An Ombudsman for the safety profession 4

WorkSafe Victoria is very keen for the safety advice and management discipline to become professional.  It is providing considerable technical and financial support to the Safety Institute of Australia and other members of the Health and Safety Professionals Alliance (HaSPA).  The current status of HaSPA in Australia has been discussed in other SafetyAtWorkBlog articles.

HaSPA likes to compare itself to other managerial professions such as accounting, medicine and the law, and is trying to establish a contemporary profession.  One of the professions mentioned, law, an established profession for hundreds of years, is seriously considering the introduction of an ombudsman, a concept that should have been established already for the safety sector.

According to a media report in The Australian on 4 September 2009:

A taskforce of federal and state officials is working on a plan to create a national legal ombudsman with unprecedented power over the nation’s lawyers.

If the plan goes ahead, the ombudsman would be able to set standards for all lawyers, oversee the handling of all complaints from consumers and intervene with the profession’s state-based regulators.

One option being considered would establish the office of the legal ombudsman as a new national institution drawing authority from a network of uniform state laws.

This would unify the regulation of lawyers and give state governments a role in confirming prospective candidates for the new national office.

Lawyers, rather than taxpayers, could be asked to pay for the cost of establishing their new regulator.

The taskforce, which has been appointed by federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland, is examining the possibility of establishing the new office as the centrepiece for the promised regulatory overhaul of the legal profession.

OHS law in Australia is undergoing its most major national review in decades.  Shouldn’t the safety profession also develop the “Office of the Safety Ombudsman”?  The legal profession is doing all the work on a model.

Australia has a tradition of effective industry-based ombudsmen.  A list is available online but the most publicly well-known would be the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman.

[In the last couple of years the safety profession has heard from the Victorian Health Services Commissioner, Beth Wilson, on the purpose and role of the commission and how the safety profession can learn from her support, adjudication and  advocacy.  The commissioner is not an ombudsman but there may be a role for a safety commissioner to address WorkSafe’s concerns over the quality of safety advice being provided by safety professioanls to business.  A video of Beth Wilson briefly discussing the role is available on YouTube.]

The application of an Ombudsman model in the safety profession should be discussed but similar objections will be raised to those of the legal profession in the article quoted above.  Underpinning the objections is that an established profession is resistant to change and suspicious of relinquishing the power it has established over its lifetime.

If the safety advocates are truly committed to establishing a contemporary profession, the concept of a safety ombudsman must be discussed or else  the system of self-regulation will continue and so will the lack of independence, the lack of accountability, the limited communication and the lack of faith by the general community that safety professionals can be trusted to do a good job.

Kevin Jones

Australian stun gun review report Reply

Coincidentally after the SafetyAtWorkBlog article on the Braidwood Inquiry, the Queensland government investigation into the use of stun guns by police officers has been leaked to an Australian newspaper a day before the official release.

According to a media story in The Australian on 4 September 2009:

The joint Crime and Misconduct Commission-police review, launched after the June heart-attack death of north Queensland man Antonio Galeano, has ordered an overhaul of police training and operational policy, requiring the stun guns to be used only when there is a “risk of serious injury”.

The review, to be released today and obtained exclusively by The Australian, marks the first time an Australian authority has recognised the possibility the stun guns can injure or kill, especially when fired repeatedly at a person.

Within eight hours of the story above being released, a report, again in The Australian, but by a different writer, says:

“A CMC spokeswoman said the contents of the report were yet to be released but claims the weapons would be banned were untrue.”

The confusing reports may say more about journalism than stun guns but it also indicates the extreme sensitivity about the use of these items by emergency and security officers.

SafetyAtWorkBlog will include a link to the Queensland report once it has been publicly released.

Kevin Jones

UPDATE – Report released

The Queensland report into stun gun use has been released and is now available for download.

Pages from 16225001252029372054 qld taser report cmc

Thoughts on tasers and the hierarchy of controls 5

The Braidwood inquiry report into the use of energy weapons (tasers) is readily available on the internet.  Regular readers of SafetyAtWorkBlog would know that I consider tasers to be a item of personal protective equipment (PPE) for enforcement officers.

