Vulnerability and arrogance

“How can this be allowed to happen nowadays?” the distressed wife of a seriously injured worker asked me recently.  Her husband was sitting next to her, his eyes still victims of the recent terror that nearly killed him.  She saw that and struggled to join him in his very dark and personal space.  This now would become a life time job for her.

This meeting captured for me one of the most fundamental factors at most workplaces.  That workers’ most common feeling at work is that of vulnerability.  Of course many workers find comfort and pride in their job.  Of course it feeds them and their families.  Of course it can provide personal identity and purpose.  And of course there are many managers who understand all this.

But it’s also true that much too often this is not the case.  That’s one reason why when suddenly factories or mines close, or car manufacturers ‘shed’ 200 workers, or car part factories go bust workers are not only shocked, but it substantiates their sense of vulnerability, “What a shock, I thought they loved us!”

Not only is this painfully evident when a negligently poor H&S standard results in crippling a worker for life, but is typically present on a daily basis.  Permanent fear of job loss results.  The fact that a worker can be disciplined or sacked for a number of events that can be defined and redefined by creative managers feeds that feeling.  That’s another reason why so much bullying and humiliation occur and so much stress is experienced.

How do such managers think workers feel to be threatened with random drug testing when they know that by far most H&S fallout and the hazards and risks present have nothing to do with drug taking?  How do they think workers feel when hopeful managers bark about teams, (“We’re a team, Team, aren’t we Team?!”) in the boys’ own hairy chest beating manner?

Will this small amount of asbestos fibres I’ve just inhaled here – because no one told me that this material had asbestos in it – kill me?  Na, probably not.  ‘Probably not’ is what I’ll tell my wife, ‘probably not’.  Will this small amount of benzene fumes I’ve just inhaled give me leukaemia?  Na, probably not.  What about my mate who was seriously injured (broken neck) in a quad bike incident when the prone to roll over machine did just that?  What’s that all about?

Ask the manufacturers and their preferred research consultancy and they’ll tell you (in their most recent report just out) that that rider was ‘a misuser’.  And so must have been (by implication) those dead people who were killed by quad bikes, misusers, despite comments to the contrary from a coroner.  You can perhaps understand such crudeness from manufacturers over-excited with their ‘near perfect’ creations, but why would researchers who pride themselves on independence and objectivity resort to such terminology?  Not nice, folk, let alone unprofessional.

Quad bike manufacturers and so many in industry behave as if their machines or work processes or factory designs or OHS systems are near perfect.  So the H&S fallout associated with the use of their creations by human beings must be the result of misuse.  Tell me that’s not harmful arrogance.

Every week I see workers who are confused by all the good and important OHS improvements that are supposed to be happening at their workplace, yet they still work in the same shit they were in yesterday, or 20 years ago, whilst their managers talk theory of H&S.

Somewhere between people’s sense of vulnerability and industry’s hurtful arrogance people try to live a busy and rewarding life.  But this fact remains…. it’s people, not permanently rule obeying robots.

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

15 thoughts on “Vulnerability and arrogance”

  1. Yossi Berger is unable to participate in the discussion at the moment but has asked me to put the following issues for consideration to readers to continue the discussion:

    1. The artificial separation of H&S and IR.

    2. The notion of \’strong\’ and \’strength\’, that hairy chested view of the world.

    3. The pervasive fear workers have of job loss, and in that kind of environment it can be \’suicidal\’ to raise H&S matters.

  2. Bette, you obviously didn\’t read all of Mervyn\’s comments – very early on he said \”I have been in this situation, or been made aware of such tragedy too many times not to be adversely affected\”. So what makes you think he sits in judgement and has \”no understanding of being in those shoes\”?

    What \”system\” do you refer to, and what changes do you propose to \”fix\” it? It\’s so very easy to make generalist comments without offering any solutions whatsoever. Most people are very good at that.

