Trade unionist talks about nanotechnology risks Reply

In October 2008, SafetyAtWorkBlog spoke with Renata Mussolino of the Victorian Trades Hall Council.  At that time the trade union movement was finalising its policies and positions on nanotechnology into the campaign  that is being rolled out at the moment.

In the SafetyAtWork podcast released in April 2009, Renata talks about how nanotechnologies links with mesothelioma but also some parallels with genetically modified organisms.  She discusses the need for more information about the nanomaterials and how one should apply the precautionary principle in this case.

More information about Renata is available at the Victorian Trades Hall Council website

Lawyer speaks on nanotechnology risks Reply

A leading Australian OHS lawyer, Michael Tooma, spoke to ABC Radio on 16 April 2009.

Tooma spoke about the potential risks employers face by dealing with a substance whose hazard rating is unclear. HE says

“Employers at the moment may be unaware of the extent of the potential liability sometime down the track. …We could be facing another epidemic in our industrial history of people, large groups of people, displaying latent symptoms from current exposures that are taking place at the moment. “

The unions have repeatedly made the comparison with asbestos hazards but as  Dr Craig Cormick of the Australian Office of Nanotechnology says, in the same interview, that in the early usage of asbestos evidence of potential harm was available but not shared.

An April 2007 legal update from Tooma on the issue is available

Engagement is Consultation re-badged 2

Recently an international business established an intranet discussion forum concerning “employee engagement”.  By and large, this is another example of business management twaddle.

Essentially, when one engages with another, there is discussion, a conversation and the sharing of ideas in a cooperative, positive manner.  In OHS circles this is called “consultation”.  By discussing issues, people learn the basics, they refine their understandings and, often, come to a consensus or a resolution.

“Engagement” is another word for what happens on a daily basis in workplaces everywhere.  What is bothersome is when a new management term is generated in order to, primarily, sell a new management book, and in a much lower priority, to provide a new perspective.

In the current edition of Australia’s business magazine, BRW, there is a discussion on engagement, (not available online).  Through an OHS perspective, interpret the following quotes about “employee engagement scores):

“About 40 per cent of employees were failing at the most basic level, saying they either didn’t know what was expected of them or didn’t have the tools to do it.”

OHS = consultation, job description, induction, supervision.

“Those in a leadership position now are taking advantage and redoubling their efforts around employee engagement.”

OHS =  leadership, safety culture

The article makes a useful distinction that an “engaged employee” does not equal a “happy employee”.

The BRW article does not, however, discuss the possible downsides of engagement.  There is a risk that benchmarking of engagement may applied inappropriately and, according to the CIPD:

“Research confirms however that there is a significant gap between levels of engagement found among UK employees and those that would produce optimum performance.  HR professionals need to recognise that engagement is a strategic issue that cannot simply be left to manage itself.”

Engagement is another tool for management but just how many tools are needed?

In short, a management system needs to talk with employees, listen to employees, and support employees.  Wow, how radical.  It can be that simple.

Kevin Jones

How Workers’ Memorial Day should be treated 1

For the first time in many years, I will not be able to attend the local service for the Workers’ Memorial Day on 28 April 2009.  I will be attending the Safe Work Australia Awards in Canberra which, coincidentally, is on the same day.  I hope that the award ceremony includes a minute’s silence to remember those who have died at work.

Recently the San Francisco Labor Council passed a resolution in support of Workers’ Memorial Day.  It provided several good reasons why trade unionists and, I would say, OHS professionals, should support this day.  Below is part of the resolution

wmd-sf-0000000lyerWhereas, April 28, 2009 is an international day of commemoration for injured workers and workers killed on the job; and

Whereas, the elimination of all doctors at Ca-OSHA has threatened the health and safety protection of California’s 17 million workers; and

Whereas, the introduction of new technology such as biotech and nanotechnology without proper oversight can and has become a threat to workers and our communities; and

Whereas, the deregulation of workers compensation has harmed injured workers and their families in California and throughout the country; and

Whereas, many of these workers have been forced onto SSI, Disability Insurance and other state and local agencies to cover their healthcare costs which is cost-shifting; and

