The Asphyxiation of OHS

Good OHS thinking and practice are being slowly asphyxiated.  By far most suggestions by workers, unions or good consultants for Health & Safety improvements are ‘choked’ by management naysayers and bureaucrats more in touch with their current minister’s moods than workplace reality.  Not choked immediately or blatantly.   In fact, that person may be patted on the back and encouraged to raise more OHS matters, “Yes, mate, good!  Tell us what else we’re doing wrong, very very helpful.  You just keep on telling us”……..  And slowly any significant discussion about OHS problems is suppressed and killed.

The majority of workers in Australia work in small workplaces where (typically) practical OHS programs are regarded by managers as a nuisance, a bit of ‘over-the-top’ nonsense that slows down productivity.  It’s regarded as an irritant of fashion that will pass, like the fashion-related, politically correct things to say.

Of course there are exceptions, both in large and small workplaces, and there are outstanding managers, but this is rare.  Usually the current ‘OHS Speak’ with its heaps of bumptious documents is all there is.  Even the very large workplaces (huge internationally-linked workplaces visited after fatalities), where people seemed, at face value, to sing the praises of the OHS system I found simmering unease and unexpressed cynicism.   The wisdoms (the essence) found in writers like Hopkins, Gunningham, Quinlan, Weick and Reason is not actively transferred into the workplace (in practice).  One line grabs like ‘mindfulness’ or ‘The Swiss cheese model’ become surrogates for actually doing something.  I believe that such frivolous treatment is, in part, an element of the biography of some terrible tragedies at work.

Embrace the reality

When you consider various coroners’ findings (e.g. quad bikes, asbestos, explosions), or recommendations by various inquiries (Moura coal mines in Queensland, Beaconsfield Gold Mine, Tasmania), the many post-catastrophe parliamentary reports,  or you torture yourself and read the kilos of reports about offshore or mining disasters,   you’ll note that they appear to have been written by the same hand using the same script:  more training, more education, increased awareness, more supervision, more rock dust (said after every coal mine explosion)……… in short, more and more repetitive talk.

We’re not likely to get increased numbers of inspectors who understand that they ought not to be objective and unbiased, but in fact be always biased towards those who bear the brunt of the risk.  They must go beyond the silly notion of ‘objectivity’ (an illusion anyway) and seek to discover what really goes on at work – in any way possible.  But this does not mean that they should be blinded by vested interests, of any kind or frivolous claims.  Subjectivity, perceptions, egos and careers will make up what ends up being labelled as ‘the facts’.  Fear of what happens in court rooms is no substitute for doing good OHS.

I have worked with inspectors who understood this and had great style in delivering improvements, but not many.

And the laws?  They will be obeyed by a few, but most managers will take no note of them – harmonised, homogenised or scrambled.  That’s the simple truth.  Safework Australia and all, including the many changes in governments and the changing gallery of new ministers will not make any difference on their own.   So what might help?

What can be done?

In my view involvement of the community, more transparency and active interaction with unions.  Here’s an idea:  since for some time communities have been encouraged to ‘adopt’ roads and streets, parks, and foreshores.  And some towns and cities have been ‘linked’ to ‘sister’ towns and cities elsewhere in the world, could we not encourage communities to adopt a number of workplaces in their region?  Borrowing from Neighbourhood Watch this program could be called Workplace Watch. The idea is already operating in some sense in circumstances related to disputed environmental problems and toxins.

This would meant that in your suburb or region the local newspaper would publish a list of workplaces willing to be so ‘adopted’ by an organised group of people.  This group would meet, say, once every two months and discuss what’s going on in this industry and specifically in this workplace.  It would conduct various inspections and hold continuous discussions with workers, union delegates (where there are any) and the unions.  It would talk to the regulator (and thereby bring them closer to the workplace) and of course management.  It would be a constructive partner in the improvement of  H&S at that workplace.    The community would be involved not because it’s the aftermath of devastating floods or terrifying cyclones, but because it’s a permanent, slow moving menace that’s killing and maiming.  After all, these are all our families that work there.

The goal would be to encourage and nurture good OHS standards, attend more sharply to good practice and good use of H&S principles rather than just to misuse and abuse.  This may help to create a living sense of decent community expectations.

Is there any hope this will happen?

No, I don’t think so.  But I do think it’s worth a try.   Even the try itself, if it only generates more original thinking and increases debate may generate some momentum in the right direction.   The more good people think about all this, and think about it with both feet in the workplace the greater the likelihood that some practical ideas will emerge.

Governments provide various grants for Landcare projects (and lots of other projects).  Why not for workplace issues through community participation in this WorkplaceWatch programs?

Dr Yossi Berger
National OHS Co-ordinator

Australian Workers’ Union

10 thoughts on “The Asphyxiation of OHS”

  1. I don\’t get it…….I can go to my financial adviser for investment advice and if he loses my money through fraud, deception or negligence he\’ll be fined. If he does this to enough of his clients he\’ll lose his licence to operate.

