John Bresland’s latest safety video 1

SafetyAtWorkBlog has previously referred to safety videos produced by the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB).  The latest safety message from Chairman John Bresland relates to combustible dust explosion risks, a hazard that exists around the world and one that has been mentioned in this blog.

A curious element in this very good video is that he is lobbying the “incoming leadership at OSHA” to act on the CSB’s combustible gas recommendations.  John’s video was released on 4 February 2009.  The confirmation of a new Labor Secretary is still to occur and the latest nominee, Hilda Solis, has become embroiled in a taxation “scandal” relating to her husband’s auto repair business.

Bresland’s messages are always of good general safety relevance, a major reason why they are embedded in SafetyAtWorkBlog, but the latest one has some peculiar tones given the current US political circumstances.  In Australia, we rarely have Chairman or CEOs of government agencies making such statements. It is indeed curious.

Kevin Jones

Upcoming OHS Videos Reply

At the end of March 2009, the Safety Institute of Australia (Victoria Division) is conducting its annual Safety In Action conference.  In order to help promote the conference the SIA organised for several conference speakers to be filmed.

The filming occurred in early-February 2009 and the short 10-minutesia-filming-2009-01videos will be available at the Safety In Action website in a couple of week’s time.  The subjects of the videos are:

Jill MCabe of WorkSafe Victoria who talks about the research WorkSafe has undertaken in order to establish a better profile of their clients so as to improve assistance and advice.  Jill has long experience in industrial relations and now focuses on health and safety.

Helen Marshall was appointed Australia’s Federal Safety Commissioner in August 2008.  Helen discusses her experiences in dealing with a national system for safety on building and construction sites and reveals her first ever “real” job.

Dr Martyn Newman explains what he means by describing some leaders as “emotional capitalists”.  He sees that as a good thing to be but isn’t ego an emotion and greed an emotion?  And aren’t those the emotions that that have generated a lot of our social and financial heartbreak?  Is there is such a thing as an “emotional socialist”?  Dr Newman’s  presentation at the conference will be popular but it’s application may be obscure or challenging.

John Merritt, the CEO of WorkSafe, is genuinely passionate about improving society and seems to feel that OHS is a valuable way to improve the quality of people’s lives. [I first spoke with John in the early 1990s while he was in the ACTU.  The only thing I knew about him was that he had written a book about shearers.  I spoke next with him while he was CEO of the  National Safety Council and now (twice) while he is at WorkSafe.  If our paths continue to cross, he owes me a beer and two hours of unrecorded conversation in a comfortable bar.]

Barry Sherriff, a lawyer with Freehills, has just come off nine months of serving on the National OHS Review panel and is hamstrung in what he can say as the government is yet to release the final report.  His presentation was measured and cautious.

The videos provide an interesting cross-section of OHS approaches in Australia, several overlap and some are “out there” but the best that can be said is that one learns.  This makes for a terrific Safety In Action conference.

Kevin Jones


Eliminate the hazards Reply

The first control measure on the “hierarchy of controls” is to eliminate the hazard.  OHS consultants and professionals should always consider ways to achieve this.  It may prove to be impractical, or politically unpopular, but it should always be discussed or recommended.  Reports and submissions that do not consider this control measure can be considered invalid.

In late-January 2009, the organic farmers in Australia reminded the media that its farming members are developing a safer industry for the customer and the producer.  This industry has boomed in Australia since the 1970’s in as a result of a desire and commitment to “eliminate the hazard”.

Interviews conducted by Biological Farmers of Australia (BFA) to help  discover why producers ‘go organic’ reveal a high number of farmers consider the switch for the health of themselves and their families.

Rob Bauer (Bauers Organic Farm, Qld), one of Australia’s largest organic horticultural growers, says he turned to organic farming 27 ago after farmers in his area became ill with cancer.

He says he wanted to decrease health risks associated with synthetic farm chemicals.

“I started thinking about farming differently after growing up in the Lockyer Valley (Qld) where friends and family passed away in their fifties after years of intensive agrichemical production.”

He says neurological problems, tumours, and cancer were among the chronic diseases he watched take their toll on his local farming community.

“I wasn’t comfortable with producing food using harsh farm chemicals for consumers,” he says.

Steve Skopilianos, commercial lettuce producer from Ladybird Organics in Keilor (Vic) looked into organics when he started a family.

“We had been applying pesticide blends with no understanding of their effect on people and employees.  There were times prior to organic conversion where I would not take my own produce home for my family to eat.”

Biodynamic producers of macadamias are happy to avoid high levels of agrichemicals typically used on the nuts.

“Working without a high exposure to synthetic chemical farm products is a weight off your mind,” says Marco Bobbert, from Wodonga Park Fruit and Nuts macadamia plantation (Qld), certified biodynamic since 1987.

He says direct chemical exposure could easily occur on conventional farms from accidents in production. “All it takes is a broken spray pipe.”

He says it is not just organic farmers who are concerned – “All farmers try to minimise their contact with chemicals on-farm. But organic production actively works toward negating that risk”.

Research has shown there is good reason for producers’ concern – a high exposure to some farm chemicals can lead to major health problems.