Phase1Report-2009-06-18 coverDetermining whether PPE is the most appropriate hazard control measure usually involves the application of the Hierarchy of Controls. The hierarchy is not applicable for all workplace hazards, particularly in the control of psychosocial hazards, but it’s a good place to start.

While reading the executive summary of Canada’s Braidwood report, one part in particular reminded me of the hierarchy – page 17.

Although the definitions for “assaultive behaviour” in both use-of-force continuums can be traced back to the Criminal Code’s language for common assault, they also justify use of the weapon when there has been only an attempted common assault, and even when no criminal offence has been committed.  I concluded that the subject behaviour threshold should be met when the subject is causing bodily harm or the officer is satisfied, on reasonable grounds, that the subject’s behaviour will imminently cause bodily harm.  Even then, an officer should not deploy the weapon unless satisfied, on reasonable grounds, that no lesser force option would be effective, and de-escalation and/or crisis intervention techniques would not be effective.

Let’s see if the hierarchy can apply.

Can the subject behaviour be eliminated? – No

Substitution doesn’t seem relevant.

Can we engineer out the threatening behaviour? – Barriers, shields… perhaps but the presence of these items may also inflame the behaviour, increasing the hazard.

Can administrative controls be applied to the hazard? Unlikely, unless the subject was cooperative or able to accept instruction or read signs, in which case, the hazard may not exist.

That leaves PPE, in this case a Taser.

The report places a considerable number of criteria that the enforcement officer must apply prior to using the taser and these should be considered administrative controls but as these apply to the enforcement officer and not the subject, they would not come under the hierarchy of controls.

I welcome readers comments on this rumination on Tasers as PPE, and/or the application of the Hierarchy of Controls to a police situation.

Kevin Jones

Australian survey on attitudes to OHS and laws 1

Firstly there is an apology for having statistics dominate SafetyAtWorkBlog this week however everything became available all at once.

An earlier article mentioned some recent OHS statistics that have been released by the Australian Council of Trade Unions.  Below is the SafetyAtWorkBlog interpretation of the survey report.

The survey was undertaken by an independent research firm using a representative sample of the Australian population.  It was not taken, like some previous ACTU surveys, from the trade union membership exclusively.  In some respects the generality makes the survey results more interesting and some more broadly relevant.

67% of respondents were not aware that the governments are coordinating the standardisation of OHS laws.

67% believe that workplace safety is important, but only 40% see it as “very important”.

85% were not aware that workplace deaths (quoted from an unreferenced Government report) are “four times the annual road toll”.

80% think more should be done about OHS.  However, if this question was asked after the previous one that compares workplace death to the road toll, the high response is not unexpected.  Also the report gives no indication  of who is expected to do something about OHS – government? employer? individual? sea urchins?

The issue of “red tape” was specifically asked in the question.  It would have been interesting to have the question remain at just its core so it was a clear agree or disagree response:

“Do you agree or disagree that employers should have to do more to protect the health and safety of their workers (even if it means more costs or red tape for their business)?”

69% said that if they are injured at work, they should be able to take court action under OHS laws against an employer.

One would have to ask the purpose of  this question.  Don’t people trust that OHS regulators would take legal action on the part of the injured workers?

Not all the questions in the survey report are mentioned above but lets take away the trade union context of the survey results for the moment.

OHS regulators claim that their extensive and expensive advertising campaigns are generating an increased awareness of OHS in the community. Two thirds of a population believing OHS is important is a good result but how much of this awareness has been generated by government advertising, increased media reporting of incidents, union activism or some other reason?  An analysis or further research would be useful.

Workplace deaths occur more often than road fatalities.  Is this a fair comparison?  Driving a car on a country road is a very different activity to driving a forklift in a cold store, for instance.

More should be done about workplace safety but would the respondent take on the responsibility themselves?  A clarification of this response would have occurred by comparing it with the employer question above, without the red tape distraction.  But what would the union movement had said to a response that may indicate an overall happiness with how employers manage safety?

