As part of Safe Work Australia month, or perhaps coincidentally, the Australian Council of Trade Unions held its annual occupational health and safety (OHS) conference in Melbourne, Australia. On the morning of day 2, the conference heard from the Shadow Minister for Employment Relations, Brendan O’Connor. The Minister is from the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and had a sympathetic audience but he made several interesting points, particularly when he diverged from the scripted speech (which will be available online shortly) and when he took questions.
Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program
O’Connor supports the ALP position that the Home Insulation Program (HIP) Royal Commission was a purely political affair to target previous ALP government ministers. He emphasised that the Royal Commission was the last in a long line of inquiries into worker deaths and OHS prosecutions related to the HIP program and that this inquiry has achieved very little change. O’Connor said (ad libbed)
“…. that Royal Commission has not recommended any changes to the regulations or obligations on employers to do the right thing at the workplace. It’s almost worse than doing nothing, than to use the health and safety of the workers as a political weapon against your political opponent. That’s how dismissive this government is with respect to health and safety.
Let’s set up a Royal Commission. Let’s summons a former Labor Prime Minister and other Ministers but, of course, all of which we could accept and we supported the establishment of the Royal Commission if that’s what they chose to do, with one caveat – that was, go ahead with the eleventh inquiry into these tragic deaths but make sure that when there are findings about the deficiencies in the law that protects the interests of working people, particularly young workers, do something about it.
Well we’ve seen nothing. We’ll see nothing in terms of changing the law by this government because that was purely a political exercise. To me this underlines how cynical this government is when it comes to health and safety. It only saw it as a political exercise and, I’m afraid to say, you won’t see too many good policy changes as a result of that Commission.”
One of the most ignored, but important, elements of occupational health and safety (OHS) management is the business case. Work on this issue is being completed in Australia by Safe Work Australia but the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) has beaten it to the punch by releasing “The business case for safety and health at work: Cost-benefit analyses of interventions in small and medium-sized enterprises“. This document includes new case studies that provide detailed analysis of cost and return on investment from interventions as varied as a vacuum lifter for pavers to warm-up exercises and task assessments of domestic builders by qualified physiotherapists.
The report found that:
- “Wide-ranging interventions appear to be more profitable than interventions targeting a particular
issue related to the sector of the enterprise.
- Interventions that mainly concern training and organisational change appear to be more profitable than interventions based on technical changes (such as introducing new equipment).
- Interventions that include direct worker (participatory) involvement appear to be more profitable, regardless of whether or not increased productivity benefits are taken into account in the
- In most cases, the enterprises managed to estimate benefits related to increased productivity. It
should be emphasised that increased productivity does not always come as a result of improved
safety and health, but it is taken into account in the context of a business case.” (page 10)
Twelve months ago, some Australia media, including this blog, began reporting on safety concerns raised by the Working At Heights Association (WAHA) about the reliability and suitability of anchor points. Australia is currently in the middle of Safe Work Australia Month and there seems to have been little progress on the issue. A reader of SafetyAtWorkBlog provided the following summary and update of the situation:
Who checks the true safety of equipment designed to save the lives of Australian workers? Nobody in particular, it seems.
Last September, the Working At Heights Association, an industry body staffed by volunteers, revealed many of the most commonly-used roof anchors failed to meet basic safety standards. Almost a year later, the association is still battling to see rooftops made safe, despite repeated appeals for action from the OHS regulators and the absence of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).
An estimated 800,000 Australians work at height and routinely clip their harnesses onto safety anchors. A worker falls to his or her death every 12 days and WAHA chairman Michael Biddle said authorities should be concerned. Biddle told Industry Update magazine
“It’s the third highest cause of death in the workplace after motor vehicle accidents and being hit by moving objects. In most cases, regulators are more concerned in taking a reactive approach after an accident has happened. There is a great need for an enhanced level of enforcement. If we had an increase in penalties and stronger enforcement of standards I’m sure we would see a higher level of compliance by industry.”
Later this month, the Victorian WorkCover Authority (VWA) will be releasing a document entitled “Integrated approaches to worker health, safety and well-being” (pictured right, but not yet available online). It is intended to generate discussion on how to improve workplace safety performance by breaking down the walls of various disciplines, production processes, consultative silos and institutional or organisational biases. This document builds on the overseas experience of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH – Total Worker Health program), the World Health Organisation (WHO – Healthy Workplace Framework) and others to provide an Australian context.
Those who are experienced in risk management principles may see little new in this approach and the publication’s success is likely to depend on how VWA explains the initiative and how its stakeholders, Victorian businesses of all sizes, accept the concept and believe it can work in their own workplaces.
The release of a publication advocating Integration implies that an unintegrated approach to safety management has been an impediment to change. This may be a surprise to risk managers and those who have been consulting broadly on OHS in their workplaces and those companies who have integrated systems managers with responsibility for Quality, OHS and Environment. More…
Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott provided his interim response to the Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program (HIP) in Parliament on 30 September, 2014. One should not expect much sustainable or cultural change from an interim response but Abbott’s responses hold some promise.
