Financial dive for WorkCover NSW 1

SafetyAtWorkBlog recently reported on the financial results of the workers’ compensations schemes in South Australia and Victoria.  WorkCover New South Wales results were released on 7 April 2009.

According to an article in the Australian Financial Review (page 4, not available on line) the WorkCover NSW fund fell by $2.3 billion – the $625 million surplus in 2007-08 has plunged to a $1.77 billion deficit.  

WorkCover NSW has talked in the past about its positive achievements, and historically, they are right.  In their Annual Report 2007-08, they say (page 8 )

“The WorkCover Scheme’s financial position has improved from a deficit of $3.2 billion in 2002 to a surplus of $625 million in June 2008.”

“Accentuate the positives” is the government mantra across all departments but how do you continue to do this when your funding model has collapsed.  The AFR report says that Standard & Poor has estimated that this deficit represents 3% of the government’s consolidated revenue.  WorkCover is just one authority that relies on stockmarket returns

The Minister, Joe Tripodi is quoted in media reports as saying that the deficit was expected and is understandable and that the workers compensation scheme is “sound”.

Richard Gilley, a risk management consultant, said that economic downturns often coincide with an increase in the “frequency and severity of claims”.  

Tripodi has pledged not to increase premiums as that is the insurance cost to business, but one has to ask why not?  Premiums have been reduced throughout Australia during the “good” economic times with the understanding that this would increase the profitability of business and, maybe, just maybe, provide additional funds for business to reinvest in the safety levels of the business.

Perhaps this is the wrong time to increase premiums but the question should be asked nevertheless.

It is recommended that those government authorities who accept their excessive high premiums as the cost of operating in their sector be audited and the results presented to the board and the governing authority.  There are government authorities who do not recognize that the millions they pay in premiums originate from taxpayers and that, in 2008, maybe the community deserves the money that is being wasted in poorly-managed OHS and Return-To-Work systems in the public sector.

Kevin Jones

Stolen blog articles 4

Dear Readers

It is fairly clear that I write for a living.  Recently there have been several cases of bloggers and websites using my postings without permission.  This used to be called stealing.

I frequently share my work with magazines, websites and others, if they ask first and tell me why they want it.

If you like what you read and want to tell your colleagues, that’s great.  It’s even better if you commission work from me.  But please ask for reuse of my articles.  Thieves never get permission.

Kevin Jones

The misuse of OHS in industrial relations campaigns 1

Workplace safety and industrial relations are undeniably tied together in terms of policy development, legislation and implementation.  This week the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) used the occupational safety record of the Australian construction industry to criticise the Australian Building & Construction Commission (ABCC).  

wilcoxreportmarch2009-coverIt should be stated here that SafetyAtWorkBlog does not support the ABCC.  The Commission is a travesty and a political construct of the conservative side of politics.  That the Rudd Labor government has allowed the Commission to persist is atrocious.  However, the ABCC was established because of the perception that the Australian building and construction industry was corrupt, regardless of the absence of evidence through the Cole Royal Commission.  Has the construction unions addressed this perception? No.

In the 3 April 2009 media statement issued by Dave Noonan, CFMEU Construction Division National Secretary, there are the following comments

“The right of construction workers to have a safe working environment is a glaring hole in the report. Justice Wilcox has skimmed over the issue of safety, which is a basic right of construction workers.

Safety was not part of the scope of the inquiry for Justice Wilcox.  Action may have been taken by the ABCC on union representatives who were on construction sites to discuss safety but it is the presence on the site and the way that presence was achieved that is the issue, not whether the site is safe or not.

“It is shameful that the two employers used to prop up arguments for the retention of the powers of the ABCC, BHP Billiton and John Holland, have had a worker die on site in the last fortnight,” said Dave Noonan.

