How good intentions can lead to workplace deaths

The recent coronial finding into three workplace deaths related to an Australian government economic stimulus package in 2009 has muddled the safety profession over the political context and the OHS context of these deaths.  But the finding and resulting discussions could be the catalyst for a much-needed analysis of how decisions made with good intentions in Canberra can lead to the tragic personal and shopfloor decisions in the suburbs.

Nanny State

The Home Insulation Program (HIP) could have been interpreted as government “interference” in the market and been badged as “nanny state” economics.  However it may be possible to argue that Prime Minister Rudd could have been an economic hero if the Home Insulation Program had continued without any deaths. Recent newspaper articles have indicated that the home insulation sector doubled its workforce in response to the stimulus package (The Australian 8 July 2013 ).  One person’s “nanny state” could be another’s social welfare.

One media report in 2010 mentions a Coalition accusation of nanny state economics but in comparison to the Howard era of handouts, the accusation is a little shrill. The same report outlines some of the safety benefits that resulted from HIP.

Around the same time The Daily Reckoning used the HIP as an general criticism of the “nanny state” but also said:

“….it is truly stunning that a $2.5 billion program designed to put insulation in people’s homes (a dubious program to begin with) actually killed four young Australians…and no one has had the courage to link the bad policy with the tragic result.

Think about that again – the death of four young people is directly linked to government policy – and no one has been fired, lost a job, or held accountable for it at all. If, for example, four diggers were killed in Afghanistan after being sent on poorly planned mission, what do you think the coverage in the media would be like?”

In 2011 Annabel Crabb asked an uncomfortable ideological question about the Liberal Party’s inconsistency on the “nanny state”:

“Tony Abbott, for instance, wants the Government to be more involved in the household expenditure of welfare recipients, but also wants it to keep its grubby mitts away from anyone pouring their pay down the pokies.

How can one party support such intimate interventionism on one hand, and yet – on the other – preserve its customary suspicion of the nanny state? How do the rights and freedoms of a problem gambler outweigh the rights and freedoms of an alcoholic person on the dole?”

This 2012 article by Peter Lewis and Jackie Woods provides a very useful statistical approach to how the community would view the aims of many activities that some would describe as “nanny state”:

“On issues with natural safety implications, people believe the primary objective of regulation should be the protection of health and safety.”

Job Creation

It should be remembered that the HIP was seen as a “green jobs” stimulus program and probably the largest Australian job creation scheme with environmental credentials.  The mantra of almost all the Australian governments at the time of the HIP was “jobs, jobs, jobs.”  Such programs are rarely, if ever, run past the OHS policy makers or OHS regulators prior to implementation, yet it is well known that effective levels of safety are most successfully established the earlier they are introduced to the project design.

The failure of HIP is a strong argument for greater interaction between government regulators and program developers and the implementation of formal Safety Impact Assessments  in government project tendering and program development.

Accountability

A moral argument can be made that the Prime Minister and senior Ministers of the Australian government at the time were responsible for the deaths of the four men, and the burning of many homes, due to their setting a policy that could not be fulfilled without sacrificing workplace safety.  It can be argued that the State Governments, which had the responsibility for implementing and monitoring HIP and the safety requirements, were overwhelmed by the operational demands of HIP and failed in their regulatory duties.

But there can be no doubt that under OHS laws the principal responsibility for the safety of workers, then as it is now, was with the employers.

The OHS regulators have and will pursue these companies through the Courts.  But the only accountability for the politicians associated with the HIP, other than their own consciences, will be through the ballot box.

What Australia does not have at the moment is any coordinated investigation into, amongst others:

  • the effects on OHS of the  government’s decision making processes on the economy,
  • the opportunities presented to small companies by such stimulus packages,
  • the preparedness of businessmen to seize these opportunities without adequate consideration of the risks to workers,
  • the level of resources required by State OHS regulators to address the inspectorate and licensing needs of a program that was foisted on them at extremely short notice, and
  • the awareness of homeowners to the risks presented to building contractors on their premises,

The success and failure of the Home Insulation Program is a great opportunity for an analysis of how decisions at the top of the political structure in Australia can lead to fatal decisions in workplaces or, in the HIP case, the roof space of a domestic home.  Such an analysis could change the way workplace safety is understood and applied in all Australian businesses.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

16 thoughts on “How good intentions can lead to workplace deaths”

  1. Your headline definitely got my attention great read. Safety is a message that people need to buy into and for themselves and especially all levels of government. It is far easier to motivate a workforce that chooses to accept safety willingly than to have trusted compliance enforce. When their is loop holes and businesses that just don\’t get safety we\’re putting peoples lives at risk.

