It is harder to prevent than compensate, but more important

Tonight in Adelaide the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Catherine Branson QC, will be delivering the 2008 Don Dunstan Foundation Oration.

Ms Branson has said

“I want to live in a society where everyone can take advantage of his or her abilities and where everyone has a real say about the world they live in, be they an Indigenous person, a person of Muslim faith, a parent wanting leave from work to care for a child, or a person in a same-sex relationship.

“We all want a society where we can all feel safe and protected from violence and harassment no matter who we are or where our children can access appropriate educational opportunities no matter where they live.

“These are hardly controversial ideas.”

Indeed they are not.  But in many of the past discussions on human rights, rights at work are missed, yet they are just as important.  The omission may be because it seems there is a plethora of avenues of appeal in the workplace – discrimination, unfair dismissal, sexual harassment tribunals etc.  Yet none of these focus on the prevention of harm in the way that legislative OHS obligations do.

Until the human rights advocates’ speeches become inclusive of workplace matters, there will be societal anchor dragging on progress of basic human rights.

Safe Driving and OHS management impacts 1

SafetyAtWorkBlog has always been critical of those OHS professionals who try to explain OHS in comparison with driving.  They are different processes in different environments with different purposes and different rules.

However, there is a section of overlap and this relates to those whose work environment is transport and driving.

Worksafe Victoria has released a “Guide to safe work-related driving“.  This is essential reading for fleet managers, in particular, but good fleet managers would already have OHS as part of their driving policies.

For those of us who have not known how to interpret OHS obligations for our company vehicles, WorkSafe has issued these clarifications:

  • purchasing and maintaining a safe and roadworthy feet
  • ensuring employees have the relevant appropriate driver licences
  • scheduling work to account for speed limits and managing fatigue
  • providing appropriate information and training on work related driving safety
  • monitoring and supervision of the work related driving safety program.

In this type of workplace, workers seem to have as many obligations as employers but WorkSafe has listed for following as employee duties:

  • holding a current, valid drivers licence
  • abiding by all road rules (eg speed limits)
  • refraining from driving if impaired by tiredness or medication
  • reporting any incidents required by the employer’s program
  • carrying out any routine vehicle checks required by the employer.

There are many areas of contemporary life where the OHS obligations can seem absurd but work-related driving has always been a neglected area of workplace safety.  Every time SafetyAtWorkBlog receives notification of traffic incidents, the emergency services are asked whether the vehicle was being used for work purposes.  Unless it is a bus or a chemical tanker, the question is rarely asked or the information recorded at the scene of the crash.  As a result, the data on work-related driving incidents is scant and WorkSafe has done well in applying what there is.

The guide is terrific but it won’t raise the awareness of these necessary business and employee obligations until WorkSafe’s enforcement and investigative resources are included in traffic incidents and until a case law of OHS prosecutions for work-related driving is established.

The practice of having police and criminal prosecutions replacing OHS prosecutions for work-related incidents must end.  A transport vehicle is a mobile workplace and should be treated as such by having prosecutions under the road transport legislation AND OHS laws.  If not, we will be getting more airbags and less hazard elimination.

Beware the OHS hype on chronic obstructive pulmonary disease 2

World COPD day was held on 17 November 2008.  COPD Stands for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. As with many of these health-related days there is more hyperbole than substance and often the most relevant information appears after the hype has died down.  This is the case with a report just released by the Occupational And Environmental Medicine. [[Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease mortality in railroad workers Online First Occup Environ Med 2008; doi 10.1136/oem/2008.040493]]

According to a media statement that accompanied the report:

They wanted to gauge the long term effects of diesel exhaust on the risks of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), an umbrella term for progressive lung diseases, such as emphysema and bronchitis.

In 1946, just 10% of rolling stock was diesel powered; by 1959, virtually all rolling stock was.

The researchers checked the health records of the US Railroad Retirement Board, which has maintained digital records of all its employees since 1959, including a yearly listing of all job codes and time spent in post.

Anyone working on the trains (conductors, engineers, brakemen) was considered to have been exposed to diesel exhaust.

Those working in ticketing, signalling, maintenance, admin, and as station masters, were regarded as not having been exposed.

The results showed that those who had been exposed to diesel exhaust were more likely to die of COPD than their peers who had not been so exposed.

The risks increased by 2.5% with each year of employment among those who were recruited after conversion from steam to diesel locomotives.