  3. mervynsher, I am disappointed in what I am reading from you…come spend some time with me when I sit with widows trying to come to terms with the death of a loved husband. Or those who loose loved ones to suicide from lont term injury benefits..

    As you sit there in judgement, obviously have no understanding of being in those shoes!!!! The system needs to be looked at so that those who suffer serious injury are treated with dignity and humanity. And with opinions such as yours…how can true understanding ever evolve???

  4. LMG, it is extremely gracious of you to offer an apology, albeit unnecessary, and with equal grace I offer my own apology for utilising certain ill-considered vocabulary. You had every right to counter my opinion with your comments, and I accept them in the light that they were offered. From my side, no harm done.

    Each of us has our own unique set of circumstances which mould our thoughts and actions, which include the comments that we post on this blog. Due to the uniqueness as well as the differences in our circumstances from each other, we look at life somewhat differently, and it is that perspective that forms the platform of our opinions.

    It is my perception that Dr Berger, a trained psychologist and an active senior staffer of the Union, utilised this platform to bring an IR issue to the fore under the guise of safety. To me this is manifestly wrong, and therefore I said as much.

    I really am very much in touch with just how vulnerable certain sectors of our population are, with regard to security of tenure at work. I can even understand how it is that you, a senior professional earning a high salary feels at times insecure or uncertain about your own job security. I run a professional consultancy that deals with the top end of town – so I am fully aware of just how fickle fate really can be when it comes to security of tenure.

    I firmly believe that safety in the workplace cannot be emphasised enough to everyone. Safety, or working safely, thinking safely, planning safely etc., creates a positive dynamic that flows into higher productivity, lowers costs, improves the profitability and value adds to the lives of the workers. This is what I do for a living – deliver safety mechanisms to workplaces to create this dynamic.

    I also firmly believe that despite declining numbers of membership, the unions have a very large and vital role to play in the workplace, and ultimately within the very fabric of Australian society. One of the strongest requirements for Union service is in the OHS field, and it is here where I truly believe that the Unions could do so much good, that they fail so miserably.

    Unions have a right of entry for OHS enshrined in law that no other individual or entity (barring the Regulators) has, and yet they fail time and again to effect any positive change to a workplace. Why? Because no sooner do they arrive at the workplace then their visit suddenly takes on a distinct IR flavour and the safety aspect is all but forgotten. It never used to be like this, you know. In fact the majority of safety initiatives over the years were directly attributable to Union representation. Not anymore!
    Why am I perceived by you as being heartless or without humility because I point out simple facts, facts that are staring you and everyone else in the face so blatantly and clearly? I do not think automotive workers are morons, in fact I don’t hold that opinion of any particular group of workers whatsoever.

    I do believe that the people to whom you refer need to take stock of their situation outside of their traditional comfort zone, and no matter how frightening it may seem to them that change is needed, they need to begin the journey that will bring them to the crossroads of change.

    Why do we all assume that the best way forward for everyone is in a protected bubble, inured against the harshness of reality and protected by ever vigilant Unions? Why not encourage the individuals to think for themselves, rather than be reliant on the thoughts of others?

    Dr Berger is well aware that human beings are primarily herd animals. With his professional knowledge he would also know that human beings naturally take risks – it’s how we learn. Perhaps this is how he can best serve the vulnerable – by applying his teachings on how to stand up for yourself, be strong, and be able to support your family and community on your own.

    So instead of bleating about what a bad deal these people have been dealt, how about giving them a hand-up, instead of a hand-out? Help them to learn how to stand up for themselves, small steps at a time, and you’ll have generation upon generation of membership for the Unions.

  5. How about the theme of people feeling so vulnerable in their jobs it\’s literally making them sick? The people putting up with bullying because they feel too vulnerable to speak up? The young girls more than usually vulnerable to sexual harassment in a FIFO job? I think this comment by Yossi, \”…workers’ most common feeling at work is that of vulnerability\”, is dead on the mark both in and out of an IR context and central to the themes of this blog.

