Australia’s OHS harmonisation likely to fall 1

Media reports on 11 May 2009 do not provide optimism for the introduction of harmonised OHS laws in Australia.  The Australian reports that the ACTU is lobbying Federal ministers over the reports into the model OHS law that are scheduled to be discussed at the Workplace Relations Ministers’ Council on 18 May.

The unions believe that following the recommendations of the review panel will provide workers with lesser standard of safety protection than they currently have.

The government has been slow is responding to the recommendations of the review panel, an odd action given the tight reform timeline they set.  However, the government has shown that timelines are flexible even when the future of humanity is threatened by climate change.

The ACTU will be campaigning in the media this week against the weakening of OHS laws, particularly the extremist laws of New South Wales.  Whether this is an ambit claim or not will be found out next week but whatever it is it shows regrettable shortsightedness on the part of the ACTU.

The Australian Financial Review (page 5, 11 May 2009, article not available online) seems to take some glee in the fact that the safety laws are “shaky”.  The paper may be caught between watching the Government’s agenda failing again or advocating legislative change to reduce the operational costs of its readers.  The AFR reports that three States are digging in against the possible OHS law reforms.  New South Wales (largely seen as dominated by the trade unions), Queensland (new IR Minster Cameron Dick wants the State’s reverse onus of proof to be applied) and Western Australia have indicated a hesitance to accept.

The Federal Government needs a two-thirds majority for the national OHS legislation to occur and, with a week to go, SafetyAtWorkBlog expects the government to apply some horsetrading  for the new laws to pass. 

Having said that noone yet knows what the new laws are that will be proposed.  The Government has received the review panel reports but has yet to respond to the recommendations.

Any law reform focused on national harmonisation is unlikely to succeed unless there is unanimous support for the reforms.  The fear all along with the OHS laws is that agreement will be short-term until state governments decide that their industries or industrial relations situation have special needs and responds parochially and weakens the national strategy.

The challenge for the Federal Minister for Workplace Relations, Julia Gillard, is to achieve unanimity AND lock in State support for several years so that harmony and stability can be achieved.  OHS law reform on this scale occurs rarely and all parties should be looking at the long term on this issue rather than their own state-based petty power struggles.  We have to wait till early next week to see which States have the mature politicians.

Kevin Jones

Passive smoking and casino workers Reply

Smoke-free workplaces have gained considerable attention over the last few years but many countries allow exemptions for casinos.  This makes no health sense but considerable political and revenue sense.   The  American Lung Association has released a video story about one non-smoking casino worker who has suffered lung cancer, Vinnie Rennich.  (The 16meg flash video is available for download)

Safety Innovation – doing the hard yards 1

Kevin’s stuff on the latest Safe Work Australia Awards got me thinking about an issue I have had a bee in me bonnet about for a while now.  It’s safety innovation, and the glaring hole in Australia for support for the hardest innovation of the lot – safety product development.  By “safety product” I’m specifically referring to development of equipment or systems intended for sale.

As far as I can discover, Australian OH&S awards tend to focus on the entirely worthy thing of endorsing solutions that are readily adopted and are ideas that have a record of successful implementation.  There is no doubt that the safety award system finds excellent ideas used all over the place.  But the key issue here is that these innovations, relatively speaking, sell themselves.  They have been implemented and are proven “winners” in the sense of being a successful safety idea.

What seems to be missing is support for a small-scale product developer who has an excellent product prototype that hasn’t the convenience of a proven safety track record.  I’ve had the privilege (and sometimes the terrible angst) of trying to help out safety product developers, solo- or micro-businesses that are plugging away at getting a marketable product up and running.

Any product development is expensive, and in the absence of a larger company budget to “take the hits”, the small operator has to wear lots of pain to get a product to the point that it can be put on the market.

General support for all sorts of product development is often made available by various government agencies.  In Victoria, Innovic is the government organization that does good work in helping promote good ideas.  They have a specific award program for very new ideas called “The Next Big Thing”.  

It’s a great system, that invites applications from around the world but it’s still limited, by virtue of it (like the current OH&S regulator safety awards) being mostly an endorsement.  And, sure, a developer can benefit from endorsement. But from my experience, the small operator is mostly in need of advice and funding to keep a product idea alive.  This is where I think the OH&S regulatory agencies could really have a positive impact on safety product innovation in Australia.

I’m suggesting that contributions from each of the Australian OH&S agencies to a fund to support safety product developers with a specialised new product award could be managed by Safe Work Australia.  That fund would have to be fair dinkum.  It would need to have the resources to draw on expertise from product development specialists.  It would have to have prizes that matter.  Options could include funding to have winners attend the very excellent programs much like the New Enterprise Incentive Scheme (NEIS) provided around Australia.) The award system could include in the prize a fully funded 12-month part time course that does a similar thing to NEISS. 

