Peanut allergy fatality saga to continue 3

Safety management in the education sector seems to be one of the hardest management challenges.  There are overlapping safety obligations through OHS legislation, education department guidelines, public health matters and meeting the demands of parents and students.

700 Peanuts - Federal Court coverA decision in the Federal Court of Australia on 30 June 2009 illustrates the challenges.

A 13 year old boy from Scotch College, in Melbourne, Nathan Francis, died after eating from a ration pack of beef satay on a Defence Forces camp.  The school, which was supervising the camp, were aware of the boy’s severe allergy to peanuts.

The Australian Department of Defence was fined over $A200,000.

The full judgement of the court raises several  issues that are relevant to the management of safety of people in one’s care.  The judge has recommended a State coronial inquest to determine the roles and responsibilities of Scotch College in Nathan’s death.

Justice for Nathan and his family is likely to have many more months to go. [ SafetyAtWorkBlog will follow the issue.]

A fantastic audio report on the decision is available at the ABC website. The payment of the fine back to the government is not dealt with in this blog.

The first section of the judgement (below) indicates what the judge believes are the failures that need to be addressed through an appropriate safety process:

  • Communication;
  • Instruction;
  • Provision of appropriate supplies;
  • The importance of labelling; and
  • Following procedures and guidelines

Some readers may find that this prosecution could make an interesting case study for safety management.

Kevin Jones

Justice North found that the Federal OHS Act was breached by the Commonwealth government through the Chief of Army.  The respondent

(a) supplied Cadet Nathan Fazal Francis, Cadet Nivae Anandaganeshan and Cadet Gene van den Broek with one-man combat ration packs (CRP’s) containing a satay beef food pouch which contained peanuts or peanut protein for their consumption despite having been informed that the said cadets were allergic to peanuts;
and, in so doing, it failed to:

(b) warn parents of the [Australian Army Cadets] AAC cadets about the contents of the CRP’s;

(c) warn AAC cadets about the contents of CRP’s;

(d) warn AAC cadets with pre-existing food allergies of the contents of CRP’s;

(e) make appropriate use of information provided by AAC cadets and parents of AAC cadets regarding pre-existing or known allergic conditions and correlate that information with the potential risk of being exposed to allergies through the supply of food contained in CRP’s;

(f) ensure that the contents of CRP’s allocated to AAC cadets did not include food products or allergens that may have triggered allergic responses by removing or requiring the removal of peanut-based food products from CRP’s;

(g) prevent distribution or provision of peanut-based food products to AAC cadets with pre-existing allergic reactions by:

i. inspecting the contents of CRP’s to be allocated to those individual AAC cadets who had given notice of allergic conditions;

ii. isolating cadets with pre-existing medical conditions and/or notified food allergies at the time of distribution of CRP’s and issuing them with CRP’s that did not contain peanut products or other food allergens;

iii. removing all CRP’s known to contain peanut protein or other food allergens from circulation amongst AAC cadets;

iv. requiring all AAC cadets with notified allergic conditions to provide their own food supplies;

(h) issue any or any adequate instructions or provide adequate supervision regarding distribution of CRP’s;

(i) issue any adequate instructions or provide adequate supervision regarding consumption of contents of CRP’s;

(j) prevent the consumption of CRP’s containing food allergens by AAC cadets with food allergies;

(k) distribute CRP’s after consulting or considering pre-existing medical conditions; and

(l) take into consideration the findings of a report dated 22 November 1996 by the Australian National Audit Office entitled ‘Management of Food Provisioning in the Australian Defence Force’.

SafetyAtWorkBlog Progress 1

The middle of the year is a good place to measure progress.  Since its inception in February 2008, SafetyAtWorkBlog has been viewed almost 42,000 times.  The site has received almost 300 comments and 434 articles have been posted.

For a site that inhabits a niche area, does not receive advertising revenue and provides commentary and unique content almost all the time, the blog is a proud achievement.

Thanks to all the regular viewers.

Kevin JonesBlog stats

Cheeky workers compensation premium statistic 1

“The premium has dropped eight per cent from last financial year. This is the third consecutive drop in the Commonwealth sector premium rate.” [my emphasis]

Fantastic news – eight per cent reduction in 12 months!  The media release goes on:

“… this is a very pleasing result for Commonwealth agencies as it indicates injuries are continuing to fall due to effective prevention strategies that promote safer workplaces.”