SafetyAtWorkBlog has elsewhere mentioned the poor safety record of BHP Billiton and the campaign on worker safety by the unions against John Holland.  However, these two companies are operating within their legal rights even if one does not agree with their decisions.  The focus of attention should be given to the current government which has chosen to act slowly on the ABCC, an organisation the Australian Labor Party, in opposition, opposed.

The difficulty for the union movement is that the ALP requires the ongoing support of the Australian labour movement to provide it with membership and finance (not to mention a career path for the trade union secretaries).  The trade unions need the political influence of the ALP and are obliged to criticise politely but not too overtly.

“The 154 page report does not mention the safety record of the construction industry or the fact that one worker dies on average each week.”

Safety was outside Justice Wilcox’s terms of reference.

“The so called ‘industrial harmony’ brought about by the ABCC and heralded by Justice Wilcox comes at the expense of the lives of construction workers.  We have deteriorating safety on construction site across Australia. At the very time Justice Wilcox was finalising his report, BHP and John Holland had a construction worker killed on their project,” said Mr Noonan.

Noonan does not offer evidence of the link between the operation of the ABCC and “deteriorating safety”.  It is suspected that such research would indicate that the correlation is not that clear and that there are many other factors affecting safety management.

“Industrial harmony” is an unfair description as even totalitarian regimes can claim harmony.

“The report also fails to deal with breaches to International law by the building and construction laws. Australia has been criticised by the International Labor Organisation six times for undermining workers rights.”

This is again outside the inquiry’s scope.  The ILO criticism is valid but the capacity to change is not with Justice Wilcox or the ABCC but with Australia’s politicians, who should be the union’s real targets.

“Australia’s construction unions will continue with the campaign for rights on site, using the full strength of the union movement.”

This is no more than what the union movement was established for.  The union movement needs to remind itself that it is a member organisation and that worker rights are not necessarily the same as union rights.  Not all union activity benefits its members.

“Workers rights to a safe workplace and equality before the law are core Labor principles. Construction workers, their unions and 10,000 working Australian’s will continue to campaign for rights on site, so all Australian worker [sic] are equal before the law,” said Mr Noonan 

There are two issues here that Noonan has lumped together – workplace safety and worker equality.  Regardless of union action or union presence, every Australian worker has the right to a safe and healthy work environment.  Equality is harder to achieve but just as much a human right.

Above, the perception of corruption in the construction industry was mentioned.  The exploitation of OHS in an industrial campaign against John Holland and the ABCC is unfair and insulting and may indicate that the union movement is not gaining traction on the industrial campaign.

It may just be that the media statement from the CFMEU is an expression of frustration and disappointment with the government that the union movement campaigned hard to bring to power and who is not providing the expected return on investment.

The union movement in Australia needs to realise that the industrial relations environment, like the upcoming OHS legislation, cannot be wound back but that a new future is possible.  There is no vision in Noonan’s media statement only a complaint that the Rudd government is breaking its promise and, in the general populace,  noone outside the union movement seems to care.

Kevin Jones

UPDATE ON ABCC – 6 April 2009

The Australian Greens issued a statement in early April 2009 questioning the government’s choice to retain industrial relations rules introduced by the previous, conservative, government.

Senator Rachel Siewert said

“We do not, however, support his recommendations for the separate division within the Fair Work Ombudsman to retain compulsory interrogation powers and the ability to deny workers their right to silence.”

“There is no justification to continue this discrimination against building workers. The building industry must be regulated just like any other industry – in a fair and just manner that balances the needs of productivity and the economy with the health, safety and democratic rights of workers.” 

Why won’t the Tasmanian government release the OHS report into the Beaconsfield mine collapse? 2

Since the 2006 rockfall at Beaconsfield Mine in Tasmania, the public has received limited information.  There have been books about the rescue of two workers and the Coroner’s inquest into the death of Larry Knight.  Greg Mellick undertook an investigation into the rockfall and found that noone was to blame for the rockfall.

