SafetyAtWorkBlog has repeatedly called for the release of the report into the Beaconsfield mine disaster that was undertaken by Greg Melick, QC. The Tasmanian Government has today made the report and appendices available online.
In February 2009, BHP Billiton forecast a full-year production target of 130 million tonnes of iron ore. On 6 May 2009, the BHP president, Ian Ashby, has admitted that the company will be a “few million tonnes short”. The reason? Workplace deaths.
Ian Ashby was talking at a conference yesterday and pledged to improve safety however BHP, as has been pointed out in previous SafetyAtWorkBlog postings, has professed to place a high value on safety and its staff for some years. This is not a new issue for the company and that is what makes the statements of the president potentially hollow.
It is useful to look at the areas that Ashby has identified for additional attention for the implication is that this is where the OHS management system has been deficient. The measures to be adopted, according to media reports, include
- restricting access,
- improving traffic management, and
- suspending non-essential night-shift work.
In 2008 the spot price for iron ore had reached $US190 per tonne. In late 2008, the price fell to $US77 per tonne. BHP is currently negotiating prices for its iron ore so no accurate figure of value is available. But let’s allocate a conservative figure of 3 million tonnes to the Ashby quote above and perform a rough calculation for the cost of poorly managed OHS in BHP.
3 million x $US77 = $US231 million; or
3 million x $US190 = $US570 million
Following the economic crisis of 2008-09, shareholders are going to be less forgiving on corporate performance. This has already been seen on the issue of executive salaries but the BHP experience should have shareholders asking why the management activity has not kept up with the safety rhetoric and the corporate values. Because soon the poor safety practices in the outback mines of Australia will be hitting the shareholders’ pockets and they are justified in expecting answers form the executives.
The trap for shareholders is to forget the deaths of the workers and only hear the commitments of the executives for the future. Should one believe the future promises when the corporate values of safety have not been upheld in the recent past?
Note: an independent government review was undertaken and a report was handed to the government in early May. The report has yet to be released and may not be.
A spokesperson for the West Australian Dept of Mines & Petroleum has advised SafetyAtWorkBlog that the report into BHP was undertaken under Section 45 of the Act and therefore cannot be released unless in the course of a prosecution. However, just as has occurred with the Melick Report into the Beaconsfield Mine collapse, there is always hope.
The tricky thing about getting safety right is making sure you are on top of where the dangers are. One danger that seems to be consistently “off the safety radar” for lots of workplaces, particularly small businesses, is falls.
Here’s some key stuff you need to be looking at:
- Rule #1 for all safety problems is to try and eliminate the danger first. For fall hazards this means; have you exploited all the available storage space that can be reached from the ground (i.e. without the need to use a ladder)? Lots of places have all the ground level storage space they need, but because of its convenient access that space gets filled with junk. Turfing out the junk to exploit the ground level storage areas is the key thing to do. Ground level storage – good. Elevated storage spaces – not so good.
- Step ladders are used a lot to get access to high shelves, and the ordinary type of step ladder is notoriously unstable the further up the ladder you go. If people have to be on the last couple of steps, or worse still, right on top of a step ladder to retrieve stuff from high racking, then you have a serious injury or fatality waiting to happen at your business. (WorkSafe Victoria has reported deaths of workers who have fallen off step ladders.)
- Consider reconfiguring your storage racking so that the highest shelves are all the same height so you can use a proper order picking ladder to get access to those high shelves (i.e. ones at 2 metres or above). (WorkSafe has a guide on order picking) Consider getting lower versions of this type of ladder for middle height racks.
- Most Australian laws will say you have to do very specific things about stopping falls if workers are working at 2 metres and above. But keep in mind deaths have happened for falls as low as 1 metre, they are more common than you’d think.
- Lots of workplaces use mezzanine or above-room spaces to store things. First, see tip #1. If you have to use those spaces make sure a) that the floor of those spaces are safe to walk on; b) have guard rails around the perimeter; and c) that the way to get up to those space is as safe as it can be. It’s not safe to have only one hand free to get up or down a ladder.
Preventing falls is an excellent example of why the common legal duty to first look to eliminate a hazard or risk is a clever thing. I get the sense that lots of people quickly dismiss elimination as a viable option; it shouldn’t be the case. Hard thinking about elimination solutions needs to be first cab off the rank in risk control decisions, particularly when it comes to preventing falls.
