Federal IR Minister speaks on OHS laws 1

Julia Gillard, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Workplace Relations, received a dorothy-dix question on 16 October 2008 (pages 52-53) concerning OHS harmonisation and the creation of SafeWork Australia.  Sadly, the good points the Minister made were overshadowed by political point-scoring at the Opposition Leader, Malcolm Turnbull.  It is still early days for the Labor Government in Parliament and Minister Gillard is one of the top parliamentary performers.  It is disappointing she did not use her full six minutes to give the issue the prominence it deserved or needed.

The nuggets of information she provided, prior to party politics interfering, were

  • harmonisation will help “39,000 businesses that operate across state boundaries”;
  • “300 Australians are killed at work each year”;
  • “over 140,000 Australians are injured at work each year”;
  • these deaths and injuries are “costing the economy $34 billion”  (presumably) each year.

The report of the inquiry into model OHS laws is due to release its interim report in October 2008 with the final report being presented to government in late-January or early-February 2009.

Insurance for OHS penalties 1

OHS law is generally structured in a positive way and based on the logic that people will act appropriately if there is a deterrent for doing the wrong thing.  This logic applies to many levels of public administration, commerce and psychology.

Some years ago, this logic was challenged during some consultation I undertook for a prison workshop.  It was necessary to assess the guarding of a machine not just for the “accidental” injuries but for malicious and purposeful injuries.  This established a lower common denominator than in the majority of workplaces. 

In this work environment to some inmates, the penalty for harming oneself and others was worth the risk.  It did not deter everyone.

Recently, an allegation has come to the attention of SafetyAtWorkBlog that a company providing OHS compliance advice to small businesses in Australia is also offering insurance coverage for OHS penalties.  Should a business proprietor be financially penalized by the OHS regulator for a breach of the legislation, the business proprietor would pay an excess of around $2000 and the (unnamed) insurance company would pay the balance.

Such a service places a $2,000 cap on OHS penalties and would remove a major reason behind penalties for unsafe practices and workplaces.

This is of concern to OHS professionals as we “trade” on the importance of OHS having a strong business case as well as a social benefit.

SafetyAtWorkBlog would be interested to hear from anyone who may have come across such insurance options elsewhere or have an opinion on such an option.

Australian Greens Senator speaks on OHS legislation Reply

Senator Rachel Siewert spoke on Australia’s review of OHS law on 13 October 2008.The Senator summarised the statistical reason for OHS legislation (included here as statistics is a popular issue at SafetyAtWorkBlog), as well as the societal context.

Australian Greens Senator for Western Australia Rachel Siewert

Australian Greens Senator for Western Australia Rachel Siewert

“The importance of occupational health and safety is obvious from looking at even just a few key statistics. In 2004 Access Economics estimated that there were 4,900 work related deaths each year in Australia. The ABS calculated that 690,000 employees suffered from a work related injury or illness in 2006. The Productivity Commission found that, in 2004, workplace deaths, injuries and illnesses cost the economy over $30 billion a year. These figures go to the economic and, importantly, the personal and social costs of workplace injuries and deaths. Behind each of those numbers is a person with a family, workmates, friends and a community.”

Senator Siewert reiterates the timetable for the initial report of the National Review into Model Occupational Health and Safety Laws is due by the end of this month but also identified a plethora of inquiries, agreements and discussions that will also inform the Australian government’s ultimate decision on OHS law. She supports the concept of tripartism:

“We believe that building on best practice in OH&S in this country and around the world is to implement genuine tripartism and independence. On these criteria, this legislation is too skewed in favour of governments and to the detriment of other key stakeholders in OH&S regulation-that is, employees and employers. [The Robens report in the 1970s]. It went on to recommend that statutory recognition of joint consultative practices-including government, employees and employers-need to underpin the new approach.”

But also makes the pitch for broader representation:

“If you agree with this approach-and all of Australia’s OH&S laws are based on this concept-then you also have to acknowledge the importance of genuine participation of employers and employees through a representative structure. The NOHS Commission did recognise this and was established as a statutory corporation with a membership structure incorporating employee and employer representatives. Its functions included formulating policies and strategies relating to OH&S matters, reviewing and making recommendations for the making of laws relating to OH&S matters, researching OH&S matters and conducting inquiries into OH&S matters.”