Particularly problematic substances include organophosphate insecticides and pesticides, which have been connected to several types of cancer, sterility and cognitive deficits (1).

The agrichemical endosulfan is one example of a highly toxic  organochlorine cyclodiene) insecticide still in use in Australia.

1. (1) Ciesielski, S, Loomis, D, Rupp Mims, S, Auer, A, Pesticide Exposures, Cholinesterase Depression, and Symptoms among North Carolina Migrant Farmworkers; American Journal of Public Health, 1994.

How to talk safety 1

Safety advocates often say that safety begins at the top.  Yet few CEO’s will talk overtly and publicly about safety to the extent that Janet Holmes a Court has in Australia.  Janet is a rarity but John Bresland of the United States Chemical Safety Board is making a good attempt through YouTube technology.

In January 2009, Bresland has produced on of CSB’s “safety messages” and, he is not afraid to criticise his political colleagues.

In the latest safety message he criticises those American states who do not allow state employees to be covered by federal OHS legislation and he uses an actual fatality incident to make the point very clear.

For those outside of the US, the video is a good example of a safety advocate putting his face out there and broadcasting about safety to his constituents and interested parties.  Political criticism is seen as valid in this case due to Bresland pointing out an anomaly and showing how an anomaly can kill, injure and maim.

Too many senior executives and professional associations are scared of making political statements even though they support the mission statement of their organisation.  This is an immature position based on insecurity – a quality that should have no place in the coordination of corporations and professional bodies.

Branding is a worthwhile process but it will only succeed if what is being promoted has substance.  The Chemical Safety Bureau has been a solid platform for education and safety improvement for years and deserves support by OHS professionals learning the lessons being shared and displayed.

Kevin Jones

New research on behavioral safety Reply

The New York Times (and other newspapers) reported on an article in the latest edition of the NSC Journal of Safety Research.  It is worth considering when the behavioural-based safety advocates come a-knocking.

According the media reports the article reports on “knowledge gaps” in research into behavioural safety.  It summarises the discipline, or alchemy depending on your experience with the advocates, very well.

“Behavioral safety” is becoming more popular as safety practitioners seek to better understand and develop strategies to prevent workplace injuries. Behavioral safety is the science of observing workers’ behaviors to determine where a different behavior or set of behaviors may have prevented or lessened the severity of injury. The study defines behavioral safety as an approach to improve safety performance through peer observations, goal setting, feedback, and celebrations or incentives for reaching safety goals.”

Thankfully it sensibly recommends that behavioural safety be applied as part of a broader safety management system.  In fact broader than many others suggest.  The study says that “psychological, social, engineering and organizational factors” should be considered and it acknowledges that how these factors affect behavioural safety is still poorly understood.  It suggests these areas for further research attention:

  • “Impact of behavioral safety interventions on rates of injury, illness and fatalities.
  • Appropriateness of the basic elements of behavioral safety across different industry sectors.
  • Relationship between behavioral safety and a greater safety culture.
  • Role of performance feedback in creating behavioral change.
  • Effectiveness of tangible and non tangible rewards on behavioral change.”

Some of these factors would best apply through research by the OHS regulators – a rare commodity – but they indicate some of the areas which OHS professionals should consider more carefully.

Clearly behavioural safety is still a developing area of study and application. It reinforces the position that behavioural safety is still not a panacea, regardless of the claims of spruikers.  Behavioural safety is one of the tools available to OHS professional and perhaps one that should not distract us from more effective and practical safety initiatives.

Kevin Jones

HR vs. OHS Reply

I have written elsewhere in SafetyAtWorkBlog concerning the silo mentality of managers in relation to human resources and OHS.  This weekend a reader posted the following comment on this blog:

“You are right about the divide between HR & OHS.  Fact is HR are the culprits of negligence, they exist to support Management.  Any one with a serious complaint thinks long and hard before sticking their neck out and going to HR…”

What struck me about this comment was that human resources was seen to be aligned with management whereas workplace safety was not.  A successful safety management system cannot exist in conflict with other management systems but how much compromise does OHS need to make to achieve an integrated management position?

I am sure that HR professionals would not perceive their position in the same way as above but I remember a colleague once saying that safety professionals were on the same level of influence to companies as hairdressers.  Perhaps OHS professionals are envious of the level of influence that HR professionals seem to have with senior management and say such things from bitterness.

At some time or other we all feel less than relevant to employers but  circumstances have a way of re-establishing relevance, sadly in OHS this is often and injury or a compensation claim.

I don’t believe that the disciplines of HR and OHS are incompatible but I have seen many instances in companies where the HR Manager sees OHS as divisive, particularly in the areas of stress and bullying.  I believe that HR professionals by-and-large have a poor understanding of how safety should be managed in companies but that is not necessarily the fault of the HR professional.  OHS professionals need to be far more analytical of their own actions and purpose within organisational structures and start being active.

