As an example of “tabloid TV” the Today Tonight (TT) report broadcast on 17 February 2010 concerning children assisting workers to install insulation, was very good. It probably benefited from my own appearances remaining brief.
The topicality of a story on the home insulation industry could not have been higher yesterday as a Senate inquiry into the Australian Government’s environment and job creation scheme held hearings in Melbourne. TT led its show with the scandalous report.
The video of a young boy handling large bags of insulation on a roof is disturbing; the unprotected handling of the insulation material by the young boy is similar. That the children were allowed to be on the roof by the homeowner and parents is a parental supervision issue and outside the scope of this blog. That the workers allowed them to be present and did not tell the children to get down is more disturbing and a clear breach of the workers’ OHS obligations.
It is significant that the program producers did not include any statement from the Federal Government regulators of the insulation scheme, perhaps they had decided that their viewers were sufficiently informed already. It is also significant that a representative of the State’s OHS regulator, WorkSafe, did not appear on the program. Workplace safety is a state government responsibility. WorkSafe was aware of the video’s existence early in the process but did not receive a copy or view the video until after the program had been broadcast.
TT provided extensive coverage of the neighbor who filmed the event. If the neighbour’s awareness of safety (work and public) is typical of Victorians, the OHS and police promotional campaigns by government are failing. The woman was uncertain whether the police should have been called for this type of activity. YES, children are at risk. The emergency number in Australia is 000.
The neighbor says on the program, “I can’t believe they are doing this”. It is hard to believe that she did not call the police.
She says that you can’t ring any government departments because they are closed on the weekend. (Did she try?) In terms of OHS this is not true. WorkSafe Victotria’s homepage has a 1800 phone number on the homepage. That page also includes a “contact us” option at the top of the screen which, when clicked, lists the following
“To report serious workplace emergencies contact our 24 hour emergency response line on 13 23 60.”
It is clear from the video taken inside her house that she has a computer. It is likely that this is connected to the internet. WorkSafe contact information could have been sought at the time of the incident. What this situation indicates is that OHS promotional campaigns may be raising the awareness of safety issues but is not providing contact details for members of the public to report unsafe activities in workplaces. Whether WorkSafe would agree that allowing children to be on a roof while work is being undertaken is a “serious workplace emergency” or not is unclear. Twenty years ago the “hotline” usually rang for dangerous incidents or fatalities, which could have said more about safety awareness in specific industries or locations.
The proprietor of the installation company damns himself when in his conversation with the reporter, Linda Kincaid, by his acknowledgement that he is not confident that his employees are working safely. (The filming of this interview is likely to have occurred days after the filmed event. The proprietor states he was unaware of the risk his workers allowed the children to undertake. It was obvious that he had not seen the video footage. I was invited into the TV studio and viewed the footage in the editing room. Such a courtesy could have been given to the proprietor.) The primary OHS responsibility sits with the employer and his admission indicates a lack of supervision.
Kincaid talks about the hazardous nature of the insulation material as the video shows a child scratching themselves after handling the material. Insulation material can be hazardous but there is no information provided about what the actual material being installed is. Package labeling is slight and indistinguishable so the presence or otherwise of any safety precaution cannot be commented upon. However, the reporter describes the material as toxic, an issue discussed further below.
PPE recommendations for the general handling insulation material are listed in the report. The workers in the video complied with at least three out of five – long sleeved shirts and trousers, masks and gloves. They were not wearing hats. Whether the shoes they were wearing were rubber-soled cannot be determined from the video.
Kincaid states that imported insulation materials from Asia and the United States can contain formaldehyde, a possibility that has been raised to the Federal Government during the operation of the insulation scheme. There is no direct link between the materials that the children were handling at the time of the incident and any toxic hazard, from the information provided in the video report.
The company proprietor says that he bought insulation material on the blackmarket. Whether that material was manufactured overseas is unstated. Whether it contained formaldehyde is unstated. What the material consists of is unclear.
Media reports in Australian newspapers report the claim of sub-standard insulation products from overseas however the claims are being made by Australian insulation manufacturers whose profits are challenged by the “flood “ of imports. Imported insulation materials should be independently assessed and, as has occurred in the past for the DIY insulation market, consumer and product quality, and safety, guidelines should be developed.
From an OHS investigation perspective it is likely that the following questions could be asked of the proprietor:
- What safety training did you provide to your employees?
- How do you verify that your employees work practices are carried out in a safe manner?
- What are the hazards faced by your employers in the handling of this insulation material?
- What safety procedures are in place for working at height?
Far more important questions need to be asked on the national level about how a government-funded program was developed that allowed for unsafe work practices to occur. From the media attention given to the issue and the reality of a Senate inquiry, those questions seem to be occurring.
As an addendum to this article, it must be clarified that my comments broadcast toward the conclusion of the report related to the installation industry and not the manufacturers of insulation materials.
More on the OHS and safety management aspects of the Australia insulation debate is available in the SafetyAtWorkBlog at