Shadow IR Minister addresses trade union OHS conference 4

O'Connor photoAs part of Safe Work Australia month, or perhaps coincidentally, the Australian Council of Trade Unions held its annual occupational health and safety (OHS) conference in Melbourne, Australia.  On the morning of day 2, the conference heard from the Shadow Minister for Employment Relations, Brendan O’Connor.  The Minister is from the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and had a sympathetic audience but he made several interesting points, particularly when he diverged from the scripted speech (which will be available online shortly) and when he took questions.

Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program 

O’Connor supports the ALP position that the Home Insulation Program (HIP) Royal Commission was a purely political affair to target previous ALP government ministers.  He emphasised that the Royal Commission was the last in a long line of inquiries into worker deaths and OHS prosecutions related to the HIP program and that this inquiry has achieved very little change.  O’Connor said (ad libbed)

“…. that Royal Commission has not recommended any changes to the regulations or obligations on employers to do the right thing at the workplace. It’s almost worse than doing nothing, than to use the health and safety of the workers as a political weapon against your political opponent. That’s how dismissive this government is with respect to health and safety.

Let’s set up a Royal Commission. Let’s summons a former Labor Prime Minister and other Ministers but, of course, all of which we could accept and we supported the establishment of the Royal Commission if that’s what they chose to do, with one caveat – that was, go ahead with the eleventh inquiry into these tragic deaths but make sure that when there are findings about the deficiencies in the law that protects the interests of working people, particularly young workers, do something about it.

Well we’ve seen nothing. We’ll see nothing in terms of changing the law by this government because that was purely a political exercise. To me this underlines how cynical this government is when it comes to health and safety. It only saw it as a political exercise and, I’m afraid to say, you won’t see too many good policy changes as a result of that Commission.”

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Safe Work Australia month begins with an online gamble Reply

The annual Safe Work Australia month starts today.  The promotion of this month has fluctuated wildly over the last decade.  Sometimes there are physical launches with interesting speakers, sometimes balloons and merchandise, other times the national OHS authority has left most of the activity to the States.  In 2014, Safe Work Australia has jumped into internet videos, online presentations and webinars each day of the month of October (the full schedule is available HERE).  This initiative is to be supported but it has not been tried before in Australia and its success is not guaranteed.

As expected the first couple of videos are polite launches of the strategy with statements from Ministers and CEOs.  The potential for valuable content is after the initial launch but this value is debatable.  It is unclear who the target audience is.  If the seminar series is for OHS newbies, a restatement of legislative OHS obligations is of little interest to experienced safety managers and professionals.  More…

Short radio interview on the cost of workplace mental health 3

I was interviewed this evening on the cost of mental stress by Your Rights at Night on Radio Adelaide. The podcast is now available HERE.


I have listened back to this interview this morning and have some advice for other OHS professionals who may find themselves in a similar situation.

Insist on seeing the interview questions prior to the interview.  I asked for this but the questions weren’t available.  Colleagues have advised me to refuse the interview if this occurs again as there is a risk of being trapped in a discussion that is very different from what was expected.

If the questions aren’t available, ask for the core theme of the interview so that topic parameters are established earl in the process. More…

One hour of OHS discussion on New Zealand radio Reply

On 17 August 2014, RadioLiveNZ‘s Mark Sainsbury devoted an hour to discussing workplace health and safety.  Given New Zealand has undergone a remarkable change on its occupational health and safety (OHS) strategy since the Pike River disaster, with the restructuring of its regulations and regulator into WorkSafeNZ, the various interviews are worth listening to.

This series of interviews are structured assuming that the audience has no prior knowledge of OHS.  The first interview was with a representative of the Accident Compensation Commission, Dr Geraint Emrys.

Dr Emrys lists fishing, forestry, and farming and agriculture as the industries of most concern.  This list is not surprising considering the industrial profile of New Zealand but it is curious that mining was not mentioned, even in passing, given the prominence of Pike River.

Emrys is asked about the opportunity to build an overall safety culture for New Zealand.  Emrys says that overall campaigns are possible More…

Where is the evidence for new moves on drug and alcohol testing? 11

On 1 July 2014, the Victorian Government introduce a mandatory drug and alcohol testing regime for the sections of the construction industry.  According to the government’s media release:

“New requirements for tighter screening of drug and alcohol use at construction workplaces across Victoria will commence from 1 July, helping to ensure a safer and more secure environment for workers.”

This decision has been made on the basis of “widespread reports of workers being intoxicated, and of drug distribution and abuse” but the rest of the media release reveals other reasons for these changes including political pressure on its Labor Party and trade union opponents in the months before a close State election. Premier Denis Napthine has indicated that the move is also about cracking down on “outlaw motorcycle gangs dealing drugs on the sites”.

But are reports of potential criminality on building site enough to introduce a drug and alcohol testing regime? It is worth looking at some of the existing research on drug and alcohol use (or its absence) in Australian and Victorian work sites.

