked David Young to investigate urgently.

The first question is: how can we best protect what are effectively ‘Good Samaritans’?

In Australia, concern about the effect of increasing payouts for medical negligence led to a full review of civil liability.  Its final report concluded that when an individual is acting in good faith – as a Good Samaritan – and takes reasonable actions to help someone, then they should not be found negligent.

Second, can we help alleviate some of health and safety oversight that currently burdens small, local and voluntary organisations?

Third, do we need a Civil Liability Act?

I know the over-the-top health and safety culture that has grown in our country in recent years provokes a lot of understandable anger.  But anger itself is not solution.  Instead we need a forensic examination of what has gone wrong and the steps we need to take to put it right.”

Cameron’s speech has some valid points even if the ideological path that he has followed to get here may be unpalatable.

What separates this from a Jeremy Clarkson rant is that he is not targeting any one particular bureaucracy or social group.  He acknowledges that there are a range of social factors that have, over time, created what he believes is an “over-the-top health and safety culture”.   Cameron may have chosen extremes to illustrate his points but most OHS professionals would not be averse to a review of OHS laws particularly if such a review included other social structures that make their lives difficult but over which they have no influence.

Along the way, the chance for the political boot up the jaxy of the regulators and the unions, and those dreadful Europeans, will be irresistable for the Conservatives, but if planned for occupational health and safety may salvage some useful tools.

It must be remembered that the Conservatives are not in power in England but even from here in Australia, the Prime Minister Gordon Brown looks like a dead man walking.

Some commentators have already responded to the “outrageous” suggestions in Cameron’s speech.  More union response similar to this from Grahame Smith, General Secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress, can be expected.

“The families of the tens of thousands of workers who have been killed and maimed at work will find these comments deeply offensive. David Cameron has sent a chilling message to the working people in the UK that any future Conservative Government will attack the health and safety laws that trade unions have spent decades fighting for.

“This is not about draconian legislation. This is about the failure, or unwillingness, of employers, community groups and others to grasp the very basics of our health and safety system.

“We have witnessed what poor regulation has done for our finance sector and the economy. We do not want to see this attack on health and safety legislation having a similar catastrophic effect on human lives. Our economy will recover. Individuals killed at work and their families never recover from the consequence of poor health and safety regulation.

“We would say to David Cameron if you want to learn about the true consequences of health and safety failures read Hazards Magazine and come to Scotland and meet families who have lost loved ones due to health and safety failures by employers. Don’t subscribe to the trivial nonsense which is churned out by sections of the media.”

Smith is correct to remind Cameron to not rely on the media from which to develop policies, particularly the English print media.  Smith comparison of OHS legislation to financial market regulation is also valid.  Legislation should never be used as a blanket control mechanism but requires targeting.

Another union, Prospect, had this to say

On behalf of 1,650 HSE inspectors, scientists and other specialists, Prospect negotiator Mike Macdonald said: “There is a world of difference between petty bureaucracy enacted under the label of health and safety and HSE regulation designed to prevent deaths in the workplace.

“Measures aimed at preventing death and injury at work run the risk of being overshadowed by inappropriate obsessions by local authorities with minor issues that are often an excuse for withdrawing services on the grounds of cost. Given the importance of health and safety to the British economy and UK businesses we would welcome any changes that boost workers’ safety as well as business competitiveness.

“But confusing the two continues to perpetuate a negative image of health and safety regulation and masks the bigger picture: as the figures for 2007/08 show 32,810 employees were exposed to fatal and major injuries at work.”

If (when) the Conservatives come to power in England, Cameron and Lord Young will need to structure an inquiry that is inclusive and designed to be constructive.  Many people will approach such an inquiry with decades of suspicion and many memories of despair and disappointment. In many ways the laws require a rationalisation, not a revolution and this is what Cameron needs to “sell” as he gets ready for the next election, due in the first half of 2010.

Kevin Jones

Union continues pressure on asbestos as an urgent public health issue 2

Following on from Asbestos Awareness Week, an ABC media report on 3 December 2009 says that the Australian Workers Union is continuing to apply pressure to the Tasmanian Government and Cement Australia for testing of former employees  and local residents for exposure to asbestos.

