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.”
Lucinda Smith of Esteem People Management has made some excellent points about stress and mental health in her article – “The People Risk of Work-Related Stress“. On determining the cost of mental stress she acknowledges authoritative government estimates but, significantly, states of the data:
“Although not fully exploring the issue of workplace stress because it only applies to accepted claims,…”
This is the core of much of the frustration in the OHS profession that injury and illness is always underestimated because data is based on workers’ compensation statistics.
Where Smith progresses the argument, though, is by comparing several important pieces of data. Quoted in a Safe Work Australia report, Medibank Private estimated in 2008 that the direct cost of work-related stress was
“…$14.81 billion to the Australian economy, and $10.11 billion to Australian employers because of stress-related presenteeism and absenteeism.” (page 3 of the Safe Work Australia report)
One of the most contentious issues in safety management is the treatment of workers compensation claimants. On 18 August 2014, a small qualitative research report into this area was launched in Melbourne. The report, “Filling the Dark Spot: fifteen injured workers shine a light on the workers compensation system to improve it for others”* identified four themes in the workers’ stories:
- a sense of injustice
- a lack of control and agency
- loss of trust, and
- loss of identity.
These themes, or at least some of them, are increasingly appearing on the occupational health and safety (OHS) literature. To establish a successful sustainable workplace culture, one needs to establish and maintain trust. Workers also seem to need some degree of control, or at least influence, over their working conditions and environment. Also workers, and managers, need to receive a fair hearing, what most would describe as “natural justice”. More…
How can an OHS regulator get the management of its own staff so wrong?
In June 2014, a NSW Parliamentary inquiry released its final report into Allegations of bullying in WorkCover NSW, that State’s occupational health and safety (OHS) regulator. The report found that
“…Workcover has a significant organisational problem with bullying. This problem is a longstanding one and operates at a cultural level.” (page x)
The Committee Chairman Hon Fred Nile MLC, wrote that
“more effective leadership and governance is essential.” (page x)
Longstanding bullying problems? Problems with leadership and governance? Many companies and public sector organisations have had similar issues ambulances, police, fire services, research organisations, to name a few, and are working them through. What happened in New South Wales?
Several weeks ago there was a stir in the OHS sector in Victoria, Australia. WorkSafe was to disappear. Quickly the WorkSafe executives clarified that the organisation would continue to exist but that the trading name of “WorkSafe” would go. Unions and others were suspicious as such a decision was unexpected, even by WorkSafe it appears, and it occurred at a time of organisational restructuring. Dropping the WorkSafe “brand” is a mistake but it will still disappear from Victoria.
WorkSafe became a trading name of the Victorian Workcover Authority (VWA) several decades ago. There were two parts to the VWA – workers compensation, WorkCare and workplace safety, WorkSafe. The simplicity of the branding is obvious and cleverly differentiated the two arms of VWA and the two very different philosophies and ideologies. Victoria had been given a political hammering over the operation of its workers compensation scheme but WorkSafe became one of the strongest brands in the State. Recognition was extremely high, so high that Tasmania changed the name of its Workplace Standards to WorkSafe, Northern Territory has WorkSafeNT, and the new approach to OHS in New Zealand has created a regulator called WorkSafe NZ. So why change?
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On 29 January 2014 Australia’s Fairfax newspapers published an article called “Safety performances at Australia’s top companies is serious business” written by Adele Ferguson. The article is based on an analysis by Citi Research of the safety performance of companies listed in Australia’s ASX100 share index. Citi Research (Citi) has kindly provided SafetyAtWorkBlog with a copy of this report developed for its fund manager and superfund clients. It is a terrific reference document providing a useful insight to the OHS performance of prominent Australian corporations. It cannot be definitive but we know of nothing else like it in Australia.
In the Fairfax article Ferguson wrote:
“While safety is a complex issue largely due to the fact that safety records are difficult to measure and difficult to compare across companies and industries, it is an important area to explore. For starters, it is a good proxy for the way a company deals with staff and manages risk more generally.”
