Patient (putting his hand up above his head): “Doctor, Doctor, it hurts whenever I do this. “
Doctor: “Well stop doing that.”
This joke scenario implies that some of the advice in medicine is common sense. If something hurts, stop. This simple logic can extend to most professions, including safety.
On August 3 2014, the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA) published a perspective on the hazards of sedentary work. The report has excellent medical evidence on the potential harm of sitting for too long. The advice to reduce risk is simply to get up and move about.
Was such research needed? The glib response is that research is always needed, particularly into what people think is common sense or into those ideas and actions that are entrenched and seem “self-evident” and on which some of our basic social or work institutions are based.
MJA’s article written by a leading physiotherapy academic, Professor Leon Straker with colleagues Genevieve N Healy, Rohan Atherton and David W Dunstan, uses language with which occupational health and safety professionals are very familiar. More…
It is very common to hear people say that the core motivation for introducing or improving workplace safety management is to cover one’s arse (to protect oneself from various legislative and reputational exposures), be that the collective arse of management, the board and executives or the arse of the individual worker. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the intention occupational health and safety (OHS) laws and principles yet the fear of reputational damage is a strong motivator of change with which safety professionals should learn to work and, perhaps, exploit, particularly as the traditional methods for corporate embarrassment, the media, are declining.
The most pertinent research on reputation risk as a motivator for OHS change seems to come from the UK’s Health and Safety Executive in 2005. In a summary report on research into compliance, HSE looked at the motivations of employers for change. It found that reputational damage was one of many motivators and that each was given around the same weight in deliberations but that
“Respondents cite newspaper reports covering serious incidents and requirement to advise customers of incidents as the best way of increasing risk of reputational damage, followed by a requirement to report health and safety in company reports. ” ( page 10)
This change catalyst relies on two increasingly fragile criteria – the media and annual reports. The media has rarely reported on OHS issues unless the incident
- has caused major disruption
- involves a high profile individual or company
- involves children
- can be given a party political context.
In July 22 2014 Dr. Dave Sharar, Managing Director of Chestnut Global Health, stated:
“Business leaders here and abroad are starting to understand the need for systematic, scientifically proven approaches in alleviating the behaviors and conditions that compromise employee performance. Managing the stress and the counterproductive behaviors that often result, is critical — but the key to success when engaging different populations in different parts of the world is to place these programs in a ‘culturally aware’ context, which lowers barriers and improves both engagement and outcomes.”
Most of the quote is inarguable and links the management of stress to the management of productivity. However what was intriguing was the later part of the quote about locating stress management programs in a culturally aware context in different parts of the world. SafetyAtWorkBlog established a quick dialogue with Dr Sharar about the quote. Below is the result.
A major element of Corporate Social Responsibility has been to try to apply a safety management system across many workplaces that is consistent with a uniform corporate program and values. How can one address the culturally attuned context while still addressing the core corporate safety values? More…
Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are excellent resources for minimising harm from workplace issues, particularly psychosocial hazards. However this usually occurs after an event or an incident. This reality was emphasised recently by a media release from AccessEAP that revealed “the top five causes of workplace stress” (not available online but an article based closely on the release is available HERE) . The top 5 seems reasonable but the advice in the media release doesn’t seem to address the causes of the top 2 – Job Insecurity and Work Overload. These are difficult hazards to address particularly as the causes may originate outside the workplace but the media release indicates that to be effective safety managers it is necessary to look beyond the company’s fenceline and accept that the prevention of harm is now just as much social and political as it is occupational.
The top 5 triggers of workplace stress according to AccessEAP are:
- Job insecurity
- Work overload
- Organisational change
- Conflict with managers or colleagues
- Bullying and harassment
Such triggers are not unusual. In 2002 the Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine (JOEM) reported the following causes of stress at work: More…
In 2013 the Safety Science journal allowed open access to an article that discusses “The case for research into the zero accident vision” (ZAV). The terminology is slightly different but seems compatible with the “zero harm” trend occurring in Australia. The authors acknowledge that
“…. many companies with a good safety reputation have adopted a zero accident vision, yet there is very little scientific research in this field.” (link added)
Although the discussion revolves around experience in Finland and Finland has a unique culture, the concepts discussed are indicative of the ZAV:
- “accounting for complex contexts;
- setting up norms, rules and performance indicators;
- identifying the role of safety climate and safety culture;
- studying human behavior.”
The authors’ short discussion of context is important as it acknowledges the state of knowledge of hazards and advocates systemic analysis. It also mentions dealing with ‘normal accidents” in complex settings that leads to either looking for safer substitutes or ‘high reliability theory’ and ‘resilience engineering’. Context is vital but there is also the trap of paying too much attention to context and not enough to the hazard, a situation that can often happen with wellbeing programs. More…
On 1 July 2014, the Victorian Government introduce a mandatory drug and alcohol testing regime for the sections of the construction industry. According to the government’s media release:
“New requirements for tighter screening of drug and alcohol use at construction workplaces across Victoria will commence from 1 July, helping to ensure a safer and more secure environment for workers.”