The second quote is from Martin Dolan, CEO of Comcare in Australia, on his second-last day in the job.

But 8%? In one year?

The Comcare media release includes a table of premium figures for the five years.  The overall premium rate in 2008-09 was 1.36%.  For 2009-10 it will be 1.25%, that’s the 8% fall in Comcare media release terms.  In reality it is a fall of 0.11%

The premium rate is indeed low and it may be justified in congratulating Comcare on a job well done but expressing such a fall as  8%?  This is a cheeky farewell statistic for a CEO which should have said

“a 0.11% fall from 2008-09 and a decline of 0.5% over 4 years”.

This is surely a fairer statistic and a worthy achievement in itself, if not quite so sexy.

Kevin Jones

UPDATE: 1 July 2009

Martin Dolan is moving to the Australian Transport Safety Bureau.

Safety culture improvements in Spain Reply

The improved safety status in workplaces that have an active union presence has been verified through research, but what of the efforts on safety management from outside the union research efforts.

Below is the abstract of an article that was published online late-2008 (and is available for purchase).  The research was conducted in a country with a negative safety culture so the improvements may be more marked than from outside Spain.  However, the full study (not accessed by SafetyAtWorkBlog) may provide an interesting before-and-after story.

“Occupational accidents severely deteriorate human capital, and hence negatively affect the productivity and competitiveness of countries. But despite this, we still observe a scarcity of preventive practices, an unsatisfactory management commitment and an absence of safety culture among Spanish firms. The result is evident in firms’ high accident rates.  This situation is a consequence of the general belief among firms that investing in safety is a cost, and hence has negative repercussions for their competitiveness.  The current work aims to identify good practices in safety management, and analyse the effect of these practices on a set of indicators of organisational performance.  For this, we first carry out an exhaustive literature review, and then formulate a series of hypotheses.  We then test the proposed model on a sample of 455 Spanish firms.  Our findings show that safety management has a positive influence on safety performance, competitiveness performance, and economic-financial performance.  Hence they provide evidence of the compatibility between worker protection and corporate competitiveness.”

The full article is available in Safety Science (Volume 47, Issue 7, August 2009, Pages 980-991).

Kevin Jones

B Fernández-Muñiz, J Montes-Peón and C Vázquez-Ordás, ‘Relation between occupational safety management and firm performance’ (2009) Safety Science 47: 980-991.

More workplace stressors, email and upwards bullying 7

According to a paper presented at the latest Industrial & Organisational Psychology Conference organised by the Australian Psychological Society, poor quality emails are causing almost as much stress in the workplace as the number received.

New Zealand provisional (?) psychologist, Rowena Brown, was presenting findings from her PhD studies and said

“Email is a double-edged sword. We know that email can help employees to feel engaged with and connected to their work colleagues, however the impact of a poor quality email, combined with the expectation to respond immediately, can create unnecessary stress.  Our research raises important issues for employers, who have a responsibility to train their staff in appropriate email etiquette.”

This type of research really doesn’t help business and managers to deal with the stress of their employees because it doesn’t  provide any useful control measures.  There are more significant causes of stress that demand the attention of OHS professionals and managers.

The same conference illustrates one of those other stressors.  Sara Branch, a psychologist Griffith University was quoted on the matter of employees bullying their bosses.

“Upwards bullying, like other forms of workplace bullying, is often more subtle and less obvious to other staff. However, it can also include more aggressive behaviours such as yelling, verbal threats, and confrontational phone conversations.”

“Workplaces need to understand that bullying can occur at any level in an organisation. Although managers clearly have formal authority, they can also be victims of bullying and need just as much support as other staff.”

The study also found, according to a media release about the conference, that one of the main triggers for upwards bullying is organisational change.

“If an employee is disgruntled by change, such as new working conditions, management, or processes, they may blame their manager and respond by bullying them.”

With the increased attention to psychosocial hazards in the occupational health and safety profession, it is necessary to pay attention to these sorts of studies but they are simply new perspectives on established issues that should already be monitored and changed.

