Response to National OHS Law Review Reply

In the Australian Financial Review on 17 February 2009 (page 8 but not accessible online) Steven Scott reports that the Western Australian Treasurer Troy Buswell is in a stoush with the Federal government over OHS laws.  They are not.  Buswell is quoted as saying

“My view is that it’s much more appropriate to make sure you get it right…  We will not be supporting the establishment of Safe Work Australia until we are in a position to commit ourselves to the full harmonisation process.”

Buswell wants more time and more information.  He is also concerned about the (related) industrial relations changes.  Only last week, Buswell was at a Senate Committee supporting West Australian businesses.  The Treasurer’s stance is at least consistent and prepared for flexibility.

Michael Tooma, a labour lawyer with Deacons in Sydney, is reported as saying  that 

“These right of entry provisions could be used for ulterior purposes, either for a recruitment drive or as a way of causing industrial agitation….. It gives unions the right to use OHS as a Trojan Horse for the purpose of entry onto sites.”

In his initial analysis of the final report Tooma wrote

“The Panel took the view that union right of entry contributes in a positive manner to OHS compliance at a workplace level.  It recommended that the model Act provide right of entry for OHS purposes to union officials and/or union employees formally authorised for that purpose under the model Act.”

and that 

“These recommendations have the potential to industrialise the safety agenda.”

The review panel is acting on the fact that workplace safety is already industrialised and that those who continue to split to two areas are denying reality.  OHS cannot be managed successfully without also working with the human capital and industrial relations context.

The right-of-entry provisions in any legislation is a hotly contested ideological battle and there is plenty of evidence through the many submissions to many OHS and IR reviews of this.

Right-of-entry is not a threat of punishment and is readily avoided through workplaces having active and functional methods of consultation and safety management.

Similarly, concerns are being raised over the introduction of Provisional Improvement Notices (PINs) in some jurisdiction.  PINs are an acknowlegement of a breakdown in communication and a dysfunctional safety management system in the workplace.  In some workplaces PINs are never applied because everyone talks about safety in an open and accountable fashion.

Many of the concerns being raised over this final review panel report can be addressed by safety professionals and advocates publishing examples of how alarming legislative provisions have proven to be non-starters.  The power may be on the legal register but are infrequently applied.

When the new right-of-entry provisions were being introduced in Victoria, many lawyers and employer representatives said the world would collapse.  It hasn’t and the sensible control and oversight of the process is now recommended across Australia.

It is perhaps time for WorkSafe Victoria to re-emphasise the success of the right-of-entry management process it has operated under for several years.  John Merritt, CEO of WorkSafe Victoria has spoken very positively of the process.  An information sheet on the issues for employers is also available.

Kevin Jones

Draft guidance on musculoskeletal injuries in mining Reply

Any inquiry into musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) in any industry is of great interest to OHS professionals as MSD are the bane of the profession.

The New South Wales Dept of Primary Industries (DPI) is requesting public comment on a new MSD guidance for the mining and extractive industries.  Below is some text from the media release

Industry comment is being sought by the Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSD) Working Party on the guidance document The Management of Musculoskeletal Disorders in the Mining and Extractives Industry.

The benefits of the guide are that it;
• Facilitates sites taking planned preventative measures;
• Uses the capacities that already exist and;
• Provides effective tools for sites to use.

Comments are welcome on the guidance through the DPI website by close of business 27 March 2009.

Kevin Jones


National OHS Review – initial comments Reply

Several OHS colleagues on an international discussion forum have expressed some opinions on the final report of the Australia’s National Model OHS Law review.

Safety Alerts

One asked that better and more frequent safety alerts be published by the regulators and that those reports be based on fatalities, injuries and near misses.  

There is an inconsistency of  incident reporting in Australia.  For instance, emergency service departments have different ways of notifying the media of incidents.  Most rely on regular (multiple times each day) visits to their websites.  This option doesn’t work unless one has tracking software or are doing nothing else.  Several distribute email bulletins on a daily basis.  Most of the bulletins deal with traffic incidents, floods or bushfires, but several also report on emergency incidents to individuals and, although not explicit, many occur in workplaces.

Incident alerts from emergency services are good because it is a service that OHS regulators and enforcers also receive and act upon.

For many years, various Australia safety organisations have published OHS solutions databases or, initially, folders.  The maintenance of these have fluctuated over the years in relation to technological change and political interest.  It is pointless trying to establish a fixed-point or hard-copy library when the Internet is now the primary resource tool.

