Uncovered holes Reply

Recently SafetyAtWorkBlog reported on a new WorkSafe Victoria guidance on guarding cellar doors.  Comcare has started legal action against a company a similar hazard but one located in public.

Comcare has instigated proceedings against Australia’s leading telecommunications company, Telstra, for an unguarded pit in a public area.  According to the media release dated 19 August 2009,

“The proceedings arise from an incident on 31 January 2008 when two Telstra sub-contractors opened an access pit while conducting work.  The pit is located on a pathway between a train station in Brisbane and the office of an organisation that provides services to persons with impaired vision.  While the access pit was allegedly left open and unguarded, a member of the public, with a vision impairment, fell into the pit and sustained a serious personal injury.

The maximum pecuniary penalty for a breach of s17 of the Act by a body corporate is $242,000.”

This is not a new hazard and open telecommunications pits have been guarded for decades, often with canvas to provide weather protection for workers.   We’ll report on the judgement when it is handed down.

Kevin Jones

The future for Standards Australia will be hard 8

SafetyAtWorkBlog has written elsewhere of how the global financial crisis has caused OHS related programs to be revised.  The latest bulletin from Standards Australia indicates the impact of the financial pressures on its plans and the reduction in the value of their investments has come at a time of other worrisome changes.

(In this article there is a focus on the safety-related Australian Standards.)

Bulletin_1_Standards_Australia_170809_Page_1According to the 17 August 2009 bulletin, Standards Australia has lost $A70 million from its investment portfolio since November 2007.  This has caused it to introduce a “New Business Model”  which reduces Standards Australia’s operating costs and also increases the costs to many of the voluntary participants on committees that develop Australian Standards through the new consultative strategies.

Hopefully during the period of reflection caused by the financial threats, Standards Australia should have considered whether it is worth continuing, at all.

Following are some ruminations about safety-related Standards and their applicability.  These may be relevant to quality, risk and environmental Standards, also.

  • Australia is a very small market for Standards compared to Europe and the United States, in particular.
  • The management professions are becoming more globalised.
  • Manufacturing is becoming more globalised.
  • Europe can draw upon a broader range of expertise in the development of management standards, than can Australia.
  • Several International Standards could be applied in Australia allowing for an international “compliance”.  Some Standards are already in place and promoted by companies as somehow more legitimate that the Australian Standards.
  • Safe Work Australia has informed SafetyAtWorkBlog that:

“The application and use of Australian Standards in model OHS regulations has not yet been decided and will be considered by the Safe Work Australia Council’s Strategic Issues Group”

  • SafetyAtWorkBlog has heard from a South Australian colleague that SafeWorkSA is considering replacing OHS Standards referenced in legislation with codes of practice. (SafetyAtWorkBlog has sought confirmation of this from SafeWorkSA)
  • Australian Standards can be expensive for small businesses, who may have the greatest need for OHS management standards, whereas government publications, such as Codes of Practice are generally free.

Australian Standards are important for many industries, particularly, those that are required to be audited and/or accredited.  Needless to say there is a considerable secondary industry of auditors for these sectors.

All Australian Standards are only guidelines but many have been granted legislative clout by being referenced in law.  As mentioned above a considerable industry has developed in support, providing some legitimacy to the guidelines through weight of numbers.

Safe Work Australia recognised the important role of Australian Standards, but with several qualifications:

“The COAG [Council of Australian Governments] Guidelines recognise that the use of prescriptive requirements, such as those in Australian Standards, while not preferable, may be unavoidable in order to ensure safety.”

Standards Australia must have realised by now that the days of automatic legitimacy through referencing in legislation may be numbered for many of their Standards .  Their previous operating model has had to be thoroughly revised, government and business are fierce on reducing red tape, international standards have been developed that can be applied in Australia, and contributing organisations are reviewing their own costs of participation.

In fact so keen is the government on the reduction of red tape that it established an Office of Best Practice Regulation in the Department of Finance.  On Finance’s website is a clear statement of aim:

“The Government has committed to reducing the regulatory burden on Australian businesses, non-profit organisations and consumers.  This is consistent with larger commitments to address impediments to Australia’s long-term productivity growth.”