  2. Mark
    Victorian unions have raised with the regulator the grantingof restricted class be lcencences to carry out the work as it often involves working with friable asbestos which is class a work , there have been cases where unlicencesed untrained workers without protection have been doing this work its not only the pits but thousands of kilometres of piping that is being disturbed according to reports to put this cabling through .
    The coroner in his report made note that the risk of electrocution was not thought of in risk assessments until after cases of electric shock this despite the use of staples being banned for such a use after electrocutions in New Zealand .

  3. Mick,
    Contrast this with one of the other tranches of the economic stimulus package, the construction work carried out at schools – the BER (Building the Education Revolution). Principal contractors were engaged to oversight and manage the work in whole regions, in one region I\’m familiar with, 163 schools had additional facilities constructed during the lifetime of the scheme. The Principal contractors liaised with personnel in the work health and safety regulatory authorities (WHSQ, WorkCover NSW, WorkSafe VIC, etc.) and these inspectors conducted joint visits and did spot checks. Were there safety issues on sites? – Yes! Most were quickly addressed, and the information used to alert and advise the many thousands of contractors engaged to work on the BER.
    Safety was a very high priority, and though the scheme has been criticised as wasteful, it is doubtful that the safety record of the BER could have been achieved without the extensive multi-layered management of the scheme, multiple compliance checks, and the regulators being involved from the outset, as part of the project design. The regulators were involved and consulted from the beginning, developing project specific information to help builders, tradespeople, contractors and schools to understand their workplace health and safety requirements and obligations as part of the BER.
    The HIP could have been designed and implemented in the same manner, but was rushed through to implementation with little regard for safety analysis.

  4. The coroner raise a concern about any future large scale project and the lack of co-ordination of various agencies ,the nbn project does come to mind with the asbestos issues and were these hazards considered as part of any risks assessment.
    Re comparing the figures for instances of fires with different types of product used eg. foil and its electrical issues from stapling through wiring and batts not stapled it would be hard to compare, certainly the post inspections of the foil type found a large number of potential dangerous fittings that had to be addressed no issues were noted with the batts .

    1. Mick commented
      \”The coroner raise a concern about any future large scale project and the lack of co-ordination of various agencies ,the nbn project does come to mind with the asbestos issues and were these hazards considered as part of any risks assessment.\”

      As I understand it, the contract between Telstra and NBN Co requires Telstra to hand over the pits to NBNCo in a fit and proper state. Thus it is, that the OWNER of the pits is remediating it\’s property prior to hand-over. Telstra has allocated approximately $1 Billion for this work. They are absolutely aware that 10-20% of their pits nation-wide contain asbestos (and, in some cases, Dieldrin).

      Again, I see much politicisation of this issue, when it should be a straight out Safe Work Practices/SOP issue – if there have been obvious failures, then there should certainly be assessment of the management decisions and processes put in place, as well as the degree to which contractors did or did not adhere to the requirements; the adequacy of the training etc. But, for several of the posters in this stream to allege or imply that, because things went badly wrong with a vanishingly small percentage of cases among MILLIONS of examples, that that, ipso facto, is evidence that there was \”little regard for safety analysis\” does not ring true.

      One further thing to consider – do we REALLY want the final arbiter of decisions and processes to be the Minister of Finance, or Infrastructure or whatever? That\’s like holding the non-Executive Chairman of the Board culpable. Technically, maybe structurally \’correct\’, but the guy that signs of on the decision who has no oversight, but is only presented with information at a quarterly Board meeting will tell you that OHS WAS \’considered\’ in the decision. He can show you the report and the minutes to prove it was so.

      We don\’t seriously expect the Minister of ANY department to be an expert in things like the intricacies of the cross jurisdictional application of Safety Laws, do we? ESPECIALLY when its the province of another department? Isn\’t that the role of the professional Departmental officers? One can have a desire and commitment to safety, as a policy maker, without expertise, or, in fact, any clue as to how the system currently works in practice to achieve this, OR how to institute changes to that system to improve it. Whether in a Government or in a company, when the Head of one department institutes a new policy, like Garrett did as Minister for the Environment, or the Head of a Training Department in a large company might implement a new Exercise program, that has an unintended consequence of injuring at-risk workers, sometimes corporate knowledge doesn\’t flow to where it is needed. In dealing with this reality, the inevitable bureaucratic log-jam ensues and THEN we get people screaming about delays, pedantry and costs.

