I cannot escape certain OHS memories. They are the ones that inform many of the decisions I make in matters of health and safety. Rightly or wrongly they feed my aspirations, my efforts, frustrations and my anger at what I see too often in many workplaces. What I do and what I know feeds on these memories.
I recently inspected a workplace that uses huge amounts of chemicals. The place was covered with health and safety signs and strongly smelled of a range of chemicals. But overall it was clean, neat and half way respectful of workers’ health. I could see workers here and there watching me walk around with the union delegate and H&S representative, and they knew that there would be a lunchtime mass meeting for me to say my piece. But I couldn’t get Mr White out of my mind. This was one of my persistent memories. My personal OHS canaries warning me not to forget things.
I met him at the end of an extended OHS inspection I conducted at his workplace. The manager on the day was decent and very helpful, he facilitated a great deal. This factory used large amounts of a particular chemical, and has been for more than 30 years, his entire working life was spent in this factory working with this chemical.
He introduced himself unusually as ‘Mr White’, stuttered, smiled hesitantly and said, ‘Mick’, almost as if his first name was unimportant, just an afterthought. He clutched a stack of papers tightly to his chest and waited for a gap in the conversation so he could say his bit. A tall, gaunt man, slightly bent forward. There was a terrible depth in his hazel eyes heavy in a very pale face. He looked older than his years, late 60s.
He explained (in a soft, disappearing voice) that he had been working here for more than 30 years, wasn’t a drinker, never smoked, never had a day’s sickness in his life, and has just been diagnosed with the worst kind of leukaemia. My heart sank. He had read up on the chemicals he had been working on, and he showed me the huge stack of papers he held on to so tightly, and asked me softly, “Could that have given me…… (he stopped), could that have made sick?”
I dropped my eyes in desperation. First, because I knew by his eyes that the medical advice to him was very serious. Secondly, that the chemicals may very well have been responsible, but how can you tell exactly what’s what? And whilst the lawyers may not need direct, incontrovertible proof, his real worry was not the lawyers. I could ‘smell’ the future, so to speak.
In many cases at work there are signs and signals that provide clues about what the future will bring in terms of OHS, injuries and fatalities – these are the softly but ominously twittering ‘canaries’.
But they can be dismissed as vague messengers that anyone can attack with ‘How do you know?’, or, “We need more research, let’s start with a good literature review”. They become escape routes for the indecisive, a means to manufacture more uncertainty, 6 of this and half a dozen of the other. My cannery (my warning signal) is someone else’s uncertainty, indecision and route to doing nothing of any OHS significance.
There were signs and signals at Longford, Victoria before the fires and explosions, and I said so, (wrote a warning about the oil and gas industry – with a photo of gas Plant #1, just the one that exploded!); there were warnings at Beaconsfield gold Mine; at the CrossCity tunnel in Sydney; at Cannington BHP mine Queensland; at Santos gas plant in Moomba, SA. It’s just a question what you regard as warning signs and signals, what you accept as warning canaries.
Can the manager’s lack of any knowledge about OHS catastrophes in his/her industry be such a warning signal? Can the fact that workers constantly take short cuts at a work place be a warning signal about the OHS program? What will proactive due diligence mean in all these cases?
Mr White stood silently as I stuttered and stammered something he might like to hear. He listened with every fibre in his body, absorbing my words but mostly watching my eyes; and we both knew.
A week or so later his son rang me: “Mick died peacefully in hospital. He asked that I ring and tell you – you’d know…. something. We’ve contacted Dad’s lawyer”.
This is one of those memories.