My recollection of NOHSC was that representation remained the domain of employer associations, trade unions and the government. Independent OHS specialist were few and far between. Given the dreadfully poor rate of union membership in Australia, it would have been more progressive for the Senator to nominate independent OHS specialists and to propose a 25% ratio of represntation for each of the representative groups so that (hopefully) apolitical opinion could be provided on a subject that should be apolitical. (And I still think an OHS Ombudsman is a practical and useful concept.)

In 2004, in its report into national workers compensation and occupational health and safety frameworks, the Productivity Commission made a number of recommendations relevant to the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission, including having a specific objective of achieving national uniform OH&S regulation and joint funding from the states. We note that this bill does implement these recommendations. The Howard government, however, instead of implementing those recommendations, once it got its chance by taking control of the Senate, abolished the commission. Prior to being able to abolish the commission, the previous government had already reduced its funding significantly. Between 1996 and 2005 the then government slashed the budget by over $4 million. We believe OH&S was never much of a priority for the Howard government.

The Senator places the proposed Safe Work Australia authority in a particularly awkward position:

“Safe Work Australia fits somewhere in the middle of the NOHSC and the ASCC. It continues the practice of being tripartite-although inexplicably downgrading the representation of employee and employer representatives-and, while more independent of government than the ASCC, is significantly less independent than the NOHSC.”

Other Greens’ concerns are:

  • reduced representation
  • vague definitions on ‘authorising body” or those associations who become represnetatives
  • excessive and unnecessary ministerial control, including veto
  • two-thirds majority decisions
  • insufficient funding for research

It would be interesting to hear the thoughts of other minor parties although the position of Family First may change in line with varying economic situations.

Varanus Island Report released 1

On 10 October 2008, the Western Australian Mines and Petroleum Minister, Norman Moore, released the final report into the Varanus Island pipeline explosion.  Sadly due to legislative restrictions the report is not being made available in an electronic edition accessible through the internet.  However, hard copies can be requested from the government.

Recent media statements indicate that “the immediate physical cause of the gas explosion at the island’s gas production facility operated by Apache Energy Ltd was the rupture of the 12-inch gas sales pipeline.”

Some media reports mention the dreaded n-word – negligence.  Apache Energy has stated that investigations into the 

Varanus Island explosion were premature and based on an incomplete investigation 

Contrary to most incident investigation techniques known to SafetyAtWorkBlog, Apache Energy says that it will continue to investigate in order to determine the “root cause”.  

Since the incident, there has been a change to a conservative State government so the statements contain a political edge.  The current Minister says that the terms of reference were too narrow and did not allow for investigation into “regulatory oversight” however deficiencies in this area were illustrated through media reports in the weeks following the incident.

The Minister has not ruled out ordering a  “a full and independent investigation into this issue… at a later date” but I suspect only if there were political benefits rather than safety benefits.  There are a considerable number of voices supporting a broader inquiry from unions and industry groups

The report is said to identify the following three contributing factors:

  • ineffective anti-corrosion coating at the beach crossing section of a 12-inch sales gas pipeline, due to damage and/or dis-bondment from the pipeline;
  • ineffective cathodic protection of the wet-dry transition zone of the beach crossing section of  a 12-inch sales gas pipeline on Varanus Island; and
  • ineffective inspection and monitoring by Apache Energy of the beach crossing and shallow water section of the pipeline.

Mr Moore stated that

“Under the safety case regime, the operator is required to identify hazards and assess risks to health and safety and to implement control measures to reduce those risks. The ongoing inspection, monitoring and maintenance of control measures are associated with those risks and the management regime. The report has indicated that Apache and its co-licensees may have committed offences under two pipeline Acts.”

A Senate inquiry is looking into the economic impact of the Western Australian gas crisis and the State Government’s response to the incident.

New presenteeism survey figures Reply

Frequently I receive audio media releases from the US about a range of workplace safety matters.  These releases are scripted and can sometimes sound corny but within them is a usually a useful nugget of information.

