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The challenge will be even greater in Australia where the Safe Work Bill has been withdrawn from Parliament and the Government is willing to weaken election commitments, such as on climate change, due to the economic context.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

Passport to Safety in Australia Reply

Around the turn of the century a father told me this

“My son was 19 years old and he was killed in an accident in a small warehouse in a suburb of Toronto. In this little shop, it was a small business with only 4 or 5 people there. He got the job through a friend whose Father ran the business. It was the second or third day on the job and he was asked to go back and decant some fluid from a large drum to some small vessels. The action violated every OHS regulation in the book. There were multiple ignition sources, there was no grounding. A spark went off and lit up the fumes that went back in the drum and it exploded over my son. He died 24 hours later.”

That father was Canadian, Paul Kells, and this traumatic event set him on a journey to improve safety for young workers.  Paul established the Safe Communities Foundation.

Paul has travelled to Australia several times and he has been granted audiences with many OHS regulators but it seems that government of South Australia is the most ardent supporter of Paul’s Passport to Safety program.

Over 5000 students in South Australia have completed the program since 2005 and the government is trying to reach the target of 20,000 teenage students.  A sponsorship form is available for download.

SafetyAtWorkBlog supports Paul’s work and the sponsorship initiative of the South Australian government.

This is what the workplace safety ads in Australia are missing, a passionate advocate who speaks about the reality of workplace death and personal loss – someone who has turned grief into a social entrepreneurship.  If only this type of inspiration could happen without the cost of a life.

My 2000 interview with Paul is available by clicking on this link kell-interview.  It was originally published in SafetyAtWork magazine in February 2001.

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Deaths in isolated work camp from tropical storm Reply

It is relatively easy to manage a workplace in an urban environment.  The buildings stay in one place, the neighbours are almost always the same and the weather bureau provides plenty of warnings.  But in isolated areas, particularly in Australia, it seems the work environment is often more exposed.  Certainly this was the case in mid-March 2007 when Cyclone George hit a railway construction camp killing several workers and injuring twenty.

The camp accommodation of demountable units, called dongas, were supposedly cyclone-proof.  At the time, the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union said that administrative staff were evacuated but construction workers were directed to the dongas.

The owner of the worksite, Fortescue Metals Groups said on 11 December 2008 that it will fight 40 charges brought by Worksafe WA under the West Australian Occupational Health and Safety Act.

According to one media report:

“The charges include the failure to provide a safe work environment, failure to design and construct temporary accommodation and other buildings capable of withstanding a cyclone and failure to properly instruct and train workers.”

The installer of the demountable buildings, Sunbrood, had all charges dismissed.

The court case will continue in Western Australia in February and March next year.

A history of Australian trade unionism

Occupational Health and Safety in Australia is invariably related to the role of the trade union movement.  OHS legislation legislates a presence for the Health and Safety Representative in most jurisdictions and historically, the HSR has been a union member.

I suspect that union members still make up the largest proportion of HSR training courses.  HSRs are the shopfloor OHS enforcers.  Lord Robens acknowledged that a constant worksite presence was an important element of safety compliance and the union movement jumped at the chance of formal legislated presence.

Tom Brambles, the author of the article on the right, has just written a book entitled “Trade Unionism in Australia – A history from flood to ebb tide” (pictured below).  The book covers the union movement over the last 40 years and details some of the political campaigns that may have contributed to their decline. 

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Significantly for Australian workplaces, Bramble points out that union membership now lies at just under 20%.  In May 2008, Tasmanian Premier Paul Lennon resigned as his personal approval rate hit 17%.   Brendan Nelson hit a 17% approval rating in August this year while he was Opposition Leader.  17% is a political benchmark for change and the union movement is approaching that figure.

For years, I have been questioning whether the political influence of the Australian trade union movement is justified; whether tripartism is of more historical relevance than contemporary; and how workplace safety can be adequately policed on the shopfloor when there are so few police.