These studies may illustrate the issue that OHS professionals can use to gain that managerial or client attention but they should be handled carefully so that these specific issues do not dominate the understanding on the manager or client.

SafetyAtWorkBlog advocates looking outside the OHS discipline for new evidence and understandings of workplace issues be it sociology or psychology but one must avoid reacting to hype.

Kevin Jones

Union abuse of workplace safety Reply

The fragility of Australia’s agreement for OHS harmonisation is illustrated in an article by Michael Stutchbury of The Australian.  He  mentions the potential domino effect resulting from the West Australian Treasurer’s desire to keep his options open.  New South Wales and Queensland see that a (politically unpalatable) out is possible.

Pages from Open_Ltr_to_Premiers_and_Chief_Ministers_re_OHS_harmonisation_14.5.2009The freshest information in his article was that the CEO of the Business Council of Australia (BCA), Katie Lahey, has described OHS harmonisation as “linchpin” in the government’s push for a seamless national business economy, according to Stutchbury.  This perspective is one that should be watched closely as the BCA is not renowned for its OHS innovation or advice.

Stutchbury misinterprets the pledge by the Construction, Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU)

“to make safety the key to their battle against the ABCC’s powers”.

The union is applying safety to their industrial relations battle with the ABCC because their initial attack failed.  The Government has watered down the ABCC’s powers but the ABCC will continue to exist.  Indeed the “lawlessness” of the unions has caused the Government to continue with regulatory oversight of the construction industry beyond the ABCC.  The unions are flogging a dead horse (albeit for excellent ideological reasons) and, as a result, are reinforcing the political and community perspectives of union “thuggery”.

The ABCC action against unions has not been on the basis of health and safety, as far as SafetyAtWorkBlog is aware.  It has been on the issue of union conduct, the way the union progresses on OHS matters.  The ABCC concerns stem from the process itself and not the origin of the process.

The Australian union movement needs to realise that it is its heavy-handedness on industrial relations that is impeding its progress on several fronts.  It is not getting the ear of what traditionally has been a sympathetic political party and it is failing to gain any ground in the community because of its brash conduct.  As a result it is not attracting new members.

It is also disappointing that health and safety is trotted out as a Plan B.  This has happened repeatedly and has resulted in the tactic being seen as minimally effective.  The union movement needs to see that OHS is a core value of union membership.  Workers can be confident that an OHS issue brought to management with the union’s support will get an audience, and is more likely to get fixed.

The unions will gain new members by emphasising the positive and direct benefits of union membership.  A possible campaign start could be

“You will be safer at work with a union”.

There is a place for ideological protest.  The point needs to be made that the powers of ABCC are inappropriate.  But the ABCC was introduced in response to union arrogance and excessive testosterone.  A change of culture in the union movement some time ago would have allowed it to focus on the future of its members rather than continue with its outdated and unpopular belligerence.

Kevin Jones

Varanus Island is back to normal Reply

According to various Australian media reports, the natural gas plant at Varanus Island in Western Australia is now back to full capacity following the major pipeline explosion in 2008.

The government has estimated that the explosion blasted $A2 billion from the state economy and will be pursuing the pipeline’s owner, Apache Energy, through the courts.

The government says the pipeline was inadequately maintained and corrosion led to the failure of the pipe.

Apache has already been in the courts seeking an injunction to stop the Western Australian Mines & Petroleum Minister, Norman Moore, from seeing a “a federal-state government report into alleged regulatory lapses that may have contributed to the Varanus Island blast”.

Apache’s move is peculiar but the WA government has become more involved in the investigation of this explosion than others and the company has not been happy with the investigation process for some time.

Kevin Jones

Latest guidance on working alone 1

Western Australia’s WorkSafe has just released its latest guidance on working alone and it is the most practical look at the hazard from any OHS regulator in Australia.Working_alone cover

Importantly, it differentiates between “alone” and “remote”.  In 1995, when the Victorian First Aid Code of Practice raised the issue of isolation, there was considerable confusion.  How can someone in the metropolitan area be isolated or remote?