SafetyAtWorkBlog has no expertise in the control of infectious diseases. Any enquiries received on the issue are directed to the official information on government websites such as Australia’s Dept for Health & Ageing or the US Centre for Disease Control, or international authorities such as WHO.
But this creates a dilemma for OHS regulators. If the regulator does nothing, it is seen as inactive – a bad thing. Or the regulator can issue its own guidance on infection control – a good or bad thing. It is an unenviable choice.
WorkSafe Victoria took the latter choice and issued their “OHS preparedness for an influenza pandemic: A guide for employers” in early May 2009. The guide is not intended to be definitive and may be useful in the future but infectious outbreaks can move rapidly and, to some extent, this document is shutting the door after the horse has bolted, in expectation of the next “door”.
The guide mentions the following sources but it could be asked what is gained by contextualising these Australian documents? Why not just direct companies to the raw documents?
- Australian Health Management Plan for Pandemic Influenza 2008 , Australian Department of Health and Ageing.
- National Action Plan for Human Influenza Pandemic, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
- Business Continuity Guide for Australian Business, Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research.
The trap for producing localised guides is that recommendations may be made that are out-of-place, difficult to implement and, ultimately, question the credibility of the document. WorkSafe fell for this trap by specifying some recommendations for the legitimate control measure of “social distancing”.
In its employers guide it makes the following recommendations:
“A primary transmission control measure is social distancing, that is reducing and restricting physical contact and proximity. Encourage social distancing through measures such as:
- allowing only identified, essential employees to attend the workplace
- utilising alternative work options including work from home
- prohibiting handshaking, kissing and other physical contact in the workplace
- maintaining a minimum distance of one metre between employees in the workplace (person-to-person droplet transmission is very unlikely beyond this distance)
- discontinuing meetings and all social gatherings at work including informal spontaneous congregations
- closing service counters or installing perspex infection control barriers
- using telephone and video conferencing.”
The guide does recommend social distancing as part of a risk management process but “prohibiting handshaking, kissing and other physical contact in the workplace”? “Discontinuing … informal spontaneous congregations”?
How is a business expected to police these sorts of measures? Have someone walking the workplace reminding workers of the new “no touchy” policy?
The Australian Health Management Plan for Pandemic Influenza talks repeatedly about social distancing in workplaces, the community and families but never goes to the extent WorkSafe has.
The National Action Plan for Human Influenza Pandemic (NAP) defines social distancing as:
“A community level intervention to reduce normal physical and social population mixing in order to slow the spread of a pandemic throughout society. Social distancing measures include school closures, workplace measures, cancellation of mass gatherings, changing public transport arrangements and movement restrictions.”
NAP does not mention kissing, nor does the Business Continuity Guide For Australian Businesses .
WorkSafe WA has not issued anything specific on pandemic influenza, nor has SafeWorkSA, WorkCover NSW defers to NSW Health (which has a lot of information and a reassuring video from the health officer), and Queensland’s OHS regulator defers to its State health department.
Social distancing is an appropriate hazard control measure amongst other measures in an influenza risk management plan but the current WorkSafe Victoria guidance seems to be an unnecessary duplication, and on the matter of kissing, silly. Why, oh why did WorkSafe Victoria think it necessary to publish anything?
At the Safe Work Australia Awards ceremony in Canberra last week, the host Adam Spencer, noted that many of the nominees were dressed as ostentatiously as those who attend the Oscars. “Frocked-up” was the term he used.
Suggestions are very welcome in the comments section below. The most suitable and original will receive a special OHS book as an acknowledgment of their creativity. The suggestion will then be taken up with the head of Safe Work Australia.
To start off discussions, SafetyAtWorkBlog would suggest that as sixteen workers died in the construction of the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge, the name of the first worker who died may be suitable (We are endeavouring to find who was the first construction death on that project).
However, Australian’s have a habit of allocating contrary nicknames such as Bluey for a redhead, Slim for a fat person. Perhaps, this peculiarity could be applied to the Safe Work Australia.
Please see what you can come up with this totally unauthorised speculation.
Recently I wrote an article for National Safety magazine entitled “Trials and Tribulations”. It came about because I heard about an OHS consultancy that was offering safety management services that included a component of insurance. The insurance was explained to me as covering any OHS fines or penalties that may eventuate for the consultancy’s clients.