This risk fell only slightly after adjusting for smoking, a known risk factor for COPD.

Of all the reports that were released in the last two weeks, this one is the clincher because it shows that smoking did not have an appreciable effect on the health findings.  There is a direct relationship between a work activity in a work environment and worker health.

This correlation is sadly lacking from other COPD data which reads primarily as a new spin on anti-smoking campaigns.

According to the International COPD Coalition (“a nonprofit organization composed of COPD patient organizations around the world, working together to improve the health and access to care of patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease”)

World COPD Day 2008 features new patient and health professional initiatives that address the misconceptions and lack of awareness surrounding chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). These misconceptions – revealed in a global survey, the International COPD Coalition (ICC) Report – include poor public awareness that smoking is the main cause of COPD, a failure to diagnosis COPD in its early stages, when medication can be used to prevent further lung deterioration, and a mistaken belief that initial COPD symptoms, like coughing and shortness of breath, are a normal consequence of aging.

We may be unaware smoking leds to COPD but we are well aware that smoking can kill you.  Whether it is emphysema, lung cancer, heart disease or COPD doesn’t change the fact that smoking increases the risk of premature death.  It is insulting that a “World Anti-Smoking Day” needs to masquerade under a new health risk.

For those workers who have suffered work-related respiratory problems the Queensland governmenthave  released a very good guide for those who have breathing difficutlies or for those who look after them – the Better Living With COPD – A Patient Guide  (pictured below)

pages-from-better_living_with_copd_a_patient_guide_low_res1

New UV Safety Guidance Note Reply

As the Australian Safety & Compensation Council winds down before its transformation into Safe Work Australia, it is leaving with a flurry of activity.  The legacy that had most immediate appeal was the revised Guidance Note for the Protection of Workers from the Ultraviolet Radiation in Sunlight.  This is the most relevant and contemporary approach to UV as a workplace issue for many years and deserves to be carefully considered.uvguidancenote-cover

The need is great.  The report includes these justifications

  • Australia and New Zealand have the highest incidence of skin cancer in the world (Ferlay J, Bray F, Pisani P, Parkin D. GLOBOCAN 2002. Cancer incidence, mortality and prevalence worldwide. IARC CancerBase No. 5, version 2.0. Lyon: IARCPress, 2004)
  • At least 2 in 3 Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer before the age of 70 (Staples M, Elwood M, Burton R, Williams J, Marks R, Giles G. Non-melanoma skin cancer in Australia: the 2002 national survey and trends since 1985. Medical Journal of Australia 2006; 184: 6-10); and
  • Skin cancer costs the Australian health system around $300 million annually, which is the highest cost of all cancers (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Health system expenditures on cancer and other neoplasms in Australia, 2000 – 01. Canberra: AIHW2005).

The report lists the following skin cancer contributory factors

  • exposure received during childhood
  • participation in outdoor work and leisure activities resulting in increased exposure to solar UV radiation
  • because of higher solar UV exposures, the closer people live to the equator, the more likely they are to develop skin cancer. Queensland has a higher rate of diagnosed skin cancers than Tasmania
  • solar UV radiation intensity increases with height above sea level 
  • solar UV radiation is at its greatest intensity between the hours of 10.00 am and 2.00pm, although dangerous levels of UV radiation can still be experienced outside those hours. (Note: These times should be adjusted to 11.00 am and 3.00 pm when there is daylight saving.)
  • the risk of skin cancer is greatest in people with a fair complexion, blue eyes and freckles, who tan poorly and burn easily, but others, for example, individuals who have Dysplastic Naevi Syndrome, are also at risk, and
  • there is an increased risk in people who have already had a skin cancer or Keratoses diagnosed.

These are the bases for a good, contemporary and useful workplace policy on UV protection.

Sexual harassment and politicians Reply

Bernard Keane, political columnist with Crikey.com, wrote on 20 November 2008 about the unacceptable conduct of Australian politicians.  He wrote:

We’re not talking here about ordinary poor behaviour. There are boors and fools and thugs in workplaces across the country. It’s the sense of entitlement that seems to motivate many MPs to treat other people — whether they are staff, or waiters, or anyone who happens to cross them — with contempt. It’s a sense of entitlement encouraged by the job — one with a large salary, expenses, vehicles, travel and public profile. Most MPs manage to prevent it from going to their heads. But a lot don’t, and they make other people’s lives hell. Particularly because MPs aren’t under the same workplace laws as everyone else. 