Safety does not have to be complex but the measurement of safety performance can be as, even though there is a (dreadfully outdated) Australian Standard for measuring OHS performance, companies tweak the existing measures and the principal measurement, the Lost Time Injury Frequency Rate (LTIFR), has been found to be a flawed indicator. LTIFR is tolerated as a measurement simply because a better alternative has not been developed or widely accepted.
The Citi Research report lists LTIFRs for most of the 117 companies but it balances this with almost as many Total Recordable Injury Frequency Rates (TRIFR). More…
There is a constant tension between occupational health and safety (OHS) and workers compensation. OHS is intended to prevent harm and workers compensation is available for when harm cannot be, or has not been, prevented. In Australia, these two elements of safety are administered by different organisations under different legislation but it is a distinction that baffles many. The recent discussion about a sex-related workers compensation claim illustrates this bafflement to some degree.
This time last year Comcare filed an appeal over a Federal Court decision regarding
“A Commonwealth employee is seeking workers’ compensation for injuries sustained after a light fitting was pulled from the wall of a motel during sex, on a business trip.”
(A good summary of most of the legal proceedings is provided by Herbert Geer.)
The case has received wide media attention mostly for the salacious matter of the case, and some political attention, but the purpose of the appeal, according to Comcare, was
“… to seek a High Court ruling on the boundaries between private More…
Victorian Workcover Authority (VWA),was in the pages of the Australian Financial Review in July 2013 over several issues -
- CEO Denise Cosgrove told staff of her wonderful holiday in Daylesford in the same email in which she advised of a review of operating budgets “including people costs” and of job losses,
- Former Minister for Workcover, Roger Hallam, has been appointed to undertake a review of the Victorian Workcover Authority ,
- Hallam is said to have been on the panel that appointed Cosgrove recently to the CEO post,
- Cosgrove has pushed for a change in common law (Common law was controversially dropped during Roger Hallam’s time as Minister).
There seems to be many issues bubbling away at VWA – common law, declining profitability, “dividends” and a secret review. More…
Last week the Institute for Safety, Compensation and Recovery Research (ISCRR) released a review of the WorkHealth program. The results are very positive and deserve detailed analysis. However these analyses do not seem to address all the expectations of the Victorian Government when the program was launched several years ago.
Premier John Brumby said at the launch of WorkHealth that
“Over time the program is expected to free up $60 million per year in health costs, as well as:
- Cut the proportion of workers at risk of developing chronic disease by 10 per cent;
- Cut workplace injuries and disease by 5 per cent, putting downward pressure on premiums;
- Cut absenteeism by 10 per cent; and
- Boost productivity by $44 million a year.”
One of the key findings of the research seems to meet two of the program’s aims:
“Modelling of outcome forecast goals for a 10% reduction in absenteeism and a 5% reduction in compensable injury rates are likely to be met, especially as health promotion program uptake increases.” (page 5)
It is reasonable to expect from a 4-5 year study of hundreds of thousands of work health checks that hard data be obtained but as the quote above reveals, the researchers needed to apply modelling and draw on research from other sources. More…
In May 2013, Workcover Queensland supported the government’s intention to change the definition of worker to match that of the Australian Taxation Office (ATO). The definition re-emphasises the significance of the employer/employee relationship. Workplace health and safety laws through most of Australia have recently changed to remove the reliance on the employer/employee relationship with the intention of clarifying the lines of responsibility for preventing harm. The diversity between workers’ compensation and OHS definitions unnecessarily complicates the management of a worker’s health through the linear experience of employment.
The government believes such changes will reduce “red tape” but only in the narrow context of workers compensation. The Work Health and Safety Act expands the definition of worker but another piece of legislation in the same State restricts it. Inconsistencies of concepts are likely to lead to duplications, confusion and arguments that may generate as much unnecessary business and legal costs as the initiatives were intended to save. More…