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

Different political approaches to level crossing safety 1

In the Melanie Griffiths movie, Working Girl, her character gained inspiration by linking an article in the social pages of a newspaper with a business article in the paper, much to Sigourney Weaver’s professional embarrassment.  This week SafetyAtWorkBlog received a similar confluence of information.

Following a fatal level crossing collision in Queensland between a passenger train and a garbage truck, the latest in several crossing incidents, the Queensland Transport Minister, John Mickel, issued a media statement outlining his plans.

QR [Queensland Rail - a government-owned rail company] will target priority level crossings in North Queensland with $10 million approved today to start work immediately on implementing improvements identified by a joint QR Task Force involving train drivers and rail unions.
QR will also step up its community education and public awareness campaigns about the need for motorists to be vigilant when using level crossings.
Transport Minister John Mickel said the urgent funding allocation and expanded community education campaigns would put greater focus on the on-going issue of level crossing safety.

A similar type of announcement was made over 12 months ago by the Victorian Transport Lynne Kosky.  In The Age on 6 January 2009, an article reported that the government has agreed to provide the roads authority with a $700,000 grant to paint 

“new yellow markings at more than 50 intersections around the city.”

Connex [a private rail company whose contract is up for renewal] has reported a big increase in near misses at level crossings in 2008 at the same time it

“demanded the Government prevent cars queueing dangerously on roads at rail crossings after drivers and other Government agencies reported the rising problem.”

The yellow markings are to “indicate cars must not stop there”.  

Apparently the government believes that drivers who push through traffic and get stuck on a clearly signposted level crossing are more likely to change their behaviour because there are now yellow lines painted on the road.  The hierarchy of controls is not big in government policy thinking.

The New South Wales government (the State between Queensland and Victoria) instigated a program of grade separation in the 1930’s almost eliminating the problem of collisions.  This required a vision of the future that is no different from the current circumstances – more people, more vehicles, more demand for public transport.  That government chose to plan for the long-term benefit of the community that live beyond the next election cycles.

Let’s hope that the Queensland government looks for sensible safety planning from the State next door and not the one down South.

Kevin Jones

The following links on Victorian rail crossing incidents can be used as a starting point for a greater understanding of the safety and political issues:

St Albans

Ambulance Officer

Kerang

Kerang Investigation Report

Drug abuse at work – podcast interview with Professor Steve Allsop Reply

The editors of SafetyAtWorkBlog produced SafetyAtWork podcasts several years ago.  These interviews deserve some longevity even though some of the references have dated.  In this context, SafetyAtWorkBlog is re-releasing a podcast from September 2006 on the management of drugs in the workplace. (The podcast is available at SafetyAtWork Podcast – September 2006 )

Professor Steven Allsop is a leading researching on the use of drugs at work and socially.  Steven is also the Director of the National Drug Research Institute.  In this interview he discusses amphetamine use, how to broach the issue of drug use with a worker and drug policies in industrial sectors.

Please let SafetyAtWorkBlog know of your thoughts on this podcast.

Kevin Jones

Mobile Phones and Driving 1

Work tools, such as the company car and the mobile phone, can be fun and functional but when used at the same time, the combination is deadly. 

According to media reports a study by the Federal Department of Transport survey of 1500 drivers has shown that 

[in Victoria] about 61 per cent said they had used a mobile while driving, up from 47 per cent in 2005…. More than one-quarter admitted reading a text message while driving, while 14 per cent said they had sent one.
Yet 42 per cent of drivers nationally supported any law banning the use of hands-free mobiles while driving.
Victoria Police caught more than 1800 drivers for mobile phone offences during the holiday period.

SafetyAtWorkBlog has mentioned previously that road safety research rarely logs whether a vehicle is being used for work purposes.  The full survey report is  not yet available and, to a large extent, the media reports have focused on activities related to the Australian h0liday season – alcohol use as well as texting.  

When it is available, SafetyAtWorkBlog will report on any data that could indicate the use of work vehicles as it is inaccurate to simply use road safety data as an overlay of occupational activities.

The use of company vehicles is a complicated area due to the status of the vehicles changing depending on whether the vehicle is a “pool vehicle” or whether the vehicle is able to be used for private purposes.  The one vehicle could be both a work vehicle and private vehicle at different times of the day.  This is the challenge for OHS professionals – to deal with a workplace and an employee who is neither of these 100% of the time.  Unless this status is clarified, any potential policy on mobile phone use whilst driving remains problematic.  Yet the hazard remains.

safe_driving-coverWorkSafe Victoria released a safe driving guide in November 2008 that acknowledges the hazard but clearly leaves it up to the employer to determine the appropriate policy:

The TAC  (Transport Accident Commission) and WorkSafe recommend that hands free calls be kept to a minimum and reserved for emergency type calls.
Handheld mobile phone use is illegal and should not be considered under any circumstances while driving.  Texting or reading texts or caller ID should not be done at any time whilst driving.

