Workplace fatalities are terrible, lingering tragedies that generally don’t teach anything new about OHS failures. I couldn’t find anything new in the frightening detail in the article below (dated 14th December 2010) or in scores of Google searches of industrial/occupational fatalities; though disease fatality epidemiology can be informative.
If all workplace fatalities in Australia were stopped overnight, most workers wouldn’t notice a single improvement in their own workplace. They’d still be working in the same cluster of hazards, useless risk assessments and a regular sprinkling of near misses and daily shortcuts. Despite regulators’ and politicians’ shrieks of dismay at workplace deaths, such fatalities don’t represent the main OHS problem at work.
If any regulator was informed in advance – in some detail – that in a particular industry there would be three fatalities in the next three months (or even intolerable risk) they wouldn’t know how to prevent them. Example? Think of the insulation program, which still has some way to go and a few more surprises in store. Example? Over the next six months there are likely to be 3-6 quad bike-related fatalities in Australia, mostly as a result of rollovers.
Or think of the value of risk assessments: example? Consider the 60,000-80,000 barrels (10,000 tons) of the most dangerous hexachlorobenzene (HCB) waste stockpiled and being repackaged (ultimately, drum to drum) by workers in a primitive work process at Botany Bay Industrial Park, Sydney. One of the world’s largest stockpiles of such dangerous wastes that no one around the world is prepared to handle. This is the only place I’ve ever had to wear two layers of protection to inspect. What has the regulator done?
But it could be argued –
That there’s not much new under the sun, and, like so many proverbs this one has limited truth. There are many new things, but human behaviour, responses and emotions remain similar. “The more it changes the more it stays the same” is a wink in this direction. So it could be argued that health and safety failures at work have only a limited repertoire of how they can happen. Things can fall, they can explode, they can hit someone or someone can run into them. Biology means that workers can be poisoned, they can be made sick by various mists, smokes, dusts, aerosols, fumes, and by various organisms e.g. in agriculture. But the category list is really very small. Therefore, is it any surprise that those circumstances that kill workers tend to be from the same list?
Secondly, that series of events that led up to the fatality also makes up only a small list. That is –
- The Kaboody was delivered to the factory by a truck;
- It was unloaded at… by …;
- Jack was asked to work on the round Linto on the Kaboody;
- The employer was required by law to provide a safe workplace…etc;
- But the gizmo wasn’t checked and…… then it exploded.
Any such biography of catastrophic events is likely to repeat the repetition of the last repeat after the last fatality at………. You see the point. And inquiry after inquiry, inquest after inquest will generate very similar findings and almost identical recommendations.
But it’s worse than just a small number of work life scripts.
Consider the evolution of an OHS catastrophe – its career, so to speak. Pick one at random: the Longford explosions and fires, Victoria? The Beaconsfield Gold Mine, Tasmania? The CrossCity Tunnel fatality in Sydney? The BP Texas Refinery, US? Walk the small, developing and often closely-coupled steps of the growing crisis, the insidious lining up of Reason’s Swiss cheese holes, so to speak. At which exact point could the regulator have made a critical difference and how?
The fashionable and vague response (nowadays almost a reflex) about ‘culture change’ is – in my view – no more than hot air; ask most workers! In practice, the utterance ‘It’s a problem of safety culture’ has become an obnoxious hazard all by itself; it’s a defence that diverts practical actions.
What lessons from the fatality at Beaconsfield Gold Mine in Tasmania (for example) would have helped the regulator in WA stop the BHP-Billiton repeated fatalities in mining? Or the New Zealand Pike River coal mine horrendous explosions and tragedies. I firmly believe there are ways, but not the way of the current way.
Just in passing, after all the closely argued and well-presented books where Andrew Hopkins wrote about ‘learning the lessons’ (actually in the title) post various catastrophes, his last book to date is called Failure to Learn (BP Texas City Refinery). Is that failure really just a one of?
The ‘culture, attitude, behaviour, OHS systems, Step 5, Step 3…’ etc are – in practice – poor tutorial room exercises. They may work, in part, in large, well-resourced and strictly supervised workplaces. But since some 80% of workers work in small to medium workplaces………. you can see the rest of the argument.
Sprinkle into that daily cluster of hazards some OHS bullying and fear of job loss (“You don’t really like working here as part of The Team, do you, matey?!”) and you can see that the daily struggle by workers for OHS improvements is difficult and personally risky.
So what would make a difference? A vivid and effective intolerance of small daily risk (forget the big canvasses), and actively encouraging managers to talk with their workers and unions about the pervading OHS scepticism and daily problems at their own task.
Obviously workplace fatalities are appalling tragedies, but overall – from most workers’ point of view – they are rare events. In themselves they inform very little about the real OHS standards in most workplaces. Accurate knowledge of the constant, small, daily risks taken, and an aggressive intolerance of them would make a difference, almost over night.
Dr Yossi Berger
National OHS Co-ordinator
Australian Workers’ Union