An epidemiological study of former employees has been agreed to by the company and is being conducted by Monash University.  Dr Yossi Berger of the AWU wants the study to be expanded to residents.

The logic is sound, particularly in Railton where the entire community has been exposed to asbestos production and products over decades.   Asbestos should be considered as more than a work-related hazard.

The union position on this pernicious substance received recent support from Matt Peacock’s book “Killer Company” that brought to the public’s attention the issue of asbestos bags being used in carpet underlay over many years.  Peacock says that cases of mesothelioma that just appear without any direct link to asbestos-handling , use or manufacture could come from unsuspecting exposure to asbestos in seemingly innocuous sources, such as underlay.

The union must be fairly confident that the results of any study will provide incontrovertible proof of the spread of the asbestos hazard, so that there can be some “oomph” behind a broader public campaign.  As mentioned at a recent Asbestos seminar, the evidence may exist but it needs to be translated into a format that the national decision-makers will accept and cannot contest.  Then large-scale improvements are possible.

Kevin Jones

Safety awareness ≠ safety (always) 2

Workplace fatalities have markedly increased in Victoria over the last couple of months.  According to WorkSafe Victoria information nine people have died within the last two months bringing the current total to 27 for 2009.

Victoria has a high awareness of the need for safety in the workplace, principally due to the advertising campaigns of WorkSafe which began, in one form or another, in the 1980s when Andrew Lindberg was WorkSafe’s CEO.  But clearly awareness of the need for safety is not being translated into action.

WorkSafe Victoria has become alarmed at the recent surge in deaths and issued a media release asking for things to settle down.  John Merritt, executive director, has said

“With many industries now reaching their peak activity the risks are extreme as people rush to get work completed and begin to think about what Christmas, holidays and the New Year has to offer.

“The construction and manufacturing sectors are aiming to complete projects before a summer shutdown, while transport, warehousing and retailing are ramping-up to Christmas.

“With just a few weeks before Christmas and the spectre of nine deaths in two months behind us, employers and workers must lift their game and reject the urge to take shortcuts or become complacent.”

But there is nothing unique about this time of year as the same activities, the same work pressures exist each year at this time.  More analysis is required of why this October and November 2009 have been particularly bad.  This analysis needs to be much deeper than the market research and attitudinal studies that OHS regulators frequently undertake.

Dead men tell no tales but survivors do and perhaps it is time to investigate the circumstances of an incident in a way that is outside of the legal/prosecution motivation.  Everyone has a different perspective on a workplace incident and many are less than truthful or honest in order to not incriminate themselves or because a lawyer has advised against unsupervised cooperation.  Could it be possible to offer a special consideration to the witnesses of an incident, prior to the Court experience, so as to encourage accurate data of an incident that can then be issued as a safety alert?

The media releases of OHS regulators often refer to incidents that have occurred months or years ago when the circumstances are only remembered by the Courts, the company and the family of the deceased.  Surely there must be some way of issuing an interim alert that does not jeopardise the prosecution?  The preventative benefit would be so much more if the alert relates to an event that has occurred within the last week, for example, or while the tragedy is still being reported in the media.

In various venues throughout Victoria, John Merritt, has been showing a graph of the number of fatalities in the State in line with the National OHS Strategy leading to 2012.  Earlier this year, the fatality rate was above the benchmark.  Now, WorkSafe must be realising that the 2012 target is likely to be impossible.

Australia is not renowned for its OHS research.  What occurs is way below that of other similar economies and the funding is abominable.  It may be time to pull back on advertising expenditure and start researching the causes of the fatalities for a quick turn around of, at least interim, results.  Until this occurs, regardless of regular pleas from OHS regulators it is likely that we will still be hearing of incidents like these from Victoria:

“…a 42-year-old man fell from a roof and died while installing cables for a television antenna on a house in Tullamarine.”

“…another 42-year-old man is being treated for serious burns at the Alfred Hospital after fuel ignited as he prepared to refill a generator…”

“A man has died at Werribee after being run over by the trailer of a reversing tractor”

“…a farm worker was run over by a tractor on another Werribee South vegetable farm. He suffered serious injuries to his pelvis and was flown to hospital for surgery…”

“A Lower Templestowe man, 47, died from crushing injuries after a tractor he was driving became entangled in a steel wire supporting poles for a canopy over a Wandin North orchard.”

