OHS as an agent of change Reply

Tom Bramble is a Queensland socialist academic who recently published a history of Australian trade unionism.  I attended his book launch in Melbourne and found it partly inspiring and partly disconcerting.

Tom (pictured here) was an excellent speaker and seemed to be a knownbramble-book-launch-0011 entity to the strongly socialist audience.  It was the audience that I found disconcerting.  I had not been in so overtly socialist circles for over a decade and although disconcerted, the atmosphere was refreshing due to the level of passion in the speakers.

I regularly write about the industrial relations context of workplace safety  so I was disappointed that Tom did not mention OHS as an agent of change.  I went back to his book and looked for mentions of workplace safety knowing that there have been disputes over OHS in the trade union movement and often workplace fatalities have generated politic pressure and outrage.  

There were some mentions of of safety or health conditions but these were often as an add-on to the more industrial issues such as wages.  Perhaps this is where OHS should be but I can’t help thinking that safety and health can be important elements of emphasising the importance of a dispute by appealing to basic worker and human rights.  One example in Tom’s book is the Mount Isa Mine dispute in 1964 where the state of amenities block was a source of tension.  Given the devastating effect of asbestos, lead and other industrial illnesses, I expected health and safety to have a much higher profile.

Perhaps, my expectations were too high as I had been reading a history of the Queensland Fire Service where the safety and safety equipment were important elements and even motivators for disputation.  Indeed, the issue of PPE in the emergency services remains a hot issue even in 2008.

Arguing for improved safety equipment is a useful example of OHS as an agent of change because of the direct relationship of PPE as a hazard control mechanism.

I don’t accept the position that firefighting is riskier than working in construction. Construction faces a constant presence of hazards whereas firefighting is highly intermittent even though the risks may be more intense.

Australian workplaces have a sad history of fatalities, falls, poisoning, suicides, amputations, crushings, runovers and drownings.  Each of these issues have generated change in specific workplaces.  Some have generated political, organisational and cultural change.  It seems to me that a history of workplace safety in Australia may be needed to show people how the little brother of industrial relations affects change from an, arguably stronger moral position.

Kevin Jones

Workplace health – international response 2

Rory O’Neil, editor of Hazards magazine has written in response the SafetyAtWorkBlog posting on workhealth initiatives.  His response was posted on one of the many safety-related Internet discussion forums and was brought to my attention by Andrew Cutz and others.

WorkHealth initiatives – it’s about the workers, isn’t it?

The Victorian system is not garnering the necessary support because it is lifestyle focussed and has not answered concerns raised by unions, who want the programme to also address conditions caused or exacerbated by work. Business is annoyed because unions had the audacity to require that workers have a say in measures relating to their health (the poor little things are supposed to be passive recipients, apparently, taking the medicine and behaving like good little children). Below is my little news summary from 1 November.

There’s a rash of these lifestyle related interventions around the industrialised world. The EU is pushing fruit into some workers’ mouths, for example, as part of the ISAFRUIT project. However, two apples a day don’t make a worker as happy and healthy as a pay rise or some constructive participation in decisions about how work is organised, how satisfying that work might be and at what pace and for what reward. Or wage levels that allow healthy dietary choices for the whole family, at home and at work.

The lifestyle-focussed projects tend to be couched in language about making the worker healthier but are frequently more concerned with reducing sickness absence costs and winnowing out all but the superdrones that can work long hours in bad jobs without complaint. If employers cared so much, sickness absence procedures would not include punitive elements and health and safety whistleblowers wouldn’t be an endangered species. The unionisation campaign at Smithfield is a pretty clear case in point – bad jobs, bad pay, runaway strains and injuries and victimisation for those would stood up against it.

I’ve nothing against been given free fruit, free gym membership or anything free for that. But the time to use the gym, eat the fruit and have a life both inside and outside work that is meaningful and fulfilling might make it easier to swallow. This issue is about good jobs, with good conditions of employment and good remuneration. If workplace health policy ignores these factors, then it is an irresponsible diversion.

