Fatigue is the biggest threat to a person’s safety Reply

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.

Kevin Jones

Farmers creating dis-harmony in OHS legislation Reply

Australia is undergoing a process of national harmonisation on workplace safety legislation.  The government has played down the chances of  State jurisdictions creating exemptions to, or variations of, OHS law.  The message was that we are all “singing from the same song sheet”. 

Even before model OHS legislation has been approved, the New South Wales Farmer’s Federation has wangled an exemption from the driver fatigue legislation in that state.

According to the President of the NSW Farmer’s Federation, Jock Laurie, the fatigue law was not about reducing or removing fatigue from the transport industry, it was about 

“bureaucrats finding other ways to make life difficult for people”.

He is willing to even go on the record with the statement – Jock Laurie

As farmer and outspoken conservative Senator Bill Heffernan, said in Parliament on 22 September 2008, the legislation

“is designed to make driving safer and the work conditions better for drivers in Australia, and to harmonise the laws across the states.”

Yet he goes on to support the call for an exemption which results in weakening the harmonisation process.

It seems that farmers who drive trucks long-distances over many hours, particularly during harvest-time, do not have any relationship to the transport industry.  The situation will now be that a petrol tanker driver on a country highway can operate under one set of national OHS and transport rules and a farmer delivering grain to a port operates with an exemption – all because maintainign a log book is unnecessary red tape!

This threat to the harmonisation process should have been jumped on by the Federal government.

However, it has to be said, that inadequate transport infrastructure investment has lead to the closure of country rail lines and increased the need for farmers to transport produce by road, thereby increasing the road risk to rural communities.  Perhaps the farmers’ lobby groups realise they can’t change the big picture so are aiming for little targets.

Kevin Jones

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

Death of a safety leader 2

Last weekend Dr Eric Wigglesworth passed away after a long illness. Eric was a strong advocate for safety education and research over decades in Australia. I heard Eric speak several times in my professional career and remember being taught about his incident theories at university.

Over the last few years his profile has increased in the public sphere as he was the (only) Australian expert on the issues related to level crossing incidents. More…

Video of Level Crossing Survivor 1

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation has shown a remarkable video of a Turkish man who was involved in a level crossing incident and survived.  

Initially it is difficult to identify the man from the aerial perspective but the side view shows clearly how lucky the man is.

It is not the policy of SafetyAtWorkBlog to show gratuitous videos with no point.  That is a role, it seems, for the internet generally.  However this video has instructional uses beyond the “gosh” factor.

It is worth looking at the video and considering the following issues

  • Rail location
  • Visibility of truck driver
  • Isolation of pedestrians from rail and vehicular traffic
  • Signage

There are many other issues that could be pertinent but are not identified in the video, such as administrative policies, compliance, even behavioural safety.

In this instance it is highly unlikely that the worker complementing the hard hat with a high visibility vest would have made much difference to the outcome.  But then an unfastened vest may have presented its own non-visibility hazard as a catch point for the wheel structure of the truck as it passed over him.

Please note that it is his survival which makes this video of interest but there are clear safety improvements to be made.

The reality of First Aid Reply

Many employees undertake first aid training because it is a relatively easy training program to arrange, it is cheap and it provides skills that can be applied outside the workplace.  

But newly trained first aiders often leave training with an unrealistic feeling of empowerment.  Regularly, small businesses regret the disruption caused by the first aider’s evangelism for safety, particularly if the first aider was trained to provide some generalist safety presence in the company.  Similar disruption can result from health and safety representative training and perhaps that is why many small businesses are wary of this.

First aid trainers need to remind students regularly of the reality of first aid.  This reality is shown in the death of a truck driver in an isolated part of Australia on 9 January 2009.  First Aid is a terrific life-saving skill but the reality is that circumstances beyond one’s control may still result in a death.