SafetyAtWorkBlog believes that, as the sexual harassment is occurring in workplaces, predominantly, that MP’s ARE “under the same workplace laws as everyone else”.

Keane refers to one case where a Minister who was sexually harassing a staff member was relocated to another ministry.  The case recalls the Catholic Church’s risk control measure with paedophile priests.

Workplace safety regulators have been trying to emphasise for years that unacceptable behaviour in workplaces is more serious than a “bad day” or a “bad mood” and that this can be symptomatic of a sick workplace culture.

It is hoped that Crikey readers get to realise that inappropriate conduct at work can be criminal, a breach of OHS legislation or, even, a contravention of our Human Rights obligations.  That the Australian political parties tolerate such behaviour is shameful

Competent safety professionals Reply

Australian worksites have established a system of red, green or blue cards that are used to indicate a level of OHS competence on a range of worksites.  This type of system is reflected around the world in different industries and different forms, such as Safety Passports, or the green card in Canada and the United Kingdom.

Some professional safety organisations in Australia have banded together, with the support of at least one OHS regulator, to establish a competency benchmark for safety professionals under the banner, Health and Safety Professionals Alliance (HaSPA).  As people and organisations digest what is involved with HaSPA, some in the OHS industry believe the initiative is beginning to wobble.

Perhaps the HaSPA members need to promote the initiative in a more readily understandable concept – one that people can accept now and worry about the details later.  

SafetyAtWorkBlog proposes the HaSPA Green Card.  The operation of the card follows all the protocols of the other competency cards but in relation to the safety professional.

The concept may not work but it seems that the industrial safety industry has already laid decades of groundwork in competency identification and maintenance so why can’t safety professionals follow this and not impose an additional level of complexity to workplace safety?

The graphic workplace ads keep coming Reply

On 29 October 2008, WorkSafe Alberta released a series of graphic workplace safety ads under the banner “BloodyLucky”.  They are as confronting as the recent WorkSafe Victoria ads and raise many of the same questions about appropriateness, applicability and effectiveness.

The website www.bloodylucky.ca has a cheesy format that doesn’t fit with the explicit nature of the ads.  It is as if they want to blunt some of the impact by adding cheesy humour but it is confusing.  It may be that they intend the cinema presentation to mask the initial advertising impact so that the crush injury from the forklift or the chemical burns to the young girl have maximum shock value.  

Overall the ads are confusing and the ironic title “bloody lucky” doesn’t work on all the ads.

Recently a domestic violence campaign in Australia went with an ironic “thank you” message against inaction and compliance.  This misses the target also except on the ad of the adult male shutting the bedroom door through which we view a young girl.  That ad is genuinely disturbing. [links will be provided when available online]

Compare this to the student-produced video that is effective and dramatic without being extreme, bloody or weakly humourous.  This ad is a little long for a commercial ad but as a short safety video it works very well and the positive steps that can be taken are part of the ad, not an obscure link.

Sexual harassment and occupational health and safety 9

Some old-time safety professionals are struggling with the inclusion of psychosocial hazards in their safety management programs.  Some deny the relevance of sexual harassment to their duties and hope that the issue can be contained within the human resources department, the “dark arts” of workplace safety. 

Many of these same safety professionals are calling for more evidence-based decisions on workplace safety.

Evidence is now in on the social and work impact of sexual harassment. Australia’s Human Rights Commission has issued Effectively preventing and responding to sexual harassment: A Code of Practice for employers  which states on page 48

Employers have a common law duty to take reasonable care for the health and safety of their employees. This common law duty is reinforced by occupational health and safety legislation in all Australian jurisdictions.

An employer can be liable for foreseeable injuries which could have been prevented by taking the necessary precautions. As there is considerable evidence documenting the extent and effects of sexual harassment in the workplace, it has been argued that the duty to take reasonable care imposes a positive obligation on employers to reduce the risk of it occurring.

A work environment in which an employee is subject to unwanted sexual advances, unwelcome requests for sexual favours, other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, or forms of sex-based harassment, is not one in which an employer has taken reasonable care for the health and safety of its employees. A work environment or a system of work that gives rise to this type of conduct is not a healthy and safe work environment or system of work. An employer could be regarded as not having acted reasonably to prevent a foreseeable risk if practicable precautions are not taken to eliminate or minimize sexual harassment in the workplace.