Tom Bramble’s book is not about OHS but about the waning of an important societal element that was very important to OHS management systems.  Yes it’s about industrial relations but it is also about human resources and social campaigns and may provide some tips on how the  safety profession should, and should not, go about building a national presence and spreading its influence with key decision-makers.

Kevin Jones

This post first appeared in a slightly longer version in SafetyWeek – Issue 166 in early October 2008

A transcript of short piece that Tom Bramble read for Australia’s Radio National is available at http://www.abc.net.au/rn/perspective/stories/2008/2412452.htm

Injury Reporting Rates

Government OHS policies are, more often than not, based on statistics.  The most common statistic is workers’ compensation claims as they are trackable and involve money.   Another is fatality data.

Many countries have an obligation on employers to notify the proper authorities if a serious injury has occurred.  We know that in some countries injuries and deaths are under-reported.  In the legal, and illegal, coal mines in China, sometimes workplace deaths are actively disguised, ignored or denied.

Just this week, a Vietnam news service reported on the lack of injury reporting identified by the  Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs’ Labour Safety Department, in Vietnam.

The report says that “only 7,000 companies reported work-related accidents” for 2008 and that this equates to only 10 per cent of the reportable accidents.  Using the mathematical calculation skills of SafetyAtWorkBlog (an Arts graduate) that means that over 60,000 workplace injuries are not being reported.

Earlier this year a more explanatory article appeared which estimated 500 deaths each year form workplace incidents.

Perhaps there is some hope that if the government is aware of the lack of reporting, it can accommodate this in its national programme on labour protection, safety and hygiene that aims for a reduction of at least 5% in work incidents by 2010.

Inherently Dangerous 1

Every so often one will hear of an occupational that is “inherently dangerous”.  Every time we hear this or see the phrase in print we should protest loudly.  If a safety professional uses the term, they should be shunned.

Anything that is described as “inherently dangerous” reflects on the lazy thinking of the describer.  Working on a house roof was once inherently dangerous.  A firefighter running into a burning building was once (still is in the United States) an inherently dangerous activity.

Nothing is inherently dangerous when it comes to safety management.  Although it may be that a suitable control measure has yet to be devised, danger can be minimised or eliminated.  

The Confederation of Australian Motor Sports (CAMS) juxtaposes “inherently dangerous” with OHS in its policy:

The Confederation of Australian Motor Sport Ltd (CAMS) is committed to providing, so far as it is practicable, its stakeholders with a structured environment to minimise risks to health, safety and welfare. CAMS recognise that motor sport is inherently dangerous and will continue to strive to minimise risk to those involved through a shared and integrated approach to health and safety.

In a Brief History of Lighting in the US, the elimination of an inherent risk is amply illustrated with the move from gas lighting to electricity over time.

Around 1920, word was out that gas lighting was inherently dangerous and too many homes were burning down, and homeowners should remove their gas lighting and give the safer new-fangled electric lights a chance, even though electricity was probably just a fad.

“Inherently dangerous” dampens innovation (a buzzword in modern management) and should be avoided at all costs.  

One wonders how safe our world would have been if “inherently dangerous” was allowed to dominate our legislation in the way that “reasonably practicable” has.

Kevin Jones

Manual handling and childcare workers

Yesterday, a reader posted the following question

Are their any articles available on manual handling risk factors for workers in the childcare service industry (including programs for risk control)?

Below are some of the resources that are readily available in Australia, specifically on childcare.  In many cases the control measures employed for nurses overlap but in may OHS advisory and regulatory sites the hazards for nurses dominate the advice.

As an example of the dire need for accessible information in this area, there is a Canadian guide to “Health in Child Care Settings“.  It’s over 200 hundred pages with lots of great information.  The only mention of manual handling hazards for workers is 

“Use of proper lifting and transferring techniques can significantly reduce the risk of injury. Providers’ education in this area is essential.”

Yet we know that the medical evidence for safe lifting techniques is dubious.