This is my latest measured contribution on the issue:

You big fat liars [Hazards 104, October-December 2008]
Oh, they say it’s because they care. They’ll weigh us, keep tabs on our bad habits and ask questions when we are sick. And when we fall short of perfection, they label us shirkers, sickos and slobs. Hazards editor Rory O’Neill questions whether all this attention from employers is really for our own good. more
More on this theme: www.hazards.org/workandhealth

If ACOEM is developing policy, then it should consider how work factors dominate our working days and frames the comfort and health of our working lives and beyond. That means integrating better work into any health model and making sure workers are allowed to participate fully in – and influence the design and operation of – any workplace health system.

Rory also points to the Trade Unions Congress posting that quotes the Victorian union response to the WorkHealth program and says this about the major employer group’s position:

The employers’ group, meanwhile, is adamant it will not accept the changes under any circumstances. David Gregory, the head of workplace relations at the Victorian Employers Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said it amounted to making the programme an ‘industrial weapon.’

Office design hype risks Reply

On 11 January 2009, John Read posted an article on office design.  The first paragraph is below:

“Paying attention to office design and building maintenance are imperative parts to doing business that many company owners ignore. The layout of office interiors can have a deep consequence on the disposition and productivity of staff members and upper management. Providing a well-maintained office is crucial in reference to health and safety issues. Through the use of proper design and upkeep, offices are able to experience some amount of control over the contentment, welfare, and effectiveness of not only their staff members, but themselves also.”

My comment was posted this morning

“The refurbishment and redesign of offices can have a positive effect on the morale of workers if the environment becomes cheery, colourful and refreshing. However, companies often use refurbishment as a cover for more important cultural and organisational issues.

Successful businesses and happy staff come from active personnel management more than from the physical environment in which this occurs.

Companies should not be distracted from organisational issues by window dressing and office redesign is, usually, a low-priority matter that is more often than not, coordinated through an image consultant or brand marketing.

Another risk with office redesign is when the ergonomic, operational and communication needs are not considered at the design stage. In many instances, offices quickly become shabby because workers need to accommodate design deficiencies in order to achieve comfort and peak productivity – additional heating, more lighting, different seating, additional technologies…..

Plants have been advocated as a positive, and functional, presence in offices for decades however, windows that open to allow ventilation, have been around much longer. The environmental design of an office building should be considered before taking on a tenancy.

The definitive government guidance on office safety and design is OfficeWise by WorkSafe Victoria, which is available online.”

Australian electronic media today, and probably the newspapers tomorrow, have been reporting on a new literature study into office design undertaken by Dr Vinesh Oommen from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) concerning open-plan office design.

A typical example of journalistic hyperbole with a “comical” photo can be found in The Queensland Times from an AAP story.

Dr Oommen is quoted as saying:

“In 90 per cent of the research, the outcome of working in an open-plan office was seen as negative, with open-plan offices causing high levels of stress, conflict, high blood pressure, and a high staff turnover.

The high level of noise causes employees to lose concentration, leading to low productivity, there are privacy issues because everyone can see what you are doing on the computer or hear what you are saying on the phone, and there is a feeling of insecurity.”

Dr Oommen has previously gained media attention with his research in children and junk food.

The media is going to run with this story, particularly now it has appearedon the AAP wires services.  Yet we can’t access Dr Oommen’s study in the Asia-Pacific Journal of Health Management as the publication is only for members of the Australian College of Health Service Executives . Until then it is wise to consider the media’s interpretation of an unseen research article before making the decision to redesign your open-office into ripple glass and swinging doors.

To investigate whether your offices are an occupational hazard, you are recommended to remind yourself of the safe design guidelines or, as mentioned above, reread the latest version of OfficeWise, or its sister publication, StressWise.

Let others go off half-cocked while the safety practitioners deal with reality.