Failure to fulfil the duty of care can amount to a breach of the employment contract as well as negligence on the part of the employer. This means that an employee who has been harmed could bring an action against their employer in contract or tort.

The guide can do with considerable translation to what businesses see as useful codes of practice in the application of safety management but perhaps that is for the private sector and State OHS regulators to work on.

There seems to be enough information available now on sexual harassment, fatigue, bullying, violence, fitness for work, shift work, depression and other matters, that the safety profession should be more embracing of these concepts in their own planning.  Let’s hope that in this discipline we do not have to wait for generational change to achieve a change in approach.

sexual-harassment-cop2008-cover

Dangerous Forklift Behaviour 2

At the risk of increasing a young person’s infamy, SafetyAtWorkBlog draws your attention to a (former) YouTube video of a young forklift driver misusing a forklift.

According to a WorkSafe media release:

Dangerous forklift driving has cost a young worker his job, his forklift licence and earned him 50 hours of community work and an order to do a 5-day health and safety course.

WorkSafe today prosecuted 20-year-old Seymour man, Matthew Garry Ward, after posting on YouTube a video of him doing stunts on a forklift.

The video, which has now been removed, showed him deliberately crashing into concrete pipes, doing burnouts and overloading the machine so he could do wheelies.

Seymour Magistrate Caitlin English convicted Mr Ward, ordered him to do 50 hours of unpaid community work complete a five-day Occupational Health and Safety course and pay WorkSafe’s court costs of $1200. 

Mr Ward was also sacked for misconduct.

Forklifts are possibly the most dangerous piece of equipment on worksites.  Statistics show a high frequency of death and injury associated with their use.

Before phone cameras and YouTube this type of workplace behaviour would never have received the attention that this case has.  The worker may have been sacked for being “bloody stupid” but there would not be the notoriety that can come from this type of act.  The Ward case has appeared on several television broadcasts, is in the papers and is mentioned in blogs like this.

The worker’s actions only came to light when his employer at Australasian Pipeline and Pre-Cast Pty Ltd, which produces reinforced concrete pipes at nearby Kilmore, viewed the video.  If Ward did not have a vigilant internet-savvy boss, it is likely the video would still exist on YouTube and the worker would not have come to the attention of the OHS regulator.

The Ward prosecution came at an opportune time for WorkSafe to re-emphasise their young worker safety campaign in the context of their long-active forklift safety program.

The Ward case indicates the choices young people make between potential internet fame and personal trouble.  There are many examples of this risk management decision in a range of areas related to the internet. Matthew Ward made the wrong decision, or he just took things that little bit too far.  At least he is facing the consequences of his decision.

The right time to do something, or union shortsightedness Reply

The title of this blog is deliberately positive because I find it hard to understand why, when union right-of-entry is such a hot political topic, a New South Wales Minister would defy Federal Court action and accompany union organisers onto a construction site against the wishes of the company who operates the site.

The legal action has been considerably drawn-out but Minister Phil Costa’s seems purposely inflammatory.  In a report on the visit in The Australian on 12 November 2008, the Minister said he was given permission by Sydney Water and a building contractor.  This confirms the confusion over control of a workplace that is being worked through as part of the National OHS Law Review panel.  Who  is the principal contractor?  Who runs the site?

The minister says that permission was obtained from John Holland Construction and the company was accommodating.  The media report did not say if there was any particular reason the minister visited although a media handler said it was a PR visit.

The CFMEU assistance secretary said the only way the union could get on site Was “as a visitor with the minister” and that OHS issues have been raised including dust, wetness and falling from heights.

The minister’s visit just confirms the beliefs of the New South Wales employers that the Labor government’s relationship with the unions is too friendly.  There is some support for this perspective when the government chooses to keep Sydney Ferries out of the credit-rating fire sale, “after intense pressure from union leaders” according to one media report.

In a national context, Minister Costa’s visit illustrates the need for clarity on national OHS laws as John Holland moved from the state workers’ compensation system to the national version, Comcare, a couple of years ago.  So not only did the visit raise matters of workplace control, there was jurisdictional problems.

Unless you are a construction union member in New South Wales, minister Costa’s actions had no positive result.

I have been a union member for several decades and support many of their initiatives but occasionally some in the union movement take short term gains and narrow interest over the bigger picture and the best interest of the whole union movement.  Isn’t short-term gain over long-term benefit what the unions accuse the banks and the corporations of?