In a class once, a student asked a first aid instructor what would happen if a farmer was bitten by a snake in an isolated part of the farm and the farmer  had no first aid skills or kit.  The trainer responded, “the farmer would die”.

The reality of living in a large country of isolated roads and small population is shown in the death of the truck driver.

The role of mobile telecommunications in the article is a distraction and relates more to the current political and commercial disputes between the Australian government and the telecommunication providers, than to the truck driver’s injuries.  

The article may lead to discussion on the poor emergency resources in rural and outback Australia.

First aid and emergency response has been revolutionised by mobile phone technology over the last 20 years.  Mobile phones have caused us to find lost bushwalkers and to get emergency ambulances to accident scenes much quicker.  Thankfully, a quicker emergency ambulance response shortens the time needed applying first aid.

It is a truism that no matter how much training we have, or how much technology we can access, death is a reality of life.

“Illegal” asbestos use in the Australian Navy 1

The defence forces operate with a different understanding of risk and safety.  In the past there are many instances where soldiers lives have purposely been sacrificed for the greater good.  This has been an integral part of many “heroic” battles. 

The Australian federal OHS authority, Comcare, is at the forefront of a clash between occupational safety and armed services culture.  The Age newspaper has revealed the Australian navy’s continued use of chrysotile asbestos in its ship and navy bases years after the substance was banned for use.  The newspaper says that a risk assessment report has found

..”the risk to personnel was significant, exposure to asbestos was almost certain and the consequences were “potentially catastrophic”.”

OHS standard practice is to identify the control of hazards in line with the Hierarchy of Controls which seems to have been done as the newspaper reports

“A ban on the use of and import of asbestos-containing materials in Australia came into force on January 1, 2004. But the ADF [Australian Defence Force] requested and won an exemption [page 5 of the SRCC 2005-06 Annual Report] to continue using chrysotile asbestos parts until 2007 on two strict provisos: that the parts were “mission-critical” – meaning their absence would ground equipment and jeopardise a mission – and that no non-asbestos replacement parts could be found.”

So the hazard can’t be eliminated or substitutes found.  That’s the first two levels of the hierarchy down.  The report goes on to assert that the (in)action of the Navy could be illegal and says the exemptions were renewed for another three years (page 81 of the SRCC Annual Report 2007-08)

The remaining levels of the control hierarchy are not addressed in recent media reports or documents available through Comcare’s website but the continuing cases of asbestos-related diseases reported by the lobby groups would indicate that personal protective equipment may not have been used or used appropriately. 

Most organisations are aware of the hazard of asbestos if not how the hazard relates to the specific circumstances.  The Navy cannot claim this as it has specifically claimed exemptions for the hazard. 

The current Defence Minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, took action on the defence force’s use of asbestos products almost 12 month’s ago and even though it was reported that he gave the Defence chiefs a “dressing down” over the issue, circumstances seem not to have improved. 

“But Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon, who first accused the Defence Force of lethargy in its efforts to remove asbestos in 2007, when he was in opposition, said despite the massive cost of ridding the ADF of asbestos, its continued use was unacceptable.”

For those who habitually argue that worker safety is not affordable, the Minister’s quote above shows commitment.  Sadly it is these types of comments that can come back and haunt politicians.

It is suspected that the Minister or the Navy is receiving letters about non-asbestos gaskets from keen equipment suppliers as you read this blog.  But that raises the problem of the labyrinthine issues of defence equipment procurement.  Perhaps the fact that anti-asbestos campaigner and former trade union leader, Greg Combet, is now the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Procurement may fast-track the issue.  It is hoped that on the issue of asbestos in the defence forces, Greg speaks up soon.

Kevin Jones

Political argy-bargy on level crossing safety Reply

Earlier this week Queensland MP Tim Nicholls, of the Liberal-National coalition gave the Queensland Transport Minister, John Mickel, a serve over the $10 million program on level crossing safety by calling the response “window dressing”. 

