The Senate inquiry into Australia Post should provide important lessons in OHS, HR, RTW and LTIFR

For decades OHS professionals have known that the Lost Time Injury Frequency Rate (LTIFR) does not accurately measure the safety performance of an organisation.  LTIFR can be manipulated and is responsive to single catastrophic events.  The consensus has always been that LTIFR is one indicator of safety improvement but should not be relied upon at that same time as acknowledging there is no real alternative to the LTIFR.

From an Australian Senate inquiry that is currently running and sparked, to some extent, from an ABC current affairs report in September 2009, it seems that the Australian postal service, Australia Post, is doing just that.

One of the attractive managerial elements of LTIFR is that it provides a figure from which incentives and rewards can be provided.  This is attractive to both OHS managers and employers because LTIFR provides a tangible benchmark.

Safety incentives and rewards have been contentious for decades but have come to the fore in this inquiry due to this type of accusation from one of the Australian trade unions, the CEPU ( Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union):

Australia Post boasts that Lost Time Injury records are the lowest they’ve ever been. But those results haven’t been achieved by a safer workplace – rather by manipulating the injury management process to force people back to work and deny employees their rights.

Meanwhile, the same managers receive cash bonuses for reducing Lost Time Injuries in their sections.

The CEPU has documented extensive abuse of the injury management process.

Facility Nominated Doctors

Workers are being bullied into attending company-paid Facility Nominated Doctors.

FNDs are instructed to get people eligible for workers compensation straight back to work, before they’ve had to time to recover.

Australia Post has a commercial contract with InjuryNET, a private organisation, which gives Post access to a network of doctors.

InjuryNET guarantees it will reduce Lost Time Injury rates, lost hours and duration until return to pre-injury duties.

Where workers are not eligible for workers compensation, company doctors are instructed to find them unfit for duties, so Australia Post can direct them off work without pay, or sack them.

The CEPU has obtained email evidence that managers use the injury management process to get rid of ‘undesireable’ (sic) employees.

This is the language Australia Post management uses to describe injured workers.

Many of the attachment the CEPU has provided to the Senate Inquiry are not being publicly released because they include details of many cases of alleged mismanagement.  The CEPU has posted an example of Australia Post’s approach to injured workers on Youtube.

The Australian Government responded to pressure from unions and elsewhere and established the Senate inquiry with the following terms of reference.

“The practices and procedures of Australia Post over the past three years in relation to the treatment of injured and ill workers, including but not limited to:

  1. allegations that injured staff have been forced back to work in inappropriate duties before they have recovered from workplace injuries:
  2. the desirability of salary bonus policies that reward managers based on lost time injury management and the extent to which this policy may impact on return to work recommendations of managers to achieve bonus targets:
  3. the commercial arrangements that exist between Australia Post and InjuryNet and the quality of the service provided by the organisation:
  4. allegations of Compensation Delegates using fitness for duty assessments from Facility Nominated doctors to justify refusal of compensation claims and whether the practice is in breach of the Privacy Act 1988 and Comcare policies:
  5. allegations that Australia Post has no legal authority to demand medical assessments of injured workers when they are clearly workers’ compensation matters:
  6. the frequency of referrals to InjuryNet Doctors and the policies and circumstances behind the practices:
  7. the comparison of outcomes arising from circumstances when an injured worker attends a facility nominated doctor, their own doctor and when an employee attends both, the practices in place to manage conflicting medical recommendations in the workplace; and
  8. any related matters.”

Some submissions to the inquiry have been made publicly available, including a submission by Australia Post.  The company responds to each of the allegations included in the terms of reference.   A frequent response from Australia Post is that its actions do not breach the law be it privacy legislation, workers’ compensation or its own policies.  This defence is common for companies and organisations but it is often contrary to many of the arguments from the workers.

In the video above Brett Griffin describes the treatment from his managers at Australia Post as “wrong”.  It may be wrong but is it illegal?  This is the question that most Courts and judges face.

However this inquiry ends, the management of its employees seems not to have been to an acceptable level.  The safety and HR Management system seems not to have been working properly.  The evidence for this is the number of disgruntled employees and ex-workers and the existence of the Senate inquiry.

Clearly Australia Post’s conduct was not “best practice”.   In the company’s recently released annual Corporate Responsibility Report it says this under the section for People Management:

“The effective management of our human resources is, therefore, of vital importance to our brand strength, community engagement, service performance and financial returns. Over several decades, we have developed a set of policies and programs that are designed to protect and reward our people – including progressive industrial relations policies; proactive management of occupational health and safety; continuation of our successful injury management, rehabilitation and return-to-work programs; a strong commitment to diversity; structured workplace learning; and effective grievance procedures.”

RTWMatters said in an article on its website (subscriber access only) in late September 2009 this about Australia Post:

“Some of our team have had first-hand experience with Australia Post’s return to work. In the select number of cases they have dealt with the Australia Post system has been found to be frustrating and seemingly lacking in genuine interest in the employee. Perhaps our team has seen only isolated examples, not representative of the general approach – if so our opinion may be swayed by the appropriate data. Our experience is that the Australia Post system focuses on ‘process before people’.”

The “Senate Inquiry into Australia Post’s treatment of injured and ill workers” will undoubtedly provide important lessons that will be relevant globally on safety incentives, LTIFRs, return-to-work practices in a large organisation, rehabilitation provider conduct, and, most importantly, how to manage injured staff.  What should not be lost in any inquiry of this type is that the inquiry exists because people have been hurt and, they feel, unfairly treated.

Kevin Jones

[Kevin Jones is a feature writer for RTWMatters]

All non-confidential  submissions can be accessed as they are uploaded at http://www.aph.gov.au/senate/committee/eca_ctte/aust_post/submissions.htm

5 thoughts on “The Senate inquiry into Australia Post should provide important lessons in OHS, HR, RTW and LTIFR”

  1. I hurt my right knee on 8th Dec’08 – in a work related accident–
    I believe that if my operation had not been delayed from the date (8/12/08) the accident – until 16/01/09 — I would not be having the probems with my right knee that I am having at present…

    these problems are as follows:

    (1) swelling, aching & pain of the right knee
    (2) days that I can’t walk propley

    Mario

  2. Kevin

    From my experience with the rehab of injured workers, company nominated doctors and professional can raise issues of bias. Injured workers have an option of nominating a treating doctor.

    Faith

  3. I have read the post by Mr Kevin Jones and may I epress my appreciation for the accurate content contained within on behalf of the mnay inured and ill workers within Australia Post and the CEPU.

    Cheers

    Jim Metcher

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