Employer groups have identified industrial relations and OHS requirements as “impediments”.

There is no doubt that in many circumstances technical standards are essential reference documents for improving safety, in particular, and for showing that workplace safety is being managed in a systematic and verifiable manner.  The big question is whether those technical standards should be those produced by Standards Australia.

Kevin Jones

From worker safety to patient safety 1

Many of us grew up under the “shadow of the mushroom cloud” and have strong suspicions towards radiation of any kind but the OHS achievements of those working with radiation should be acknowledged.

In the latest edition of the IAEA Bulletin (May 2009) this achievement is clearly summarised as it relates to those in medical radiation.

IAEA Mag 001The early emphasis on staff protection did pay rich dividends in terms of making staff safer.  Currently, most (nearly 98%) of those who work with ionizing radiation in any area of medical practice receive a radiation dose that is lower than what they get from natural radiation sources — the so-called background radiation, e.g., cosmic radiation, radon, radiation from building material, earth, food, etc.  Background radiation depends on the place you live, but typically is 1 mSv to 3 mSv per year, although in some places can be up to 10 mSv.  The dose limit for staff currently recommended by the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), and adopted by the IAEA and most countries with few exceptions, is 20 mSv/year, expressed as 100mSv over a period of five years.  Such has been the success of occupational radiation protection programmes that not even 0.5% of staff members who work in medical facilities (or in any nuclear facility) reach or exceed the dose limit.”

The siginifcance of the article from which this paragraph is taken comes from the next sentence:

“Since there are no dose limits for patients, many may incorrectly assume that there are no controls on patient exposure.”

The article by Madan M Rehani, and thankfully available online, discusses the possibility of introducing an ongoing monitoring system that records the cumulative exposure to radiation by patients.  The smart card project launched by the International Atomic Energy Agency will be one to watch as there could be applications of such a system to other occupations and work-related hazards.

The importance of such a program is high as Rehani writes:

“The risk of cancer from radiation doses imparted through a number of CT scans is not insignificant.  Most other radiation effects (such as skin injury, just to name one) can be avoided rather effectively, but this is not true for the risk of cancer.  There are estimates of few million excess cancers in the USA over the next two to three decades from about 60 million CT scans done annually.”

Kevin Jones

Beware Greeks bearing lasers Reply

For some years now, laser pointers have been misused in a range of activities, from the football field and to cinemas but, most significantly and in an OHS context, towards the pilots of aircraft. (A good summary of the significance of the hazard can be found at Wikipedia)

One example of government response to the hazard can be seen from a media release of the Queensland government in 2008.

The latest incidence of laser pointers and pilots comes from Greece only last week.  According to a report in Kathimerini:

“Two boys aged 13 and 14 were arrested on Saturday [15 August 2009] on Rhodes for forcing a pilot to abandon a landing at the Dodecanese island’s Diagoras Airport because they aimed a laser pointer at the airplane’s cockpit. The pilot of the flight from Alexandroupoli was forced to land on his second attempt.”

More details of the event are, of course, included in the news report.  The most curious piece of information is that police have also arrested the boys’ parents.

Kevin Jones

Why isn’t safety and health a continuum in a worker’s life? Reply

Several years ago I attended a safety seminar hosted by Seacare.  Maritime safety is not part of my “brief” but safety is, and I was seeking alternate perspectives on my specialist area.  Seacare conducted a session where the treatment and management of an injured worker was work-shopped from incident to return-to-work.

It was the first time I had seen a panel of experts deal with the life of a worker across the injury management continuum.  The session showed the necessity to communicate across several disciplines and to always keep the focus on the injured worker.  I had never seen a better example of risk management in relation to an  employee’s welfare.

If only the real world was as organised.