There is a commercial DVD available at www.themedia.com.au  I would advise that playground equipment should be reviewed for durability AND ease of transport (there are many types of castor wheels with brakes available for heavy items) 

There is a training course that includes “Lifting Techniques & Manual Handling for Child Care Workers” available (in Australia – there are many more around the world)

In 2001 the Queensland OHS authority released  a guide called “Manual Tasks Involving the Handling of People Advisory Standard 2001“.  Again this reads very nurse-y but it specifically includes the handling of children.

Without knowing the background to the question – whether concerned with the handling of children or equipment – it is difficult to go further.  Perhaps the reader can provide more detail and we can see if other readers can help with specifics.

Kevin Jones

The insidiousness of “reasonably practicable” 2

WorkSafe Victoria recently released a guideline, or clarification, on what it considers to be the issues surrounding “employing or engaging suitably qualified persons to provide health and safety advice“.

SafetyAtWorkBlog remains to be convinced that such a process will lead to better safety outcomes in the small to medium-sized enterprises at which this program is aimed.  The OHS legislation clearly states that the employer is the ultimate decider on which control measures to implement to address a workplace hazard.  This is echoed in the WorkSafe guideline

“It is important to note that employing or engaging a suitably qualified person to provide OHS advice does not discharge the employer from their legal responsibilities to ensure health and safety as required under Part 3 of the OHS Act. This duty cannot be delegated.”

A business manager will weigh up the advice sought or given from a variety of sources and make a decision.  A good business manager will take responsibility for the good or bad results of their decision.  But they need to have a clear understanding of their obligations and Victoria’s legislation could be confusing.

The guideline says that

“Employers are expected to take a proactive approach to identify and control hazards in the workplace before they cause an incident, injury, illness or disease.”

This reitereates one of the safety principles in the 2004 OHS Act

“Employers and self-employed persons should be proactive, and take all reasonably practicable measures, to ensure health and safety at workplaces and in the conduct of undertakings.”

But the principles are not legislative obligations.  As Michael Tooma writes in his “Annotated Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004

“… it is the intention of the Parliament that the principles be taken into account in the administration of the Act.”

The principles are there for judicial colour and community reassurance but with no real impact.

The obligations on an employer, the section that determines the actions and plans of the business owner or managers, are, as well as general duties:

“Duties of employers to employees

(1) An employer must, so far as is reasonably practicable, provide and maintain for employees of the employer a working environment that is safe and without risks to health……..

(2) Without limiting sub-section (1), an employer contravenes that sub-section if the employer fails to do any of the following-

(a) provide or maintain plant or systems of work that are, so far as is reasonably practicable, safe and without risks to health;

(b) make arrangements for ensuring, so far as is reasonably practicable, safety and the absence of risks to health in connection with the use, handling, storage or transport of plant or substances;

(c) maintain, so far as is reasonably practicable, each workplace under the employer’s management and control in a condition that is safe and without risks to health;

(d) provide, so far as is reasonably practicable, adequate facilities for the welfare of employees at any workplace under the management and control of the employer;

(e) provide such information, instruction, training or supervision to employees of the employer as is necessary to enable those persons to perform their work in a way that is safe and without risks to health. “

The “as far as is reasonably practicable” insertions allow business considerable flexibility in arguing the validity of their decisions after an incident but hamper the employer in being “pro-active” – (a hateful and lazy piece of business jargon).

The impediments to “pro-activity” can be seen in the general duties of Section 20 where 

“to avoid doubt, a duty imposed on a person…to ensure, as far is reasonably practicable, health and safety requires the person –

(a) to eliminate risks to health and safety so far as is reasonably practicable:…..”

This contrasts with the objects of the, same, Act which states that one of the aims is

“to eliminate, at the source, risks to the health, safety and welfare of employees and other persons at work:…”

It is strongly suspected that a crucial element of OHS legislation and management will likely disappear and this is to eliminate hazards “at the source”.  Outside of the objects of the Act this aim is not mentioned anywhere else in the legislation.  “Reasonably practicable” will erase this important social and moral clause.

