Australia risks OHS ridicule in the media

The Sunday Herald-Sun ran an article that would not have been out-of-place in the English tabloid newspapers.  The article, “Safety regulations taking the fun out of schools”, indicates many of the confused lines of responsibility that English articles include.

In Victoria, the safety requirements of government schools are determined by the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD).  The OHS regulator, WorkSafe, has some influence but far less that DEECD. (The only really school-related OHS document from WorkSafe Victoria was released in 2008)

The Sunday Herald-Sun article states, in some pictures not in the online version, that the Victorian Principals Association has been told of OHS regulations that require teachers to  “put on mask, surgical gloves to apply a band-aid”.  According to DEECD’s First Aid & Infection Control Procedure states that

“The following infection control procedures must always be adhered to:

  • Wash hands after direct contact with injured person;
  • Wear protective gloves when contacting bodily fluids, non-intact skin and mucous membranes;
  • Wear a mask, eye protection and a gown where there is a risk of splashing blood or other bodily fluids;
  • Cover cuts and abrasions;…….”

This is in line with the previous national infection control guidelines.

The newspaper also states that “five different types of first-aid kits must be kept and regularly monitored”.  There is little support for this.  The Department requires schools to undertake an assessment of first aid needs in consultation with staff members.  The elements of the assessment are very familiar from some of the OHS First Aid Codes of Practice:

“The assessment must have regard to:

  • Type of work performed and the nature of the hazards (i.e. science laboratories, workshops, chemical storage, offices, vehicles, excursions and camps, etc);
  • Potential injuries, illnesses and likely causes;
  • Size and layout of the workplace;
  • Number and distribution of employees and others including arrangements such as shift work, travel requirements, visitors;
  • Location of the site (i.e. proximity to medical facilities); and
  • Previous accidents and injuries.”

It may be that such an assessment results in multiple types of first aid kits.  It is not unreasonable to consider a small portable first aid kit for yard duty, a more comprehensive kit or cupboard located in the first aid room and a backpack unit for school excursions or camps.  A portable kit of child medications is also likely to be taken on excursions and school camps.

In September 2011, Safe Work Australia released a draft code of practice for First Aid.   The elements of assessment support the DEECD guidelines.

The newspaper article reports VPA’s president Gabrielle Leigh saying that

“Schools are finding it really difficult and it hasn’t made it safer….  We have had to counsel principals who are gobsmacked. Smaller schools are finding it really difficult because they don’t have the resources.”

First aid is not designed to make workplaces or schools safer.  It is applied after an incident to reduce damage and harm.  There could be a preventative element of safety awareness-raising through first aid training but this is unlikely to affect the actions of schoolchildren.

It may also be useful to note that the VPA’s concerns may not only be about first aid.  A 2010 positions paper says that

“The Victorian Principals Association (VPA) is concerned that there has been a new strategy implemented by DEECD to address OH&S issues. Each school is being rated in an OH&S audit. The process is very time consuming and unwieldy. It distracts from the core functions of educational leadership and further increases the arduous compliance burden for schools.”

Schools are indeed about education but few parents would support the core function of educational leadership (whatever that means) without the obligation for that education to occur in a safe and healthy learning environment.

It is difficult to respond to the comment about the counselling of “gobsmacked” principals unless this relates to the hours of time spent searching the internet for safety information that is not necessary.

The issue of inadequate resources is a constant for many schools and small businesses.  There are ways to streamline safety processes and most of these involve assessing needs early in the process and reviewing these needs regularly.  But there is no doubt that OHS takes time and resources, just as does any other core business activity.  The trick is to focus on the significant risks.

The Sunday Herald-Sun article states that

“Staff [say] they are being overwhelmed by a growing list of safety-related demands from the State Government.”

Who this is in the Victorian Government is unclear as the Education Department has clear OHS guidelines for first aid on its website and, presumably, in the administrative manuals.

Safety and first aid can become burdensome but this often stems from looking at the minutiae of the safety management process and not the major risks.  It can also be generated by a misunderstanding of what employers and government regulators expect.

The big picture risk with this type of article is that, if the issues raised are not countered or clarified, a momentum can build that can seriously discredit safety.  This was allowed to occur in England and has required considerable resources from the regulators to combat and still the battle continues.  WorkSafe, the Education Department and the safety profession, generally, needs to address this “trend” while it is still in its infancy in Victoria.  They need to apply the OHS principle of the prevention of harm to such reports before the job becomes too big and too expensive and OHS becomes the realm of “fun vampires”.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

6 thoughts on “Australia risks OHS ridicule in the media”

  1. Hi Kevin,

    Whilst I do agree that the Herald Sun article is a little sensationalized, I believe it is the background to the situation that is lacking. In 2010 DEECD and WorkSafe Victoria agreed on an enforceable undertaking as alternative to prosecution for a few machine related injuries. As part of the undertaking, DEECD has committed to implement and audit a safety management system (SMS) in all schools. The agreement can found on the WorkSafe website.