WorkLife Book Covers 003Work/life balance in Australia is skewed towards those workers who have young families or a role as a carer.  This is due to work/life balance evolving from the feminist and social concepts of the 1970s and in response to the increased number of women in paid employment.  Barbara Pocock sees these matters in the 1970s as themselves a reaction to the “male-dominated employing class” that, in one exampled, believed that 3 month’s long-service leave was more important than maternity leave. (p212, The Work/Life Collision)

Work/Life Balance Origin

(Wikipedia has a peculiar article on work/life balance that has some interesting points and reference links but then undoes its good work by relying on a couple of major sources and many of them are commercial consultants.  That the Australian work in this area is not referenced, indicates a major deficiency.  Please note that the concept of balancing work life and non-work life existed well before “work/life balance” was first used.  SafetyAtWorkBlog would point the concept’s origin to around the same time as Australia’s introduction of the eight hour day in the mid-1800s or even earlier with Robert Owen in the UK calling for a 10-hour day.)

WorkLife Book Covers 005In the 2000s the emphasis remains not on work/life balance but work/family.  As a result, work/life balance will remain an issue handled in the management silo of human resources and being seen as relevant to a lifestage of an individual rather than the individual themselves.  There is also an inherent gender bias that could be minimised if the silo was removed.

The Seacare workshop illustrated for me that an injured worker is managed by different silos throughout their rehabilitation.  Wherever possible the employer outsources this management to experts in OHS, trauma counselling, medicine, physiotherapy, return-to-work coordinators, and other specialists.  The common element through all of these silos is the individual and that person’s health.

OHS & Work/Life Conflict

WorkLife Book Covers 001Occupational health and safety has a big advantage over work/life balance in that it focuses on the individual first.  Employers must provide for the health and safety of the worker and, by and large, employers get the safety obligation right.  This part of the process has long-established practices based principally on engineering solutions – stopping things falling on a worker, stopping the worker falling into machinery, stopping the inhalation of toxic dust – effectively “blue collar” solutions to “blue collar” hazards.

The mental health of the worker was not a big concern.  This is partly because in most of Australia, legislation only ever related to health and safety, and rarely to welfare.  Where welfare was a legislated consideration for the management of workers, the social context of the worker was acknowledged myuch earlier and work/life issues began to grow.

The regrettable element of this evolution was that “health” remained a narrow workplace definition instead of embracing the “welfare” or mental health of the worker.  If health had been supported by a definition that included welfare in all Australian States’ OHS legislation, the mental health needs of workers and the social contexts of worker management would have been discussed much earlier and in parallel.

Work/Life Balance Awards – A Missed Opportunity

An example of the divergence and the need, in my opinion, to reintegrate work/life balance and occupational health comes from some correspondence I have had with the organisers of the National Work/Life Balance Awards in the Australian Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR).  Until very recently, these awards were called the National Work and Family Awards.

WorkLife Book Covers 004DEEWR includes in its structure Safe Work Australia, the organisation responsible for monitoring OHS across the country.  It seemed odd to me, from the big holistic picture, that DEEWR has not included Safe Work Australia in the judging panel for the 2009 Work/Life Balance Awards.  DEEWR advised me that it believes the OHS experience of two of the judging panel, the Australian Council of Trade Unions and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, was sufficient.  Perhaps but why not draw on the OHS expertise of one’s own staff as well?

It also seemed odd that one organisation would conduct two national awards programs – the National Work/Life Balance Awards and the Safe Work Australia Awards.  DEEWR advised me that

“The [National Work/Life Balance Awards] recognise organisations that are outstanding in achieving positive outcomes through the implementation and communication of work-life balance policies, practices and initiatives which meet the needs of both the employer and its employees. The Safe Work Australia Awards focus on OHS more broadly and recognise businesses and individuals for their outstanding efforts in OHS and for making safety a high priority in their workplace.”

If the Safe Work Australia Awards focus on “OHS more broadly” why not have one set of awards that acknowledges both the work and social contexts of employees?  This is harder to answer when

“Applicants for awards must consent to an assessment to determine whether they have complied with the Fair Work Act 2009, the Workplace Relations Act 1996 and any relevant state or territory legislation, award or other industrial instruments” [my emphasis]

This would surely include the OHS legislation of each State and the Commonwealth.

