Australian Standards and OHS harmonisation 3

This morning in Melbourne, WorkSafe Victoria conducted a three-hour seminar on the harmonisation of Australia’s OHS laws.  The speakers and panelists were John Merritt of WorkSafe, Tracey Browne of the Australian Industry Group and Cathy Butcher of the Victorian Trades Hall.  Tripartism at its best.

The large auditorium was filled with hundreds of attendees, very few were the familiar faces of the OHS professionals who can often dominate such events.

A question was asked to the panel about the application of the Australian Standard for Plant.  The question was, basically, will the Australian Standards be referred to within the upcoming OHS regulations?  The panel unanimously said no.

This was the clearest indication yet that the rumour about Australian Standards not being given legislative legitimacy through legislation is correct.  Tracey Browne however provided the rationale.  She said

“The important thing is that as soon as we incorporate an Australian Standard in a regulation, we create a whole different legislative status of something that was never designed to be a safety regulation….

This doesn’t change the fact, though, that it is the “state of knowledge” and when you look at what you are doing in relation to what is reasonably practicable, you need to take into account all the things you know or ought to know.  So if you are [for instance] bringing plant into Australia, and that is your business, then you need to know what the Australian Standards are and make sure that’s part of your consideration.”

Standards Australia is undergoing a considerable rethink due to a big loss of funds and in response to the changing regulatory structure in all sorts of industry and financial sectors.  The challenge is acknowledged by the CEO of Standards Australia, John Tucker ,when he discusses a “new way of operating“.

Kevin Jones

Where is the human right to safe work? 4

Australia is in the middle of a debate about the possible introduction of a charter or bill of human rights.  The debate has been invigorated by the presentation to the Federal Government of a consultation report on human rights.

Occupational safety is often said to be an issue of human rights but this seems to be a secondary action inferred from labor rights rather than a specific statement.  Below are a selection of the articles in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights that may relate to safe workplaces:

Article 1 – All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 3 – Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 7 – All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

Article 23 –  1. Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

Article 24 – Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

The closest one would get to a specific right to “safety at work” would be Article 23 – 1 where there is a right to “favourable conditions of work”.  Favourable is a term that is not seen in OHS legislation or discussions but may tie in with the Australian Government’s concepts of Fair Work.

Article 25 – 1 refers to “the health and well-being” but the following examples place this clearly in the social, non-workplace context.

Article 25 – 1. Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

One could argue that the right to a “standard of living” may include the qualitative elements of a safe working environment but a standard of living –  usually income, education and, sometimes, access and quality of health care – is not the “quality of life” which includes safety.

The report referred to above again does not have an overt statement that people have a right to a safe workplace but it does say, in its summary, that introducing a Human Rights Act

“…. could generate economic benefits, reducing the economic costs associated with policies that do not protect the lives and safety of Australians.”

This language may get a sympathetic ear from the Government in its context of a review of OHS legislation.

But no-one is making the case for a right for a safe workplace.

The argument that a specific right is not required as the state and national OHS legislation places clear obligations on employers and employees does not hold water as similar obligations are in other legislation and some of those sectors are advocating for human rights.

It should be clear from this article that SafetyAtWorkBlog is not a lawyer or a human rights specialist. But what the Government is looking for is discussion on the potential impacts of a Human Rights Act and it is clear from much of the contemporary discussion on occupational health and safety that the overlap between OHS and social safety is increasing very quickly, in the opinion of SafetyAtWorkBlog, quicker than the legislations and laws can cope.

In the past the trade union movement would take the running on human rights as part of their social charter but, as has been said in other SafetyAtWorkBlog articles, the trade unions still remain focused on the material interests of work, primarily, and are currently lobbying on OHS in Australia, primarily, from an industrial base.

The labour lawyers are debating the intricacies of the proposed OHS laws rather than the big picture, the context of the OHS laws in the broader legal and social fabric.  Perhaps this is considered a dead area of examination and discussion.  Once a law is introduced or a precedent set, lawyers tend to adjust their analytical thinking to fit.  Safety professionals and commentators have the luxury to think more broadly.

The safety professional associations are remarkably quiet on the whole idea, preferring to bow to their legal advisers while at the same wondering how they can find relevance in the evolving social context of OHS.

If readers of SafetyAtWorkBlog can shed any light on the human right for safe work, please submit comments below.

