Just workplace hardship

Yossi Berger writes:

We’re all familiar with the notions of focus and attention, and selective attention.  We’ve all experienced how difficult it can be to attend to target information when background noise is distracting.  The issue can be referred to as the signal-to-noise ratio.

I often find its effects in discussions with managers and workers during workplace inspections.  That is, I hear animated discussions of hazards, of risks, of risk assessments and risk management and various systems and theories.  The conversations over flow with these concepts whilst most of workers’ daily problems aren’t even raised, they don’t reach the level of a signal.

Thankfully in most workplaces, most managers and most workers have not experienced any fatalities.  By far most of them will not have experienced or witnessed a serious injury or serious disease.  Nor have most experienced their local hazards actually seriously hurting anyone.

But most workers will have experienced some dangerous working conditions, mostly not mortally dangerous, but dangerous.  Most workers will have experienced difficult working conditions, cutting corners and daily short cuts.  They’ll have experienced the effects of corporate neglect and manager confusion about H&S.  Yet the language and implicit talking contracts (what is a proper thing to talk about) exclude by far the most common experience of workers’ daily hardship.

Is it unsafe, unhealthy?  Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t, and often unknown.  So what?  Why should the terms ‘unsafe, unhealthy’ be the decisive and only bench marks of what’s a decent and civilised way to work?

Na, I’m just buggered mate!

1. “I don’t know what to tell you” a worker at a mine in WA told me when I asked about the effect of his 12 hour night roster.  “But I can tell you that I’m buggered much of the time, even when I go home”.  He didn’t know if he should call it fatigue, exhaustion, workload or what.  “But I can tell you I’m tired all the time, I mean tired tired all the bloody time.  That’s how I work, tired and angry.  Should see what it does to my family life!”

Is that a hazard with associated levels of risk?  Will we call it stress, distress, anxiety… or what?  He says, “It’s just hard mate, and there aint nothin’ I can do about it”

If he raises it at the usual tool box meetings or through the H&S committee he’ll be told (at best) about the local fatigue management policy and how to eat well.

2.  At a very dusty workplace in very hot working conditions I spoke to workers who seemed to cough all the time.  Not rattling, frightening coughs, but constant irritation coughs.  “Yeah, sure” Linda said, “my throat’s irritated from all this constant dust, what would you expect?  That’s how it is”.  And then she showed me a small box of over the counter throat lozenges that the manager provides them at no charge to carry as ‘PPE’.  They didn’t think this was something they could raise as a genuine H&S hazard.  It wasn’t in the lexicon of that workplace.  “It’s just hard mate”, Larry said in a rasping voice, “That’s all.  You want to work here that’s how it is”

3. What about control room operators who have to sit at consoles for 12 hours, say, on night shift?   Often in very dilapidated conditions, on broken chairs, surrounded by smelly cupboards, serious black dust coming through the vents for years and years (see image), that’s what they breathe working at this well to do international company, as they attend to thousands of various alarms per shift.

They were told that the risk associated with this dust is minimal, well below required standards, not really a risk at all, and certainly, therefore, not a hazard.  And this even though some of it may be carcinogenic.  Is that – at least – a hardship?

Manufactured suppression

So what are all these?

They are the texture of how most workers in Australia work.  That’s their daily experience.  Yet the going talk is of hazards, risks, OHS management systems, risk assessments and risk management.  Committed managers wring their hands trying to understand the ‘real psychology’ of what happens at work in relation to H&S, (“Why don’t they talk to us and tell us what the hazards are?  My door is always open!”).   Yet workers go on working through days peppered with parcels of small daily hardships.

It may be a helpful change to formally introduce some notion of workplace hardship into the lexicon of usual H&S talk, but not begin by diluting it with the standard terminology of ‘stressors, stress, fatigue, psychosocial hazards…. and so on.  Call a spade a spade, ‘working in hardship’.  Then, instead of attending to the allowed signals (hazards, risks…) nurture a different signal-to-noise environment where the complaints about workplace hardship are heard and respected as real issues.

“What’s bothering you at work?”  may be a better question than “Can you assess the risks of this hazard on this 25 cell matrix?”

Dr Yossi Berger
National OHS Co-ordinator
Australian Workers’ Union

reservoir, victoria, australia

4 thoughts on “Just workplace hardship”

  1. I like this article. The notion of ‘hardship’ is a valid one. I can relate to much of what is written here having come across many similar examples myself where managers and management refuse to acknowledge the actual working conditions they expose workers to. It’s a disgrace. It’s also interesting to note that these very same managers are the first to complain when their executive chair begins to sag or wobble and they insist on getting the latest and most expensive ergonomic update. Well done Yossi.

  2. But and nevertheless you work with what you’ve got. That’s the trick, to make improvements in various environments despite the resistance.

    And I’ve been lucky from time to time to be helped by managers who not only felt the issues strongly, but had the courage to work against internal resistance within their own organisations.

    One of the points with the ‘hardship’ post above was to suggest that the more immediate and familiar language of daily hardship may be more informative than the neat ‘hazard’ and ‘risk’ categorisation. And perhaps the route to improvements ought to start with a simple daily intolerance to small risks.

  3. Thanks Yossi, for another go at focussing the debate back to the coal face, however the noise I fear will continue unabated and we will be back here again in another few years with not much changed.

    Education? all process and no real outcome

    Enforcement? no real coal face activity to mention

    Employer attitude? not good on the whole

    Employee attitude? anger and despair in many instances

    Injured Workers? screwed by the system in the main

    The OHSW band wagon continues but sadly, the band is very much out of tune

  4. Another great read and reality check. What about when a week-end phone call (“on-call”) interrupts your enjoyment of Buffy?

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