But that is all very well, but a good idea is a worthless idea if it can’t be funded.  Cash is the thing a product developer needs.  Ten thousand dollar prizes is about the sort of cash I think would start to come close to being useful.  Keep in mind that taking out second mortgages on homes and other severe financial burdens are par for the course for a product developer.  Ten grand is not going to keep a developer afloat, but it may well be the difference between an idea withering vs it being made available to everyone.

And I recognise this sort of support for people trying to get a product on the market is high risk.  If a product development program got up there’s bound to be some failures and that has to be accepted as the cost of taking risks.  But maybe it’s time for the OH&S regulators to stick their neck out in this area?  Australians have had a pretty good history of coming up with new ideas, and there is lots of rhetoric about backing product innovation. It would be excellent to see more examples of regulators being prepared to do the hard yards on safety product development.

Col Finnie

Fearing the invisible – selling nanotechnology hazards 2

The community is not getting as concerned about nanotechnology as expected (or perhaps as needed).  There is the occasional scare and the Australian unions have relaunched their campaign on the hazards of nanotechnology manufacturing.  There have been several articles about the potential ecosystem damage of nanotechnology in our waterways.  Frequently, it can be heard that nanotechnology is the new asbestos.

Nanotechnology is a new technology and all new things should be used with caution.  It is odd that none of the nanotechnology protests seem to be gaining much traction.

Part of the problem is that nanotechnology is invisible and how do people become concerned about the invisible?  This is a point of difference from the asbestos comparison.  Asbestos was turned into asbestos products – from dust to roofing.  But nanotechnology goes from invisible to items such as socks.  The public see new improved versions of common items, nanotechnology is used in familiar items, but the public does not see the nanotechnology and therefore does not comprehend nanotechnology as a potential hazard.

It may be useful to jump back before asbestos to look for new communication techniques for warning consumers about the invisible.

In 1998 Nancy Tome published “The Gospel of Germs“.  Tome looks at the slow realisation in the first half of last century by the public that germs and microbes exist and can cause harm.  She is not interested in the germs themselves but how society accepted their existence and how they reacted.  This reaction – improved hygiene, infection control, disinfectant, etc – can provide us with some clues as to how society embraces the invisible, particularly if the invisible can make us sick.

Nancy Tomes wrote the book in the time when AIDS was new.  But since then SARS is new, Swine Flu is new and other pandemics will become new to a generation who have only known good health and good hygiene.  Now we are creating invisible things that we know can have positive benefits but we don’t know the cost of the benefit.

It is perhaps time for the OHS lobbyists to take a page or two from the public health promotion manual (and Tome’s book) and begin to explain rather than warn.  Nanotechnology is not asbestos and the comparison is unhelpful.  The application of nanotechnology will be in far more products than was asbestos and the nanotechnology is smaller.

If the lobbyists can make the invisible visible then progress will be much quicker.

Kevin Jones

Groundwork for employee engagement 2

Safety professionals should be suspicious of many management trends.  Over the last decade behavioural-based safety has been popular and more recently workplaces have been subjected to the application of amorphous concepts such as leadership and engagement.  Many of these are dressing up old approaches to management in new jargon,  some have little evidence to back up their claims.

At the end of April 2009 the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) identified limits to the application of employee engagement.  A SIOP statement said 

 Study after study has shown that an engaged workforce is considered desirable in any organization and leads to greater productivity and profitability. In short, There seems to be no downside to employee engagement. However, Thomas Britt, an industrial-organizational psychology professor at Clemson University, cautions there are some limits to employee engagement that managers should consider.

Britt acknowledges that employees who are actively involved in the management and decision-making of their company provide greater productivity and profitability. In modern parlance, engagement is good.  But he identifies several issues that should be considered.

“If [engaged workers] are not getting the resources they feel they need to perform at their best, their engagement may be diminished.”

So worker enthusiasm and initiative needs to be adequately supported.

Britt said performance could be restricted by

  • lack of budget and equipment support,
  • access to important information,
  • work overload,
  • unclear objectives and goals, and
  • assigning employees’ tasks that don’t fit their training.

SIOP said 

Britt’s research shows engaged employees are likely to become frustrated and dissatisfied and may blame their supervisors if they do not have the systems and support necessary to be effective. Given the higher pro-activity and energy levels of engaged employees, this frustration could lead to turnover as they begin to look for more supportive work environments. “The ones who stay behind may well be the ones who just don’t care,” said Britt.