This combination of services is very attractive and addresses fundamental OHS questions asked by employers of different sizes – “do I comply?” and “how do I know that I have a safe workplace?”. They’re slightly different questions but ones I come across regularly.
OHS regulators are getting better at helping small business establish a compliance benchmark through the use of compliance codes for some elements of workplace safety management – a semi-return to prescription. However, many small business owner do as much as they can to provide a safe workplace and still get prosecuted by the OHS regulator. This is frustrating and demoralising and in this context an insurance policy is attractive. The insurance would cover any penalties that the business receives even if the incident that generated the prosecution was “unforeseeable”.
The National Safety article includes legal opinions and insurance company opinions that don’t quite fit.
Some of the interviews I conducted with insurance brokers did little to assuage my unease at insurance policies. It seems to me that some insurance policies are taken out unnecessarily while other policies often exempt coverage for the very risks one thought the policy covered. I agree with many insurers who recommend that business insurance is best handled by an experienced risk manager. Sadly many OHS professionals do not have those skills.
In the context of the OHS consultancy, clients may be reassured by such an insurance policy but it should be an unnecessary expense. The consultancy provides a monthly assessment service that steers the company through specific workplace hazards. The consultancy provides some initial OHS advice and resources but no independent audits of the OHS system and the monthly monitors are not trained in OHS.
The consultancy says that following this system will provide compliance, and maybe it does. But even compliant workplaces can have incidents that could generate a prosecution. It is here where the insurance policy should apply.
The monthly assessment system needs to be diligently followed and payments kept current because non-compliance with the obligations of the system could leave an “out” for the insurer.
Statutory liability insurance, particularly for small business, needs to be examined by the OHS regulators. Most regulators approached would not comment on the record about such policies, others were dismissive. The article examines the legal issues further and, sadly, the article is not available online.
If the regulators are truly supportive of small business and OHS compliance for this sector, there should be some guidance on statutory liability issued. But like OHS professionals, regulators are not comfortable with policies that compensate (other than workers compensation). They focus on prevention and prosecution. It’s time to establish a broader source of OHS policy development, one which includes insurance companies, brokers and risk managers.
Not so long ago, it was considered a legitimate criticism to blame the individual for “doing the wrong thing” at work. Depending on the type of worksite, this was considered “human error” or “bloody stupid”.
Fatigue is an interesting illustration of how occupational health and safety must cope with new perspectives on established hazards. Australian OHS legislation operates on a responsibility to manage the systems of work in a workplace, of which only one element is the worker.
A good incident investigation goes beyond the incident to see what led up to a worker acting the way they did, the reasons behind the decision. Instead of “tell me about your childhood”, OHS practitioners can legitimately ask “tell me about your sleep patterns”, or “tell me about your second job”, or “tell me about your relationship with your partner”, as these can be contributory factors to the decision made on the day or the work environment at the time of the incident.
Some recent AAP articles provide interesting examples of the different contexts in which fatigue as a workplace issue can manifest:
“Ambulance Employees Australia (AEA) said weary paramedics had fallen asleep at the wheel and administered wrong drugs because they did not have enough time off between shifts.
They have called for a minimum 10-hour break between shifts, compared with eight hours under the current award.
But Ambulance Victoria has said the fatigue issue was one of 175 union claims, which it said sought $800 million from pay talks.”
“Investigators examining the near-catastrophe at Melbourne Airport last month are exploring whether fatigue was a factor after being told the pilot had barely slept the day before the flight.
Emirates pilots are permitted to fly a maximum of 100 hours each 28 days and the pilot was also almost at the legal threshold of the number of hours he was able to fly.
Emirates has issued a statement saying safety was a top priority for the airline.”
A higher priority than a good night’s sleep apparently! Clearly it is the spread of hours that is the issue not the total over a fixed period.
Both these examples relate to workers’ interactions with the public and reflect the complexity of OHS’s spread to public safety.
It seems that every investigation now automatically assesses the fatigue level, or impairment, of the participants in incidents in the same way mobile phone records are checked in car accidents and blood-alcohol levels or drug testing in some industrial events.
If your OHS professional does not consider psychosocial issues in developing safety management plans or incident investigation, seek a second opinion, or better yet, make sure the first opinion is comprehensive.