Kevin Jones

Gillard’s plans for new OHS agency – response Reply

 It was predictable for the Opposition party to accuse Julia Gillard of arrogance for bypassing the Parliamentary process.   Senator Eric Abetz wrote to the letters page of AFR on 21 January 2009, the text of the letter is below (although there were slight changes in the published version)

“It is highly arrogant and misleading for Workplace Relations Minister Julia Gillard to blame the so-called “intransigent” Senate and the Opposition for the delay in implementing harmonised OH&S laws (‘Gillard defies Senate on work safety”, 20th January 2009).

As the Shadow Minister who dealt with the issue in the Senate, I know that the facts of the matter are that what you might regard as an unlikely alliance of the Coalition, Family First, the Greens, Senator Xenophon, the ACCI and the ACTU (yes, even the ACTU) all agreed that the amendments proposed and passed by the Senate were necessary.

Unfortunately, our offer to meet with Ms Gillard to negotiate a way forward on this matter was rejected by a Minister who apparently thinks “it’s my way or the highway”. It is indicative of the disregard that the Rudd Government shows for the Parliament and the Senate is that it is now seeking to circumvent it on this important matter.”

The risk from the Gillard strategy is that once the process is completed the regulatory agency will forever be accused of being illegitimate, or a political ideological construct, having not undergone due process through Parliament. The Labor government needs to look beyond political expediency to construct a national OHS regulatory body of which noone can object.

Comment continues to be sought from the labour movement and opposition political parties.

Kevin Jones

New potential carcinogen and occupational asthma Reply

There are two reports of concern in the next edition of the journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.  One (Cancer risks in chemical production workers exposed to 2-mercaptobenzothiazole – Online First Occup Environ Med 2009; 10.1136/oem.2008.041400) raises the increasing likelihood that 2-mercaptobenzothiazole, or MBT, could be carcinogenic.

The article reports on a study of workers in a rubber chemicals plant in North Wales.   It found that 

“Based on national statistics for expected death rates, workers exposed to MBT were twice as likely to die of gut (large intestine) and bladder cancers.

Based on national statistics for expected new cases of cancer, they were also twice as likely to be diagnosed with bladder cancer, and four times as likely to be diagnosed with multiple myeloma (bone marrow cancer).”

The other article (Occupational exposures to asthma among nursing professionals Online First Occup Environ Med 2009; 10.1136/oem.2008.042382) is similarly worrying.  Moreso because the chemical products mentioned in the report are well-known substances, such as latex gloves and gluteraldehyde, and control measures are very well established.

“…those who regularly cleaned instruments were 67% more likely to report a diagnosis of asthma since starting their job.

And nurses who were regularly exposed to general cleaning products and disinfectants were 72% more likely to say they had been newly diagnosed with asthma, and 57% more likely to report symptoms similar to asthma.

Those nurses working with solvents and glues used in patient care were also 51% more likely to say they had symptoms similar to asthma.”

In both these circumstances occupational health and safety has established control measures that can reduce the harm from these products.  What they illustrate is that OHS professionals may apply a consistent standard of expectations that often strengthen as clients remain in one specific industrial demographic but workplaces, decades after hazards are known, have a highly variable level of safety and compliance.  This sounds obvious but specialisation can lead to complacency in advisers as much as customers.

It is also useful to note that the carcinogen research was in North Wales and the asthma study in Texas.  Both these countries have strong OHS legislation and a good amount of OHS resources but still unacceptable levels of occupational illness.  It is this level of resource and attention that has provided the chance for these studies to be undertaken.  

“The more we look, the more we find”

Kevin Jones

Safety promotion needs backup Reply

vwa-billboard-2008-0022

WorkSafe Victoria has had considerable advertising success by focusing on the social impact of workplace injuries and death.  In the newspapers and television over Christmas 2008, WorkSafe ads, like the billboard above, were on high rotation but, after the high number of workplace fatalities in January 2009, the strategy must be needing a review.

In terms of OHS promotion generally, branding and awareness strategies are valid however, when the messages of the strategies continue to be ignored, alternatives need to be developed.  The fatality figures imply that family is “the most important reason for safety” but only for a short time or in limited circumstances.  When you return to work the work environment or your approach to the work tasks are worse than before Christmas.

The reality of advertising is that it is often cheaper to raise awareness than change the behaviour of clients, in terms of OHS, this would be both the workers and the employers.  Raising safety as a business priority requires considerably legwork by regulators on-site and through industry associations.  Few OHS authorities around the world seem to be applying hands-on approaches to the extent required.

Part of the reason is that trade unions used to be the shopfloor safety police, as anticipated by Robens in the early 1970s, but trade union membership is at record low levels.  The deficiency in the safety profile on the shopfloor or at the office watercooler is not being picked up by the employers.

Media campaigns are the public face of safety promotion but they should not be a veneer.  Regulators need to provide more information on the alternative strategies they already employ, or plan to introduce, so that promotion is not seen as an end in itself.  

Direct business and CEO visits have been used in the past but given up because these were short term initiatives.   In Victoria, high level visits by regulators to CEOs, board members and directors had a considerable impact in the 1990s but there was no follow-up strategy to maintain that profile.   Ten years on there are a new set of senior managers who could do with a bit of prodding.

Kevin Jones

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