Eliminating something “at the source” encourages research into new ways of eliminating hazards by placing an obligation on us to determine the source.  “Reasonably practicable” encourages us to research control measures until it is practicable to do so no more.  That is a half-quest that solves nothing.  What if Frodo was asked to dispose of the ring in Mordor only if “reasonably practicable”? The story would have been a novella instead of a classic trilogy.

Employer associations are lobbying for increased workplace flexibility.  That has nothing to do with the health and safety benefits of the employees but rather the health and safety of the balance sheet.  “Reasonably practicable” similarly focuses on business management and not safety management.

The battle against this insidious weakening of the OHS profession is not lost.  Heart should be taken from the preparedness of governments to roll-back unpopular legislation such as some industrial relations initiatives.  Hindsight can be an important motivator for change.

Recent fatalities data may sway some in government that OHS regulators are achieving their social and operational targets but OHS professionals know that fatality rates are not an accurate indication of the success of safety initiatives.  New workplace hazards are appearing regularly and many of the new ones don’t result in death but lead instead to misery and an incapacity to live a healthy life or to work again in a chosen profession.  

“Reasonably practicable” allows businesses to try, in differing degrees, to eliminate the hazards, such as psychosocial hazards, of its workforce and then shift them to social security and disability benefits.  And why not? It seems that corporations can serve their clients and stakeholders “as far as is reasonably practicable” and then expect a bailout from government over their mismanagement.  Immorality applies to much more than economics.

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.

Management failures and a rape of a five-month-old baby

Earlier this year, SafetyAtWorkBlog reported on the attack on a nurse in the Torres Strait Islands north of Australia, the investigation of the issue by Queensland Health and the mechanisms introduced to get the working conditions and accommodation up to a safe level.  In this case there was a clear link between occupational health and safety and the security of a worker.

OHS law in Australia obliges workers and those in control of a workplace to ensure the safety of people on their premises.  Last week the Northern Territory government received a report (081128vol1-f9c6d46d-75d5-4a5e-95e7-7c040ae6600c1) into the security measures at the Royal Darwin Hospital.  This hospital has undertaken fantastic medical work in the past, most noticeably, on a large scale following the bombings in Bali in October 2002.

However it failed to prevent the rape of a five month old female infant on 30th March 2006, while the indigenous baby was an inpatient.

Carolyn Richards, the Health & Community Services Complaints Commissioner, said in her report

As a result of a complaint reported to the Health & Community Services Complaints Commission an investigation was undertaken by the Director of Investigations, Mrs Julie Carlsen, who is employed as the Director of Investigations (DI) Health &  Community Services Complaints Commission.

This report highlights that the Department of Health & Community Services (DHCS) needs to implement effective risk control mechanisms to minimise the risk of an assault on a vulnerable inpatient in the Royal Darwin Hospital (RDH). The investigation has led to the conclusion that DHCS (DHF) and RDH have not complied with the applicable Australian Standard. It has also revealed that crucial information has been withheld from an expert engaged by RDH to review security arrangements and from the DHCS (DHF) Security Manager based at RDH. This report also details inadequacies and failings by those responsible for managing RDH who have failed for over two years to implement and maintain better security for patients in the Paediatric Ward. It is published with the hope that it will cause DHCS (DHF) and RDH to give higher priority to improving its risk management and security procedures.

The Commissioner’s conclusions are worth including here so that OHS professionals and security officers can establish appropriate procedures for their workplaces.pages-from-081128vol1-f9c6d46d-75d5-4a5e-95e7-7c040ae6600c1

1. On 30th March 2006:

  • There were no arrangements in place on the Paediatric Ward to ensure the safety and inviolability of vulnerable patients.
  • No risk assessment had been conducted.
  • The arrangements in place did not comply in any aspect with the Australian Standard which sets the benchmark for proper security.
  • There was no control on access to the Ward or to the patients.
  • The staff had not received adequate training, and possibly none at all, about the risks arising from lack of security arrangements.
  • In 2002 RDH had commissioned and received an expert consultant’s assessment and report on security arrangements at RDH. The Terms of Reference did not require 5B to be assessed. By 30 March 2006 the recommendations in the report had not been implemented in Ward 5B. This failure can only be described as shameful.
  • Following the rape of the infant police were not notified for about 2 hours.