It should be added that considerable information can be garnered from court reports of OHS prosecutions however, the Magistrates’ Courts do not provide publicly accessible court reports so any matters heard at that level are rarely reported, except by someone who is sitting in the court.  To gain a proper understanding of the OHS legislative process, coverage of all levels of legal action should be encouraged.

Risk Management

Another colleague expressed concern about the use of “risk” throughout the report.  Below is a section of the report that explains the review panel’s approach:

“In Chapter 30, we discuss the role of the risk management  process in the model Act.  As we noted in our first report, risk  management is essential to achieving a safe and healthy work  environment. We found that risk management is implicit in the  definition of reasonably practicable, and as such, need not be  expressly required to be applied as part of the qualifier of
 the duties of care.  Further, as we discuss in this report, risks  can be successfully managed without mandating hazard  identification and risk assessment in all cases, particularly  where the hazards are well known and have universally  accepted controls.

 Therefore we recommend that the model Act should not  include a specific process of hazard identification and risk  assessment, or mandate a hierarchy of controls, but that the  regulation-making power in the model Act should allow for the  process to be established via regulation, with further guidance  provided in a code of practice, as is contemporary practice.
 The application of risk management process should however be  encouraged…” (page xviii)

Throughout the review process the Victorian OHS Act was the most influential piece of legislation and that Act removed the previous requirement to assess workplace risks to determine the most appropriate control measure.  WorkSafe Victoria had, for years, advocated in its publications and guidelines to “Find-Assess-Fix”.  The “Assess” was dropped in many instances as the suitable control measure had been well-established just not widely applied.  

The WorkSafe position was in response to those business operators who may say “I don’t care how hazardous the bloody thing is just fix it!”  It was hoped that this would save time and “unnecessary” paperwork, and that other State jurisdictions would take the same approach.  None did, and the removal of “Assess” confused businesses and safety professionals as it is a major inconsistency with the Australian Standard on Risk Management.

WorkSafe tried to calm the confusion by saying that they still though assessing risks was a good idea for many new and developing hazards, just that assessment could be done away with as a legislative requirements in most instances.

It seems like the National Review Panel supports the Victorian approach to risk assessment.  Not so long ago, the New South Wales government subsidised a lot of training for farmers and others in the agricultural sector on risk assessment.  Now it will have to re-explain.

The other concern with the panel’s approach to risk assessment is that it sees risk management as fitting within “reasonably practicable”, a concept that SafetyAtWorkBlog is not convinced helps in managing safety.  “Reasonably practicable” is a concept that is defined and refined through prosecutions and court processes, therefore, it can change and it is best interpreted by lawyers.  OHS legislation was designed to be readily understood by the layman for where the responsibility for safety sits with the employer and, to a lesser extent, the employee.  As soon as law firms are brought into the process, information is locked away under lawyer-client privilege, the cost of safety skyrockets and any safety management lessons are delayed until the court case is heard (or not heard) years later.

It should be remembered that the National OHS Model Law was about the law relating to workplace safety not the implementation of safety management.  It is this differentiation that needs to be constantly pushed to the government to avoid workplace safety becoming a management task that cannot be undertaken without a lawyer watching intently over one’s shoulder all the time.

Kevin Jones

Eye injury statistics for workplaces Reply

In early February 2009, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare released a statistical report on eye injuries in Australia.  There was a small chapter on eye injuries that occurred in workplaces.  Seeing as how the readers of SafetyAtWorkBlog love statistical reports, some of the data is presented below.

For further data, and graphs, it is recommended you download the report.

According to the report, Eye-related injuries in Australia,

 A total of 8,640 workers compensation claims with eye injury or disease as the primary diagnosis were contained in the NOSI database for the period July 1999 to June 2005.

Median time lost because of eye injury in total decreased from 2.0 weeks in 2000-01 to 1.6 weeks in 2004-05. In 2004-05, injuries described as ‘eye: other and multiple’ resulted in the longest median time loss (2.0 weeks).

Chronic disease report 1

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has released a report on the labour force effects of chronic illnesses.  The report, Chronic disease and participation in work,

shows that chronic diseases are associated with more days off work and/or being out of the workforce, and some of the biggest culprits are depression, arthritis and asthma.

The report focuses on chronic illnesses rather the workplace impacts of the illnesses themselves but there is information that is relevant to how we manage our employees and psychosocial hazards.  For instance the report says

Arthritis, asthma and depression were associated with 76% of the total loss due to days away from work (29% associated with depression, 24% with arthritis and 23% with asthma).