 Kevin Jones

Workplace health initiatives in unstable economic times 1

All through the Presidency of George W Bush, safety professionals have been critical of the lack of action on workplace safety.  As with many issues related to a new Democrat President in Barack Obama, organisations are beginning to publish their wishlists.  The latest is the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM).

On 9 January 2009, ACOEM released a media statement which began

“American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) calls on the Health and Human Services Secretary-designee Tom Daschle to address the critical link between the health, safety, and productivity of America’s workers and the long-term stability of its health care system and economy as he begins work on the Obama administration’s health care agenda.”

The requested changes could be interpreted as a criticism of what the situation has been under George W Bush.  ACOEM says the next government

“must put a greater emphasis on ensuring the health of the workforce in order to meet the twin challenges of an aging population and the rise of chronic disease…”

ACOEM President Robert R. Orford, MD goes into specifics

“…calling on Daschle to focus on preventive health measures aimed at workers that could range from screening and early detection programs to health education, nutritional support, and immunizations.”

The ACOEM reform program is based on the following

  • “investing in preventive health programs for workers;
  • creating new linkages between the workplace, homes and communities to reinforce good health;
  • providing financial incentives to promote preventive health behaviors among workers; and
  • taking steps to ensure that more health professionals are trained in preventive health strategies that can be applied in the workplace.”

Accepting that one Australian State, Victoria, is considerably smaller than the US (Victoria  has a population of around 5,200,000, the US had 301,621,157 in 2007), it is interesting to remember what the Victorian Government proposed (or promised) just on 12 months ago concerning its WorkHealth initiative.

“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.”

[It would be of little real benefit to simply multiple the Victorian commitments by the differential with the US population to compare monetary commitments, as there are too many variable but if the WorkHealth productivity was imposed on the US, there could be a $2.6 billion, not a lot considering the size of President Bush’s bailouts and Barack Obama’s mooted bailout package.  However, in the current economic climate, in order to gain serious attention, any proposal should have costs estimated up front and, ideally, show how the initiative will have minimal impact on government tax revenues – an approach that would require.]

In each circumstance there is the logic that unhealthy people are less productive than healthy people.  This sounds right but it depends very much on the type of work tasks being undertaken.  It is an accepted fact [red flag for contrary comments. ED] that modern workloads are considerably more supported by technology than in previous labour-intensive decades.  Perhaps there are better productivity gains through (further) increased automation than trying to reverse entrenched cultural activity.

In late 2008 an OHS expert said to a group of Australian safety professionals in late-2008 that WorkHealth

“is not well-supported by the stakeholders.  The trade unions feel it is a diversion away from regulated compliance and that it is going to refocus the agenda on the health of the worker and the fitness of the worker as the primary agenda, which is not what the [OHS] Act is setup to focus on. The employers are basically unkeen to get involved on issues they think are outside their control.”

The expert supported the position of some in the trade union movement that WorkHealth was always a political enthusiasm, some may say folly.

This is going to be of great importance in Australia with the possibility of new OHS legislation to apply nationally but also muddies the strategic planning of any new government that needs to show that it is an active and effective agent of change, as Obama is starting to do.  In the US, the public health system is not a paragon and the workplace safety regulatory system is variable, to be polite.  Fixing the public health system would seem to have the greater social benefit in the long term, and a general productivity benefit.

(It has to be admitted that the packaging of health care in employment contracts in the US is attractive employment benefit and one that seems to be vital to those who have it.  Australia does not have that workplace entitlement but those employers struggling to become employers-of-choice should serious consider it, particularly as a work/family benefit.)

Each country is trying to reduce the social security cost burden on government and it would seem that public health initiatives would have the broader application as it covers the whole population and not just employees, or just those employees who are unfit.

Work health proposals in both jurisdictions need to re-examine their focuses and to pitch to their strengths.  Business has enough to worry about trying to claw its way out of recession (even if the US government is throwing buckets of money to reduce the incline from the pit).  OHS professionals have enough work trying to cope with the traditional hazards and recent, more-challenging, psychosocial hazards.  Workplace health advocates are muddying the funding pool, confusing government strategic policy aims, and blending competing or complementary approaches to individual health and safety in the public’s mind.  

