Unions step-up OHS concerns over nanotechnology 1

The Australian Council of Trade Unions has updated its campaign over nanotechnology concerns.  Geoff Fary, Assistant Secretary, said in a media statement 

“With animal tests showing some nanomaterials share the same characteristics and reactions as asbestos fibres, governments and business must not repeat the  painful lessons of the past and allow another tragedy to occur again.

 “Existing laws and regulations were not designed with the unique properties of nanoscale materials in mind. A recent report from the NSW Parliament recommended this be addressed and we believe it should be done nationally too.

 “Until we know more about nano materials, we should regulate as if it is dangerous to human health. It is the only safe option.

 “Workers in manufacturing, retail, health, laboratories, textiles, and outdoor workers are potentially exposed to nanomaterials, and the list will grow as the industry grows.”

These comments are reminiscent of the Luddites of the Industrial Revolution however the Luddites had not experienced pernicious widespread hazards such as asbestos.  The modern society and workplace has benefited from a better understanding of occupational hazards and the union campaign deserves an audience.

The union concerns are outlined in a factsheet available through this link actufactsheet0904-nanotech

Kevin Jones

An interview that SafetyAtWorkBlog conducted with the ACTU OHS Officer, Steve Mullins, is available HERE.  A podcast with an award-winning nanotechnology researcher is available HERE

Australian trade unions hijack the World Day of Safety 1

Every year the ILO sponsors the World Day for Health and Safety At Work on 28 April 2009.  This day is a day of remembrance for most countries where people reflect on those who have died at work in the previous year.  Each year, these days are full of tears and grief, and motivation for safety professionals to work harder.

When handled well these are days of sorrow and dignity.  Sadly, occasionally,  these days are hijacked by the trade union movement in their industrial campaigns that only indirectly relate to workplace safety.

A couple of years ago, at the height of the union campaign to oust the Howard Government in Australia, the Victorian Trades Hall spokesperson, Brian Boyd, spoke passionately in support of the campaign.  His political calls did not relate to the memories of the dead workers who people were there to remember and mourn.

For 2009, the Construction Forestry, Mining and Energy Union has imposed their campaign against the Australia Building & Construction Commission on the World Day for Health and Safety At Work, or Workers’ Memorial Day, whichever matches one’s political leanings.  This demeans the original intention of the day and should be criticised.

The tenuousness of the ABCC campaign and safety is discussed elsewhere but it is inappropriate for the CFMEU Construction Division National Secretary, Dave Noonan, to link in a media statement the two issues:

“Each week on an Australian construction sites, statistics show that a worker will die. We cannot let this go on for another week let alone for another five years.  Construction workers and unions are today making a stand for safety. If that means we have to have stop work meetings for safety or refuse to cooperate with the ABCC, then that’s what we’ll do.”

It is believed that there are no restrictions for meetings to discuss OHS matters on construction sites but there are conditions for union right-of-entry on OHS matters as listed below.  The processes seem reasonable and are similar to the processes applied for several years in the Victorian jurisdiction.

It is disappointing to the OHS profession to link safety with a non-safety-related industrial campaign.  What is more disturbing is the misuse of a memorial day to dead workers for political ends.

Kevin Jones

According to the website of the ABCC:

“1. A union official must have one of the following valid reasons to enter your site:

  • Investigate, on reasonable grounds, a suspected breach of the Workplace Relations Act 1996, a collective agreement, an award, an AWA or an order of the AIRC
  • Hold discussions with members or workers eligible to be members of the union
  • Perform inspections and functions under an OHS law *

If none of these reasons apply you have the right to refuse entry.”


“Union officials must comply with your reasonable requests about:

  • The rooms or areas they may use on the site for holding discussions
  • The route they should take to access those rooms or areas
  • Occupational health and safety”

* Under the Workplace Relations Act 1996 union officials who enter a worksite for OHS purposes must hold a valid federal permit, produce that permit on request, exercise those rights during working hours and comply with reasonable OHS requirements.

Roadwork zone speed limit enforcement Reply

At the Safety In Action Conference recently, Geoff Knox, CEO of Downer EDI spoke about the need to respect speed limits on roadwork sites.  He mentioned this because his company conducts a lot of this type of work, but anyone who has driven through such a zone at the reduced speed limit sees many cars and truck travelling much faster, and only metres away from workers.