The Australian trade union movement has continued its campaign against the operation of harmonised OHS laws by marches on 1 September.  The first draft of the harmonised OHS laws will be available in a couple of weeks.  Around a month after that is Safe Work Australia Week.  The next two months promise to be a busy period of heightened debate (or lobbying and spin) on OHS laws.

Kevin Jones

SafetyAtWorkBlog would like to thank the ACTU for making the survey report available and we look forward to many more surveys from unions and employer groups that hopefully clarify people’s attitudes and approaches to safety.

I’m left handed. Am I safe? 3

Recently a New Zealand OHS discussion forum carried a request for people to participate in research to determine whether “handedness” – whether one was left- or right-handed – could be a contributory factor in being injured at work.

The survey period has closed. Robyn Parkin, the researcher, and SafetyAtWorkBlog agreed not to post about the research until now, as Robyn wanted to survey New Zealanders.  Robyn describes her research project as looking at

“…whether New Zealand companies consider handedness as a potential contributing factor for accidents, and if so, what size companies are more likely to consider this factor”

Robyn is concerned that the design of workplaces, workstations and plant may not have considered the way a left-handed person, for instance, may operate a machine, or whether the emergency stop can only be reached with one’s right hand.

Left-handedness exists in around 10% of the population and there are many OHS or community designs that accommodate the needs a similar small minority.  As with many other reseacrh projects, Robyn’s investigation into the potential role of handedness at work causes all of us to look at our own workplaces from a fresh perspective.  And that has got to be good.

Robyn is happy to discuss her research with others by email.

Kevin Jones

Australian Statistics – Part 4 – Shiftwork 3

Safe Work Australia has released four statistical reports into worker health in Australia.  These are important and useful reports that will assist many companies and safety professionals to better address workplace hazards.

Pages from ShiftworkThe last of the four statistical reports looks at shiftwork.

The impact of shiftwork on work-related injuries in Australia

The main findings of this report are summarised below:

  • In 2005–06, 16% of Australian workers worked under shift arrangements yet they had 27% of the work-related injuries.
  • Shiftworkers had higher rates of work-related injury than non-shiftworkers.
    • Incidence rates
      • Shiftworkers: 114 injuries per 1000 shiftworkers
      • Non-shiftworkers: 60 injuries per 1000 non-shiftworkers
    • Frequency rates
      • Shiftworkers: 69 injuries per million hours worked
      • Non-shiftworkers: 35 injuries per million hours worked
  • Female shiftworkers had higher frequency rates of work-related injury than male shiftworkers. This finding is counter to the rates of work-related injury in male and female non-shiftworkers.
    • Shiftworkers
      • Female: 81 injuries per million hours worked
      • Male: 62 injuries per million hours worked
    • Non-shiftworkers
      • Female: 31 injuries per million hours worked
      • Male: 37 injuries per million hours worked
  • Female shiftworkers were particularly at risk of work-related injuries in Clerical, sales and service occupations, while male shiftworkers were particularly at risk in Labourer and related worker occupations.
  • Both shiftworkers and non-shiftworkers were more likely to incur work-related injuries during their first six months of employment than after their first six months of employment. Furthermore, a greater proportion of injuries that occurred to shiftworkers occurred in the first 6 months of employment than occurred to non-shiftworkers in the same initial period of employment.
  • The frequency rate of work-related injuries that occurred to shiftworkers is negatively related to normal working hours: Shiftworkers that worked only a few shifts per week had considerably higher frequency rates of work-related injury compared to shiftworkers (and non-shiftworkers) whose normal working hours were between 35 and 40 hours per week.
  • Shiftworkers who worked less than 30 hours per week were typically young (less than 25 years old) and large proportions worked in Elementary clerical, sales and service worker, Intermediate clerical, sales and service and Labourer and related worker occupations.
  • High incidence rates of injury were not due to lack of Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) training. More shiftworkers received OHS training than not, and a greater proportion of shiftworkers received OHS training than non-shiftworkers.

In Australia OHS management is red tape 2

The Australian newspaper of 1 September 2009 epitomised the ideological problems with OHS in a business management context.  Page 5 has two articles next to each other:

Renewed pledge to cut business regulation” and

Building chief ‘spat on an abused‘”.