 Kevin Jones

Update 16 January 2009

More information on this issue is available HERE

Those at risk of exposure to asbestos Reply

Over this last weekend, asbestos-safety advocates, ADSVIC, took advantage of the topicality of the navy’s poor management of asbestos by including half-page ads in major Australian newspapers.  The ads focused on the risks associated with DIY home renovators but law firm, Slater & Gordon, related their asbestos information sheet directly to the media attention about the Australian Navy.

Slater & Gordon, a former employer of Australia’s industrial relations and education minister, Julia Gillard, have always been active in seeking new clients and have participated in many class actions based on workplace safety issues, particularly the James Hardie Industries legal action of earlier this century which was important for many reasons, including the furthering of political careers.

Slater & Gordon’s information sheet includes a list of those people who it believes are at risk of asbestos-related diseases.  It doesn’t much leave room for anyone to feel safe from this risk.

  • Miners
  • Asbestos plant workers
  • Handlers and waterside workers
  • Asbestos factory workers
  • Carpenters, plumbers, electricians and builders
  • Wives and children of workers
  • Office workers
  • Mechanics/brake workers
  • Power plant workers/refinery workers
  • Teachers and students
  • Hospital workers
  • Telstra workers
  • People at home

Kevin Jones

Safety challenges for English pantomime Reply

Today, the UK Daily Mail published an example of the mish-mash of safety management problems that are confusing the public about what an OHS professional does.

An amateur Christmas pantomime is confused by the plethora of safetyand health obligations being placed on them by, it is assumed, a variety of regulators.  Let me speculate on what may be behind some of the issues.

“scenery is free from sharp edges” – a good set designer, even an amateur one, should already have this aim as part of their skills.  Backstage in theatrical productions is notoriously dark and often full of people, round the edges of scenery is not an unreasonable expectation.

The theatre company chairman says that the facility is not the best.

“Mr Smith, 59, a training manager, also claims that Brierley Hill Civic Hall’s backstage facilities are ‘poorer than Cinderella’s kitchen’ making it all the more difficult to meet the health and safety requirements.”

Ice cream and milk temperature is a matter of food safety.  These can easily be managed by the facility manager providing suitable refrigeration.  If the facility is a regular venue for theatrical productions it is not unreasonable to expect the venue to be fit-for-purpose.  Graeme Smith says that the company has already solved the issue to some degree:

“The 100-strong am-dram group, which was first formed 60 years ago, has also bought a freezer because it does not trust the reliability of the venue’s, Mr Smith said”

Clearly, Mr Smith has as many problems with the venue as he does with the safety needs of his production.

Climbing a beanstalk with a harness – many theatrical productions have incorporated harness into aerial effects or revised their sets and direction to depict climbing without physically climbing 30 feet.  This is a pantomime and it involves acting so act like you’re climbing a beanstalk.

Chaperoning children – mothers of stage children have been doing this for years.  The nature of backstage may require supervision of children to reduce the hazards of dozens of excited children causing problems and creating hazards for other stage workers.  Depending on the layout of the facility the dressing rooms may some way from the stage, perhaps through public areas, and supervision is not an unreasonable expectation.

“do not enter the props storage area” – all workplaces have areas that restrict unauthorised access for good reason.  Supervision may be the best available control measure for the circumstances.  The article refers to pyrotechnics.  If these were to be used in this production and the pyrotechnics were stored in the props area, entry restriction would be more than reasonable.

“inform the audience before the performance if pyrotechnics are to be used.”  It is peculiar that the audience is informed as pyrotechnics should be configured to operate with no risk to audience, actors, or stage staff.  If the reason for this advice is fire safety, then this relates again to the suitability of the facility itself, to fireproofing, fire exits etc.  Given the fires that have resulted from unsafe use indoors of pyrotechnics over the last few years, increased warnings seems appropriate.