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The voice of OHS is being reduced to a squeak 14

The decline of trade union influence in Australia, as membership remains low, has the sad effect of also seeing a reduced voice for some core elements of occupational health and safety (OHS) such as the importance and prominence of the “safe system of work”, the myth of the “careless worker” and the insidious hazard of impairment. These OHS issues remain significant and demand attention but who will be the new voice of workplace safety?

Impairment

Impairment is a collective term that many trade unionists use for workplace hazards such as fatigue, drug use, alcohol use and other psychosocial hazards, such as stress.  Impairment is a useful term as it relates to the worker’s fitness for work and the level of attentiveness that the employer expects as part of the employment contract.  It also ties into the issue of labour productivity as an impaired worker, regardless of the cause of the impairment, is unlikely to be working as hard or as effectively, or productively, as the employer expects.

The downside is that using a collective term makes it more difficult to focus on specific interventions.  Drug and alcohol use can be combated by a combination of preventive education and enforcement through testing  but such strategies cannot be applied to fatigue or stress although both these elements may be contributory factors to drug and alcohol use.  Stress and fatigue are more effectively reduced by job redesign and a reassessment of the organisational structure and morality, in other words, the establishment of a “safe system of work” as required by both the OHS and Work Health and Safety (WHS) laws.

Impairment may have some connotations of disability but its attraction is that it is a neutral term for describing something, or someone, that is not working as intended due to an external factor.  It is a good descriptor but a poor term from which to base anything more than general action.

Safe System of Work

The “safe system of work” has been a term whose definition never seemed to have stabilised in Australia’s legislation.  This is partly because it has been treated similar to a workplace culture, something that is thought to exist but never really understood.

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Red tape (again) and Obama’s support – Melbourne’s Workers’ Memorial Day 2014 1

IWMD 2014 01A short time ago the International Workers Memorial Day commemoration in Melbourne, Victoria, concluded. The ceremony was less sombre than in previous years with, it seemed, fewer families and relatives of deceased workers.  Certainly there was no speech from a family member, nothing from workplace safety advocates other than the three trade union speakers, Meredith Peace, Brian Boyd and Michael Borowick (all pictured right), however there were tears for some in the crowd and wreaths were laid prior to a minute silence.

The politics was reduced this year as there were no noisy protests from the back of a tray truck and no march on Parliament afterward, however politics is never far from the surface of this type of event. Michael Borowick, Assistant Secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (pictured below right, with microphone), was the more effective of today’s three speakers.  (Audio of his presentation is available below)

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Australia’s Construction Code and the Home Insulation Royal Commission Reply

On 17 April 2014, Senator Eric Abetz, Australia’s Workplace Relations Minister, released the Building and Construction Industry (Fair and Lawful Building Sites) Code 2014 and supporting guidelines.  This Code is, fundamentally, an industrial relations Code however there is an occupational health and safety (OHS) element that needs to be noted, particularly when considered against the background of the Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program.

Section 6.2.1 of the Code’s Guidelines says:

“Improving the industry’s WHS&R [Work Health Safety and Rehabilitation] performance requires positive measures that aim for prevention rather than correcting things when they go wrong. This initiative is directed at making WHS&R management an integral part of the organisational culture of companies and enterprises.”

The aims of this section are laudable – “positive” actions, “integrated, pre-emptive instead of reactive – but there are also hints that role of safety in this Code has not been fully thought out.

Things

The use of the term “things” is of concern. More…

OHS can be a force for social change, if anyone could be bothered 3

HesaMag should be obligatory reading for all OHS professionals, not just those in Europe. The editorial in the most recent edition (9 and not yet on line) is a great example of the value of this free magazine. It critically discusses the upcoming International Workers’ Memorial Day and its significance.

It asks for everyone to enact the commitment shown on each April 28 to every other day of the year. It says:

“Let’s not be taken in by the false sentiment on 28 April, but demand a clear and detailed accounting”

It asks why EU OHS legislation has been so slow to appear or be revised but equally, in Australia, questions should be asked about the status (failure in my opinion) of WHS harmonisaton, the lack of attention to the causes of workplace mental illness, the status of workplace bullying claims in the Fair Work Commission, the lack of attention to heavy vehicle OHS matters by the safety profession and the insidious encroachment of the perception of OHS as a failure of the individual rather than a failure in the system of work. More…

The CFMEU should make a case for union OHS representatives 2

In late March 2014, the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) was fined $A1.25 million over a violent dispute at the Emporium construction site that occurred in 2012.  In its media release about the fine, the CFMEU’s state secretary, John Setka, says:

“The protest at the Myer site in 2012 was about safety.”

Yes and no.  The dispute was about the representation of workers on safety matters, which is a different thing.  Setka goes on:

“Building workers need someone on site who genuinely represents their interests, and that doesn’t happen when that person is hand-picked by the boss.”

The core issue in this dispute seems to be that the CFMEU will not accept the Health and Safety Representatives (HSR) chosen by the workforce at the Emporium site, which is being built by Grocon P/L.  The CFMEU has its own HSRs that it believes will better represent the workforce on OHS matters.

The dispute represents an ideological dispute that seems more about unionism and industrial relations than about safety, but worker safety may still be the lose.

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