“A 45-year-old dairy farmer died near Portland when he was hit by his tractor and an implement and suffered fatal crushing injuries.”

“A man’s head was crushed between an industrial chipper and a truck at Warrandyte North”

“A man aged in his 50s died at Bannockburn near Geelong while operating a boom lift. He was found crushed between the machine’s bucket and the roof of a building in which he was working”

What we can be sure of is that 27 Victorian families will not be celebrating this Christmas.

Kevin Jones

The biggest management hurdle on workplace smoking 2

Smoking in the workplace is increasingly banned in countries around the world.  The mob of smokers in fire escapes and outside office building front doors are common occurences.  There is no denying that smoking is hazardous but this established fact does not seem to help with the regular management challenge – smokers work less than non-smokers and non-smokers resent this.

A recent study of workplace smoking in over a dozen countries published in the online edition International Journal of Public Health illustrates the continuing struggle.

“The study also found that overall employees estimated spending an average of one hour per day smoking at work, but most employees (almost 70 percent) did not believe that smoking had a negative financial impact on their employer.  However, about half of employers interviewed did believe that smoking had a negative financial impact on their organization.”

This people management issue often bleeds into the realm of the OHS manager as it is the health risks to the smokers and other workers than generated this division.  Clearly these statistics show the problem persists.

The tension comes from non-smokers working a full shift when a non-smoker is permitted to work at the same tasks for the same pay but work one hour less.  No companies have been able to solve this tension in any way other than encouraging smokers to quit smoking.  It may be attractive to OHS managers to leave this issue to the HR managers to struggle with but when planning any anti-smoking programs, this tension needs to be anticipated by OHS professionals.

“Several previous studies indicate that despite the beliefs of smoking employees and some employers in our study, smoking does have a substantial negative impact on a business’ finances,” [Michael Halpern PhD of RTI International] said. “More research needs to be done to quantify the economic impacts of workplace smoking and educate both employers and employees on those effects.”

Halpern’s comments illustrate a major limitation to the thinking of researchers on this issue and other similar workplace matters.  Workers’ health and compensation costs are rarely included in such surveys as business economics look at salary and time management issues yet business admits that worker health costs are part of the decision-making processes.

It is not that worker health costs are not quantifiable.  There is plenty of premium data, insurance figures and public health costs to include in the calculations but largely this data is ignored.  The researchers could take a two stage approach of, what they consider, primary labour costs with a mention of secondary health and compensation costs.  It would be possible to say something like “labour costs equate to $xxx – a substantial business costs but if workers’ compensation costs are included, an even more startling picture emerges…”

OHS professionals know that their job is not really one of handling safety issues exclusively but of managing safety within the business context.  To achieve this OHS professionals must be alert to all elements of business operation.

Kevin Jones

Australia’s Go Home on Time Day Reply

November 26 2009 was Go Home On Time Day in Australia.  The intention of this day, organised by The Australia Institute, was to highlight the difficulty many workers face in a achieving this seemingly simple task.  The Australia Institute’s expresses the aims this way:

  • The typical full-time employee is working 70 minutes of unpaid overtime a day, which equates to 33 eight-hour days per year, or six and a half standard working weeks.
  • Across the workforce, 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.
  • Converting unpaid overtime into full time jobs would create 1.1 million new jobs
  • Unpaid overtime harms our health, our personal relationships, our communities and our workplaces

The work/life balance advocates would say not doing unpaid overtime as a regular part of the job is an important balancing technique.

The Australia Institute has provided SafetyAtWorkBlog with some statistics from the special day’s 20,000 registered participants which may illustrate some of the difficulties of achieving that work/life balance.

Over 55% of registered participants managed to leave work at the contracted time on 26 November 2009.  Of those who could not, almost 70% said they could not because they “had too much work to do”.