  • Undertaking an assessment of first aid needs of a multi-storey building which has cleaners or nightshift working at 2am.
  • Working alone in a petrol station in an outer suburb.
  • (Sadly) showing a potential client a new property in a new real estate development on the fringes of the city.
  • Security guard walking the perimeter of an industrial site
  • Delivering pizzas at 3am
  • Home visits from medical specialists

The WA definition of “alone” is very useful and needs to be kept front-of-mind in OHS policy and procedure production.  It could be used in the review process of existing policies and prores to ensure their applicability.

“A person is alone at work when they are on their own, when they cannot be seen or heard by another person, and when they cannot expect a visit from another worker or member of the public for some time.”

The working alone guidance identifies four industry types that require special support for working alone:

  • Agriculture
  • Pastoral
  • Forestry
  • Mining

Although SafetyAtWorkBlog advocates low-tech control options as much as possible (usually because of increased reliability) thankfully this guidance discusses mobile phones, satellite communications, GPS locators and other communications devices.

Kevin Jones

When employees are their worst enemy. Reply

A recent article in a rehabilitation newsletter reminded me of a client from several years ago.

Several employees in a small item packaging line were reporting wrist and forearm soreness toward the end of their shift.  They believed that the line speed was too fast for them to comfortably work their full shift.

In consultation with the workers and the operations manager we went through various possible control options – line speed, automation, seating, posture, warm-up exercise, footwear, length of shift…..

A couple of days later, I was at the workplace at the end of the shift.  The employees said they were sore but they did not go home.  They stayed on for several hours of overtime.  When I asked them about this they said they always do the overtime.

So the assessment of working environment had incomplete data.

My advice was that if the employees were putting themselves at harm of the potential for harm, undertaking overtime while not fit-for-work contravenes their own OHS obligations.  If the employer offered these employees overtime knowing the employees were in pain, the employer is breaching the OHS obligation.

That is the straight OHS position.  But life is more complex than OHS.  The right OHS decision deprives the employees of additional income.  The right OHS decision could encourage employees to not report their pain or discomfort, for if they do, the offer of overtime would be withdrawn.  Non-reporting of injuries is a common short-term decision that many employees make.

It is in this context that consultation is required between employees, production manager, supervisor, human resources officer, and the health & safety rep, if one is on site.  This consultative group can then make a decision that everyone understands the justification for, even if some participants do not like it.

A question to ponder from the scenario above – if one of the workers developed pain during the normal work shift, undertook overtime without the employer being informed of the pain and put in a worker’s compensation claim for the pain, would the employer feel justified in contesting the claim?

Kevin Jones

Evidence, subjectivity and myth 1

There is a big push for occupational safety and health decisions to be made on evidence.  OHS academics in Australia are particularly big on this and there is considerable validity in the lobbying but as academics can have a vested interest in research, the calls are often dismissed.

There is also, around the world, a questioning of the value and validity of the risk assessment process related to workplace safety.  In Europe, in particular, the business groups see risk assessment as a major unnecessary business cost (but then again, how many businesses even perform OHS risk assessments?).  Risk assessment has often been criticised because of its subjectivity.  In some circumstances, risk assessment may perpetuate workplace and safety myths.

In the absence of evidence, myths fill the gap.  Sometimes assessments, investigations, estimates and FOAFs (friend of a friend) add to the tenuous credibility of those myths.

Peter Sandman has talked about dispelling myths through risk communication.  One myth he discusses, the risks of flu vaccinations, is also touched on in an interview with Dr Aaron E. Carroll of the Indiana University School of Medicine on the ABC’s Life Matters program.

OHS professionals must seek evidence on workplace hazards so that their advice is sound but equally, myths must be countered.  The links in the paragraph above, along with the excellent website, www.snopes.com, can provide some assistance in how we can reduce the transmission of myths.

I am a big advocate of the “contrary”.  Only by asking questions about established beliefs and tenets can the flaws in our decision-making be illustrated.  Sometimes this is dismissed as being a “Devil’s Advocate” but the process does not advocate bad behaviours, it questions the basis for established behaviours – a process that many people, organisations AND business find enormously threatening.

As we get older or become socialised, we tend to forget the tale most of us heard as a child, The Emperor’s New Clothes.  This tale should be read regularly to remind us of how the contrary position, the quizzical, can be constructive and sometimes, revolutionary (even though in the tale the Emperor ignores the child’s spoken truth) but still provide evidence.

Kevin Jones