Nicholls seems more interested in political point-scoring than safety but he asks

“What has happened to all their much vaunted safety studies over the last decade.  It’s about time this Government came clean and explained whether it would actually commit new funding, what ongoing rail safety programs, if any, it has and whether today’s announcement will mean money is redirected from other maintenance and safety programs.”

He points out that

“Railway level safety was included in the National Road Safety Action Plan in 2003 and the Australian Transport Council has previously described railway level crossing crashes as ‘one of the most serious safety issues faced by the rail system in Australia'”

Today, Shadow Transport Minister Fiona Simpson got the focus back to safety for political procrastination and funding arguments describing the Queensland Government’s staunch defence of its “risk model” for determining upgrades was “dangerous“.

The Transport Minister has responded with political bluster but within John Mickel’s bluster is some points worth noting.

“For example, she [Fiona Simpson] might want to familiarise herself with the research which shows that the overwhelming number of level crossing accidents are caused by road driver behaviour, and how more than half of the accidents happen at crossings where there are boom gates or flashing lights.”

Mickel goes on to say

“Under this [uniform national assessment] process a review of level crossing characteristics such as topography and visibility takes place, which is then combined with the volume of road and rail traffic. The assessed level of risk is then used to prioritise any work that needs to be done.

The approach developed by Queensland forms the basis of what is known as ALCAM – the Australian Level Crossing Assessment Model – which has now been accepted by all state Transport Ministers as the method to be used to evaluate railway level crossings across Australia.”

ALCAM is receiving a great deal of attention through the Victorian Parliamentary investigation into level crossing safety. 

The need for uniform assessment processes is worthy but decisions on upgrading government infrastructure always considers the political imperatives, some would just, just as strongly as independent scientific advice.

Over decades workplace safety has developed assessment processes based on a range of techniques from plain observation to QRA, FEMA and many others.  Only recently has OHS got to the point of realising that greater and longer-lasting safety can be achieved through designing workplaces safely from the beginning rather than trying to achieve safety through retrofitting.  Recently in Australia, there is a growing movement to apply safety case techniques to workplaces that are not high-risk organisations.

Level crossing incidents, as do workplace fatalities, indicate that there was something not right with the initial design or that necessary safety improvements were permitted to lag behind the status and technology of the users of the facilities.  The fact remains that there are too many unsafe level crossings in Australia and each fatality is generating a reactionary government response rather than instigating true leadership.

Defibrillators in public places Reply

official20portrait_oct07_sm-brumbyThe Victorian Premier, John Brumby, “unveiled” publicly accessible defibrillators at the Southern Cross station in Melbourne on 6 January 2008.  Australia has been relatively slow in the take-up of defibrillators as part of the non-professional first aid role.  Partly this was due to the initial expense of each unit but also because workplace first aid legislation took some time to accommodate technology.

In most States of Australia, this was exacerbated by the emphasis on allocating first aid resources on the basis of need rather than a prescriptive basis and, anyway, how can you gauge where people will have heart attacks?

SafetyAtWorkBlog is wary about relying on technology to solve problems simply because it seems simpler.  In the long-term, technology can be become cumbersome, unnecessarily expensive to maintain and often increasingly unreliable.  It is suggested that a cost/benefit exercise of the new defibrillators in Southern Cross Station would show them to be an unnecessary expense.  Direct cause and effect in terms of first aid is difficult to quantify.  But then again, according to the Premier’s media statement:

“In the 2007/08 financial year, Ambulance Victoria responded to 133 emergency cases at Southern Cross Station, including five cardiac arrest incidents.”

Defibrillators were obviously not applied as quickly in those incidents as can be in the future but for those first aiders in this blog’s readership the following statistic can be quite useful.

“Victoria has the best cardiac arrest survival rate in Australia, with 52 per cent of patients arriving alive at hospital.”

Let’s hope that these defibrillators will stop the Southern Cross Station from being a “terminal”.

Kevin Jones