Prisons are another world when implementing workplace safety

The new report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) into prisoner health and welfare makes no mention of workplace safety, even though most prisons in Australia have formal work programs for commercial gain.

The report “The health of Australia’s prisoners 2009” details the health and welfare status of Australian prisoners with some very confronting statistics that should be of more general concern to the community.  The media release summarises some of the report’s findings:

“The report highlights a number of significant health issues.  It shows that rates of chronic conditions, such as asthma, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and communicable diseases such as hepatitis B and hepatitis C, are significantly higher among prisoners than among the general population.

‘Of particular concern is the number of people who enter prison with mental health issues and high levels of psychological distress,’ said Ingrid Johnston of the AIHW’s Social and Indigenous Group.

The report shows that almost 40% of prisoners reported having had a mental health disorder at some time; over 30% were referred to prison mental health services, and almost 20% were taking medication for a mental-health-related condition at the time they entered prison.

A history of head injury was also common among prisoners. Over 40% reported having had a blow to the head resulting in a loss of consciousness at some time in their lives.

‘Risky health behaviours were far more prevalent among prisoners than among the general community,’ Ms Johnston said.

Over 80% of prisoners were current smokers; and during the 12 months prior to entering prison more than 70% had used illicit drugs, and over half had consumed alcohol at risky levels.”

As one who has consulted in an Australian prison on workshop safety, the lack of attention to the risks associated with the prison workshops is disappointing but, AIHW tells SafetyAtWorkBlog that workplace safety was not included in the research brief.  It is also important to note that this is “first national report to examine prisoner health in Australia”, so some slack must be given.  It can only be hoped that future surveys will include, or maybe focus on, workplace safety of prisoners.

The other side of the report is that it describes the type of “clients” with which prison officers must deal on a daily basis.  One could ask the question about what this report says about the working conditions of prison officers.  These officers deal with many people who

  • have a mental disorder;
  • smoke cigarettes;
  • have been heavy drug takers or alcohol drinkers; and
  • have a higher level of chronic health problems than the non-prison population –  asthma, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and communicable diseases such as hepatitis B and hepatitis C.

Prison officers are expected to supervise and control prisoners.  They are expected to ensure prisoners live and work safely.  Most prisons have education programs and, often, educators from outside who provide training programs for prisoners.

From personal experience, prisons are a different world and often the basic and legislated approaches of OHS are faced with enormous challenges because the basic assumptions from non-prison societies do not apply, yet legislation says this is no excuse for OHS compliance.

One brief example of  the challenge in this work environment can be illustrated by the fact that in society most people do not choose to harm themselves or choose to harm others in workplaces.  This is not the case in prison.  How does one guard a drill press so that no one who chooses to harm themselves can, and yet still have the drill press operational?

OHS is often applied for the lowest common denominator in industry.  In prisons that denominator can be lower than in any other industry.  It is useful to ask, if OHS laws are expected to be applied evenly across all industries, could a prison workshop ever comply?

AIHW should be applauded for the current report as it provides an important picture of prison life.  Let’s hope that the next stage of the research program looks at the issues of prison worker and prison officer safety, or that another arm of government does so.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

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