2. Action taken by RDH after the rape to improve security was: (a) slow (b) inadequate, and (c) has not been adequately evaluated or reviewed to determine its effectiveness

3. RDH has a Security Manager on site as well as an NT Police member stationed at the hospital. Neither has been asked to evaluate the security on the Paediatric Ward either before or after the rape of the infant.

4. Staff working on the Paediatric Ward have not been trained at their induction on the elements of security arrangements to reduce the risk to vulnerable patients nor has there been adequate ongoing training of staff before or after the 30th March 2006 incident.

5. In 2007 the same expert safety and security consultant, as in 2002, was engaged to assess security arrangements at RDH. He was not informed of the rape of the infant in March 2006 nor was he asked to report specifically on arrangements in the Paediatric Ward.

6. On 21 November 2007 two investigation officers from the Health and Community Services Complaints Commission visited the Paediatric Ward by prior arrangement. They were able to enter the Ward and wander around, have entry to every part of it and stand at the nurse’s station, for about 25 minutes without anyone asking who they were and why they were there.

7. Management’s lack of commitment to the proactive identification of risks and to taking appropriate action has not created a culture where each member of staff takes responsibility for identifying and reporting risks and developing safe practices.

8. A security review of RDH was carried out by an expert hospital safety and security consultant who issued a report in 2007. The Security Manager of DHCS (DHF) was not given a copy even though he requested it. HCSCC enquired of RDH management why he was not given a copy and RDH have offered no explanation. On 31 October after this report was published to RDH and DHF the CEO of DHF advised this Commission that he had finally been given a copy and that he had seen a draft copy.

9. RDH Maternal and Child Health Clinical Risk Management Committee considered security in the Paediatric Ward following the incident. The Committee met on 16th May 2006, 2.5 months after the rape of the infant. It met a further 4 times. It submitted an action plan to the General Manager of RDH in July 2006. At its last recorded meeting on 5 September 2006 there had been no response from the General Manager on the recommendations, particularly with respect to installing CCTV cameras with recording facilities on the Paediatric Ward. There were still no recording cameras on the Paediatric Ward as at June 2008 although a CCTV system had been installed in the kitchen area to deter the pilfering of food. Dr David Ashbridge on 31 October 2008 advised, when responding to a draft of this report, that CCTV cameras were installed in Paediatrics on 25 August 2008.

10. The surveyors from the Australian Council of Health Standards which accredits RDH probably did not receive all relevant information about the incident of 30 March 2006 and what action RDH were taking. Those surveyors on 13 October 2006 were informed by RDH that the patient information pamphlet and admission interview are being reworded to reflect the changes to ward access. There was no verification throughout the investigation that any action had been taken by RDH to implement the recommendations of the review. Neither the report of ACHS nor records of information given to ACHS have been provided to the HCSCC. DHCS (DHF) was invited to provide me with those relevant documents in response to this draft. No response was received on this issue from DHF or RDH. According to the published information of ACHS the accreditation survey commences with a self assessment by the hospital concerned. This Commission specifically requested details and copies of the information provided to the ACHS surveyors but no response was received from either the CEO of the Department or the General Manager of RDH.

11. The governance arrangements at RDH do not promote adequate transparent accountability of the General Manager and the Department of Health and Families for the operation of the hospital. Control of all aspects of the day to day management of RDH rests in the hands of three individuals. This includes staff recruiting, training, security, nursing and medical services, procurement, record keeping, financial accountability and risk management. Such specialist management groups as exist are subordinate to the General Manager’s authority. The General Manager reports to the Director of Acute Services who reports to the CEO of the Department. I have been unable to find out what role the Royal Darwin Hospital Board has since its last annual report to 30 June 2006. 

It is well worth obtaining the complete report to understand how such an individual tragedy occurred.  As one media commentator has posited

“One wonders what the reaction would have been if a non-indigenous infant was raped.”