On 16 January 2015 the Australian newspaper (paywall) reported on a Fair Work Commission (FWC) decision involving an unfair dismissal claim by a worker who, as a result of a random drug test, was found to have methylamphetamine in her system “at levels four times above the minimum detection level”. The company, Downer EDI Mining, sacked the worker, Leah Cunningham, as she presented a hazard to her work colleagues. The newspaper article was called “CFMEU slammed for drugs defence” and the FWC decision is Tara Leah Cunningham v Downer EDI Mining Pty Limited (U2014/1457) (14 January 2015).
The Australian, a newspaper with no love for the trade union movement and the CFMEU in particular, focussed on the apparent absurdity of a trade union, that places such a high priority on workplace safety, contesting the dismissal of a worker who presented a hazard to herself and others at work. The newspaper quotes Commissioner Ian Cambridge:
““It was highly regrettable to observe during the hearing that an organisation, which apparently conducts campaigns which strongly advocate safety in the workplace, could contemplate a proposition which, in effect, would countenance a person driving a 580-tonne truck whilst having methylamphetamine in their body at a level four times the reportable cut-off figure,” he said in his decision this week.
“Any realistic and responsible pursuit of the case on behalf of the applicant should have been confined to the development of evidentiary support for the applicant’s explanation for the presence of the methylamphetamine. Indeed, much greater energy and focus should have been devoted to such an evidentiary position rather than any attempt to defend the indefensible.”
Whether one believes that the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption is a political witch-hunt or a genuine attempt to clean up a corrupt industry sector, the Royal Commission seems to have revealed an abuse and exploitation of occupational health and safety (OHS) – an exploitation that has received next to no attention. The release of the Commission’s interim report allows for a quick analysis of this situation.
Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard was a particular target of the Commission in relation to a “slush fund” established by her then-boyfriend, Bruce Wilson, commonly referred to as the “AWU affair“. The “slush fund”, known as the Australian Workers Union Workplace Reform Association, was developed, according to Gillard
“… to support the re-election of union officials who would campaign for workplace reforms including better occupational health and safety.” (Interim Report, Vol 1, page 99)
The occupational health and safety (OHS) profession in Australia has suffered from the lack of a public voice. This is partly due to ineffective and disorganised professional associations but more it is due to fear – fear of embarrassment, fear of ridicule, fear of failure…. This is peculiar because a fundamental element of OHS is communication. Below is some information from an Australian journalism textbook that may help reduce some of that fear.
Code of Ethics
The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (ie. the journalists’ “union” in Australia) publishes a Code of Ethics. (Similar organisations round the world have equivalent documents and obligations) This is vital information for any journalist but also important for those who want to engage with the media, perhaps through interviews. For instance, on the use of sources, the Code says
“Aim to attribute information to its source. Where a source seeks anonymity, do not agree without first considering the source’s motives and any alternative attributable source. Where confidences are accepted, respect them in all circumstances.”
On 25 November 2014 the Federal Minister for Employment, Eric Abetz, attacked the Victorian Labor Party over its pledge to revoke the Construction Compliance Code which, primarily, deals with industrial relations but also has some occupational health and safety (OHS) requirements.
Abetz states that
“the Victorian Shadow Industrial Relations Minister [Natalie Hutchins] falsely claimed that the Code would not improve workplace safety, despite the numerous improved safety standards that it contains.”
The claim, apparently in the Herald-Sun newspaper, cannot be verified except through a reference in a news.com.au article. The original quote seems unavailable.
It is curious that this OHS criticism has come from a Federal Parliamentarian instead of from Victoria’s own Industrial Relations Minister and Attorney-General, Robert Clark. Clark echoed Abetz’s statement yesterday but where Senator Abetz mentions the possible OHS ramifications of the Opposition’s Leader Daniel Andrews’ tearing up (page 16 of the ALP 2014 Platform) of the Construction Compliance Code, Robert Clark hardly mentions the workplace safety context. More…
As 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.”
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…
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…
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…
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.
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 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.