Workplace safety hardly ever gets a mention in the daily newspapers unless there is a big corporate name involved or a record fine. Local newspapers often provide more coverage of workplace incidents because the local angle allows for the reporting of the social and familial impact of an incident within days of it occurring.
The 9 February 2011 edition of the Melbourne Times Weekly included a feature article – “Risky Business” by Genevieve Gannon. The existence of any media mention of workplace safety is of note in itself but Gannon’s article, with assistance from the always-helpful WorkSafe spokesperson, Michael Birt, does not only focus on the fatalities (23 in 2010) but also on the maimings. Around 70 people had life-threatening injuries in Victoria in 2010 and 20,000 were seriously injured.
On the basis of the statistics alone, serious injuries have a major social, personal and familial cost that is simply not being considered when planning for safe workplaces. This element should always be borne in mind when discussing occupational safety. Dr Yossi Berger has, for a long time, emphasized that workplace illnesses must be considered in determining the extent of the impact of workplace incidents but the lack of statistics has also weakened his case ion some policy-making sectors. Serious injuries and illnesses are debilitating, often permanently so.
This argument is echoed by Frank Fairley, Victorian OHS Officer of the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union. Many union OHS people are at the site of workplace incidents or respond very quickly and so they often see the immediate aftermath of an incident. Fairley believes that OHS regulators, like WorkSafe, should make inspections unannounced so that they can see the reality of workplace safety and not just the manicured facade. Perhaps inspectors schedule inspections as far as is reasonably practicable?
As discussed previously in SafetyAtWorkBlog, even the Hazardous Chemicals Audit Team in the early 1990s only provided around 12 hours notice. We knew that in some workplaces that 12 hours would include feverish activity in anticipation of the inspection.
Birt describes giving employers plenty of notice of inspections and “heaps of information” and yet safety breaches are still being found. This must say something about employers’ attitudes to safety, the information being provided, the way inspections are scheduled and conducted and a broader definition of “safe system of work” to include the “system of society”.
Gannon’s article diverts from the OHS “line” by discussing short cuts in production. Her diversion is supported by Fairley who acknowledges that workers will “cut corners to get a job done faster…” Fairley describes this in one case as “cheating”.
It could be argued that local newspapers are local no more when their content is available on the internet as the Risky Business article shows. The article is a good example of thinking (not-quite) global and writing local. The local context, in some ways, makes the theme of the article more poignant. The elements covered reflect several prominent challenges in safety management
- whether to focus on the big risks or the small risks;
- how can the safety behaviour of workers be changed;
- the role of the safe system of work;
- the social impacts of workplace injury and illness;
The only perspective I missed in the article was that of an employer.