There is some debate today about whether Swine Flu (in deference to the request from some pig farmers, now renamed “the Mexican Flu outbreak of 2009″) has peaked. Colleagues in Asia over the weekend told SafetyAtWorkBlog that in most circles, the Mexican Flu outbreak has not generated the same level of interest, or concern, as elsewhere. Perhaps the media studies academics can contribute to a redefinition of “global pandemic” as any disease outbreak that occurs in a country next to the United States. (Beware the Canadian Beaver Flu)
But flippancy aside, this dry-run at an influenza pandemic has many benefits and one particularly useful benefit will be a change in attitude to presenteeism in workplaces.
As the Southern Hemisphere enters its flu season and the early round of flu vaccinations concludes, Australia and others will be a test case for any attitudinal change in workers towards bringing their flu-ridden bodies to work, or in workers objecting to the contagious hazards that the presenteeists (?) introduce.
It has always been a suitable HR and OHS process to send someone home who appears impaired or unfit-for-work. In the past “essential” staff would continue to work for the sake of workload or productivity. Over time the folly of such an attitude has become obvious and workplace safety advocates have had a major role in this change. The increased absenteeism of, and the decreased productivity from, a team who have been infected by a single member is now an unacceptable health hazard and productivity threat.
This change has also been helped by the increasingly viable option in some industries for people to work from home.
The Mexican flu outbreak is likely to verify the reality of presenteeism, probably from colleagues demanding that control measures be taken on the unthinking infectious workmate. Masks may be tolerated but in the tradition of the hierarchy of controls, elimination is always preferable to personal protective equipment.
In the 1980s taxation department and many other workplaces, telephone hygienists were employed to disinfect telephone handsets. Modern handsets cannot be disassembled in the same way however, SafetyAtWorkBlog was reminded of this, at the time, peculiar hygiene practices when watching Mexicans disinfecting subways and public telephones.
In all things there must be balance, but the Mexican flu outbreak of 2009 will undoubtedly revise the way people touch things and others. In relation to influenze this is a good thing.
The edge of panic is starting to appear in Australian concerns over swine flu. Some health officials, who should know better, are slipping slightly off message. The Queensland government’s chief medical officer has recommended that food should be stockpiled. This was quickly jumped on by the Federal Health Minister, Nicola Roxon, has tried to provide a more palatable context to the stockpiling:
“We want people to be aware of the risk of this disease, we want people to be taking sensible planning steps but we don’t want panic,” she said. “It’s very important that we don’t have a rush on products that people just during the course of their ordinary shopping might think about whether they have some of these extra supplies.”
The Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has offered some of the blandest, but relevant, advice:
“For all Australians to engage in the simple practice of washing their hands with soap on a regular basis.”
Kevin Rudd is not the poster boy for personal hygiene unless eating one’s earwax is a suitable hygiene practice.
SafetyAtWorkBlog will continue to watch for evidence of the effectiveness of handwashing in influenza control.
Roxon’s advice is sound however in one very important way – sensible planning steps. Cut through the hyperbole. Listen to reputable health advice, and keep your colleagues and employees informed. If that happens, we’ll get through this threat.
This week workplace safety on a building site received a much needed dose of humour. The Australian show “ThankGod, You’re Here” had a comedian enter a pretend building site and have to face questions from an OHS inspector as if he was the owner of the site.
The sketch has added impact because of its timing. It is hard to imagine this occurring ten years ago in a society and industry where OHS compliance was less valued, when hardhats were considered optional and when brightly-coloured vests looked stupid. That the sketch is funny is a measure of how OHS regulation and enforcement has matured and just how successful the OHS regulators have been in changing the society’s attitudes to workplace safety in Australia.
Also, it shows something more illustrative of comedy, more true. In the sketch there are some wonderful stunts done by a small earthmover. Only last year there was outrage, and fines, over some forklift stunts done for real by a young driver in Melbourne. The environment makes the difference between laughter and outrage.
The success of the TV show’s concept is also indicated by the issue of the 12-year-old welder on the building site. The comedian, Merrick Watts, removes the issue of age by insisting the young boy is actually in his fifties and just looks younger.
WorkSafe Victoria, whose logo is worn by the pretend inspectors in the sketch, have said that they did not pay for brand placement and that the show did not belittle the work they do. In fact the show “actually showed that we have a job to do and that there are good reasons for it.”