I am not sure about the need to identify curtain users but the need to prevent people falling into the orchestra pit is obvious.  It is implied that this would only occur outside of productions and rehearsals and, in that case, this would be the responsibility of the facility manager.  Boarding up the pit may be an excessive control measure and alternative barriers may be appropriate.  Again this also relates to the initial design of the facility.

There are enough hints in the article to show that the suitability of the Brierley Hill Civic Centre for theatrical productions needs to be reviewed.  Many of the theatre company problems seem to be to accommodate design and layout deficiencies.

The Australian theatrical union issued safety guidelines for live theatre productions in 1999

The HSE and the Association of British Theatre Technicians has safety guidelines on pyrotechnics  and a range of other publications related to theatrical productions.

Clearly there is no “idiot’s guide to amateur productions” but there may be a need for such a publication.  The experience of the Brierley Hill Musical Theatre Company shows how one small event can be bombarded by attacks from all sides when all the company wants to do is put on a pantomime.  Theatrical productions have always been big management challenges and health and safety has always been part of this process. 

It was a fantasy sixty years ago when Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney could put an elaborate stage show together overnight in the movies. It remains a fantasy.

Kevin Jones

Australian 2008 workplace statistics Reply

Every year newspapers and organisations undertake a “year in review”.  OHS regulators are no different.  As more statistics become available of the next few weeks, SafetyAtWorkBlog will provide the latest OHS statistics for 2008.  The most recent are below.

Western Australia

According to a media release by WorkSafe WA:

“In 2005/06, WA recorded 12 traumatic work-related deaths and 25 in 2006/07. There were 27 fatalities in 2007/08. In addition, every year around 19,000 Western Australians suffer an injury or illness serious enough to have to take time off work.”

Eleven of these fatalities have occurred since 1 July 2008

Victoria

According to information provided to SafetyAtWorkBlog by WorkSafe Victoria:
  • There were 21 work-related deaths in calendar 2008 compared with 22 in 2007 and 29 in 2006.
  • Deaths in 2008 occurred in building construction (four), transport and agriculture (three each), timber, electrical linesmen (two each). There were also fatalities involving forklifts, the meat industry, retail, firefighting, roadworks, warehousing and manufacturing (one each).
  • The 10 year average is 28.4 deaths/calendar year.  There were 39 fatalities in 1999, the highest in that period.  Lowest was 2004 with 18.
  • The 5 year average is 24 with a high of 30 in 2004, the highest in that period.
  • 29,087 [WorkCover] claims last financial year compared with 28,550 in the previous. There were 77 life threatening injuries in the last financial year compared with 66 in 06/07.

Kevin Jones

UPDATE – 7 January 2009

A spokesperson for WorkSafe WA has told SafetyAtWorkBlog that WorkSafe’s statistical experience varies from that in Victoria in the context of workplace injuries over the Summer break.  January is historically a month with a low rate of workplace injuries.  This may be due to the number and type of West Australian industries that close down for January or that workers are on leave for around two weeks in January.

Statistics on workplace injuries are notoriously difficult to compare from one Australian State to another and SafetyAtWorkBlog would argue OHS would be seen as more directly relevant by the community if statistics accurately reflected the level of work-related injuries and illnesses rather than being based on workers compensation claims and fatalities.   It certainly would change the strategic targets and enforcement processes if illness was accurately assessed.

Various Federal governments have promised to attend to statistical incompatibility over decades and it is hoped that the potential national consistency of OHS laws may also resolve the need for accurate and relevant workplace statistics.

 

 

 

 

Mobile Phones and Driving 1

Work tools, such as the company car and the mobile phone, can be fun and functional but when used at the same time, the combination is deadly. 

According to media reports a study by the Federal Department of Transport survey of 1500 drivers has shown that 

[in Victoria] about 61 per cent said they had used a mobile while driving, up from 47 per cent in 2005…. More than one-quarter admitted reading a text message while driving, while 14 per cent said they had sent one.
Yet 42 per cent of drivers nationally supported any law banning the use of hands-free mobiles while driving.
Victoria Police caught more than 1800 drivers for mobile phone offences during the holiday period.