    Having done some work assisting a couple of schools to implement their SMS I can appreciate the concerns of the principal in the HS article. Whilst the SMS is very basic (compared to systems used by many higher risk businesses), the schools do not have the experience, expertise or resources required in the early stages to implement the system.

    It would be very easy (for a person with nil or limited experience in safety management) to interpret that all whiteboard markers need to be counted in order to establish the complete chemical register. I advised the schools I’ve worked with only to estimate quantities of markers etc. So long as the item is listed on the register, the MSDS is obtained which is the important aspect.

    Personally, I don’t think students should be allowed to bring their own liquid paper to school anyway. It is an unnecessary harmful substance and the schools would need obtain MSDS for each different brand used by students. Sunscreen, I would consider a personal toiletries item and should be exempt from the chemical register, like other personal items such as deodorant (I believe that aerosol deodorants are already banned at many schools).

    My confidence to use the shortcuts mentioned above comes from several years experience of undertaking the tasks. I would expect that very few schools have a qualified safety practitioner available to spend several weeks to months on the initial establishment of all the required registers, risk assessments etc. Once the initial implementation is done, the burden on schools will be much, much less.

  2. Brett is not only being a ‘bit hard’ on teachers his comments are somewhat misguided as well. I am a teacher that entered the profession at the age of 32 after 11 years in industry and I am certainly not alone. Particularly here in NZ, although I am originally from the UK and the situation is similar there, a lot of new teachers are so called ‘mature students’ having worked in industry first. Particularly in primary education a lot of us are also Mothers and so bring our instinctive protective nature to the job.

    I think the original article just shows what misconceptions abound out there about not only Education but also Health and Safety and neither need to be scary or onerous. As the H&S co-ordinator at my school (a primary with over 80 staff and 700 students) and a full time teacher it is true to say that a large part of my job is to educate my colleagues about the associated risks of any situation. Once done it is a case of monitoring and reviewing in a timely fashion that is neither mind blowing or gob smacking. Like any job the fear is in the unknown and when a rigorous system is developed and introduced it just becomes business as usual.

    Let’s hope the powers that be can see that and support schools in the introduction of any new systems or regimes.
    Cheers
    Denise O’

  3. Kevin, given your reference to the standard of media commentary on OHS in the UK this article may be of interest:

    Authors explore Britain’s ‘cotton wool’ view of safety
    http://www.grough.co.uk/magazine/2011/11/14/authors-explore-britains-cotton-wool-view-of-safety

    ,,, Is Britain wrapped in cotton wool? It’s a question posed by the authors in this book which looks at how legislation originally introduced with the laudable aim of reducing workplace deaths and injuries is seen to permeate every walk of life, including the great outdoors. …

    … The book treads an uneasy path between an academic tome and a general-interest publication. It is unlikely to hit the bestsellers’ list, but is detailed and thought-provoking enough to be essential reading for many professionals in the outdoor industry, while having enough content to interest an enthusiastic outdoors participant – one of those hundreds of thousands for whom ‘risk itself is such an integral part of the activity’. ..

    Cheers,

    Graham

  4. Two things:
    1) You have to realise that teachers don’t live in the real world. They went to school, went to uni (big school) and then went straight back to school. They have little to no idea what goes on in industry or the real world. Take that into account.

    2) The article should really have said “Parents suing the school system for a bruised knee and the overly budensome public liability insurance premiums coupled with baffling judgements in court, take the fun out of school.” Lets face it, the almighty dollar speaks. Safety has little to do with any of this, not in the way we think of it. They are worried about being sued by increasingly litigious parents and the PI insurers are also worried. So its either tighten up your PI safety and performance, or we jack the premiums up to crazy levels you can’t afford.

    1. Brett, I think you are being too hard on teachers. Many of the teachers I know who undertake “high risk” classes of woodwork, metalwork and cooking, for instance, have entered teaching after many years in industry.

      On the issue of public liability, you identify a motivator for safety improvements that is a major reason why safety management systems and paperwork is seen as an “arse-covering exercise”. The intersection of OHS and public liability, particularly under Australia’s new OHS legislation, is discussed in an earlier article. I believe that it is vital that companies understand the split between OHS obligations and public liability issues even though both these elements can come under risk management. Too often companies (and schools, get themselves confused.

  5. Safety is a must in all areas more so in schools. Youngsters idolize their teachers and learn whatever they were taught, observed and follow the same. If school managements think following safety requirements of regulators is burdensome and demanding, may be they require some sort of awareness programme on safety so that they understand and implement wholeheartedly. Everybody wants easiest way to do things but the impact is seen only in the long run and by this time it may be too late to correct.

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