This decision has been made on the basis of “widespread reports of workers being intoxicated, and of drug distribution and abuse” but the rest of the media release reveals other reasons for these changes including political pressure on its Labor Party and trade union opponents in the months before a close State election. Premier Denis Napthine has indicated that the move is also about cracking down on “outlaw motorcycle gangs dealing drugs on the sites”.
But are reports of potential criminality on building site enough to introduce a drug and alcohol testing regime? It is worth looking at some of the existing research on drug and alcohol use (or its absence) in Australian and Victorian work sites.
Since I heard about the Gaia hypothesis in the 1980s, I have read most of James Lovelock‘s books. I was confronted by his argument that nuclear power is undervalued as one of the cleanest and sustainable sources of power, as I have grown up listening to anti-nuclear activists like Helen Caldicott and being frightened by films like Fail Safe and Threads. I am not sure I agree with Lovelock but I respect him. In his latest book, though, he makes a couple of negative references to occupational health and safety (OHS) that are cheap shots, unfair or disappointing.
Lovelock says, on page 2 of “A Rough Ride to the Future” that the chemical industry is “now mainly run by an intelligent and usually responsible technocracy” but that
“…we may be hampered in our attempts to solve the large problems [of pollution] by the absurdly zealous application of health and safety laws.” (emphasis added)
In discussing oxygen levels in the atmosphere and how its regulation is so important, Lovelock says, in parentheses,
“We are fortunate there is no inbuilt health and safety system in Gaia, otherwise the dangers of fires would have led to the banning of its production.” (page 13)
This comment, moreso than the former, shows Lovelock misunderstands OHS regulation and application. Earlier in the book he praises the banning of chlorofluorocarbons on climatic reasons and then, absurdly, implies that OHS would advocate the banning of oxygen. It’s a cheap shot. OHS is about trying to eliminate the risk of harm and by investigating the source of the hazard, usually through the scientific method. More…
How can an OHS regulator get the management of its own staff so wrong?
In June 2014, a NSW Parliamentary inquiry released its final report into Allegations of bullying in WorkCover NSW, that State’s occupational health and safety (OHS) regulator. The report found that
“…Workcover has a significant organisational problem with bullying. This problem is a longstanding one and operates at a cultural level.” (page x)
The Committee Chairman Hon Fred Nile MLC, wrote that
“more effective leadership and governance is essential.” (page x)
Longstanding bullying problems? Problems with leadership and governance? Many companies and public sector organisations have had similar issues ambulances, police, fire services, research organisations, to name a few, and are working them through. What happened in New South Wales?
The decline of trade union influence in Australia, as membership remains low, has the sad effect of also seeing a reduced voice for some core elements of occupational health and safety (OHS) such as the importance and prominence of the “safe system of work”, the myth of the “careless worker” and the insidious hazard of impairment. These OHS issues remain significant and demand attention but who will be the new voice of workplace safety?
Impairment is a collective term that many trade unionists use for workplace hazards such as fatigue, drug use, alcohol use and other psychosocial hazards, such as stress. Impairment is a useful term as it relates to the worker’s fitness for work and the level of attentiveness that the employer expects as part of the employment contract. It also ties into the issue of labour productivity as an impaired worker, regardless of the cause of the impairment, is unlikely to be working as hard or as effectively, or productively, as the employer expects.
The downside is that using a collective term makes it more difficult to focus on specific interventions. Drug and alcohol use can be combated by a combination of preventive education and enforcement through testing but such strategies cannot be applied to fatigue or stress although both these elements may be contributory factors to drug and alcohol use. Stress and fatigue are more effectively reduced by job redesign and a reassessment of the organisational structure and morality, in other words, the establishment of a “safe system of work” as required by both the OHS and Work Health and Safety (WHS) laws.
Impairment may have some connotations of disability but its attraction is that it is a neutral term for describing something, or someone, that is not working as intended due to an external factor. It is a good descriptor but a poor term from which to base anything more than general action.
Safe System of Work
The “safe system of work” has been a term whose definition never seemed to have stabilised in Australia’s legislation. This is partly because it has been treated similar to a workplace culture, something that is thought to exist but never really understood.
When people mention safety, they are often really talking about risk. In a similar way, people talk about the absurdity of ‘elf ‘n’ safety when they actually mean public liability or food safety or HACCP. And when some professionals talk about risk management they mean minimising the cost to the employer or controlling reputational damage.
Recently two books were released that illustrate the limitations of the current Western/patriarchal society’s approach to workplace safety. Dr Dean Laplonge has written about gender and its role in making decisions and Dr Rob Long has written his third book on risk “Real Risk – Human Discerning and Risk“. Both deserve close reading and that reading should be used to analyse how safety professionals conduct their work, the organisational environment in which they work and the cultural restrictions imposed in their technical education.
Laplonge has written a book out of the extensive research and training on gender issues in the mining industry. “So you think you’re tough? – Getting serious about gender in mining” provokes thoughts and self-analysis about gender in the workplace and safety management systems. This perspective may be part of the reason that attempts at changing safety cultures, particularly in industries where there is a strong gender imbalance – construction, mining, emergency services, nursing, teaching, struggle. (For those who cannot purchase the book, check out this free publication on the topic from the WA Department of Mines and Petroleum) More…