Crikey.com included a rumour in its 9 April 2009 bulletin that says on a stretch of the Monash Freeway that is being widened, that 

“..within the Vic State Government that there is a tacit understanding not to police this stretch of road outside of peak hours and that between 50% & 60% of drivers are speeding. “

There are many instances where “tacit understandings” evolve into, or are considered, corruption and it is very disappointing that speed cameras, or other speed enforcement tactics, are not being applied in a circumstance where the need has never been more obvious.

Police threatened a blitz on the Monash in November 2008 if speed was not reduced.

In typical Crikey styles, there is a suggestion that there is a political advantage in this for nearby shaky electorates but the rumourmonger’s final comment brought the rumour into our context.

Vicroads are known to be particularly concerned about worker safety, particularly at night when work is being undertaken. There is a tragedy waiting to happen, and the finger pointing after the fact will be most interesting.”

Kevin Jones

WorkSafe Victoria’s plans for the future 1

At the Safety In Action Conference in Melbourne last week the CEO Of WorkSafe Victoria, John Merritt, told the delegates that over the coming weeks and months we will see the following:

  • The “Homecomings” series of workplace safety ads have been purchased by Washington State and will be broadcast shortly.  Merritt expects the campaign to spread across the United States and, maybe, into Canada;
  • WorkSafe has developed fake vending machines for use at exhibitions and trade displays which display replacement body parts, fingers as  USB sticks (pictured below);
  • WorkSafe will be introducing an advisory support scheme for the medium-sized businesses, modelled on the Small Business scheme;
  • A team of advisers is targeting poor-performing large employers.  Merritt said that  “50 large employers account for 11% of all injuries WorkSafe sees”;
  • A major street art campaign will be launched by the end of April 2009
  • A new series of ads to be run on regional and rural television based on local sporting legends as part of the country football and netball sponsorship;
  • The graphic young worker advertisements will be re-run at appropriate times.  Merritt acknowledged that the ads have generated many complaints but are transmitting the right message to the target audience.

WorkSafe will also maintain their focus on the “jugglers” those business people or administrative staff that are essential to each organisation because they are in charge of dozens of business processes.  WorkSafe surveys of the jugglers have shown that less than 10% of their time is spent on OHS matters, around 30% of them are trained in their tasks and most operate without support.

Kevin Jones


The misuse of OHS in industrial relations campaigns 1

Workplace safety and industrial relations are undeniably tied together in terms of policy development, legislation and implementation.  This week the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) used the occupational safety record of the Australian construction industry to criticise the Australian Building & Construction Commission (ABCC).  

wilcoxreportmarch2009-coverIt should be stated here that SafetyAtWorkBlog does not support the ABCC.  The Commission is a travesty and a political construct of the conservative side of politics.  That the Rudd Labor government has allowed the Commission to persist is atrocious.  However, the ABCC was established because of the perception that the Australian building and construction industry was corrupt, regardless of the absence of evidence through the Cole Royal Commission.  Has the construction unions addressed this perception? No.

In the 3 April 2009 media statement issued by Dave Noonan, CFMEU Construction Division National Secretary, there are the following comments

“The right of construction workers to have a safe working environment is a glaring hole in the report. Justice Wilcox has skimmed over the issue of safety, which is a basic right of construction workers.

Safety was not part of the scope of the inquiry for Justice Wilcox.  Action may have been taken by the ABCC on union representatives who were on construction sites to discuss safety but it is the presence on the site and the way that presence was achieved that is the issue, not whether the site is safe or not.

“It is shameful that the two employers used to prop up arguments for the retention of the powers of the ABCC, BHP Billiton and John Holland, have had a worker die on site in the last fortnight,” said Dave Noonan.

SafetyAtWorkBlog has elsewhere mentioned the poor safety record of BHP Billiton and the campaign on worker safety by the unions against John Holland.  However, these two companies are operating within their legal rights even if one does not agree with their decisions.  The focus of attention should be given to the current government which has chosen to act slowly on the ABCC, an organisation the Australian Labor Party, in opposition, opposed.

The difficulty for the union movement is that the ALP requires the ongoing support of the Australian labour movement to provide it with membership and finance (not to mention a career path for the trade union secretaries).  The trade unions need the political influence of the ALP and are obliged to criticise politely but not too overtly.