The commitments include:
“…[asking] Minister Hunt [Environment] to assume responsibility to oversee the Commonwealth response and to coordinate actions across departments and ministers.”
“…[asking] the Minister for Employment to examine these [OHS] findings, particularly as they relate to the reliance of the Commonwealth on state and territory laws, and his work will inform the government’s final response.”
“Minister Hunt and the Minister for Finance have been asked to recommend options to compensate their next of kin [of the deceased workers]”
The annual Safe Work Australia month starts today. The promotion of this month has fluctuated wildly over the last decade. Sometimes there are physical launches with interesting speakers, sometimes balloons and merchandise, other times the national OHS authority has left most of the activity to the States. In 2014, Safe Work Australia has jumped into internet videos, online presentations and webinars each day of the month of October (the full schedule is available HERE). This initiative is to be supported but it has not been tried before in Australia and its success is not guaranteed.
As expected the first couple of videos are polite launches of the strategy with statements from Ministers and CEOs. The potential for valuable content is after the initial launch but this value is debatable. It is unclear who the target audience is. If the seminar series is for OHS newbies, a restatement of legislative OHS obligations is of little interest to experienced safety managers and professionals. More…
The 2014 Annual Report of the Victorian WorkCover Authority (VWA) states a new initiative on workplace mental health:
“…a new direction for the VWA’s WorkHealth program has led to the Victorian Mental Wellbeing Collaboration. The VWA has invested in a tripartite collaboration with peak health promotion agencies VicHealth and SuperFriend to develop a range of evidence based tools and resources that will be tested and refined through industry leaders and made broadly available to Victorian workplaces.” (page 25, links added)
Two significant points in this statement are the development of a range of “evidence-based tools and resources” and the pledge to consult. However what is meant by a tripartite consultation in this context is unclear as traditionally OHS consultation has included employer associations, trade unions and government regulators. If health promotion agencies are included in this latest “tripartite collaboration”. Will the employer groups or trade unions be dropped? Consultation on any new OHS/wellbeing initiative should not be constrained in a tripartite combination.
One of the traps in this initiative is the potential confusion by terminologies. “Mental health” is a well-understood term that is readily applied to the workplace by organisations such as the Western Australian Mental Health Commission who quotes the World Health Organisation
“…. good mental health is not simply the absence of a mental disorder. It is a state of wellbeing whereby an individual can realise their own potential, manage everyday stresses, work productively and contribute to their community.” (page 6)
There have been many claims of a workplace bullying epidemic in Australia but there has always been a lack of evidence. Research has been targeted into specific industry sectors or regions but broad ranging studies have been few. This lack of evidence was a major frustration for the Parliamentary Inquiry into Workplace Bullying that concluded in late 2012. However useful evidence is beginning to appear.
A recent edition of the Journal of Health Safety and Environment included a report (subscribers only) entitled “The prevalence and nature of bullying: A national study of Australian workers”. The authors, Dr Sarven McLinton, Maureen Dollard, Michelle Tuckey and Tessa Bailey, wrote that the study
“… shows that nearly 7% of Australian workers reported bullying and harassment in the past six months.” (page 283)
Corporate maturity, especially in the area of workplace health and safety, is an increasingly important consideration in determining the preparedness of an organisation to change and embrace OHS as a crucial element of its business operations. There are several advocates of determining corporate maturity usually based around Hudson’s five levels of maturity, the most recent seems to be the Australian Constructors’ Association (ACA) in conjunction with RMIT University (see parts 8-7 of the document pictured below), but these tools are often aimed at the upper levels of an organisation.
Recently the Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR) produced a series of handouts that apply a variation of the maturity matrix to separate components of safety culture.
These levels include:
Next month Australia hosts the G20 but there is always a lot of activity leading to this meeting and labour relations is part of that preparation. In September 2014 the G20 conducted its Labour and Employment Ministerial meeting at which a Declaration was released that includes some occupational health and safety (OHS) information. The Declaration is full of “weasel words” and “soft verbs” but it is worth noting so that the actions of governments on OHS in the future can be referenced, even though tangible results will be few.
On promoting safer workplaces, the Declaration states:
“Improving workplace safety and health is an urgent priority that protects workers and contributes to increased productivity and growth. We agree to take further steps to reduce the substantial human and economic costs associated with unsafe workplaces and work-related illnesses. We endorse the attached G20 Statement on Safer and Healthier Workplaces (Annex C), and we commit, as appropriate, to implement its recommendations in collaboration with governments, international organisations and social partners.”
If we were to deconstruct this statement, accepting that the paragraph is extracted from the labour relations context, the Australian Government, and other parties, does not accept that OHS is an “urgent priority”, only that improving it is. Any government can prove that it is “improving” OHS even when controls are removed due to red tape reduction or by the ideological strategy of increasing employer control through increased flexibility. More…