DEEWR does not involve any of the state OHS regulators in the awards process.  The judging panel does not analyse the workers’ compensation premium awards rates of award contenders.  State regulators could surely provide a useful perspective as it is mostly under their jurisdictions that businesses are prosecuted for OHS breaches.  Worker’s compensation premiums are used by all regulators as a major (sometime the only) indicator of safety performance and for targeting of enforcement programs.  The judges of the National Work/Life Balance Awards do not.

OHS professionals and return-to-work coordinators acknowledge that the non-work life and mental health of workers are important elements in regaining a fully-functional employee.

DEEWR made the decision to rebrand the awards to Work/Life instead of “work and family”.  This does not reflect the complex interrelations of the social and individual contexts of the health and safety of individual workers.

DEEWR is coordinating the reforms of laws into both OHS and workers compensation.  The Australian Government is working on legislative harmonisation across all legislative jurisdictions in workplace health and safety.  These OHS laws are likely to extend employer obligations well beyond workers to the public and those potentially affected by work practices..

However DEEWR is missing a major opportunity to set the agenda for the future by acknowledging that the impacts on an individual of the work life and the home life should be managed across the social and employment disciplines.

Kevin Jones

The images included in this posting show some of the many terrific books dealing with, or mentioning, work/life management.

James Hardie directors face the consequences of their poor decisions 2

SafetyAtWorkBlog has kept a watchful eye on the long saga involving the directors of James Hardie Industries and their mishandling of a compensation fund specifically established for victims of the company’s asbestos products.  The compensation fund story has been handled well by Gideon Haigh in his book on the company.

The saga has since evolved into one of the duties and actions of the board of directors, moreso than one of compensation.  Today, 20 August 2009, the previous directors will be told of the financial and professional penalties determined by the New South Wales Supreme Court.

The ABC News online has an article about the impending court decision but more relevantly to the OHS and compensation issues is the fact that the existing compensation fund runs out in 2011 and the company says that the current economic climate does not allow for any more funds.  For a company that has earned good profits from asbestos over many decades, two years of poor corporate performance does not seem to balance the scales.

Too many corporations are using the global financial crisis to mask their own management failings.  The United States and England have seen this more than most countries.

The ABC was able to interview the current CEO of James Hardie Industries, Louis Gries, who is not as damning of the past directors’ decisions as some might expect, and the reporter, Sue Lannin, asks many direct questions about the company’s responsibilities to victims of its products.  This interview deserves careful listening.

Company directors around Australia are watching how the court case ends and the size of penalties they may face if they make similar decisions.  The OHS element is oblique to the issue of directors’ responsibilities but it is the hot topic in Australia at the moment and many OHS professionals talk with these same directors.  It may be necessary to adjust one’s language or message when talking safety with them from tomorrow on.

Kevin Jones

Buenos Aires Nightclub fire – Update Reply

According to a Reuters report available on-line on 20 August 2009:

“The former manager of a Buenos Aires nightclub has been sentenced to 20 years in jail over a fire that killed 194 people, the deadliest blaze in Argentine history.

The court’s decision at the end of a year-long trial was met with spontaneous outbursts of violence among relatives of the victims, with police using water cannons to disperse rioters.”

One of the most popular blog articles at SafetyAtWorkBlog over the last month – the Santika fire article – provides a useful contrast to the Buenos Aires prosecution and some practical risk control measures.

Kevin Jones

Why OHS performance targets don’t equal safe workplaces Reply

On 19 August 2009, the Australian Financial Review (AFR) published an article (not available online) about the lack of success of OHS regulators meeting their agreed performance target.  The article is based on the information provided by Safe Work Australia in its 2006-07 progress report.

Below is a chart that WorkSafe’s John Merritt showed at a recent OHS seminar which clearly shows how far the State of Victoria has to go to reach the 2012 target, and it is one of the better performing States.

vic_ohs_johnmerritt_leadership_080804 graph

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has placed its hope for improvement in the upcoming harmonised OHS laws.  Jeff Lawrence is quoted in the small AFR article from the ACTU media release:

“Australia has a long way to go before success can be claimed on achieving national targets for workplace death, injury and disease,” Mr Lawrence said.  “With proposed uniform national occupational health and safety laws, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to lift protections for workers by achieving the world’s best safety standards for the entire country.”