The first article reports on a speech by the Competition Minister, Craig Emerson, where it is reported that the Minister

“has pledged his commitment to removing unnecessary regulation that hampered business”.

The Minister was speaking to a business audience and has been described as less friendly to regulation than his predecessor.  OHS compliance is often bundled as an element of unnecessary business paperwork by employer and industry groups however, in this speech, the Minister spoke more of open markets.

The second article focuses on an attack on the head of the much-hated Australian Building & Construction Commission, John Lloyd, but also reports on the national union protest scheduled for 1 September 2009, concerning the weakening of OHS laws through the harmonisation process.

The article reports on a union survey:

“Unions commissioned a poll that showed 78 per cent of those surveyed agreed employers should do more to protect the health and safety of their workers, even if it led to increased costs or red tape.”

That unions would even accept that OHS compliance could be considered red tape is a great concern, and the phrase is taken directly from the ACTU media release.

Union Survey figures

SafetyAtWorkBlog is endeavouring to obtain the original survey results (over 1000 respondents (workers) taken in the last week of August 2009) but for the moment it is worth quoting ACTU Secretary Jeff Lawrence’s interpretation of the statistics.

“… this poll shows the Australian public don’t want workplace safety rights undermined.”

“The poll shows there is significant support in the Australian community for stronger rights and protections for workers and an ongoing role for unions in checking workplaces where employees are worried they are in danger.

“The poll finds 81 per cent of those surveyed agreed workers should have the right to call in help from a union to check on health and safety issues regardless of their employer’s approval.

“Seven out of ten Australians (69%) believe that injured workers should be able to take their employer to court under workplace health and safety laws.”

Business and government in Australia are harmonising OHS laws to reduce the red tape business compliance costs.  Unions believe that OHS red tape and increased business cost is acceptable.

What does this leave the safety professional who says that they can minimise the red tape associated with OHS compliance AND that safety is not a cost but an investment?  Out in the cold with the Victorian WorkCover Minister, it is suggested.

Kevin Jones

Do You Have a Policy on the Use of MP3 Players? 2

The National Transportation Safety Administration estimates that at least 25% of all automobile accidents are caused by distracted drivers.  Research has already proven that listening to music through earbuds or headphones while driving is a distraction and becoming a leading cause of vehicle incidents.  It is, in fact, now illegal to use earbuds or headphones in the states of California and New York while operating a motor vehicle.

In Australia similar research, by insurance companies, notes the same findings.  A spokesman for NRMA Insurance, John Hallal, stated that “Drivers should always be alert to what is happening around them, and by using headphones, the driver is likely to be less aware of the surrounding traffic conditions.  Headphones can totally block out other sounds. You won’t hear a siren, you won’t hear a horn – and that can be dangerous.”

So is there a good solution?  Auto makers are increasingly offering jacks to support MP3 players in their vehicles. Some have more integrated systems that allow iPod or MP3 playlists to be displayed on the dashboard and operated through buttons mounted on the steering wheel.  The problem is, not all people are buying new vehicles in a time of recession and don’t have the option for plugging their iPod or MP3 player into their vehicle.  Furthermore, drivers are still tempted to change songs on the console or MP3 player and turn their music louder; again a possible distraction while operating a motor vehicle. Driving with earbuds or headphones is considered a potential distraction/hazard and can lead to motor vehicle accidents under certain conditions.

Operators of any motor vehicle should be able to hear traffic and be aware of any driving hazards around them.  This means that any distractions while driving should be eliminated to include using earbuds or headphones. For the safety of yourself, your family and others sharing the road, your attention must be dedicated to driving the car.

Another question that arises is whether or not it’s safe to use MP3 players in the workplace. Increasingly, workers are wearing earbuds or headphones to block out background noise and distractions around them. Some workers find it helps reduce stress and boredom which could lead to greater productivity and worker morale.  But is it safe?

Wearing an MP3 player could be a potential hazard in situations where the cord could be caught in a piece of machinery.  Often workers with long hair are required to tie back their hair for the same reason.  An MP3 player could also influence the path taken by electricity in the same manner as wearing metal jewellery.