The latest one I received concerns presenteeism and mental health so, being so close to World Mental Health Day, I thought it is worth mentioning.  The audio release is from Cigna Health Care, an American insurance company, and can be heard by clicking 35580_09ny08-0039-_cigna-w

Cigna has a couple of fact sheets in support of the survey findings and an article specifically concerning mental health and wellness which may be worth a look. 

An earlier posting on presenteeism is available and I recommend going to the World Health Organisation, UN or ILO sites for more independent information.

When managing stress, are safety managers looking at the wrong thing? Reply

Today is World Mental Health Day and the media, at least in Australia, is inundated with comments and articles on mental health.  This morning, Jeff Kennett, a director of beyondblue, spoke on ABC Radio about the increasing levels of anxiety that people are feeling in these turbulent economic times.  Throughout the 5 minute interview, Kennett never once mentioned stress.  This omission seemed odd as, in the workplace safety field, stress is often seen as the biggest psychosocial hazard faced in the workplace.

SafetyAtWorkBlog spoke with Clare Shann, the senior project manager with beyondblue’s Workplace Program, about the role of stress in the workplace and its relation to mental health.  She clarified that stress is not a medical condition but a potential contributor to developing a mental illness, such as anxiety disorders or depression.

To put the situation into context, there is a fascinating interview with a Darren Dorey of Warrnambool in Victoria.  The 20 minute interview was conducted on  a regional ABC Radio station on 9 October, and describes the personal experience of depression and anxiety that stems, to some extent, from work.

It seems that in trying to manage stress, OHS professionals may be focusing on the wrong element in worker health.  Perhaps what are considered workers compensation claims for stress should be re–categorised as claims for mental illness.  This may result in a better acceptance of the existence of this workplace hazard.

An exclusive interview with Clare Shann can be heard clare_shann_mental_health

Corporate accountability – Lessons from Lehmans Reply

Yesterday,the CEO of Lehman Brothers, Richard Fuld Jr, faced an inquisition at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.  It was uncomfortable to watch but fascinating.

Video of the hearings shows the questions focused on Fuld’s accumulation of wealth in the good times and the retention of wealth in the bad times. There are parallels with the non-financial accountability of corporate leaders on matters such as workplace safety and corporate social responsibility.

The chair of the committee, Henry Waxman, spoke of company documents that 

“portray a company in which there was no accountability for failure”.

Waxman said he was troubled by the attitude of Fuld where Fuld would not acknowledge any wrongdoing. Fuld did accept responsibility for the failure of the company but would not accept that his behaviour or the behaviour of the company he lead, contributed to the failure.  In other words, Fuld would not accept that his company had a culture that may have contributed to the bankruptcy.

There will be more of this type of inquiry and in many countries other than the United States.  OHS managers should not sit back and watch the chief financial officer squirm with discomfit and anxiety for the way that the financiers handle this crisis, as there are important lessons about their own accountability, responsibility and disaster planning.

Is consultation really a “two-way exchange”? 2

Talking about safety in the workplace is, by far, the best way to introduce and foster a healthy OHS environment.  OHS regulators in Australia have been pushing this for sometime.

A colleague of mine has pointed out an apparent anomaly in relation to consultation posted by WorkSafe Victoria on their website earlier this week.  In relation to Provisional Improvement Notices, WorkSafe says

“Consultation can still be said to have occurred even if:

* the duty holder does not respond to the HSR [Health and Safety Representative] in a reasonable time or at all.  In this case, the HSR can take the failure to respond into account before deciding to issue the PIN.  There does not have to be a two-way exchange – only the opportunity for this to occur;”

This sounds odd to me and I hope that one of the SafetyAtWorkBlog readers may be able to explain.

My colleague posed this question on the issue of consultation:

“If the duty holder generated an OHS issue and the HSR did not respond, would there still only need to be an ‘opportunity for this to occur’?”

It seems a far question when workplace consultation is supposed to be a “two-way exchange”.