Kevin Jones

GHS is coming to the United States Reply

On 30 September 2009 the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the United States said in a media statement:

A proposed rule to align the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) with provisions of the United Nations Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS) will be published in the September 30 Federal Register.

Jordan Barab, acting Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA said

“The proposal to align the hazard communication standard with the GHS will improve the consistency and effectiveness of hazard communications and reduce chemical-related injuries, illnesses and fatalities…… Following the GHS approach will increase workplace safety, facilitate international trade in chemicals, and generate cost savings from production efficiencies for firms that manufacture and use hazardous chemicals.”

Pages from DraftApprovedCriteriaOn 6 October 2009, Safe Work Australia released the draft  “Australian Criteria for the Classification Hazardous Chemicals”.

The closing date for comments is 18 December 2009.

Safe Work Australia stresses what the draft is not and the web page on the issue is very important to read.

Safe Work Australia says it

“…will be preparing guidance material for different audiences on the GHS and introducing two training courses (as basic and an expert one) to understand GHS classification.”

It should also be noted that the draft Classification Criteria is being revised in the context of the OHS harmonisation program of the Federal Government.

Kevin Jones

New ISO risk management standard Reply

I am old enough to remember the world of management before it had a risk management standard.  In fact I was studying risk management in OHS when the Australian Standard 4360 was released.  It substantially changed the way OHS was managed in Australia (and lined the pockets of the publishers).  It increased the significance of management standards beyond Quality and helped considerably in progressing an integrated approach to managing a broad range of workplace risks.

[The process also instilled in me a distrust of the standards development process when I sat through a seminar from one of the risk management standards committee members where he spruiked a PC-based management system that “anticipated” the new standard…….. at $30,000 setup fee???  Clearly in this case, and I have been told in almost all cases, the participants always have one eye on the commercial benefits of participation]

Grant Purdy recently discussed the new international risk management standard ISO 31000:2009.  At one of his presentations he said that the new standard has a definition of risk that “shifts the emphasis from “the event” to “the effect” and, in particular, the effect on objectives.”

The previous risk management standard overlapped with auditable elements in other management standards – OHS, environment, and quality.  This new definition may cause problems across these sectors.

Purdy said that risk is now not only perceived as a negative.

“Risk has in th past been regarded solely as a negative concept….[but] it is now recognised that risk is simply a fact of life that cannot be avoided or denied.”

He speaks of the traditional way of measuring risk as sometimes creating “phantom risks” due to an overstated likelihood.  This seems particularly relevant to OHS and may be part of the reason that some OHS issues are seen as excessive or, at worst, a joke.

Purdy stated that there are 11 statements of effective risk management. [Modern management writers love numbers.  I should write a book called “The hundredth time I have had to sit through a numbered list of strategies at conferences before walking out”]  The statements are that risk management

  • creates and protects value
  • is an integrated part of all organisational processes
  • is part of decision making
  • explicitly addresses uncertainty
  • is systematic, structure and timely
  • is based on the best available information
  • is tailored
  • takes human and cultural factors into account
  • is transparent and inclusive
  • is dynamic, iterative and responsive to change
  • facilitates continual improvement of the organisation.

The implementation of this standard and other international standards is going to be confusing, initially, for Australian managers but the choice is easy.  Why follow an Australian standard that needs explaining overseas when there is already an international standard that requires no explanation?  Go global and expand your auditing and accountability options.

[Please note that ISO31000 is not an auditable standard but I suspect you will not have to wait long for one.]

Kevin Jones

NZ proposes new exposure levels on formaldehyde Reply

The New Zealand of Department of Labour is continuing its negotiations on new exposure levels for formaldehyde.

The latest proposed exposure levels for formaldehyde are 0.3 ppm (8 hour TWA) and 0.6 ppm (STEL).  Currently the levels in New Zealand are 1ppm (ceiling).

According to US OSHA, it’s exposure standard is


TWA: The employer shall assure that no employee is exposed to an airborne concentration of formaldehyde which exceeds 0.75 parts formaldehyde per million parts of air (0.75 ppm) as an 8-hour TWA.


Short Term Exposure Limit (STEL): The employer shall assure that no employee is exposed to an airborne concentration of formaldehyde which exceeds two parts formaldehyde per million parts of air (2 ppm) as a 15-minute STEL.