Of those who went home on time, these were the most common activities:

  • Spent time with family/played with kids
  • Exercised/went to the gym
  • Household jobs/chores
  • Caught up with friends
  • Walked the dog

Those who admitted to working unpaid overtime (1836) gave the following reasons

To get the work done

86.5%

Because my boss/employer expects it

28.8%

To help colleagues

23.1%

To ensure my job is safe/secure

21.6%

To demonstrate how hard I work

14.2%

Because everyone else does it

13.6%

There seems to be only one genuinely positive and collegiate reason, to help colleagues.  The others indicate job and personal insecurity, unreasonable workloads or bad time management on behalf of employees and employers.

The statistics are of mostly curiosity value but are further indications of the social structural problems that contribute to increased work mental health risks.  Of those who signed up but could not get away from work, a couple of reasons given were

  • Boss knew I was trying to go home on time and loaded me up.
  • Management laughed.
  • My Boss said I was not to say the words out loud.

These days are intended to raise awareness of specific issues in society and Go Home On Time Day is a worthwhile addition but as with Asbestos Awareness Week, at some point awareness must move to action.

Kevin Jones

Shoemaking in South East Asia – book review Reply

Some of the best OHS writing comes from the personal.  In a couple of days time a new book will go on sale that illustrates big issues from a niche context and brings to the research a degree of truth from the personal experiences of the author.

Pia Markkanen has written “Shoes, glues and homework – dangerous world in the global footwear industry” which packs in a range of issues into one book.  The best summary of the book comes from the Preface written by the series editors.

“Pia Markkanen’s extraordinary first hand investigation of the dangers of home work in the shoe industry in the Philippines and Indonesia is an important contribution to our understanding of work, health and the global economy. She also carefully documents the intersection of gender relations and hierarchy with the social relations of “globalised” economic development and reveal as the important implications for the health of women, men and children as toxic work enters the home.”

As one reads this book, local equivalents keep popping into the reader’s head.  For instance, Markkanen’s discussion of the home as workplace raises the definition of a “workplace” that is currently being worked through in Australia.  She briefly discusses the definition in her chapter “Informal Sector, Informal Economy” where she refers to an ILO Home Work Convention, and usefully distinguishes between the homeworker and the self-employed, a distinction that Australian OHS professionals and regulators should note.

Markkanen does not impose a Western perspective on her observations and acknowledges that regardless of the global economic issues and social paradigms, “shoemakers felt pride for their work”.  This pride goes some way to explaining why workers will tolerate hazards that others in other countries would not.  In many OHS books this element is often overlooked by OHS professionals and writers who are puzzled about workers tolerating exposure and who look to economic reasons predominantly.

In South East Asia, limited knowledge can be gleaned from literature reviews as the research data is sparse.  Markkanen interviewed participants first hand and, as mentioned earlier, this provides truth and reality.  She describes the shoe makers’ workshops in Indonesia:

“Shoe workshops are filled with hazardous exposures to glues, primers, and cleaning agents, unguarded tools, and dust.  Work positions are often awkward, cuts and burns are common, as are respiratory disorders.  Asthma and breathing difficulties are widespread when primers were in use.  Workers were reluctant to visit doctors because of the expense.”

She then reports on the interviews with Mr. Salet, a shoe manufacturer, Ms. Dessy, the business manager, Mr Iman, the business owner, Mr Ari, a skilled shoemaker, and many others.

Markkanen also illustrates the shame that the minority world and chemical manufacturers should feel about the outsourcing of lethal hazards to our fellows.  In the chapter, “Shoemaking and its hazards”, she writes:

“Shoe manufacturing will remain a hazardous occupation as long as organic solvents are applied in the production.  It is notable that in 1912, the Massachusetts Health Inspection report declared that naphtha cement, then in use for footwear manufacturing, was considered hazardous work.  The 1912 report also referred to a law which required the exclusion of minors from occupations hazardous to health – the naphtha cement use was considered such hazardous work unless a mechanical means of ventilation was provided and the cement containers were covered…. minors were prohibited from using the cement.  Almost a century later, hazardous footwear chemicals are still applied – even by children – in the global footwear industry.”

There is little attention given to the OHS requirements of majority world governments by OHS professionals in the West, partly because the outsourcing of manufacturing to those regions has led to the reporting of OHS infringements and human rights issues more than information about the legislative structures.