    However, if I work for someone who is fraudulent, deceptive or negligent in the management of the systems designed to look after my health and safety at work, the best I can hope for is a fine. No matter how many workers he poisons, injures or kills by his actions or inactions.

    How is it that as a civilised society we place greater fundemental importance on the loss of our material wealth than the dimunition of the health and safety of our workers?

    Ban company directors who injure and kill people repeatedly.

  2. Tony, I hope that your participation in this blog helps send the message.

    The blog is receiving around 12,000 readers every month with 400 on average every day. It is becoming an important independent media for safety information and discussion and one that I am very proud of as it enters its fourth year of operation.

    Thanks to everyone who contributes and comments

  3. Thanks Kevin,

    If the penalties are large enough for repeat or serial offenders I am convinced that the cost will become too large a hurdle for any employer to be comfortable with and that includes the major corporates.

    The greatest volume of workplace injuries occur in SME\’s who are the largest employers in the country. I disagree entirely that seriously large fines would just be absorbed as a cost of business and not be given a second thought the many many hundreds of SME\’s I have consulted to would definitely have their focus on OHS well and truly tuned if found out and fined.

    The various acts to be \”harmonised\” all, supposedly, can call to account managers and owners of companies who are in serious breach of OHS law and how do we find out if they are in breach of the law before someone is seriously injured, we have a large and strong inspectorate with police like powers to inspect, issue expiation notices and further report for possible prosecution of those responsible for non compliance.

    For provisional improvement notices to be issued, the inspectorate needs to be active in the field in volume. As I have mentioned in previous comments, our current OHS laws have been in place for over 30 years and ignorance is not an acceptable excuse, so improvement notices should not even be part of the game. Issue the expiation notice and if the employer thinks he has been hard done by let him refer to the judiciary for determination. Maybe the inconvenience may also help sharpen OHS focus.

    You mention \”evidenced-based policy decisions\” I have to say the statistics that confront us via the workers compensation system are surely more than sufficient \”evidence\” that hard line action is required at the coal face, to ensure workers are getting the safe work places they deserve and indeed are entitled.

    You mention the Victorians have achieved some workplace level success with PIN\’s, how come this is not been reflected in LTI figures? Kevin there is a lot of research out there that doesn\’t quite cut the mustard for a number of reasons and I am aware of the piece you have mentioned which is opinion only.

    My \”opinion\” is based on over 28 years of at the coal face business management and over 15 years of assisting both SME\’s and injured workers through the workers compensation system, I have seen too many reports and policies come and go and 100\’s of millions spent for no discernible advance in injury reduction of any consequence.

  4. Good ideas in these comments, but a sad observation stands out: it’s evident that many people in the area have absorbed a great deal of tragedy – mostly vicariously. Closely witnessing such OHS catastrophes deposits dust into your soul. It accumulates until you almost can’t take it anymore.

    I have personally seen a friend standing and pacing for 14 days from very early morning to late at night watching and waiting as an OHS catastrophe and tragedy unfolded. He was trying to help very very distraught families –and slowly before my eyes he appeared to turn grey. I saw this man weep when no one was watching. You see what I mean when I use the metaphor ‘dust into your soul’.

    In any case. The Safety Bloke: you’ve obviously seen some bad ones. Why do you think the community and the media ‘tolerate’ all this? Is there an insight in understanding this?

    I really like your idea of steel towns, Gerard, and sharp comment about ‘silent frustration/anxiety’. I think you’re accurate and correct. This may be the place for a pilot program. Three regions in three states immediately come to mind. Hmmmm……. By the way, I do understand that there are lots of \’chokers\’ in the area; they are the interest groups we need to inform and gently confront with the daily realty at work.

    By the time we have to fine people, Tony, hasn’t the harm already been done? Do you think it will work as a deterrent? Will it convey the signal that the community expects better OHS behaviour? I reckon the fines would have to be gigantic and increase with increasing number of breaches. Yes, I tend towards fines, but they should be \’painful\’ and likely. Do we have enough inspectors? Kevin’s comment about the research findings needs to be carefully considered. How do you avoid such fines becoming just part of the cost of \’doing business\’? Is the ethic of what the community comes to expect more powerful?

    Probably a mix of ways to improve standards will be the way to go. But fundamentally, at its basis, is there anything really significant that will generate a turning point? Will the community groups I suggest (maybe in steel towns with their long and interactive relationship) be a start to convey the message that ‘this is not acceptable to the community’? Or think of this like that: say someone from your family is working in that dangerous workplace, what would you do? And remember, you don’t want them to lose their job.

  5. Thanks for the response Yossi.

    Having been a management consultant for over 28 years and dealt with large numbers of small business across a wide range of industries, I think I can lay claim to having a reasonable idea of how thinks work, or in a lot of cases don\’t work.