Many workplace disasters have generated royal commissions in Australia.  The rockfall did not.  However, industry specialists, OHS professionals and others have established an expectation that investigations and reports into industrial disasters are publicly accessible.

The expectation is not unreasonable given that the OHS profession, legal profession, engineers and others operate within a belief that the analysis of disasters can provide ways of avoiding a recurrence.  Apparently the Tasmanian Government does not understand the significance of information in improving the safety of workers and the public in its State, even though its OHS and mine safety legislation is structured around prevention.

The Tasmanian Coroner released his findings into the death of Larry Knight.  The findings quoted extensively from the 400+ page OHS report from Professor Michael Quinlan that was part of Greg Mellick’s investigation process.  But the report itself is yet to be released.  Nor has the larger report undertaken by Greg Mellick.

The Director of Public Prosecutions has chosen not to lay charges over the rockfall.

The mine is back at full operation.

The survivors of the rockfall are rebuilding their lives.

Only a couple of weeks ago, the Legislative Council Select Committee on Mining Industry Regulation released its report into the State’s mining legislation.  The terms of reference have evolved from the findings of various investigations including Quinlan’s.  The committee was required to investigate

  1. Regulation and workplace standards within the mining and related industries in Tasmania.
  2. Safety performance of the Tasmanian mining industry compared to other primary industries in the State and the mining industry nationally.
  3. The role of Workplace Standards Tasmania in the regulation of the mining and associated industries.
  4. The efficacy and limitations of the co-regulatory model within the mining industry in Tasmania; and
  5. Any other matters incidental thereto.

On 2 April 2009 at the Safety In Action Conference in Melbourne, Professor Michael Quinlan expressed bewilderment at the decision to not release his investigation report.

SafetyAtWorkBlog contacted the OHS regulator in Tasmania asking for the Quinlan report.  We were advised that it was likely that the only way to obtain a copy was through Freedom of Information with the Department of Premier & Cabinet. (DPAC)  A representative of DPAC will contact us about the report’s status.

DPAC has a copy of the Mellick report.  The Australian Workers Union has a copy of the Mellick report.  SafetyAtWorkBlog believes there are leaked copies of the report in existence but for some reason, unknown at this time, the public is not permitted to see the report.

The Queensland government has available four reports into mining disasters in the Moura area with one report going back to 1972!!

In the years after the ESSO-Longford gas explosion, Professor Andrew Hopkins published “Lessons From Longford“.  It was for a long time the publisher’s best-selling book.  It is quoted extensively in the OHS and management professions.  Some of Andrew’s terminologies and concepts of safety culture have become ingrained in the psyche of OHS professionals in Australia.

It is hard to see any reason in April 2009 for the Mellick and Quinlan reports not be be publicly available.  Indeed there are many important professional and community reasons for the reports to be seen.

What is the professional legacy of the Tasmanian government’s investigations into the Beaconsfield Mine rockfall in 2004?

What will the government say when the next rockfall occurs in an underground mine?  What will the Premier or the Minister say to the next generation of widows or to the carers of the crippled miners?  Certainly David Bartlett or David Llewellyn cannot say that they did all they could to make workplaces safe.

Kevin Jones

Global pressures on Australian workers compensation schemes 3

Around 18 months ago the Victoria Government launched WorkHealth, a health prevention program that would be funded from the interest generated from the pool of workers compensation funds.  SafetyAtWorkBlog has previously questioned how the program will be funded when its income source is likely to have been severely reduced due to the global economic problems.

On 1 April 2009 WorkCover in South Australia reported a half-year net loss of $313 million. WorkCover CEO Julia Davison said in a media release that

“the global crisis is, as expected, taking its toll.  In the last six months stock markets have declined, investors have experienced significant losses, and interest rates have fallen significantly,” she said  “Like all investors, WorkCover has been hit hard by the global financial downturn.”