Markkanen provides a great section where she describes the OHS inspectorate resources of the Indonesian Government and the fact that Indonesian OHS law requires an occupational safety and health management system.  Granted this requirement is only for high-risk industries or business with more than 100 employees but there are many other countries that have nothing like this.  Markkanen quotes Article 87 of the Manpower Act 2003:

“Every enterprise is under an obligation to apply an occupational safety and health management system that shall be integrated into the enterprise’s management system.”

It is acknowledged that this section of legislation is hardly followed by business due to attitude and the lack of enforcement resources but we should note that safety management is not ignored by majority world governments.

Lastly, Markkanen provides a chapter on the gender issues associated with the shoemaking industry.  She makes a strong case for the further research into the area but it is a shame that to achieve improvements in women’s health the reality is  that

“women’s health needs female organizers and female women trade union leaders who understand women’s concerns”.

Some male OHS professionals may be trying to be “enlightened” but this seems to not be enough to work successfully in some Asian cultures.

Overall this book provides insight by looking at a small business activity that illustrates big issues.  The book is a slim volume of around 100 pages and it never becomes a difficult read because it is concise and has a personal presence that other “academic” books eschew.  As with many Baywood Books, the bibliographies are important sources of further reading.

At times it was necessary to put the book aside to digest the significance of some of the information.  Occasionally the reality depicted was confronting.  Baywood Books could do well by encouraging more writers to contribute to it Work, Health & Environment Series.

Kevin Jones

[SafetyAtWorkBlog received a review copy of this book at no charge.  We also noted that, according to the Baywood Books website, the book is available for another couple of weeks at a reduced price.]

Australian research figures into quad-bike deaths and injuries Reply

A SafetyAtWorkBlog reader drew our attention to a research report on quad bike safety by one of Australia’s most well-known researchers into agricultural safety, Lyn Fragar.

The report entitled “ATV Injury on Australian Farms – The Facts – 2006” details a compilation of police, hospital and injury data from many years concerning ATVs or quad bikes.  Recommendations and observations are made but curiously the design of the vehicles is not considered as a contributory factor in rollovers and rollover protection structures are not mentioned.

Kevin Jones

Asbestos Awareness Week calls for action 7

During Asbestos Awareness Week 2009 in Melbourne Australia the trade union movement pledged to begin a national strategy to control and remove asbestos from Australia.  This would have been a very tall ask any time in the last two decades but Asbestos needs to compete now with Climate Change for the attention of the media, the decision makers and the heartstrings of the community.

It is accepted that in the near future more people will be touched directly and indirectly by asbestos-related diseases but, at the moment, the issue is concentrated in low-income industrial suburbs and, as such, is still dismissed by some (often in suburbs with large trees and no pubs) as a disease that only strikes the blue-collar smokers.  The social inequity of asbestos-related diseases should be studied in some depth as it is likely to shame governments into action on this hazard.

Jim Ward - Australian Workers Union

At a seminar in late November 2009, a small audience in the Victorian Trades Hall was told of the success of the Tasmanian campaign in gaining government support for the removal of all asbestos by 2030.  Jim Ward of the Australian Workers Union spoke of the approaches to Goliath Cement (“The James Hardie of Tasmania”). Ward told how the CEO of Goliath did not blink at the request to remove asbestos.  Ward said this type of response has been repeated throughout Tasmania.

The audience also heard from several who are at the frontlines of dealing with asbestos-related diseases.  Vicki Hamilton and Tim Tolhurst spoke of the frustration of having inadequate disposal facilities in regional areas of Victoria.  The challenge here is immense as the temptation to bury asbestos in the back paddock when no one’s around is strong even though it is selfish and immoral.  Vicki and Tim showed how a structured program across the community is required because one cannot encourage the removal of asbestos until there is a place to safely dispose of it.

Vicki Hamilton of GARDS

Pat Preston, ex-CFMEU and now with the Asbestos Contractors’ Group, spoke of the legislative and operational problems faced by licensed asbestos removal contractors.  The holes and conflicts all complicate the process of asbestos removal and disposal and increase the cost, particularly of asbestos removal.