“The 154 page report does not mention the safety record of the construction industry or the fact that one worker dies on average each week.”

Safety was outside Justice Wilcox’s terms of reference.

“The so called ‘industrial harmony’ brought about by the ABCC and heralded by Justice Wilcox comes at the expense of the lives of construction workers.  We have deteriorating safety on construction site across Australia. At the very time Justice Wilcox was finalising his report, BHP and John Holland had a construction worker killed on their project,” said Mr Noonan.

Noonan does not offer evidence of the link between the operation of the ABCC and “deteriorating safety”.  It is suspected that such research would indicate that the correlation is not that clear and that there are many other factors affecting safety management.

“Industrial harmony” is an unfair description as even totalitarian regimes can claim harmony.

“The report also fails to deal with breaches to International law by the building and construction laws. Australia has been criticised by the International Labor Organisation six times for undermining workers rights.”

This is again outside the inquiry’s scope.  The ILO criticism is valid but the capacity to change is not with Justice Wilcox or the ABCC but with Australia’s politicians, who should be the union’s real targets.

“Australia’s construction unions will continue with the campaign for rights on site, using the full strength of the union movement.”

This is no more than what the union movement was established for.  The union movement needs to remind itself that it is a member organisation and that worker rights are not necessarily the same as union rights.  Not all union activity benefits its members.

“Workers rights to a safe workplace and equality before the law are core Labor principles. Construction workers, their unions and 10,000 working Australian’s will continue to campaign for rights on site, so all Australian worker [sic] are equal before the law,” said Mr Noonan 

There are two issues here that Noonan has lumped together – workplace safety and worker equality.  Regardless of union action or union presence, every Australian worker has the right to a safe and healthy work environment.  Equality is harder to achieve but just as much a human right.

Above, the perception of corruption in the construction industry was mentioned.  The exploitation of OHS in an industrial campaign against John Holland and the ABCC is unfair and insulting and may indicate that the union movement is not gaining traction on the industrial campaign.

It may just be that the media statement from the CFMEU is an expression of frustration and disappointment with the government that the union movement campaigned hard to bring to power and who is not providing the expected return on investment.

The union movement in Australia needs to realise that the industrial relations environment, like the upcoming OHS legislation, cannot be wound back but that a new future is possible.  There is no vision in Noonan’s media statement only a complaint that the Rudd government is breaking its promise and, in the general populace,  noone outside the union movement seems to care.

Kevin Jones

UPDATE ON ABCC – 6 April 2009

The Australian Greens issued a statement in early April 2009 questioning the government’s choice to retain industrial relations rules introduced by the previous, conservative, government.

Senator Rachel Siewert said

“We do not, however, support his recommendations for the separate division within the Fair Work Ombudsman to retain compulsory interrogation powers and the ability to deny workers their right to silence.”

“There is no justification to continue this discrimination against building workers. The building industry must be regulated just like any other industry – in a fair and just manner that balances the needs of productivity and the economy with the health, safety and democratic rights of workers.” 

Why won’t the Tasmanian government release the OHS report into the Beaconsfield mine collapse? 2

Since the 2006 rockfall at Beaconsfield Mine in Tasmania, the public has received limited information.  There have been books about the rescue of two workers and the Coroner’s inquest into the death of Larry Knight.  Greg Mellick undertook an investigation into the rockfall and found that noone was to blame for the rockfall.

Many workplace disasters have generated royal commissions in Australia.  The rockfall did not.  However, industry specialists, OHS professionals and others have established an expectation that investigations and reports into industrial disasters are publicly accessible.

The expectation is not unreasonable given that the OHS profession, legal profession, engineers and others operate within a belief that the analysis of disasters can provide ways of avoiding a recurrence.  Apparently the Tasmanian Government does not understand the significance of information in improving the safety of workers and the public in its State, even though its OHS and mine safety legislation is structured around prevention.

The Tasmanian Coroner released his findings into the death of Larry Knight.  The findings quoted extensively from the 400+ page OHS report from Professor Michael Quinlan that was part of Greg Mellick’s investigation process.  But the report itself is yet to be released.  Nor has the larger report undertaken by Greg Mellick.

The Director of Public Prosecutions has chosen not to lay charges over the rockfall.