WorkSafe BC says

BC‘s current 8-hour TWA of 0.3 ppm is well below levels capable of causing adverse health effects and protects the worker from the pungent, unpleasant odour of formaldehyde.

NZ DoL is also discussing dropping there exposure levels for soft wood dust from 5mg/m3 to 1mg/m3.

The cancer risks of formaldehyde have been investigated over some time and the weight of evidence shows that this chemical is a probable human carcinogen.

Kevin Jones

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

Standards are often developed without the aim of enforcement Reply

[Expansion on recent SafetyAtWorkBlog article regarding Standards]

It’s always going to present complications when a tech standard is magically converted into law by incorporating it into a regulation. And that happens whether it’s an AS/NZ tech standard or one produced in Europe.

The fundamental problem is that tech standards are often not produced with enforcement in mind.

The core questions that drafters for each type of document have to ask are fundamentally different. The law drafter has to constantly ask: “What am I demanding and why? Does what I’m demanding fit sensibly and reasonably within the scope of the powers I have? How does a person comply with what I’m demanding? How do I prove that person is not complying?” Very few elements of those questions need to be addressed when developing a technical guidance document.

This is what leads me to think that it’s wrong to defer to incorporating technical standards in regulations. That’s not to say that it is always wrong. When a tech standard, or even a section of it that’s incorporated, includes the best thinking on achieving a good outcome, and that outcome is pretty well universally accepted as the right one and no issues of achieving or proving compliance crop up, then incorporate away I say.

But I think there are just too many good reasons to make the default option recommending tech standards or the type of standard setting body in a code of practice. The absence of mandatory requirements in a code stops the punter (or a regulator) being confused by trying to understand a technical guidance document in the context of mandatory requirements.

The code of practice route for applying tech standards also has that excellent element of letting the best thinking apply to a given problem; given that codes allow people to choose alternatives that are comparable to a tech standard recommended in a code. This is critical. When people know what type of standard or standard setting body an enforcement agency has confidence in, then the global state of knowledge can be brought to bear on a safety problem. That has got to be always a good thing.

I don’t see any reason for Standards Australia to give the game away because they are increasingly not having their productions transformed into law. All strength to their arm in fact. There’s no reason Standards Australia shouldn’t aim to be produce world’s best practice and thinking on safety solutions. Everyone gains from that.

Col Finnie

Public Comments – Fishing and Legionnaire’s 1

WorkSafe Western Australia has two documents currently open for public comment.   One concerns a draft code of practice  for the prevention of falls from commercial fishing vessels.  The other may have a wider appeal as it is a draft code of practice for the prevention and control of Legionnaires’ disease.

man_overboard coverThe man overboard code is an example of established hazard management and risk control options for a niche hazard in a niche working environment, however, it is often in these areas where procedural and technical processes are most easily recognised.  The draft code is in a format, and has a degree of clarity, that encourages discussion and examination.

Readers may find some useful information for those workers who work alone or in isolation, for those who need to undertake tasks at nighttime and in intense darkness, and for those workplaces that require a strict induction for new workers.

LEGIONNAIRES__Public_comment coverSimilarly, the Legionnaire’s code of practice builds on established risk management concepts and shows that businesses still need to prevent legionnaire’s infections even if there is a regulatory/licensing system in place for cooling towers.

On a formatting note, both these draft codes could have benefited from the regulators embracing more of the Web 2.0 concepts.  The PDF files do have some hyperlinks for some more information or emails but there could be a lot more effort put in to making the drafts a hub for the documents’ references.  For instance, mentions of legislation could lead to online versions so that those commenting online can flick back and forth from reference to topic.

[Just imagine how much more helpful a code of practice with such functionality could be to a small business – wiki + blog+ safety = better compliance]

In the Legionnaire’s draft there are tags on page 36 that could lead to the online text of the Acts referred to.  The tags are a good idea but could use increased functionality.

Lastly, the Legionnaire’s code references eight Australian Standards and publications.  It is a reasonable expectation that, for this hazard, industry submissions will be the majority and those parties already have the Standards.  However, if a broad consultation is required, many interested parties may find purchasing these Standards a substantial cost burden,  which SafetyAtWorkBlog calculated to be at least $A390 for the PDF versions.