Without definitive advice from regulatory bodies but with mounting evidence of the heightening risk of injury and property damage, it will be a brave company that bans the use of mobile phones whilst driving (the ideal OHS control measure).  However, this is one of the risks faced when evidence of hazards is called for but we don’t like the evidence.

HSE Podcast – December 2008 Reply

England’s Health and Safety Executive monthly podcasts are an interesting variation on the obligation of OHS regulators to communicate with its clients.  These podcasts follow the format of a corporate newsletter

  • Introduction
  • News
  • Special interview/s
  • Further information

Most of the news will be familiar to those who regularly visit the HSE website or subscribe to one of their RRS feeds but the podcast is a good summary of the regulator’s activity.

The feature interview/article is a good mix of talking with regular business operators, visitors to the HSE exhibition stand at Aintree racecourse, and promotion of HSE links.

The secondary article focusses on the use of vehicles at work, such as delivery vans.  The article supports a vehicle-at-work website but, as has happened in some of the Australian States, safety in this sector has often not been seen as an OHS obligation, or at least a difficult one to implement, and has been dominated by transport and road safety legislation. Some of this advice is a diversification of the forklift and transport yard safety practices to a broader audience and application.

As a teaser and a signpost to online resources in the HSE website, the podcast works well.  For those outside of the UK there is probably more to learn from the podcast construction and its existence, than the information content.  

Many safety professionals are so internet-savvy in 2009 that their state-of-knowledge on OHS (or at least the information in their PC that they have yet to get around to) has rarely been higher.

The podcast should be heard for lots of reasons.  A major one for me in Australia was to hear the accents of people in my hometown.  Some listeners who are unfamiliar with scouse may want to read parts of the transcript.

Kevin Jones

George W Bush and workplace safety Reply

In 2001, one of the first legislative actions of George W Bush was to repeal the United States ergonomics standard.  At the end of his presidency there are indications that he is thinking about the regulatory impost of OHS on businesses again.

Crikey.com and others have reminded us of the Bush Administration’s plans concerning the exposure of workers to chemicals

“David Michaels, an epidemiologist and workplace safety professor at George Washington University‘s School of Public Health, said the rule would add another barrier to creating safety standards, in the name of improving them.

“This is a guarantee to keep any more worker safety regulation from ever coming out of OSHA,” Michaels said. “This is being done in secrecy, to be sprung before President Bush leaves office, to cripple the next administration.””

Propublica has reported that new rules that seem to run counter to current fatigue management guidelines elsewhere have been finalised.

“The Department of Transportation has finalized an interim rule for the number of hours a truck driver may spend on the road per day and per week. The rule, which has essentially been in effect since 2004, allows truckers to drive for 11 hours and work no more than 14 consecutive hours each day. They must rest 10 hours between shifts, and may not work more than 60 hours a week.”

An audio report from 2007 on the issue of working hours is available at NPR

It is hard to see the justification for these safety rule changes but these are just two of many changes in place or being finalised in a rush.  Perhaps there is a grander strategy that the bigger perspective will show.  

The actions are disappointing but not without precedent.  It should be remembered that Democrat President, Bill Clinton, took full advantage of the opportunity.

In Australia and elsewhere, the movement to “cut red tape” gathers strength, it just seems that no one yet is applying the US solution of eliminating the regulatory need.

It is sad to see that throughout Bush’s tenure safety advocates and lobbyists  were not able to gain concessions.  It will be doubly difficulty to gain anything that may involve a cost to business in the current economic problems.  

The challenge will be even greater in Australia where the Safe Work Bill has been withdrawn from Parliament and the Government is willing to weaken election commitments, such as on climate change, due to the economic context.

In just over a month’s time, we will see how new President Barack Obama acts on safety; Australia has much longer to wait.

Leading from the top on impairment

Advocates of safety culture regularly profess that it must be lead from the top of the corporate structure down.  This applies a false definition of leadership.  Leadership is innovation, understanding and support regardless of one’s position on the corporate ladder.

It is true that professing leadership and corporate goals should be supported by the appropriate actions but that is often the avoidance of hypocrisy rather than seeking active change. It must be acknowledged that leadership can also come from below  – in the mail rooms, the cellars, the janitors and from the shopfloors.