The mine is back at full operation.

The survivors of the rockfall are rebuilding their lives.

Only a couple of weeks ago, the Legislative Council Select Committee on Mining Industry Regulation released its report into the State’s mining legislation.  The terms of reference have evolved from the findings of various investigations including Quinlan’s.  The committee was required to investigate

  1. Regulation and workplace standards within the mining and related industries in Tasmania.
  2. Safety performance of the Tasmanian mining industry compared to other primary industries in the State and the mining industry nationally.
  3. The role of Workplace Standards Tasmania in the regulation of the mining and associated industries.
  4. The efficacy and limitations of the co-regulatory model within the mining industry in Tasmania; and
  5. Any other matters incidental thereto.

On 2 April 2009 at the Safety In Action Conference in Melbourne, Professor Michael Quinlan expressed bewilderment at the decision to not release his investigation report.

SafetyAtWorkBlog contacted the OHS regulator in Tasmania asking for the Quinlan report.  We were advised that it was likely that the only way to obtain a copy was through Freedom of Information with the Department of Premier & Cabinet. (DPAC)  A representative of DPAC will contact us about the report’s status.

DPAC has a copy of the Mellick report.  The Australian Workers Union has a copy of the Mellick report.  SafetyAtWorkBlog believes there are leaked copies of the report in existence but for some reason, unknown at this time, the public is not permitted to see the report.

The Queensland government has available four reports into mining disasters in the Moura area with one report going back to 1972!!

In the years after the ESSO-Longford gas explosion, Professor Andrew Hopkins published “Lessons From Longford“.  It was for a long time the publisher’s best-selling book.  It is quoted extensively in the OHS and management professions.  Some of Andrew’s terminologies and concepts of safety culture have become ingrained in the psyche of OHS professionals in Australia.

It is hard to see any reason in April 2009 for the Mellick and Quinlan reports not be be publicly available.  Indeed there are many important professional and community reasons for the reports to be seen.

What is the professional legacy of the Tasmanian government’s investigations into the Beaconsfield Mine rockfall in 2004?

What will the government say when the next rockfall occurs in an underground mine?  What will the Premier or the Minister say to the next generation of widows or to the carers of the crippled miners?  Certainly David Bartlett or David Llewellyn cannot say that they did all they could to make workplaces safe.

Kevin Jones

Global pressures on Australian workers compensation schemes 3

Around 18 months ago the Victoria Government launched WorkHealth, a health prevention program that would be funded from the interest generated from the pool of workers compensation funds.  SafetyAtWorkBlog has previously questioned how the program will be funded when its income source is likely to have been severely reduced due to the global economic problems.

On 1 April 2009 WorkCover in South Australia reported a half-year net loss of $313 million. WorkCover CEO Julia Davison said in a media release that

“the global crisis is, as expected, taking its toll.  In the last six months stock markets have declined, investors have experienced significant losses, and interest rates have fallen significantly,” she said  “Like all investors, WorkCover has been hit hard by the global financial downturn.”

Earlier in March 2009, the Chair of the WorkSafe Board Elana Rubin said 

“the significant downturn on the world financial markets and reduction in interest rates had combined to drive a net loss of $1.42 billion for the half year.  Whilst interest rate reductions are good news for those of us with mortgages, they have the opposite effect on our scheme – in the half year to 31 December 2008, the unprecedented level of interest rate cuts negatively impacted our net result by $645 million.”

On 1 April 2009 SafetyAtWorkBlog asked John Merritt why WorkHealth was not mentioned as part of his keynote presentation at the Safety In Action Conference.  He reiterated the importance of the program in easing the recovery time, particularly, for manual handling injuries but acknowledged that the program’s funding source was based on interest

“from the [$600 million of the assets of the] workers compensation scheme over the next five years ….well there used to be interest from assets – there should be one day, there will be again -  around $40 million each year for the next five years will be invested in worker health.”

It is good to hear that the WorkHealth program is going to continue but the fragility of the program’s funding should have been evident in the planning phase.  Governments around the world are pulling back on government funded programs in a wide range of areas.  Ideas that seem good in the good times are now looking like luxuries.  It will be interesting to see if WorkHealth continues in the WorkCover area or moves to Health, where many of its critics have always said it belongs.

