The Australian newspaper reports today (26 July 2011) of a clash between the Construction Forestry Mining & Energy Union (CFMEU) and BHP Billiton over fatigue management. Fatigue management is one of the workplace hazards scheduled for a draft code of practice under the OHS harmonisation process.
The CFMEU believes that the current mining-related guidance is inadequate.
“The Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union says the government buckled under industry pressure and abandoned plans for binding industry standards that would minimise the risk of workers doing successive 12-hour shifts and then driving long distances on public roads.”
The flaw in the CFMEU’s campaign is that it has been selective in its choice of fatigue documentation. Looking at the industry sector rather than the hazard or risk limits the hazard control options. In the current case the CFMEU is not acknowledging many of the fatigue guidancesand documents that are available from Workplace Health and Safety Queensland or from some of the other States and even from overseas as this Safe Work Australia document from 2006 shows.
In fact the narrow selection of guidance in this instance makes a strong case for greater collaboration in the development of information across industry sectors and State jurisdictions – one of the aims of harmonisation.
The dispute illustrates the constant ideological tension between regulatory prescription and operational flexibility that, in safety, has resulted in the increasingly dominant concept of “as far as is reasonably practicable” in the hope of achieving an acceptable balance.
Although the CFMEU can be criticised for its strategy, OHS regulators too often leave guidance revision too long. Often industry knowledge or hazard research progresses quicker than a regulators’ capacity to update. (This challenge is equally shared by Standards Australia) In this circumstance the guidance can become a drag on innovation and change. It could be argued that a ten-year old guidance such as the guidance in dispute, Guidance Note for Management of Safety and Health Risks associated with Hours of Work Arrangements at Mining Operations, has become such a burden.
The Australian article refers to the Queensland coroner’s findings into deaths of several mine workers. The findings are available online and should be mandatory reading for any OHS professional interested in fatigue management. The CFMEU’s frustrations with the Queensland Government’s delay in implementing the recommendations of Coroner Annette Hennessy’s February 2011 report are understandable. If the government is delaying due to the upcoming national model code on fatigue, that is understandable, they should at least be upfront about it.
As discussed elsewhere in SafetyAtWorkBlog, some States’ coronial recommendations MUST be responded to by safety regulators. It will be fascinating to see if this requirement becomes a national requirement as the preventive documents, policies and safety guidelines of Australia become harmonised.