Latest Australian farm injury statistics Reply

The Victorian Injury Surveillance Unithas released its latest quarterly statistical report, HAZARD.  Number 68 provides a fascinating picture of the farm safety in Victoria, Australia.  I strongly recommend that you get on the mailing list so that you can understand their statistical sources and limitations, as these are important and there is not enough time to discuss them at SafetyAtWorkBlog.HAZARD - Edition 68

Farm injury statistics for the period 2004-06 found 41 unintentional farm injury deaths, 1,765 hospital admissions and 7,259 presentations to hospital emergency departments.  Years ago I remember (vaguely) a ratio of 17 injuries to every farm death.  On my calculations (and remember I am an Arts graduate) the new statistics show a ratio of 43 hospital admissions for every fatality or 177 injuries (ED presentation for every fatality.

The detailed breakdown of agency of injury, age of injured person etc. makes this a fantastic resource for those working in farm safety.

One of the benefits of this type of research is that it allows us to determine the success of safety interventions, usually coordinated by government agencies.  (One could argue that this is one reason for the paucity of research on intervention activities) In the VISU report’s discussion it said that

“No studies have reported that farmers’ or farm workers’ attendance at farm safety courses has reduced injury risk on their farms…. [and]… the authors suggest that safety training is better applied by farmers and farm workers if it is delivered in the context of farm skills-based training rather than stand-alone farm safety sessions.”

This confirms the adage that one can know how to do something safely but one has to see it being done, to be convinced it is the right way.

Part of the report’s conclusion is that

“…. the evidence suggests that education alone is insufficient to affect the adoption of safe behaviours and technologies.”

I strongly recommend you download the report and read it carefully.  There may be only a small amount of evidence and research in this sector but what there is VISU has identified and analysed.

New Work Safety Ads from Australia 3

Twenty years ago, I was at a FutureSafe conference in Sydney, Australia, where Eileen McMahon of WorkSafe Victoria showed a series of graphic ads.  The audience were impressed and roundly supported the use of such ads in their own States.

At the time confronting ads were de rigueur as road safety campaigns had been using the same technique for a while.  Ads from both government authorities won critical acclaim and many awards.

Confronting workplace safety ads recently ran on Canadian television to a mixed receptionWorkSafe Victoria has clearly adapted these ads and their concepts to the Australian circumstance in its campaign that was launched on Australian television on 5 October 2008.

 

WorkSafe Young Workers Campaign

WorkSafe Young Workers Campaign

The Australian ads have emphasised the  lack of information and induction provided to young workers.  Rather than having the incident victim talk to the camera, WorkSafe emphasises the confused thought processes of a young person in a bakery being unsure of how to operate a machine safely, a young man experiments with a nailgun, and a young person scalded in a commercial kitchen.

In The Sunday Age, WorkSafe CEO, John Merritt, said that the graphic content was to gain the attention of young workers:

“It’s confronting, it’s not pleasant, but young workers have challenged us to confront them with the reality of what happens…”

“The guts of this campaign is to say to young workers: for goodness sake, if you’re not sure about something, speak up.”

“”It was clear from the research that nothing else would have impact.”

Media reports make no acknowledgement of the Canadian campaign which seems a little odd given the similarities of the kitchen-based ad, in particular.

The challenge of this type of ad is to run it for just long enough to make an impact but not so long that viewers get “graphic fatigue” – particularly important for appealing to young workers.  This is also a lesson that should have been learnt from the original WorkSafe ads a couple of decades ago.  The combination of both a workplace safety campaign and road safety campaign using the same techniques limited the effectiveness of both.

There is no doubt about the validity of the safety risks in WorkSafe’s target market but it is vital that these ads be balanced with the more gentle and parent-friendly “homecoming” ads and the workplace inspector ads aimed at business operators.  All three should be broadcast over the same period in order to provide the broadest context and the one that reflects the reality.

 

WorkSafe Young Workers Campaign

WorkSafe Young Workers Campaign

Clearly, the WorkSafe ad campaign is intended to maximise the retirn on the advertising budget by generating media debate.  This was vrtually acknowedlged by John Merritt when he said

“There will undoubtedly be a conversation and a debate about that message.”

A danger with this tactic is that the ads become the story rather than people discussing the safety of young workers.  Let’s watch who supports the ads and who criticises.