Kevin Jones

BHP Billiton deaths – government intervention 3

The West Australian government has taken the extraordinary step of talking directly to the senior management of Australian mining corporation BHP Billiton about the recent spate of fatalities at BHP’s worksites.  The cynic would say that we now know the number of workplace fatalities that it takes to gain a Minister’s attention however, the fact that this high-level meeting is occurring is a clear indication of the severity of the issue.  It may also indicate just how effective a union safety campaign can be.  It is just regrettable the campaign is generated from multiple fatalities rather than preventive issues.

According to the Minister, Nick Moore 

“Mines inspectors will now issue prohibition notices to BHP under the Mines Safety and Inspection Act 1994 – basically a stop work notice – for any breach of work practices or work place conditions that may constitute a hazard to workers.”

Mr Moore went on to say, according to one media article, “…the policy would remain in force until he had seen the report of a Section 45 review currently under way into safety management systems at all of BHP Billiton’s Pilbara iron ore mine sites.” 

The article noted that

“The review, requiring independent engineering studies of BHP worksites to be carried out, is expected to be completed by April 30.”

BHP, meanwhile, has given guarantees of the following safety improvements:

  •          Reduce site access;
  •          Improve contractor management;
  •          Enhance existing strategies to prevent excess working hours;
  •          Move rail operations from the Mine Safety and Inspection Act to the Rail Safety Act;
  •          Enhance traffic management standards, and;
  •          Suspend all non-essential work outside daylight hours

Kevin Jones

Professor Quinlan outlines the roles and approaches of the OHS inspectorate Reply

The Safety in Action conference is lucky to have Professor Michael Quinlan as a keynote speaker, as he has seriously curtailed his conference appearances to favour those that benefit the safety profession over the commercial conferences.  His, and Richard Johnstone’s, research on 1200 inspectors has provided useful insight into the effectiveness and roles of OHS inspectors.  The project also interviewed HSRs and employers and visited a large variety of workplaces.

Michael Quinlan at Safety In Action Conference

Michael Quinlan at Safety In Action Conference

Inspectorate activity focused on in the report was in the traditional areas initially.  But although statistics overstate the effectiveness of the visits, the bulk of their activity relates to targeted strategies, as targeted enforcement provides a greater return.  This may be important to remember when listening to presentations from the regulators about their performance indicators.

Less than half of an inspector’s time is spent in talking with workers.  Most attention was on plant and documentation was low except in major hazard sites.  Inspectors don’t ask about the participatory structures which Quinlan sees as a major deficiency.

Inspectors currently have much better communication skills than in previous incarnations.

In 50% of the cases studied there is no action taken by inspectors, 25% are verbal instructions, improvement notices issued in 34%. 

The research also asked what standards were referred to by the inspectors with the most common being process or performance standards.  Inspectors are very hesitant in providing advice on potential solutions yet they are often the best placed to provide advice.

Inspectorate training has greatly improved and inspectors do apply their enforcement skills selectively.  Some employers want notices in order to gain the attention on safety matters from the executives.

“Zero Harm” often fades to zero injuries and becomes implemented more restrictively than intended due to the realisation of the workload in achieving  the corporate goals.

Inspectors are more cynical on audit tools because the tools in many cases have become checklist compliances with insufficient resources to improve safety in reality.

Inspectors struggle with psychosocial issues but the general opinion is that managing the issues will evolve in a similar way to that of manual handling over the last 20 years.  Often bullying cases can take up a lot of inspector’s time with less than perfect outcomes.

Inspectors are beginning to see safety within the business/management context and provide more assistance with managers.  Inspectors are very aware of the risks associated with paper compliance management systems.

Inspectors don’t interact sufficiently with unions and HSRs.  Well-managed worksites are prepared to include a second opinion on safety, often from unions.  Those sites that are not inclusive should raise a red flag.

Repeat visits by inspectors are the most effective technique in safety improvement but under-resourcing hampers this technique.

Kevin Jones

Impressions of Australian safety Reply

At the Safety In Action conference in Melbourne Australia, SafetyAtWorkBlog was able to catchup with John Lacey, a past President of the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health in England.  John has attended ten of the conferences and has some interesting comments on the conference, how Australian safety differs from the UK and who he would nominate as an example of safety leadership.

The short interview is available at delegate-day-1-02