Whereas, senior workers in many industries have been forced into retirement due to their disabilities on the job and discrimination against them due to their disabilities and age including at the US Post Office and other industries; and

Whereas, all working people and their families whether working or injured are entitled to full healthcare,

Therefore be it resolved the San Francisco Labor Council endorses and supports a Workers Memorial Day event on April 28, 2009 in San Francisco at ILWU Local 34 and encourages it’s affiliates to publicize and participate in this California Coalition for Workers Memorial Day (CCWMD) 

It is a lesson for other unions and organisations that such a day does not deal with localised industrial relations disputes and can be a platform for improvement in the quality of life of workers by calling for 

  • increased enforcement and policy resources;
  • caution over emerging hazards;
  • reassessment of deregulation;
  • insurance and healthcare improvements; and
  • appealing early retirements due to illness and injury.

I urge OHS professionals to seek out your local commemorations and participate.  The more people attend, the more government will realise the seriousness of the issue.  More importantly, the services remind us why we entered this profession in the first place and, just maybe, how we have made a difference.

Kevin Jones

Migrant worker safety 2

Recently one of the Australian boutique labour law firms ran a seminar on employment issues related to migrant workers.  Australia has a history of using workers from the Pacific Islands, principally, in agriculture.  Chinese have been working in Australia since the goldfields of the 1800s.  New Zealanders are so frequent that the countries almost share an economy in some ways.  Some labour is imported, other labour is invited or sought.

The global economic problems has exacerbated the difficulties many countries face with legal and illegal migrant workers.  Australia is not immune.  There may be less and less water in the country, certainly in the south, but it is still considered a land of opportunity by neighbours.

Workplace safety issues are perhaps the easiest to deal with in this labour sector as the employment status is not relevant to the obligation to provide a safe and healthy work environment.

pages-from-communicatingThe safety training, instruction and supervision matters are similarly unaffected by employment status.  However it has always been a difficult part of an OHS manager and HR manager’s job to make sure that workers understand their obligations and duties.  In Victoria, one of the first OHS Codes of Practice in the 1980s concerned providing OHS information in languages other than English.  It was probably the most ignored Code of Practice of all.

Recently, WorkSafe Victoria has issued Compliance Codes.  Following the recommendations and techniques in these codes implies compliance and can be wonderful for the small business sector.  One of the new codes is on communicating in languages other than English This is a great start but there needs a much greater effort, almost a movement, for Australia to avoid the problems facing countries like England.

In late-March 2009, the UK law firm Irwin Mitchell reported the following statistics

The report [by the Centre for Corporate Accountability], which makes the figures public for the first time and was compiled following Freedom of Information requests to the Health and Safety Executive, shows that a dozen migrant workers died in the construction industry in the year 2007/08 – at least double the figure expected and a six-fold increase in the number who died just five years earlier.

The 12 deaths comprised 17% of the total number of fatalities in the sector last year – more than double the HSE’s estimate of migrants making up around 8% of the total construction sector workforce.

Migrant deaths in other sectors is also on the increase, with the number of fatalities of non-UK workers up from nine in 2005/6 to 18 in 2007/8 and the proportion also doubling from 4.1% to 7.9% in the same period, against figures showing that 5.4% of the total workforce comprises migrants.

No official information is currently available on the level of injuries to migrant workers, as the HSE does not record nationality in injury cases, though estimates put the figure as high as 11% – again, double the expected level.

Many workplaces have already dealt with safety issues with migrant labour. Crews in rail maintenance, for instance, are often on ethical lines so that colleagues educate each other.  Often workplaces call on an established worker from a specific ethnic area to take the lead in supervising others and passing on OHS information.  These adhoc processes still need to be verified as effective but have worked in many workplaces for decades.

A recent rumour posted to the Australian website illustrates the type of attitude to migrant workers and the mixing of concerns about safety and industrial issues.

A Chinese owned mining project is advertising for a Bilingual (English Mandarin) Registered Nurse on their website [since removed].  The role is stated to be designed for liaison with Chinese workers and is required to have industrial safety knowledge, reporting directly to a company director?  How many Chinese workers is this project bringing into Australia given the recent restrictions on 457s [migrant work visas], what about the requirement for foreign workers to have some competency in English, anecdotal evidence that building and construction labour rates are already decreasing and how would the unions view this approach to health and safety of foreign workers?