For people participating full-time in the labour force, there was a loss of approximately 367,000 person-years associated with chronic disease, approximately 57,000 person-years in absenteeism associated with chronic disease and 113,000 person-years were lost due to death from chronic disease.

The report acknowledges that any estimates of loss are underestimated and also provides very useful data on chronic diseases and absenteeism

Loss due to absenteeism from full-time and part-time employment was calculated as the difference between the number of days off work for people with chronic disease, and the number expected if age and sex-specific rates of absenteeism among people without chronic disease applied.

The loss from absenteeism associated with chronic disease was approximately 500,000 days per fortnight. This was equivalent to approximately 13.2 million days per year or 57,000 person-years of full-time participation (assuming 48 working weeks of 5 days duration with 10 public holidays per year).

About two-thirds of this cost was carried by males, and people aged 35-44 and 45-54 years accounted for the majority (75%) of lost days.

Analysis of absenteeism by specific chronic disease showed that depression, arthritis and asthma were associated with around 76% of days away from work.

Workplace bullying – interview with Lawrence Lorber (2002) 1

In April 2002, I interviewed Lawrence Lorber of US law firm Proskauer Rose on workplace bullying.  It was at the height of the Enron collapse and corporate behaviour towards staff was gaining a lot of attention.  Over the last fortnight I have been researching some of the management books and concepts concerning leadership, emotional intelligence, modern expectations of managers – all of which could be thrown into “workplace culture.”

As I was reading back issue of the SafetyATWORK magazine, I used to published, there seemed to be valuable comments from Lawrence that remain relevant.  Below is an extract of the interview.  The full interview is available HERE

SAW: In Australia, the approach to workplace bullying seems to be coming from a systemic management system rather than one relying on psychological assessment.

LL: The highly competitive and highly contentious nature of what is coming out about Enron, the “up or out” atmosphere is one aspect of a system that can lead to managers or co-workers to engage in bullying. The characteristics of being tough or abrasive may be necessary to get ahead in the organisation. The environment can encourage or create bullying tendencies. However, not everybody turns into Attila the Hun in a highly competitive environment. Others survive without taking on the attributes of the bully.

Psychological testing is frequently applied in the States with regard to executive promotions. Dealing with bullying does require a combination of the systemic and individual approach. I work for some companies who are publicly perceived as fairly aggressive, there are tough people there who I might not want to work for but they are effective. They might be perceived as bullies. But looking at bullying as an environmental issue does mask the problem.

SAW: Managers sometimes need to motivate a staff member, perhaps, by rebuking them. The receiver of the rebuke may perceive that as bullying. How can we balance these perceptions?

LL: There were management books in the States in the 1980s, which encouraged management by intimidation. At one point that was the vogue. After the movie PATTON came out, everyone wanted to be General Patton.

If you look at a harsh manager who is demanding in an abrasive manner, that could be bullying.

How do you define bullying? Do you define it by your own reaction? A very US example is sex harassment. Is harassment in the eyes of the beholder? Does it have to be a reasonable woman who believes she is being harassed? In the circumstance where the bully is a male and the recipient is a female, frequently that becomes harassment.

SAW: That is a problem for the managers where for the last 30 years, harassment, bullying and discrimination has been handled outside the OHS field, in Human Resources. Now there are national and international moves to combat bullying because of the stress at work issues. I haven’t seen that approach in the United States.

LL: Here it’s not health and safety. Our definition of harassment is an “intimidating atmosphere”. That can also be a definition of bullying.

I don’t think it will be considered as a health and safety issue because workplace stress is not a field that is devoid of regulation. It is simply being regulated in a different context-employment discrimination and to a lesser extent under the disability laws. 


SafetyATWORK magazine April 2002 cover image

SafetyATWORK magazine April 2002 cover image

National OHS report leaked to Australian newspaper 2

The Australian Financial Review has obtained a copy of the 470-page report of the Review Panel into OHS Model Law prior to its release by the Australian government. 

The most significant recommendation reported by the paper is that unions will not be allowed to prosecute for OHS offences.  This entitlement by unions in New South Wales has been a constant source of industrial tension in that State.  However the panel did suggest that anyone can request OHS regulators to undertake a prosecution or they can appeal a regulator’s decision not to prosecute.

Employers across Australia will be obliged to provide paid leave for employees to attend health and safety representative training courses – probably five days.

The proposed legislation also allows for common law rights to stop work if it is deemed unsafe.

The full AFR article is not available online but can be found on page 3 of the hard copy.

Kevin Jones

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.