SafetyAtWorkBlog has mentioned previously that road safety research rarely logs whether a vehicle is being used for work purposes.  The full survey report is  not yet available and, to a large extent, the media reports have focused on activities related to the Australian h0liday season – alcohol use as well as texting.  

When it is available, SafetyAtWorkBlog will report on any data that could indicate the use of work vehicles as it is inaccurate to simply use road safety data as an overlay of occupational activities.

The use of company vehicles is a complicated area due to the status of the vehicles changing depending on whether the vehicle is a “pool vehicle” or whether the vehicle is able to be used for private purposes.  The one vehicle could be both a work vehicle and private vehicle at different times of the day.  This is the challenge for OHS professionals – to deal with a workplace and an employee who is neither of these 100% of the time.  Unless this status is clarified, any potential policy on mobile phone use whilst driving remains problematic.  Yet the hazard remains.

safe_driving-coverWorkSafe Victoria released a safe driving guide in November 2008 that acknowledges the hazard but clearly leaves it up to the employer to determine the appropriate policy:

The TAC  (Transport Accident Commission) and WorkSafe recommend that hands free calls be kept to a minimum and reserved for emergency type calls.
Handheld mobile phone use is illegal and should not be considered under any circumstances while driving.  Texting or reading texts or caller ID should not be done at any time whilst driving.

Without definitive advice from regulatory bodies but with mounting evidence of the heightening risk of injury and property damage, it will be a brave company that bans the use of mobile phones whilst driving (the ideal OHS control measure).  However, this is one of the risks faced when evidence of hazards is called for but we don’t like the evidence.

HSE Podcast – December 2008 Reply

England’s Health and Safety Executive monthly podcasts are an interesting variation on the obligation of OHS regulators to communicate with its clients.  These podcasts follow the format of a corporate newsletter

  • Introduction
  • News
  • Special interview/s
  • Further information

Most of the news will be familiar to those who regularly visit the HSE website or subscribe to one of their RRS feeds but the podcast is a good summary of the regulator’s activity.

The feature interview/article is a good mix of talking with regular business operators, visitors to the HSE exhibition stand at Aintree racecourse, and promotion of HSE links.

The secondary article focusses on the use of vehicles at work, such as delivery vans.  The article supports a vehicle-at-work website but, as has happened in some of the Australian States, safety in this sector has often not been seen as an OHS obligation, or at least a difficult one to implement, and has been dominated by transport and road safety legislation. Some of this advice is a diversification of the forklift and transport yard safety practices to a broader audience and application.

As a teaser and a signpost to online resources in the HSE website, the podcast works well.  For those outside of the UK there is probably more to learn from the podcast construction and its existence, than the information content.  

Many safety professionals are so internet-savvy in 2009 that their state-of-knowledge on OHS (or at least the information in their PC that they have yet to get around to) has rarely been higher.

The podcast should be heard for lots of reasons.  A major one for me in Australia was to hear the accents of people in my hometown.  Some listeners who are unfamiliar with scouse may want to read parts of the transcript.

Kevin Jones

OHS Podcast with Andrew Douglas Reply

One of the services that Workplace Safety Services (the company behind SafetyAtWorkBlog) provides to its clients are podcasts.

The Safety Institute of Australia had a podcast produced principally to promote its Safety In Action Conference, which is in Melbourne Australia on 31 March to 2 April 2009, that includes an interview with Andrew Douglas.  Andrew is speaking at the SIA09 conference and is a director of Douglas Workplace and Litigation Lawyers.

In the podcast he discusses making OHS a core business function, the OHS role in small business and the not-for-profit sector, and how important it was for him personally and professionally to be involved with the Safety In Action conference.

The podcast is a short promotional one but you may find Andrew’s comments of interest and use.