Workers in many industries are subjected to random drug and alcohol tests.  Often these apply to those workers who operate machinery or drive transport vehicles.  And rightly so.  These workers must undertake their tasks without any impairment of their cognitive functions.  Impairment is a concept that the Australian union movement has struggled with for well over a decade mainly because in the industrial relations world this is close to being “fit for work” and how does one define that?  It also has some relationship to “blaming the worker”.  In occupational health and safety, it is seen as looking after one’s self whilst looking after others and the obligation to do this has existed for decades in OHS legislation.

Impairment is commonly discussed now in terms of driving while drunk or stoned or while using a mobile phone.  But long before this there was “impaired judgement”.  As well as being fit-for-work, people needed to be fit-to-think. 

On 4 December 2008, the New South Wales Health Minister (and former Industrial Relations Minister) John Della Bosca rejected a proposal from the Rail, Bus & Tram Union (RTBU) to “to make breath-test kits available on a voluntary basis to MPs wanting to check their blood alcohol levels before they turn up for late night votes.”

It is reported that the RTBU secretary Nick Lewocki has said 

“All rail workers are subjected to random drug and alcohol tests, an infringement on their personal lives that they are told is necessary due to the safety critical nature of their work. But driving the state is every bit as safety critical, and decisions our politicians make on issues as diverse as health, education and transport policy do affect public lives.” 

Ignoring the political devilment of the RTBU, the comment focuses on being unimpaired when making decisions, regardless of the occupation, work task or corporate position.  The Minister has been put in a difficult position where he can’t be seen as responding to union naughtiness but there is merit in leading from the top and making breath-test kits available.  They are not suggesting random testing or mandatory testing but it is reasonable to expect important decision-makers to be fit-to-think and fit-to-decide.

Perhaps drug testing in the workplace would not be seen as the contentious issue it is if it had already been introduced in the boardroom.  The gesture would not be as empty as the corporate leaders may think particularly leading into the season when sauce and ganders were traditionally eaten.

 

New Western Australian Workplace Fatality Data

The Western Australian government has released its latest statistics on workplace fatalities.  The good thing, if there can be such a thing, is that the statistics are over ten years which is longer than most reporting and provide a promising trendline.

As the report states

“The data used to produce this report differs from reports on lost time injuries and diseases.  The definition and identification of work–related fatalities requires case-by-case assessment of the work being performed, and the circumstances of the fatal event.”

Let’s hope this approach provides a more accurate picture of safety initiatives and enforcement.

The overview states

  • In Western Australia there have been 459 work-related fatalities between 1988-89 and 2007-08.
  • In Western Australia on average a person is fatally injured in a workplace every 16 days.
  • There has been a consistent downward trend in fatality rates since the General Provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act 1984 (the Act) came into effect in 1988-89.
  • There were 27 work-related fatalities in 2007-08.

Safe Driving and OHS management impacts Reply

SafetyAtWorkBlog has always been critical of those OHS professionals who try to explain OHS in comparison with driving.  They are different processes in different environments with different purposes and different rules.

However, there is a section of overlap and this relates to those whose work environment is transport and driving.

Worksafe Victoria has released a “Guide to safe work-related driving“.  This is essential reading for fleet managers, in particular, but good fleet managers would already have OHS as part of their driving policies.

For those of us who have not known how to interpret OHS obligations for our company vehicles, WorkSafe has issued these clarifications:

  • purchasing and maintaining a safe and roadworthy feet
  • ensuring employees have the relevant appropriate driver licences
  • scheduling work to account for speed limits and managing fatigue
  • providing appropriate information and training on work related driving safety
  • monitoring and supervision of the work related driving safety program.

In this type of workplace, workers seem to have as many obligations as employers but WorkSafe has listed for following as employee duties:

  • holding a current, valid drivers licence
  • abiding by all road rules (eg speed limits)
  • refraining from driving if impaired by tiredness or medication
  • reporting any incidents required by the employer’s program
  • carrying out any routine vehicle checks required by the employer.

There are many areas of contemporary life where the OHS obligations can seem absurd but work-related driving has always been a neglected area of workplace safety.  Every time SafetyAtWorkBlog receives notification of traffic incidents, the emergency services are asked whether the vehicle was being used for work purposes.  Unless it is a bus or a chemical tanker, the question is rarely asked or the information recorded at the scene of the crash.  As a result, the data on work-related driving incidents is scant and WorkSafe has done well in applying what there is.

The guide is terrific but it won’t raise the awareness of these necessary business and employee obligations until WorkSafe’s enforcement and investigative resources are included in traffic incidents and until a case law of OHS prosecutions for work-related driving is established.

The practice of having police and criminal prosecutions replacing OHS prosecutions for work-related incidents must end.  A transport vehicle is a mobile workplace and should be treated as such by having prosecutions under the road transport legislation AND OHS laws.  If not, we will be getting more airbags and less hazard elimination.