Australian unionists are justifiably angry at the death of a worker at the construction site of a desalination plant in South Australia last week. The worker was crushed when a beam slipped from a sling on a crane and crushed him. The soft sling was being used so that the beams would not be scratched according to one report in The Australian newspaper.
It is hard to understand the sacrificing of the safety provided by the standard practice of chains for the aesthetics of the beams.
The media attention on the death is increased due to the incident occurring on a desalination plant site as many oppose the use of desalination plants to ease Australia’s water shortages.
On 17 July 2010 an AAP report included the following quote from the project director of the desalination plant’s operating company, Duncan Whitfield:
“At this time, our main concern is for the welfare of the deceased man’s family and any other personnel involved,” Mr Whitfield said. “This is a horrible tragedy and we will leave no stone unturned in discovering the root cause of the accident to ensure it never occurs again.”
“Root cause” is a phrase that is much bandied around in the aftermath of a workplace incident as it emphasis the importance of the investigation but whose “root cause” will the investigation stop at? In OHS and risk management courses we are encouraged to investigate the “system of work” and to identify “contributory factors” and advised not to look for a root cause. Looking for a root cause can provide too narrow a focus in an investigation.
An investigation is likely to identify an equipment failure or a specific decision that led to the immediate injury but what decisions led to the choice of that particular piece of equipment? If we don’t look at the decisions, the only solution will be to use another or different piece of equipment which will fix the short-term issue but may not lead to prevention of similar occurences.
The project director of the incident above needs to face the prospect that his company’s decisions may have led to the incident as they had control of the workplace and the system of work.
The use of soft slings in the incident above is likely to generate a safety alert by a regulator or the union. But more last changes will come from investigating the decision-making process leading up to the incident.
On 21 July 2010, unions have suggested that painting over any scratches on a beam from chain use is a safer option, thereby eliminating the hazard altogether.