Jeff Lawrence and the ACTU need to remember that harmonised OHS model laws have never been about improving workplace safety.  They are about setting the legal framework within which employers and employees improve safety in their workplaces.  Safety improvement comes from the management of risk and hazards, not whether it is easier for a union to get onsite or for a company to be more easily prosecuted or for fines to be set at record amounts.

(In fact until recently, Australian lawyers and some OHS lawyers acknowledge that fines do not work for anything other than punishment.  Other legal penalty options have been promoted for some time but these seem to have been ejected from the proposed National OHS law.)

The ACTU, and the employer groups, need to start assisting companies to reduce hazards,  not only the sites or industry sectors of their own members.  Unions are often keen on pushing corporate social responsibility but do not promote safety outside their member organisations.  So where is their own corporate social responsibility?

The principal motivator of the union movement in Australia has always been industrial relations, of which OHS is of occasional relevance.  Though it is acknowledged that in some specific union sectors, particularly the emergency services and construction, safety has a higher priority than elsewhere.

If the union movement was genuine about improving the lot of Australian workers and of the importance of safety, assisting in the education of business operators, outside their own union sector, to improve safety may show to some workers that being a member of a union may be a good thing.

As has been discussed elsewhere the OHS performance targets of the regulators are purely academic.  Former Prime Minister John Howard introduced the concept of “aspirational targets” to the Australian political lingo and the current OHS targets were set during his government.  Aspirational targets are those that you sort-of try to reach but if you don’t, it doesn’t matter, as there is no penalty.

If the regulators were genuine about reaching this target, the enforcement of OHS would be substantially different and harsher.  The technical assistance for business to improve safety would not rely on the regulators alone or some token business consulting funding.  But the targets have no big “stick”,  the legislation is in a state of uncertainty, the unions have limited influence, and the community’s awareness of workplace safety is up but still only a trickle on their decision-making radar.

The targets also have no “carrot” other than a media opportunity to say that one State OHS regulator performed better than another, and that will surely create harmony.

No enforcement + no penalty = no effort.

Kevin Jones

OHS and workload – follow-up 2

SafetyAtWorkBlog has had a tremendous response to the article concerning Working Hours and Political Scandal.  Below are some of the issues raised in some of the correspondence I have received from readers and OHS colleagues.

The Trade Union Congress Risk e-bulletin has a similar public service/mental health case which has been resolved through the Courts.   The site includes links through to other media statements and reports.

Australia’s Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations has launched its work/life balance awards for 2009.  The information available on the awards is strongly slanted to a work/family balance which is very different from work/life and excludes employees making decisions for the benefit of their own mental health – a proper work/life balance which is the philosophical basis underpinning OHS legislation.  SafetyAtWorkBlog is investigating these awards with DEEWR.

SafeWork in South Australia is working on a code of practice on working hours and has been providing OHS advice on this matter since 2000.

The WA government has had a draft code on working hours for some time.

A legal reader has pointed out that  “the 38 hour week issue is not set in stone …[and]  is not a maximum for non-award employees.”  So expect more industrial relations discussion on that issue over the next two years.

One reader generalised from the Grech case about decision-making at senior levels, a concern echoed by many others.

“The Grech case illustrates the gradual disintegration of effectiveness, and the employee’s own inability to recognise that it is not a personal failing of efficiency, rather an unrecognised systemic risk.

When the employee is at senior level, there is more likelihood there will be poor attention to the warning signs. Any ‘underperformance’ would be seen as a personal failing. For those of us in the safety business, it is obvious that the system itself is in need of urgent risk management.”

There were congratulations from many readers for raising a significant and hidden OHS issue.

“Many people in industry work more than 70 hour a week. This affects their health and personal relationships.”

“Overwork and under-resourcing lead to poor decision making, adverse business outcomes, and in the long term psychological and physical ill health. Both the government and corporate sectors are paying little attention to this issue.”

The workplace hazards resulting from fatigue are being addressed in several industries such as transport, mining and forestry, where attentiveness is hugely important because of the catastrophic consequences of poor judgement.

