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.
A 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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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.
The use of the term “things” is of concern. This term is vague and should never be used when a more accurate word is available, particularly in a government-issued guidance document. The use of “things” could be a mistake but the drafting of this Construction Code, and the political prominence of the Code, should not allow such mistakes. If it is not a mistake the lack of clarity is a worry, especially when a Royal Commission is being held (Home Insulation Program – HIP) that indicates a lack of understanding and attention to OHS in the planning phase of a building-related program.
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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…
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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Anyone dealing with occupational health and safety (OHS), or in any profession, knows to be careful with one’s words in public. This is particularly so when one is dealing with mental health issues or claims of workplace bullying. This week Senator Eric Abetz, Australia’s Workplace Relations Minister, seems to have overstepped the mark by misrepresenting some Federal Court Orders as related to workplace bullying, when the Court made no such statement. This could simply be dismissed as political hyperbole in the heat of the moment but this was no off-the-cuff remark. He headlined his media release on 13 March 2014 as:
“Joe McDonald found guilty of workplace bullying – yet again. Bill Shorten must now act”.
According to Safe Work Australia, an organisation within Senator Abetz’s portfolio, workplace bullying is defined in the most recent national guide as
“repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety.” (page 2)
Nowhere in the Federal Court orders* is workplace bullying, or any other bullying, mentioned and the Federal Court has not found Joe McDonald guilty of workplace bullying. The best that can be said is that Joe McDonald has a history of intimidation on construction sites and that this has created tense relations between the workforce and employers (perhaps a confused safety culture) and generated delays in construction.
Does this all matter? Yes More…
Productivity and regulation is the rationale behind most of the workplace policies of the current Australian Government. Occupational health and safety (OHS) has a role to play in both of these economic and social elements but it rarely gets considered in a positive light. This is partly an ideological position of the conservative politicians but is also due to a lack of economic argument in favour of OHS and an inability, or an unwillingness, to identify essential regulations.
This week Australia’s Productivity Commission (PC) released a draft paper into the costs of public infrastructure projects that includes some telling OHS information even though most of the media has focused on the political angle or on the taxing of cars?!
A brief review of the draft report reveals OHS dotted throughout both volumes of the report and early on there is some support for Safety in Design in the tender development stage. More…
It is common for industrial relations to be written about without any mention or serious analysis of occupational health and safety (OHS). But a new textbook on Australian industrial relations includes a very good chapter of OHS that, significantly, cross-references other chapters in the book to provide a unified approach that reflects both the title and its intent. The book is called “Australian Workplace Relations” and the workplace health and safety chapter is written by Elsa Underhill.
Underhill has written on the OHS effects of precarious employment extensively and this issue is the basis of her chapter. She sees this as major cause of many of the OHS issues, particularly the growth in psychosocial risks in modern society and provides copious amounts of Australian and international research in support. More…
Australia’s politicians, trade unionists, businesses and media are gearing up for a tumultuous year in industrial relations with the controversial establishment of a Royal Commission into trade union corruption. This royal commission is broad-ranging but targets the construction unions, particularly the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) and thus the construction unions’ conduct with regard to allegedly using occupational health and safe as a cover or excuse for industrial action. This royal commission has a strong element of party politics and ideologies and has overshadowed other action in the Australian Parliament where OHS is being discussed.
On 6 February 2014 the Education and Employment References Committee of the Australian Senate continued its inquiry into the Government’s approach to re-establishing the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) through the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013. One of the terms of reference for this inquiry is
“whether the provisions of the bills relating to occupational health and safety in the building and construction industry are adequate to protect the health and safety of employees and contractors in the industry”.
On February 6 the inquiry had some heated discussion on OHS and the construction industry that deserves a closer look. More…