Earlier in March 2009, the Chair of the WorkSafe Board Elana Rubin said 

“the significant downturn on the world financial markets and reduction in interest rates had combined to drive a net loss of $1.42 billion for the half year.  Whilst interest rate reductions are good news for those of us with mortgages, they have the opposite effect on our scheme – in the half year to 31 December 2008, the unprecedented level of interest rate cuts negatively impacted our net result by $645 million.”

On 1 April 2009 SafetyAtWorkBlog asked John Merritt why WorkHealth was not mentioned as part of his keynote presentation at the Safety In Action Conference.  He reiterated the importance of the program in easing the recovery time, particularly, for manual handling injuries but acknowledged that the program’s funding source was based on interest

“from the [$600 million of the assets of the] workers compensation scheme over the next five years ….well there used to be interest from assets – there should be one day, there will be again –  around $40 million each year for the next five years will be invested in worker health.”

It is good to hear that the WorkHealth program is going to continue but the fragility of the program’s funding should have been evident in the planning phase.  Governments around the world are pulling back on government funded programs in a wide range of areas.  Ideas that seem good in the good times are now looking like luxuries.  It will be interesting to see if WorkHealth continues in the WorkCover area or moves to Health, where many of its critics have always said it belongs.

Kevin Jones

BHP Billiton deaths – government intervention 3

The West Australian government has taken the extraordinary step of talking directly to the senior management of Australian mining corporation BHP Billiton about the recent spate of fatalities at BHP’s worksites.  The cynic would say that we now know the number of workplace fatalities that it takes to gain a Minister’s attention however, the fact that this high-level meeting is occurring is a clear indication of the severity of the issue.  It may also indicate just how effective a union safety campaign can be.  It is just regrettable the campaign is generated from multiple fatalities rather than preventive issues.

According to the Minister, Nick Moore 

“Mines inspectors will now issue prohibition notices to BHP under the Mines Safety and Inspection Act 1994 – basically a stop work notice – for any breach of work practices or work place conditions that may constitute a hazard to workers.”

Mr Moore went on to say, according to one media article, “…the policy would remain in force until he had seen the report of a Section 45 review currently under way into safety management systems at all of BHP Billiton’s Pilbara iron ore mine sites.” 

The article noted that

“The review, requiring independent engineering studies of BHP worksites to be carried out, is expected to be completed by April 30.”

BHP, meanwhile, has given guarantees of the following safety improvements:

  •          Reduce site access;
  •          Improve contractor management;
  •          Enhance existing strategies to prevent excess working hours;
  •          Move rail operations from the Mine Safety and Inspection Act to the Rail Safety Act;
  •          Enhance traffic management standards, and;
  •          Suspend all non-essential work outside daylight hours

Kevin Jones

Professor Quinlan outlines the roles and approaches of the OHS inspectorate Reply

The Safety in Action conference is lucky to have Professor Michael Quinlan as a keynote speaker, as he has seriously curtailed his conference appearances to favour those that benefit the safety profession over the commercial conferences.  His, and Richard Johnstone’s, research on 1200 inspectors has provided useful insight into the effectiveness and roles of OHS inspectors.  The project also interviewed HSRs and employers and visited a large variety of workplaces.

Michael Quinlan at Safety In Action Conference

Michael Quinlan at Safety In Action Conference

Inspectorate activity focused on in the report was in the traditional areas initially.  But although statistics overstate the effectiveness of the visits, the bulk of their activity relates to targeted strategies, as targeted enforcement provides a greater return.  This may be important to remember when listening to presentations from the regulators about their performance indicators.

Less than half of an inspector’s time is spent in talking with workers.  Most attention was on plant and documentation was low except in major hazard sites.  Inspectors don’t ask about the participatory structures which Quinlan sees as a major deficiency.

Inspectors currently have much better communication skills than in previous incarnations.

In 50% of the cases studied there is no action taken by inspectors, 25% are verbal instructions, improvement notices issued in 34%. 