Several speakers pointed to the anomaly that the removal of asbestos from domestic buildings of less than ten square does not required licensed removal, thereby “encouraging” small volumes of asbestos to be hidden at the bottom of domestic rubbish bins.  The OHS risks to waste collectors are not dissimilar to those who dispose of toxic and trade waste down the toilet next to the workshop when WorkSafe or the union is not around.

Of course the audience and speakers seem to all agree that there is no safe level of asbestos exposure.  There are certain to be those in Australia who are “asbestos-skeptics” and many seem to have the ear of the decision-makers.

One speaker provided a fresh perspective that was very appropriate but surprising for a couple of reasons.  Anthony La Montagne, of the University of Melbourne, has undertaken ongoing research on job stress, cancer clusters and, clearly, asbestos issues.  La Montagne provided the glum news that several promising medical techniques for early detection of asbestos have come to nought.  The only effective risk reduction technique is for those who may have been exposed to asbestos to quit smoking as this smoking appears to exacerbate asbestos-related disease.

Several speakers noted that in the Asbestos Awareness Week 2008, there was a motion to have the Government undertake action on asbestos.  The resulting inaction was embarrassing and motivating with participants committing themselves to continuing to lobby for controls on asbestos.  This is going to be a considerable challenge if they continue through the same lobby process that they have applied for the last few years.

Tom Tolhurst of ADSVIC

The asbestos safety advocates should drop “awareness” from the week’s title because awareness equates to “aspirational targets”, former Prime Minister John Howard’s way of promising much and delivering nothing.  Just as everyone accepts that smoking causes lung cancer and climate change exists, people know that asbestos can kill.  Move away from awareness-raising to action.

Research the social inequity of asbestos in low-income areas.  Many domestic houses have asbestos houses or in their roofs, particularly in low-income areas which are also the areas where asbestos workers live.  If the reality and scope of this situation was proven to a level and in a format that policy-makers accept, the asbestos control option would be much stronger.  Even if the government continued its inaction, a case could be put to the discrimination tribunals and human rights sector to shame the government to represent all citizens equally.

Market the asbestos week.  White, pink and striped ribbons are becoming a fundraising cliché but the marketing of social health issues works.  There must be a coordinated approach to getting sponsors and support into the promotion of asbestos-related diseases on a large scale.  Once there is serious money behind the issue, one can fund research and present data that convinces decision-makers of the reality of the issue.

Pat Preston of Asbestos Contractors' Group

Undertake a public health cost-benefit analysis of asbestos-related disease, as one speaker advocated at the Victorian Trade Hall.  There are many lessons from the compensation issues of James Hardie Industries but one is that compensation creates wealthy (for a short while) families of dead workers and can do little of health benefit to the mesothelioma sufferers.  It is surprising that the fact has not clicked in the government mind that compensation for asbestos-related diseases provides an important but only symptomatic relief.  The government is applying paracetamol to an issue that requires surgery.

The union seminar was heartening in that it showed how many people are actually tackling the issue of asbestos-related diseases.  But it also operated under a cloud of frustration with an occupational and public health risk that is not receiving the government support that other similar matters are.  Trade unions are a vital part of any plan to control asbestos but just as many people in the leafy suburbs are isolated from asbestos risks, so the audience for the asbestos message is limited by the message remaining within the trade union context.

Tony La Montagne of the University of Melbourne

There needs to be a creative approach to generating sufficient community outrage over the unnecessary deaths of workers from asbestos so that the government cannot avoid action.  The James Hardie legal action and the lobbying of Bernie Banton, and others, was about compensation, about making a company accept its social responsibility, about making it pay.  It worked, but James Hardie still cannot afford the compensation bill that is the reality of decades of profits from a toxic substance that kills.

In 2009 several Australian Governments have helped out this company by contributing $A320 million to the company’s compensation fund.  Why?  When did the government decide to cover the costs of a company’s exploitation of workers?  This is on top of having to fund the public hospitals that have to deal with mesothelioma victims.  The government, and the taxpayer, is paying twice!