One of the issues from the Grech case is that the quality of judgement in non-critical, or administrative, occupations can be severely affected by fatigue, mental health and other psychosocial issues.  These may not affect the health and well-being of others but can have a significant effect on the individual.  OHS does not only deal with systemic or workplace cultural elements but is equally relevant to the individual worker.

Kevin Jones

[Thanks to all those who have written to me and continue to do so. KJ]

Who is all this OHS harmonisation for? 2

The public comment phase of Australia’s review of its OHS law harmonisation process begins in September 2009.   To a large degree it is at this stage that the stakeholders can start refining their horse-trading.  It will also be interesting to watch as the distraction of the new industrial relations legislation has gone since that law was introduced.

Safe Work Australia is using the traditional limited consultative troika – government, employers and unions, and will need to give public submissions considerable weight to balance interests.

Two of the employer groups have already started setting out some guidelines and expectations.

SafeWork    -0X1.DB7490P+747ustraliaMR_Aug_2009A statement from the CEO of the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA), Mitchell Hooke, was released on 14 August 2009.  The only new element of the media release was

“The MCA has called for the National Mine Safety Framework to form the basis of national minerals-industry specific regulation within the Model OH&S Act.”

One of the aims of the harmonisation movement is to minimise regulations for specific industry sectors.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce & Industry was more expansive in its statement of 5 August 2009.  The ACCI overstates the cost burden of OHS legislation in each State.  The Model OHS Law Review Panel found overwhelming similarities between the legislations but acknowledged that the variations would be difficult to resolve.

ACCIHarmonisation-ACCIPerspective CoverThe following quote from the ACCI statement illustrates the value of the ACCI perspective and also its major shortcoming.

“However, harmonisation of legislation is not of itself the solution to the compliance burden problem, but rather it will be the final content and quality of the model legislation and the approach to its implementation and enforcement that will be the critical determinants as to whether or not productivity gains are in fact realised in practice.”

It is accurate to say that the success of the legislation will be gauged by its implementation and enforcement.  However, the conservative  ideology of the ACCI is on show when it states that the harmonisation is intended to provide productivity gains.  OHS legislation’s first aim should always be to improve the safety and health of the workforce which, in turn, increases productivity.

ACCI and other employer associations too often jump the safety element and go straight to productivity yet it is the safety of employees that is by far the greatest value that employers share with the community and the unions.  Elsewhere in the ACCI statement, the importance of safety is acknowledged but the communication of priorities is muddled.

The ACCI also says “OHS laws should never be used as a vehicle to drive other agendas,” and then goes on to push issues of industrial relations and union behaviour that are not the core focus of the OHS model legislation process.

The ACCI statement closes on a more philosophical approach to OHS.  It talks about “cooperative development”, “safety culture” and  “continued engagements” but its own cooperation can be seen as conditional in the majority of the statement.

There is one statement that all involved in OHS law reform should consider. The ACCI states that practical and easily understood regulation is required.

“This is particularly important for the majority of employers who operate only in one jurisdiction and who will not receive a direct productivity benefit under harmonisation but who will bear the cost of understanding and complying with a new OHS Act and regulations.”

Not much will change for those companies who operate in a single State of Australia.  It is also useful to note that the vast majority of businesses in Australia are small- and micro-businesses  for whom all of this national hoo-ha is almost totally irrelevant.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics said in a webpage that was updated in September 2008 that

“Small businesses comprise the vast majority of Australian businesses. The importance of the small business sector to the Australian economy is recognised by researchers, government and policy makers as well as the business community as a whole. It is acknowledged that the characteristics and business drivers of small business are potentially very different to those of larger businesses and as such require specific, targeted policy initiatives. Central to the development of effective policy initiatives is a sound understanding of the nature and characteristics of this sector of the business economy.”

The employer associations do not represent the largest employment sectors in Australia – small businesses, micro-businesses and home-based businesses.  Nor do the trade unions.  So who exactly are the biggest beneficiaries of this whole OHS harmonisation process?

Kevin Jones