    By direct action I mean doing something that clearly focuses the responsible persons for OHS in the workplace on ensuring they do, in fact, have a safe work place and properly trained staff. (complying with the law)

    For this to happen we need a very well trained \”Police Force\” with the power to issue expiation notices for infringements which can only be challenged in a court of law (Industrial court system maybe). This process will bring habitual offenders to the notice of the public over time which would not sit well for their marketing needs.

    as an analogy: you speed, you get caught, you are issued an expiation notice you either pay or go to court to defend yourself, quite simple really. The memory of the cost and how big an idiot you have been certainly lingers.

    The most important part of this analogy is the reason for the expiation notice being issued and that is driving in a manner that is unsafe to the community and self, that is why the legislation exists, because as it stands, with OHS, we have legislation that employers comply with to varying degrees but who and how many comply to the letter or at least try, God only knows.

    I would enthusiastically encourage anybody to try what ever they think may work to reduce work place injuries, it is in my mind \”Direct Action\” that will get us there by the shortest route at the least expense for the best outcome.

    I really appreciate your comments Yossi, I have been assisting injured workers with the South Australian workers compensation agent, EML for many years and the experience is quite debilitating. My voice is strident and insistent and will continue that way, because seeing the result of inaction on safety in the work place, which is not reducing, leaves thousands with wrecked lives that end up being supported by the tax payer as the compensation schemes shed these injured workers from the system to Centrelink.

    1. Tony, I commented on a SafetyAtWorkBlog article in November 2010 with the following:

      \”From memory, Australian research (I think by Richard Johnstone) has found that on-the-spot fines can impede OHS preventive measures by being interpreted as “the cost for poor safety” and a cost that is absorbed by business without any demonstrative benefit.\”

      This type of research is crucial for governments to make \”evidence-based policy decisions\” so I think it unlikely that OHS fines, similar to speed fines, will be implemented.

      Some States, during this period of harmonisation will have new abilities to apply Provisional Improvement Notices, a process that Victoria has had, and in my opinion has worked at the workplace level, for many years. Enforcement tools already exist and new tools are coming to various jurisdictions. I think these will help achieve a better safety outcome.

  6. Great article, maybe a pilot program in a steel town or along the manufacturing belt? Were the link between industry and community is strongest. Were motivation from workers family and friends to be involved emanates from years of silent frustration/anxiety.

    If i could add another point, its not only \’management naysayers and bureaucrats (Government)\’ who choke improvements, you can add unions and consultants to that mix.

    Cheers Yossi, you’ve provided plenty of food for thought.

  7. Yossi

    What more can you, you ask. Buggered if I know. I\’ve enjoyed your writings over the years and have been fortunate to hear you speak at some conferences and seminars and have always welcomed you frank commentary on workplace conditions.

    I\’m in South Australia where we\’ve just had a coroner\’s report on a poor kid who was literally ripped apart in a piece of machinery the likes of which I\’ve never seen in my more than 40 years of work and this happened in 2004. The lad was employed by a group training scheme who got fined $60 000 yet the firm who allowed the dodgy work practices on horrendously dangerous machinery only got penalised $70 000 – and that was after dragging the case out through the courts for 5 years trying to avoid responsibility. Go figure, where\’s the justice in those 2 penalties?

    Just after Christmas a young apprentice was killed in a WA abattoir and lay undiscovered for 4 days in a place that employs more than 300 people – how does this happen?

    While the proposed national OHS legislation significantly increases penalties I don\’t believe these will have a deterrent effect. After all, BP has been fined hundreds of millions of dollars for H&S breaches over the past 10 years but it didn\’t stop them cutting corners on the Deepwater Horizon.

    Maybe if the penalties involved personal consequences on CEO\’s and Board members we might see some change but that is unlikely to happen given that they\’re the ones that can afford the fancy lawyers to sugar coat their disregard for the well being of their workforce.

    All we can do is keep on plugging on and celebrating the victories (as small as they be) as they happen.

    Keep up the fight.

  8. As you may know

    Tony,

    I do have some (limited) means of access to workplaces. Tell me specifically: what do you mean by \’direct action\’? How can I persuade/implement/encourage/nurture such activity? I’ve tried in so many ways, some successes, but in truth, not too many nor all that sustainable. Very repetitive.

    I\’m truly open for practical, viable suggestions. Though, in large part, I do share your scepticism.

    But note, mate, whilst we write these things in this blog truly there are workers being seriously injured every hour. I don\’t want to dramatize things but every day there are workers whose bones are literally being broken at work, not to mention their arms being ripped off in unguarded conveyor belts. This is not a metaphor.

    So. What can I do in terms of \’direct action\’?

  9. Whilst I agree with the sentiment, I have real trouble accepting another load of well meaning people trying to get small business owners to comply, it is just another annoyance to the employer, result likely to be nil.

    I think there are far too many \”Think Tanks\” and other organisations all operating for their own purposes as much as they are for OHS improvement, yet the bottom line never improves in terms of injury reduction and cost. There is always the promise of better times ahead if we could just do this and that, unfortunately if we rewind 2 years the same issues plague us with no discernible improvement apparent today.

    Too much talk and not enough direct action.

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