Let the company fail and allow the class action lawyers to pick over the assets.  Or better yet, keep James Hardie Industries alive and bleed it just enough so that it can fund the removal of its toxic legacy for the next thirty years.

Every shareholder in James Hardie that receives their dividend cheques from whichever country James Hardie moves to next (Zimbabwe cannot be far off) needs to understand that those dividends could be used to ease the pain of the workers who generated the corporate profits rather than contribute to their own bloated share portfolios.

Kevin Jones

Leadership – research, mental health and what true leadership is. Reply

Scandinavia produces some of the best research into OHS issues.  However, due to the social structure of Scandinavian countries, the research has little direct and practical application outside the region.  The research is best taken conceptually as it will need to be evaluated closely to determine local applicability.

(TIP: whenever an OHS researcher says “recent Scandinavian studies show….” remind the researcher which country they are in and ask them to explain the practical application in the local context)

In early 2009, there was a bit of media attention about research that found, according to researcher Anna Nyberg

“Enhancing managers’ skills – regarding providing employees with information, support, power in relation to responsibilities, clarity in expectations, and feedback – could have important stress-reducing effects on employees and enhance the health at workplaces.”

In October 2009 Anna Nyberg’s thesis on the issue was released.  According to the abstract to her thesis

“The overall aim of this thesis was to explore the relationship between managerial leadership on the one hand and stress, health, and other health related outcomes among employees on the other.”

Nyberg’s thesis details the needs for some adjustments in the research to allow for “staff category, labour market sector, job insecurity, marital status, satisfaction with life in general, and biological risk factors for cardiovascular disease.”  These adjustments are important to remember when reading any of the media statements about Nyberg’s research.

There were five studies within the thesis and, according to the abstract, they found the following:

“Attentive managerial leadership was found to be significantly related to the employees’ perceived stress, age-adjusted self-rated health and sickness absence due to overstrain or fatigue in a multi-national company.”

“Autocratic and Malevolent leadership [in Sweden, Poland, and Italy] aggregated to the organizational level were found to be related to poorer individual ratings of vitality…. Self-centred leadership … was related to poor employee mental health, vitality, and behavioural stress after these adjustments.”

“… significant associations in the expected directions between Inspirational leadership, Autocratic leadership, Integrity, and Team-integrating leadership on the one hand and self-reported sickness absence among employees on the other in SLOSH, a nationally representative sample of the Swedish working population.”

“… significant associations were found between Dictatorial leadership and lack of Positive leadership on the one hand, and long-lasting stress, emotional exhaustion, deteriorated SRH [self-reported general health], and the risk of leaving the workplace due to poor health or for unemployment on the other hand.”

“In the fifth study…a dose-response relationship between positive aspects of managerial leadership and a lower incidence of hard end-point ischemic heart disease among employees was observed.”

But what can be done about the negative affects of poor leadership on health, safety and wellbeing?  The thesis is unclear on this, other than identifying pathways for further research in this area.

The SafetyAtWorkBlog  recommendations, based on our experience, are below

  • Carefully assess any training provider or business adviser who offers leadership training.
  • Ask for evidence of successful results in the improvement of worker health and wellbeing, not just a list of client recommendations.
  • Look beyond the MBA in selecting senior executives.  If you expect executives to establish and foster a positive workplace culture, they need to have to be able to understand people as well as balance sheets.
  • Remember that the issue of leadership as a management skill is still being investigated, researched and refined.  It is not a mature science and may never be, so do not rely solely on these skills.
  • Some say that leadership cannot be taught and cannot be learned.  Some say that leadership, as spruiked currently, is not leadership, only good management.  Leadership only appears in times of crisis and manifests in response to critical need, not in response to day-to-day matters.

This last point needs a reference – page xiii of “Seventh Journey” by Earl de Blonville

“… leadership cannot be taught.  If it is being taught, it may just be management, rebadged at a higher price.  The second discovery was that leadership is not about the leader, which will confound those with a needy ego.  There were two more things that revealed themselves to me: leadership is all about paradox, which is why it resists attempts to tame it into a curriculum, and at its core leadership is lonely, requiring the strength that could only come from a grasp of its intrinsic paradox.”

Kevin Jones

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