    All right I\’m going to get off my soapbox now and go do some real work…

  6. I apologise for emailing in the heat of the moment, Mervyn – that violated the standards of this excellent blog and my own standards as well. But I still think you\’re completely out of touch. It\’s not a \”class\” thing. For the record, I\’m a senior OHS professional earning more than five times the minimum wage. I have the kind of transferrable skills that would see me reemployed within a week if I lost my job. But even with all that I don\’t (for various reasons) feel secure in my current job and I identify very strongly with my weaker workmates who just wouldn\’t know what to do if suddenly faced with unemployment. It\’s terrifying to them. You talk about automotive workers as if they\’re morons for working in that industry and should just get up and move. It isn\’t as easy as that in the real world. We all know that doing a job is far easier than getting a job. Change is frightening, people are extremely disempowered by uncertainty and don\’t know if leaving would be going from the frying pan into the fire. Have a little heart – and humility enough to acknowledge that in describing vulnerability Yossi Berger has identified a central theme of working life.

    1. LMG, safety is certainly part of that working life and I think there is a worthy debate, but perhaps hidden below some ill-considered vocabulary. I take responsibility for approving the comments.

      There are several themes that I can see in the article and subsequent comments:

      A continuing lack of clarity on the role of OHS on industrial relations and vice versa.
      The positive and negative affects of psychological issues in the workplace.
      Employee representation on OHS matters in a time of relatively low union membership.
      The role of OHS in the current productivity debate in Australia.

      I am sure there are more and I would welcome comments from readers on whether these issues are ones that the SafetyAtWorkBlog should pursue.

      Kevin

  7. The article by Prof. Quinlan, although dated, is relevant.

    I disagree with his opinion \”that the persistent accusation of unions using OHS as an industrial relations tool is “largely an ideological beat-up”.

    On the ground factual evidence disproves this opinion time and time again. Dr Berger used OHS to push an IR agenda in this article, as do other Union stalwarts.

    Notwithstanding the above, the rest of what the good Professor had to say was valid.

  8. In furtherance of SAFETY………….

    Yossi, no anger – just disappointment.

    Let me start off by acknowledging the gut wrenching trauma of having a family member or friend killed at work. I have been in this situation, or been made aware of such tragedy too many times not to be adversely affected, perhaps to a similar degree as yourself, and having to live with the frustration that the last was by no means the last.

    The cost of human tragedy is always at its highest among the communities that work the hardest, that give the most, that earn on the lower end of the wages scale, and whose grief is forever etched in their faces, even when they smile and laugh, as eventually they must.

    You would have us believe that these are the vulnerable, made so by the arrogance of the Companies and Management that employ them. This is a blatant lie, as is most of the content of your article. What is arrogant is to twist the vulnerability of people to suit a political purpose, which is what your article does.

    Where their vulnerability lies is in their inherent belief that the Unions, and people such yourself in the position that you hold, make false representations to them with false promises attached, backed by the arrogance of Union supported politicians who fail the Workers time and time again. This is where the true vulnerability stems, and flows out in poisoned ink and vitriolic attacks on the very group of people that actually value the Workers – their Employers.

    There is no doubt that there are sadly still Employers who do not value their Workers, neither their wellbeing, nor their safety nor even their humanity, and such Employers have no place doing business in Australia. These feral misfits are the exception, by no means the rule, and whilst the nett effect of such disgusting management does garner the highest and most visual retribution and vilification in the media, it is the vast majority of good and decent Employers that quietly get on with business, adding value to their staff’s lives and that of the Company, who operate under the radar of the media spotlight.
    Where you state that “when suddenly factories or mines close, or car manufacturers ‘shed’ 200 workers, or car part factories go bust workers are not only shocked, but it substantiates their sense of vulnerability” is manifestly a nonsense. Factories do not suddenly close. The demise of manufacturing in Australia has been drawing steadily to a conclusive end over decades, with various Governments propping up certain parts of this industry affording a false security to the Workers. The Workers know full well when a company is in financial strife, or are you going to tell me that the staff in the office don’t talk to the staff on the factory floor? Of course they do!
    Mines do not shut down suddenly either. Over the last two decades no single mine in this country, including BHPB Ravensthorpe, shut down unexpectedly. Some may have ceased operations in a shorter period than others, but none shut down overnight. Were the Workers ignorant to this fact?