One OHS expert at the law firm’s seminar accepted that the language requirements were woefully inadequate and not suited for the workplace situation.  It would be refreshing to see an OHS professional association begin lobbying the government on improving the language criteria for visa eligibility.  

The unions would be equally concerned about the safety of any workers onsite, hopefully regardless of the workers’ union membership status. 

Australia is in a lucky situation where many workplaces could continue to operate without migrant labour but the world and its economy is changing, and Australia will be dragged into the real world of the modern international workforce.  It is lucky because it has the opportunity to prepare.  It is such a shame that the preparation remains so thin.

Kevin Jones

Farmers creating dis-harmony in OHS legislation Reply

Australia is undergoing a process of national harmonisation on workplace safety legislation.  The government has played down the chances of  State jurisdictions creating exemptions to, or variations of, OHS law.  The message was that we are all “singing from the same song sheet”. 

Even before model OHS legislation has been approved, the New South Wales Farmer’s Federation has wangled an exemption from the driver fatigue legislation in that state.

According to the President of the NSW Farmer’s Federation, Jock Laurie, the fatigue law was not about reducing or removing fatigue from the transport industry, it was about 

“bureaucrats finding other ways to make life difficult for people”.

He is willing to even go on the record with the statement – Jock Laurie

As farmer and outspoken conservative Senator Bill Heffernan, said in Parliament on 22 September 2008, the legislation

“is designed to make driving safer and the work conditions better for drivers in Australia, and to harmonise the laws across the states.”

Yet he goes on to support the call for an exemption which results in weakening the harmonisation process.

It seems that farmers who drive trucks long-distances over many hours, particularly during harvest-time, do not have any relationship to the transport industry.  The situation will now be that a petrol tanker driver on a country highway can operate under one set of national OHS and transport rules and a farmer delivering grain to a port operates with an exemption – all because maintainign a log book is unnecessary red tape!

This threat to the harmonisation process should have been jumped on by the Federal government.

However, it has to be said, that inadequate transport infrastructure investment has lead to the closure of country rail lines and increased the need for farmers to transport produce by road, thereby increasing the road risk to rural communities.  Perhaps the farmers’ lobby groups realise they can’t change the big picture so are aiming for little targets.

Kevin Jones

Cost of occupational injuries and illnesses rise Reply

According to a report in the Australian Financial Review (page 5, not available online) on 14 April 2009, the costs of work-related injury and disease has increased to $A57.5 billion.  This represents 5.9% of the country’s gross domestic product, up from 5% in 2000-01.

Of perhaps more concern is the sectors of society which are estiimated to bear these increasing costs.  49% of costs are borne by workers, 47% by the community and 3% by the employers.  Even if the insurance costs were allocated to employers, this would only amount to 18% of the injury and diseases costs.

The figures from the report conducted by the Australian Safety & Compensation Council could justify the push by some in the OHS profession to move workplace safety into the area of public health.  Regardless, the spread of the cost should be borne in mind when OHS organisations lobby government for more support and attention.

Kevin Jones

Unions step-up OHS concerns over nanotechnology 1

The Australian Council of Trade Unions has updated its campaign over nanotechnology concerns.  Geoff Fary, Assistant Secretary, said in a media statement 

“With animal tests showing some nanomaterials share the same characteristics and reactions as asbestos fibres, governments and business must not repeat the  painful lessons of the past and allow another tragedy to occur again.

 “Existing laws and regulations were not designed with the unique properties of nanoscale materials in mind. A recent report from the NSW Parliament recommended this be addressed and we believe it should be done nationally too.

 “Until we know more about nano materials, we should regulate as if it is dangerous to human health. It is the only safe option.

 “Workers in manufacturing, retail, health, laboratories, textiles, and outdoor workers are potentially exposed to nanomaterials, and the list will grow as the industry grows.”

These comments are reminiscent of the Luddites of the Industrial Revolution however the Luddites had not experienced pernicious widespread hazards such as asbestos.  The modern society and workplace has benefited from a better understanding of occupational hazards and the union campaign deserves an audience.