The research also asked what standards were referred to by the inspectors with the most common being process or performance standards.  Inspectors are very hesitant in providing advice on potential solutions yet they are often the best placed to provide advice.

Inspectorate training has greatly improved and inspectors do apply their enforcement skills selectively.  Some employers want notices in order to gain the attention on safety matters from the executives.

“Zero Harm” often fades to zero injuries and becomes implemented more restrictively than intended due to the realisation of the workload in achieving  the corporate goals.

Inspectors are more cynical on audit tools because the tools in many cases have become checklist compliances with insufficient resources to improve safety in reality.

Inspectors struggle with psychosocial issues but the general opinion is that managing the issues will evolve in a similar way to that of manual handling over the last 20 years.  Often bullying cases can take up a lot of inspector’s time with less than perfect outcomes.

Inspectors are beginning to see safety within the business/management context and provide more assistance with managers.  Inspectors are very aware of the risks associated with paper compliance management systems.

Inspectors don’t interact sufficiently with unions and HSRs.  Well-managed worksites are prepared to include a second opinion on safety, often from unions.  Those sites that are not inclusive should raise a red flag.

Repeat visits by inspectors are the most effective technique in safety improvement but under-resourcing hampers this technique.

Kevin Jones

Impressions of Australian safety Reply

At the Safety In Action conference in Melbourne Australia, SafetyAtWorkBlog was able to catchup with John Lacey, a past President of the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health in England.  John has attended ten of the conferences and has some interesting comments on the conference, how Australian safety differs from the UK and who he would nominate as an example of safety leadership.

The short interview is available at delegate-day-1-02

Forklift truck safety marketing 2

hss0052-1rklifts-developing-0x167b100p-974trafficmanagement-08eb416clanOn 30 March 2009, WorkSafe Victoria released a suggested traffic management plan for forklift trucks.  It basically reiterates the regulators calls over many years of separating pedestrian walkways from traffic areas.

WorkSafe is, justifiably, concerned over this type of workplace machinery and the risks presented by its inappropriate use, as seen by its response to forklift high-jinks recently.

Tomorrow in the Safety In Action Trade Show there will be a forklift driving competition.  This will involve

“Obstacle course tests forklift driver hand-eye coordination and skills. Thousands in prize money”

and there will be 

“Colour, movement, competition, clumsy forklifts moving with grace and speed”

Let’s hope they move safely.

Kevin Jones

Safety conference protest 2

Janet Holmes a Court speaking at the Safety In Action Conference 2009  



Janet Holmes a Court speaking at the Safety In Action Conference 2009

On 31 March 2009, Australian trade unionists (pictured below)  protested outside the Safety In Action Conference.   The crowd was objecting to the presence of Ms Janet Holmes a Court, the chair of  John Holland, as a keynote speaker.  As Dave Noonan, CFMEU Construction Division national secretary, put it

“It is an outrage that a company with a dismal safety record is the key note speaker at a major safety conference,” Mr Noonan said. “John Holland needs to stop talking about safety and start working with the unions to make their worksites safe.” 

Many of the conference delegates who were attended a breakfast seminar were oblivious of the protest outside.  According to a media statement from the Safety Institute of Australia national president, Barry Silburn

“We share the same goal as the unions – to bring safety failures into the public arena and work towards preventing more deaths – so we wholeheartedly support their efforts and were pleased to see them at the conference today,” Mr Silburn said. “We certainly don’t condone the systems failures at John Holland. Janet Holmes a Court’s presentation was an opportunity to hear what went wrong and of her plans to improve those systems. She acknowledged that John Holland had made mistakes and gave delegates the opportunity to learn from them.”  

Recently, the trade union movement has become more strident in its protests about John Holland’s move to the national workers compensation scheme, the only construction contractor to choose this option.  The union argues that safety on John  Holland sites has deteriorated since the move.  They also complain over John Holland restricting union access to their worksites.