    The motor car manufacturing industry has been an albatross around Australia’s neck for decades now, and should have been shut down ages ago. For the workers in such industry, which includes the spare parts sector, to feel vulnerable is respectfully a situation of their own making. Which part of “the industry that you work for is unsustainable and will in the very short term close down” do these vulnerable people not understand? These Workers are not owed a living from Ford or Holden, nor are they owed a living from the Australian taxpayer – which clearly the Unions think they are.

    I acknowledge that there are some companies that do not engender a quality safety and health culture within the workplace, and this is a great shame and disgrace on our Industries. However, every Commonwealth, State and Territory OHS Act and Regs, including the much vaunted WHS Act, clearly prescribe not only what the Company has to provide in the way of OHS, but just as clearly prescribes the rights (and obligations) of the Workers in relation to stopping work if unsafe. The workers already have these protections enshrined in Law, all they have to do is stand up for themselves and say NO!

    To say that Workers fear for their jobs is too simple. To compound it with Bolshevik rhetoric about creative managers firing Workers for any reason is bizarre. Managers have a right under law to discipline or terminate the services of any Worker, subject to certain criteria and procedures being met – without having to be creative. If the Worker is doing their job in accordance with their Conditions of Employment and/or instructions from their line management then they have nothing to fear, no need to feel vulnerable.

    I fail to understand how Workers can be threatened with random drug and alcohol testing. Every construction or mine site that I have worked on, every Client that I service in any industry, every company that I have interacted with has a robust D&A policy which clearly states that all employees will be randomly D&A screened, and this policy forms part of EBA’s, employment contracts and even Site Access Permits. So where is the threat? Where is the vulnerability? The policy and the random screening are for the benefit of everyone in that workplace, so where’s the problem?

    There are two landmark cases from which we can draw knowledge, these being AIRC Shell Refining v CFMEU 2008 and FWA Caltex Australia v AWU. I would strongly encourage all readers to download these judgements and read them thoroughly. Please remember that certain drugs are deemed prohibited or restricted substances under law, and therefore to have or use them is illegal.

    In the Shell v CFMEU matter the CFMEU argued that as long as the usage of drugs did not hinder the performance of the workers or safety in the workplace, a worker’s private life was their own business. The union contended that while urine testing would identify drug use in workers outside of the workplace, the evidence was “moot” and was therefore an unnecessary incursion into the private lives of workers.

    So there we have two distinct strikes for supporting illegal drug use by the very Union that is supposed to represent the health and safety of its Members.

    In the Caltex v AWU matter the AWU argued against random drug testing, claiming it had a “low likelihood of identifying drug usage but a high likelihood of disenfranchising workers to the detriment of occupational health and safety standards” and that testing would generate “resentment amongst workers to the detriment of occupational health and safety”.

    Another instance of two strikes in favour of illegal drug use by the very Union that Dr Berger is a part of, and who claim to represent the health and safety of its Members.

    It would seem to me that the Unions are the first to cry foul when (supposed) matters of health and safety arise, but in reality support and condone the use of illicit drugs, so long as this allows the Unions to be seen to be defending the “rights of the worker’ against the Company. The sad reality of all this is that it is in fact the Companies that are truly looking to support the health and wellbeing of the worker through these checks and balances, and not the Unions as they would have us all believe.

    I must say that I have witnessed bullying across all levels of management, as well as in all levels of workers. This is distressing, as to me a bully is nothing more than a coward, and not worthy of sharing space with me on the same worksite. Over the decades I have made a stand against any bully, irrespective of their position. Where they have chosen to “pull rank”, I not only stand my ground but take the attack to them. I play them at their own rules, using intellect and law, and they very quickly fold. Perhaps if you encouraged your members to stop being victims and stand up for themselves……………….?