 Work overload can lead directly to burnout.  According to SIOP, Britt said

 “highly motivated employees are willing to go beyond the call of duty to help the organization, but when temporary overload continues and they repeatedly fail to meet their own high expectations, their motivation becomes directed at locating other job possibilities, leaving the organization at risk of losing key talent.”

The impediments to an engaged workforce can often be missed in the enthusiasm of the engagement evangelists It is important not to dismiss the enthusiasm but to temper it so that any benefits are long term.  For any new management approaches to work, there must be adequate groundwork so that the participants know the reasons for change, this will help the new approach succeed.

In short, business needs to acknowledge that consultation is a basis for improvement not a communication method of telling people about change.  As SafetyAtWorkBlog has said consultation occurs in preparation for change as well as during and after.  Thomas Britt and SIOP have provided excellent ideas of the areas of threat for an employee engagement program.

More information may be available at

Kevin Jones

Blue Card training needs a review Reply

Most workers meet OHS training through short courses, perhaps even inductions.  Few have the time, the desire of the finances to pursue a tertiary qualification.

Australia has recently achieved a uniformity in its “card system” of OHS training for construction workers.  The card concept originated from the Safety Passport used in some European industries and is intended to provide a common set of OHS skills to workers so as to reduce on-site induction time and costs.  It is a worthy initiative and has improved safety awareness on work sites however any training program needs to include self-improvement.

(A national OHS induction system should be part of the Australian Government’s response to the recommendations of the model OHS law review panel.)

Current training seems to have reached the point where too much is trying to be done in too little time. Blue Card training can be undertaken in 6 hours and covers over 50 workplace issues!!  Yes the training is only for “safety awareness” but 50 issues in around 5 hours is absurd unless the training runs something like

  • Smoking in the Workplace – DON’T DO IT
  • Job Safety Analysis – GOT TO HAVE ONE
  • Fatigue Management – GO TO BED EARLY

One would have to ask if this training is really worth it.  The main reason the training is offered at all is that it is a mandatory requirement for many worksites and the construction industry.  But what good is having a Blue Card if the training is too simple, too generic?

A universal/national level of safety awareness or induction would be ideal but the current system and its implementation leaves a lot to be desired.  Let’s hope that reform of this process is on the agenda of the new Safe Work Australia organisation.

Kevin Jones

Below are the components of a Blue Card safety awareness training program currently offered in Australia: 

Module 1: OSH – The Law, Your Employer and You

  • legislation, regulations, codes of practice, guidelines and standards
  • right to refuse work
  • responsibility for regulation by WorkSafe
  • general duties of care – public safety, employee, employer, manufacturers and suppliers
  • safety and health representatives and safety and health committees
  • resolution of safety and health issues
  • workplace policies and procedures
  • reporting of serious occurrences, injuries and hazards
  • workers’ compensation

Module 2: Managing Risks in the Workplace

  • understanding the meaning of hazard and risk
  • risk assessment/management
  • control methods for managing risks
  • job safety analysis worksheets
  • five steps to complete a JSA
  • emergency procedures and response plans
  • emergency situations
  • emergency response training

Module 3: Staying Safe in the Building and Construction Industry

  • employee responsibility
  • effects of shift work
  • how to manage the effects of shift work
  • fatigue
  • your personal alertness
  • diabetes
  • obesity
  • depression
  • safety management systems
  • benefits of a safety management system
  • examples of safety rules – equipment and tool safety
  • performing high risk work
  • housekeeping
  • personal protective equipment
  • prevention of skin cancer, eye damage and mosquito born viruses
  • safe manual handling
  • alcohol and other drugs at the workplace
  • smoking
  • alarm systems and emergency exits/escape routes
  • responding to emergencies
  • fire equipment
  • first aid

Module 4: Environment and Other Considerations

  • the working environment and weather conditions
  • heat stress
  • hypothermia
  • safety signage
  • tag and lock out isolation procedures
  • environmental issues and responsibilities
  • vegetation
  • native fauna
  • water pollution
  • atmospheric pollution
  • entry into confined spaces
  • working at heights
  • safety rules for working on ladders
  • electrical safety
  • hazardous substances

Release of Melick Report on Beaconsfield mine collapse 4

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.

The OHS-specific reports by Professor Michael Quinlan have also been released.

The real business cost of safety 2

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.

Kevin Jones

UPDATE: 8 May 2009

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.

Falling under the safety radar Reply

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Col Finnie

Influenza – dilemma for OHS regulators 2

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?

pandemicinal-7091883e-236bready1The 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.”

nap-cover1The 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?

Kevin Jones