“IMPROVED SAFETY FOR URANIUM WORKERS” is the headline of a media release from Australia’s Minister for Resources and Energy, Martin Ferguson. The 9 June 2011 statement concerns the positive initiative of new health monitoring for those workers in the uranium mining and milling industries, but it also betrays a perspective that is dominant in the thinking of national policymakers.
If we accept that a principal aim of occupational health and safety legislation is the prevention of harm*, then the initiative announced does not improve safety for uranium workers. It collates evidence of harm in preparation for compensation.
Minister Ferguson says
“The health and safety of workers is always our first priority. [If ever there was a statement that is a red flag for suspicion, this is it] The new national register strengthens protections for employees over their working life by ensuring that data for monitoring radiation doses will follow them if they move across jobs and across jurisdictions. Wherever they go in Australia, workers will be able to access records that track complete dose histories to ensure their good health into the future. The national dose register is integral to ensuring we have a world class regulatory regime in place for uranium mining in Australia.”
This quote shows the classic leap from a pledge of no (or minimal) harm to the reality – a register of harm.
There is no doubt that the evidence of radiation exposure is of vital concern to those working in the hazardous uranium industry but it must be asked why it has taken so long for such a register to be established? The harm associated with working with radiation has been established since the atomic explosions of last century.
It is a common criticism of modern corporations that communications follow the “silo” structures of the companies rather than using more thematic pathways, such as safety. The silos of human resources and safety management continue to exist. But in government there are silos within silos where government departments and authorities do not talk with each other as much as is necessary to progress.
Ferguson’s media release shows no evidence of any input from Safe Work Australia or Comcare. Many Australian government statements on health, particularly mental health, make no acknowledgement that right hours of most citizen’s lives are in a working environment. It seems that most mental health issues originate from the eight hours of family time and most workplace mental health issues stem from the eight hours (or so) at work each day. And this can occur in the same individual!!
With Australian governments undergoing a process of legal harmonisation on work health and safety laws, it is reasonable to expect that government aim for a common goal of health and safety at work and in private lives. It is time to stop treating these as separate element of modern life. In fact one could call for the abandonment of the work/life balance approach and return to the holistic and unified concept of health and safety. This, combined with a government-wide acknowledgement of harm prevention, could be a revolution but, at least, will reduce injuries and the associated costs.
* “protecting workers and other persons against harm to their health, safety and welfare through the elimination or minimisation of risks arising from work” – Model Work Health and Safety Act – Section 3 (1)(a)