Kevin Jones

More thoughts on Standards Reply

Australian Standards have two, almost, distinct categories of standards – technical and management.   A safety colleague reminded me of the distinction recently, a distinction that greatly helps the debate of Australian Standards’ authority.

Perhaps there continues to be a role for some Standards, such as construction-related standards, that deal specifically with the environmental climate and peculiarities of Australia.  Bushfire-rated housing is an example that comes readily to mind.

My colleague also pointed out that as Australia has stopped manufacturing many articles of plant, the importation of plant from Asia and Europe has increased.   In the government’s chase for the reduction in red tape, the need to re-engineer, in some cases, plant to local regulatory standards that “mirror” European standards seems to be an easy target for reform.

The previous article on standards should, perhaps, have ended questioning the management standards as these standards are those most readily supplanted by internationals – the ISOs and the BS.   The challenge for Standards Australia is that thes Australian versions of the management standards are their biggest sellers.

Kevin Jones

The future for Standards Australia will be hard 8

SafetyAtWorkBlog has written elsewhere of how the global financial crisis has caused OHS related programs to be revised.  The latest bulletin from Standards Australia indicates the impact of the financial pressures on its plans and the reduction in the value of their investments has come at a time of other worrisome changes.

(In this article there is a focus on the safety-related Australian Standards.)

Bulletin_1_Standards_Australia_170809_Page_1According to the 17 August 2009 bulletin, Standards Australia has lost $A70 million from its investment portfolio since November 2007.  This has caused it to introduce a “New Business Model”  which reduces Standards Australia’s operating costs and also increases the costs to many of the voluntary participants on committees that develop Australian Standards through the new consultative strategies.

Hopefully during the period of reflection caused by the financial threats, Standards Australia should have considered whether it is worth continuing, at all.

Following are some ruminations about safety-related Standards and their applicability.  These may be relevant to quality, risk and environmental Standards, also.

  • Australia is a very small market for Standards compared to Europe and the United States, in particular.
  • The management professions are becoming more globalised.
  • Manufacturing is becoming more globalised.
  • Europe can draw upon a broader range of expertise in the development of management standards, than can Australia.
  • Several International Standards could be applied in Australia allowing for an international “compliance”.  Some Standards are already in place and promoted by companies as somehow more legitimate that the Australian Standards.
  • Safe Work Australia has informed SafetyAtWorkBlog that:

“The application and use of Australian Standards in model OHS regulations has not yet been decided and will be considered by the Safe Work Australia Council’s Strategic Issues Group”

  • SafetyAtWorkBlog has heard from a South Australian colleague that SafeWorkSA is considering replacing OHS Standards referenced in legislation with codes of practice. (SafetyAtWorkBlog has sought confirmation of this from SafeWorkSA)
  • Australian Standards can be expensive for small businesses, who may have the greatest need for OHS management standards, whereas government publications, such as Codes of Practice are generally free.

Australian Standards are important for many industries, particularly, those that are required to be audited and/or accredited.  Needless to say there is a considerable secondary industry of auditors for these sectors.

All Australian Standards are only guidelines but many have been granted legislative clout by being referenced in law.  As mentioned above a considerable industry has developed in support, providing some legitimacy to the guidelines through weight of numbers.

Safe Work Australia recognised the important role of Australian Standards, but with several qualifications:

“The COAG [Council of Australian Governments] Guidelines recognise that the use of prescriptive requirements, such as those in Australian Standards, while not preferable, may be unavoidable in order to ensure safety.”

Standards Australia must have realised by now that the days of automatic legitimacy through referencing in legislation may be numbered for many of their Standards .  Their previous operating model has had to be thoroughly revised, government and business are fierce on reducing red tape, international standards have been developed that can be applied in Australia, and contributing organisations are reviewing their own costs of participation.

In fact so keen is the government on the reduction of red tape that it established an Office of Best Practice Regulation in the Department of Finance.  On Finance’s website is a clear statement of aim:

“The Government has committed to reducing the regulatory burden on Australian businesses, non-profit organisations and consumers.  This is consistent with larger commitments to address impediments to Australia’s long-term productivity growth.”

Employer groups have identified industrial relations and OHS requirements as “impediments”.

There is no doubt that in many circumstances technical standards are essential reference documents for improving safety, in particular, and for showing that workplace safety is being managed in a systematic and verifiable manner.  The big question is whether those technical standards should be those produced by Standards Australia.

Kevin Jones