The safe use of MP3 players can be managed by setting a clear policy.  Although completely banning the use of MP3 players may remove the risk to injury, for tasks that are repetitive or monotonous it can keep a worker stimulated and more productive.

In conclusion, Employers need to assess the injury risk to reward potential that MP3 players pose for a specific setting or activity.  There is no blanket answer that can be applied and safety is also not the only issue, communication breakdowns among workers can develop and theft of proprietary information are just two other considerations.

Pamela Cowan

The importance of handling professional complaints professionally 3

Any member of any profession can be subject to the complaints process of that profession’s governing body.  A complaints procedure is an essential element of any organisation.  In fact, one could argue that the professionalism and maturity of an organisation can be judged by how that organisation investigates and handles a complaint.

Not only must a complaint be handled professionally, it must be seen to be handled professionally.

Regardless of whether a complaint is valid or baseless, it is essential to have

  • Clear guidelines on how to make a complaint and the consequences of lodging a complaint;
  • Defined complaints handling procedures;
  • Complaints procedures that have been tested through desktop exercises and simulations;
  • An independent assessor/mediator;
  • An understanding that of natural justice;
  • An independent appeals process; and
  • The commitment to support, in practice, the professional ideals espoused.

Many executives, particularly of volunteer organisations whose good intentions are often not supported by the necessary administrative procedures, resources or skills, run the risk of exacerbating both frivolous and valid complaints.

As can be seen by some of the articles in SafetyAtWorkBlog, from James Hardie Industries to restorative justice to handling aggressive customers, people expect a certain dignity and accountability in their professional dealings.  A major element of safety management, and basic professionalism, is the ability to apologise when mistakes have been made.  For only through an acknowledgement of mistakes can the integrity of a process be (re)established.

Australia’s Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has shown the power of the apology when he acknowledged in 2008 the injustices done to Australia’s indigenous population.  It took courage to apologise for actions done long ago by someone else.  The ability to apologise shows a maturity and professionalism that is still lacking from many Australian organisations, voluntary and corporate.

Kevin Jones

The importance of independent advice at Board level Reply

The recent court decision by Judge Gzell on the previous directors of James Hardie Industries generated considerable media attention in Australia for many reasons; a primary reason is that the company is perceived as making its profits at the cost of its employees’ health.  The social and corporate cost of inadequate workplace and product safety management is now clear to everyone, even public policy makers.

Another area of attention has come from how Judge Gzell’s decision has affected the operation of company boards and the roles of directors.  This is hugely important to the big end of town but the rules apply to boards big and small.  In August 2009 Regnan (Governance Engagement & Research Pty Ltd) identified three major points from Gzell’s decision; the third is the one that is most broadly relevant.

“Non‐Executive Directors – Today more than ever, investors need competent directors from diverse backgrounds, and this case highlights the critical role non‐executive directors play in overseeing and interrogating company management.  While the facts of the James Hardie case are very specific and do not create additional responsibilities for directors, it does underscore the value at risk when non‐executives fail to perform their role and highlights the role of independent directors to satisfy themselves through the taking of advice wholly independent of management.” [my emphasis]

The need for independent advice is regularly identified as an important element of effective risk management for all industry and professional sectors.  A board of “yes-men” can do a disservice to an organisation in a very short time.

The OHS professional often seeks a “devil’s advocate” role at senior management level yet to achieve that level of influence one often has to “sell one’s soul to the devil”.  It may be possible to be an independent director who holds strong OHS opinions but one would never achieve such a position unless one could demonstrate business acumen, and business acumen often requires the dilution of principles.

The environmental movement has shown one pathway to corporate influence but it is hard to identify an environmental advocate who has achieved corporate influence while maintaining a grass-roots credibility.  Similarly, at some point in the OHS professional’s career it is necessary to choose between the ideology from which progression has come and the career progression that requires a reinterpretation of that ideology into the corporate mould.

Is it possible to represent core OHS principles at board level without “joining the darkside”?

Kevin Jones