Public relations, OHS and a workplace death

In October 2009, Matthew Fuller was electrocuted while installing metal foil insulation in the roof of a house in Queensland.  He was a subcontractor for a registered insulation installation company called Countrywide Insulation.

Countrywide and its owner have been heavily criticised in the Australian media.  But Countrywide has “hit back” at critics with a media release on 16 February 2010, the only content on its webpage.  The release has a contact number for a representative of the Phillips Group public relations company.  The text of the release is below and is an interesting study in what is omitted and timing. SafetyAtWorkBlog tried to contact the PR representative today.

“BRISBANE INSULATION COMPANY – COUNTRYWIDE INSULATION STATEMENT

Countrywide Insulation has always acted lawfully and in accordance with the relevant regulations required to participate in the Federal Government’s Home Insulation Program.

The installation undertaken at the Meadowbank property in October 2009 was subcontracted to a registered and accredited electrical contractor, with more than 30 years experience. In addition, all work undertaken on the property was supervised by a qualified electrician.

Countrywide Insulation took care to ensure the sub-contractor had the appropriate certifications prior to their engagement. The company has stringent operating procedures to verify the accreditation of sub-contractors. These are followed at all times.

We have cooperated fully with Workplace Health and Safety Queensland and the Department of Environment in the investigation of this tragic incident. We will continue to cooperate with the relevant authorities throughout their investigations.

We understand that Workplace Health and Safety Queensland is conducting an ongoing investigation into the incident, and as such it would be inappropriate to comment any further at this stage.”

The first paragraph says the company operated within the parameters provided so it worked within the rules but only the rules of the Home Insulation Program.

The second and third points the finger at the contractor, QHI Installations, and emphasises the quality of the contractor.  It says that the contractor had his OHS act together with procedures.  However in the context of OHS obligations, and in terms of project management, there could have been a greater level of  oversight by Countrywide.  Most principal contractors set down the parameters and obligations they expect of contractors so that the likelihood of an incident is reduced, not so that the (inescapable) OHS obligations are avoided.

Cooperation is emphasised in the fourth paragraph but any company under investigation is obliged to cooperate.

The fifth paragraph is peculiar.  It states that the company will not comment any further, that was on 16 February.  The newspaper article on 19 February includes quotes from the owner that directly refer to the death of Matthew Fuller.

Unless the reporter gained these quotes by subterfuge, the company is contradicting its own media statement from a few days earlier.

Perhaps Phillips Group were contracted only for a media release and not media advice.

What the media release shows is that, sometimes, a media release is not necessary unless it answers specific matters.  Many companies issue release immediately after a workplace fatality to state remorse.  This is appropriate unless deaths are so frequent that the media releases start to look like a pro forma.

The Countrywide media release may have been  more appropriate in October 2009, closer to the time of Fuller’s death.  It may have benefited from the company owner’ words in the newspaper article in February 2010 :

“We are sad about Matthew, sad for him and his family…”

The suspension of the insulation program by the Environment Minister, Peter Garrett, will take some of the political heat out of the debate on the eve of Parliament recommencing but many of the scheme’s participants still have to face OHS investigations, coroners’ inquiries  and some have the added burden of family events without loved ones.

Countrywide is only a small component of a government scheme that seems to have been mismanaged from the start.  But the deaths of too many installers show that grand plans can collapse from comparative small incidents.  A lesson for all governments and companies.

Kevin Jones

3 thoughts on “Public relations, OHS and a workplace death”

  1. So, Garrett and the Rudd government are still to be held responsible for a fully qualified electrical contractor with 30 years experience failing to fulfil legally mandated OH&S obligations? Short of personally inspecting every installation himself, please explain how the minister could have prevented this death?

    Why was John Howard and his industrial relations minister not held to equal account for every workplace death that occured under their watch?
    Why no mention of the fact that electrocutions deaths of workers in private residences fell by 50% in the first year after work choices was dumped ]average 20/year for the last term of the Howard govt vs the following year].

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