    As to the far too many deaths whilst operating quad bikes, again I fail to understand how manufacturer’s, or their research consultants, can be called arrogant simply because they pointed out (no doubt at the time of a quad bike fatality) that the direct cause of the fatality was the misuse of the vehicle by the operator.

    Quad bikes do not suddenly go from demure to savage in the bat of an eyelash. A quad bike is an electro-mechanical vehicle that has to be operated by a human being – it cannot function autonomously. If the human operated the vehicle as per the manufacturers specs and within driving/operating criteria it will function perfectly and no-one will be hurt. However, if an operator operates the vehicle outside such specifications or criteria then it is the operator’s own stupidity that will elevate them to the status as the author of their own misfortune or tragedy – not the quad’s. So I suppose that I too am now being harmfully arrogant?

    The only truthful and valid comment that I accord in your article is your paragraph “Every week I see workers who are confused by all the good and important OHS improvements that are supposed to be happening at their workplace, yet they still work in the same shit they were in yesterday, or 20 years ago, whilst their managers talk theory of H&S.”

    Unfortunately for the workers, the Australian workplace still has a lot of maturing to do, particularly in the cultural area of behaviour and ownership of risk. It does not help the workers at all when you continue to wrap them in cottonwool and promise to care for them, their rights and their livelihoods, when the reality of it al is that (a) you can’t deliver on your hollow promise, and (b) it’s actually up to them as individuals to take ownership of their rights and obligations in the workplace.

    What single positive item has your article contributed to workplace safety? Where have you offered a solution (right, wrong or indifferent) to what you claim is wrong, or harmful or arrogant? Talk is cheap, Yossi, and that’s all we got from you in this article – Talk!

    Your message did make its mark on your intended audience though, evidenced by the comment above so graciously supplied by LMG. So nice to see that class warfare is alive and well, the us versus them, the oppressors and the victims……….

    Wake up Yossi, this is Australia 2012, not the wharves of the past century.

    Like I said, no anger, just disappointment.

  9. C\’mon Mervyn, help me understand why your comment seems to express anger. What do you think is inaccurate, demeaning
    and irrelevant to WHS in the post?

    I really would like to know some of the detail of your opinion. Where do you think I went wrong in what I wrote?

  10. \”mervynsher\” who the hell do you think you are? Obviously not an employee or you\’d know that vulnerability is our single defining characteristic. It\’s by no means a case of \”What a shock – I thought they loved us!\” – I don\’t think any employee is naive enough to think that today – but when all\’s said and done we can only go on feeding our families if \”they\” go on employing us and the amount of crap some of us have to put up with to make that happen defeats the imagination.

  11. What a load of unadulterated crap!

    This kind of self serving drivel has absolutely no place on this blog – it demeans it and all the good it has done through positive and strong articles in the past.

    Yossi, stop telling bobbamysers

    1. Mervyn, Yossi\’s article expresses a perspective that I think is an easy one to forget in social media debates and OHS policy development – the social impact of poor working conditions and safety on a worker\’s family. There are several publications, often confronting to read, of family impacts of workplace death. Some have been referenced in the SafetyAtWorkBlog but one that slipped past me in 2011, but is linked to in the article, a paper by Professor Michael Quinlan entitled \”Traumatic death at work: Consequences for surviving families and The adequacy of institutional responses to death at work: Experiences of surviving families\”. The issue of aggravated grief is very real as has been on display at some of the public hearings into workplace bullying.

      So I think the article has merit but this has also been written by one of the most prominent safety advocates in Australia and I think it deserved to be published.

      If you have objections to the content of Yossi\’s article, please start the debate as I have enjoyed your viewpoint on other social media.

      Lastly, what on earth is a \”bobbamyser\”?

  12. Misusers beware! You are statiscally equivalent to users, as the huge uncertainities overlap both each other the 100% certainty mark!

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