The union concerns are outlined in a factsheet available through this link actufactsheet0904-nanotech

Kevin Jones

An interview that SafetyAtWorkBlog conducted with the ACTU OHS Officer, Steve Mullins, is available HERE.  A podcast with an award-winning nanotechnology researcher is available HERE

Australian trade unions hijack the World Day of Safety 1

Every year the ILO sponsors the World Day for Health and Safety At Work on 28 April 2009.  This day is a day of remembrance for most countries where people reflect on those who have died at work in the previous year.  Each year, these days are full of tears and grief, and motivation for safety professionals to work harder.

When handled well these are days of sorrow and dignity.  Sadly, occasionally,  these days are hijacked by the trade union movement in their industrial campaigns that only indirectly relate to workplace safety.

A couple of years ago, at the height of the union campaign to oust the Howard Government in Australia, the Victorian Trades Hall spokesperson, Brian Boyd, spoke passionately in support of the campaign.  His political calls did not relate to the memories of the dead workers who people were there to remember and mourn.

For 2009, the Construction Forestry, Mining and Energy Union has imposed their campaign against the Australia Building & Construction Commission on the World Day for Health and Safety At Work, or Workers’ Memorial Day, whichever matches one’s political leanings.  This demeans the original intention of the day and should be criticised.

The tenuousness of the ABCC campaign and safety is discussed elsewhere but it is inappropriate for the CFMEU Construction Division National Secretary, Dave Noonan, to link in a media statement the two issues:

“Each week on an Australian construction sites, statistics show that a worker will die. We cannot let this go on for another week let alone for another five years.  Construction workers and unions are today making a stand for safety. If that means we have to have stop work meetings for safety or refuse to cooperate with the ABCC, then that’s what we’ll do.”

It is believed that there are no restrictions for meetings to discuss OHS matters on construction sites but there are conditions for union right-of-entry on OHS matters as listed below.  The processes seem reasonable and are similar to the processes applied for several years in the Victorian jurisdiction.

It is disappointing to the OHS profession to link safety with a non-safety-related industrial campaign.  What is more disturbing is the misuse of a memorial day to dead workers for political ends.

Kevin Jones

According to the website of the ABCC:

“1. A union official must have one of the following valid reasons to enter your site:

  • Investigate, on reasonable grounds, a suspected breach of the Workplace Relations Act 1996, a collective agreement, an award, an AWA or an order of the AIRC
  • Hold discussions with members or workers eligible to be members of the union
  • Perform inspections and functions under an OHS law *

If none of these reasons apply you have the right to refuse entry.”


“Union officials must comply with your reasonable requests about:

  • The rooms or areas they may use on the site for holding discussions
  • The route they should take to access those rooms or areas
  • Occupational health and safety”

* Under the Workplace Relations Act 1996 union officials who enter a worksite for OHS purposes must hold a valid federal permit, produce that permit on request, exercise those rights during working hours and comply with reasonable OHS requirements.

Roadwork zone speed limit enforcement Reply

At the Safety In Action Conference recently, Geoff Knox, CEO of Downer EDI spoke about the need to respect speed limits on roadwork sites.  He mentioned this because his company conducts a lot of this type of work, but anyone who has driven through such a zone at the reduced speed limit sees many cars and truck travelling much faster, and only metres away from workers. included a rumour in its 9 April 2009 bulletin that says on a stretch of the Monash Freeway that is being widened, that 

“..within the Vic State Government that there is a tacit understanding not to police this stretch of road outside of peak hours and that between 50% & 60% of drivers are speeding. “

There are many instances where “tacit understandings” evolve into, or are considered, corruption and it is very disappointing that speed cameras, or other speed enforcement tactics, are not being applied in a circumstance where the need has never been more obvious.

Police threatened a blitz on the Monash in November 2008 if speed was not reduced.

In typical Crikey styles, there is a suggestion that there is a political advantage in this for nearby shaky electorates but the rumourmonger’s final comment brought the rumour into our context.

Vicroads are known to be particularly concerned about worker safety, particularly at night when work is being undertaken. There is a tragedy waiting to happen, and the finger pointing after the fact will be most interesting.”

Kevin Jones