      Garrett similarly could legitimately say that the issues were brought to his attention, he considered them, asked questions about them, raised warnings, sought assurances (and was given them), and made sure that requirements were in place. They were. They weren\’t followed. Should it have been obvious that they would not have been? Probably: knowing human greed and similar fly-by-nighter\’s getting in on the Solar panel installation business. But, are we seriously saying we want to employ Transfield or similar to oversee 1.5 million roof installations which as often as not were PREVIOUSLY CARRIED OUT BY HOME DIYer\’s? REALLY?

      One of the main criticisms of the BER program, by these same critics, is that it cost too much and was wasteful precisely BECAUSE middle-men oversight contractors were engaged, rather than allowing local schools or districts to engage the contractors directly. Talk about each way betters! Damned if you do, and damned if you don\’t.

      Sometimes it seems a little balance is missing.

  5. Kevin you made the points well.

    This tragic venture is also illustrative of the fact that environmental management and OHS are not the same discipline. Professionally, these two quite separate areas are so often confused into the same role – e.g. OHSE.

    Environmental initiatives,particularly in building and construction structural design, can create significant safety hazards.

    The often heard call to embark on a massive nation wide program of asbestos removal, if pursued, would potentially create a huge potential for fall fatalities in the immense task of stripping of AC sheets from both commercial and domestic roofs.

    If such grand ventures are to be undertaken, they have to be properly assessed and managed.

    Apart from the Government\’s failure to understand the serious safety risks involved in the HIP, contractually the scheme was not set up appropriately. Major principal contractors should have been engaged who would have had a direct OHS Duty of Care to manage the subcontractors they engaged.

    The Victorian Government,in the aftermath of the Black Saturday bushfire disaster, undertook the correct strategy by engaging one major builder to organise the demolition of the houses burnt out by the fire. This Builder took the risks on board and ensured that there was a uniform and consistently safe program adopted by all the contractors involved. With its reputation on the line, this Builder deployed competent and committed safety people to manage the process.

    The comparison quoted in Kevin\’s article between the four deaths in the HIP and a similar possible outcome in a mission in Afghanistan, is cause for reflection. Consider, the men who were electrocuted in the ceiling spaces were all civilians innocently carrying out a national project. Their deaths deserve our national grief.

  6. Les et al, I am sure statistics on house fires and worker deaths exist but will take somedigging, howevver the Letters section of today\’s Crikey newsletter said this:

    \”It prompted my memory of seeing something by a reporter in the Weekend Financial Review back around the time this so called “pink batts debacle” first started its run. That reporter also did his homework. He analysed fires in home insulation in years before the pink batts stimulus and arrived at 100 in 50000 installations and compared that with those in the pink batts year — again 100 fires, but this time installations were 1.5 million. A massive improvement in anyone’s eyes.\”

  7. Hi Richard,
    As per one of my previous comments above – is the federal government not able to rely on the previaling OHS legislation and Regulators as adequate to esnure the safety of the frontline worker?
    At what point in the implementation of policy, where a \’private organisation\’ is seeking to benefit from government funding, doea that organisaiton become resposnible for compliance wiht the prevailing laws.
    Why do we always lay the blame, for failure of individuals, at the feet of those who govern us rather than where the \’rubber hits the road\’.

    From my knowledge and understanding of the prevailing W/OHS laws in the relevant jurisdictions at the time, I believe that all necessary expectations were established and that if each of the employers whose employees, and various clients\’ homes, were affected HAD complied then these deaths and the home fires should, most likely, have been prevented.

    Similarly, how many organisaitons were involved in the program and how many actually had significant incidents such as fatalities and fires?

    At the time the program was introduced I was working for an asset management company who were using sub-contractors to provide this service. The organisation ensured their subbies complied. In fact I was asked to provide support in a risk assessment in one specific case where a home was identified to have significant asbestos in the roof cavity. We refused to provide services in that specific instance.

  8. Excellence as ever Kevin. The telling line for me was \” Such programs are rarely, if ever, run past the OHS policy makers or OHS regulators prior to implementation\” Your point about a safety impact assessment is well made. Does this show where OHS sits in the general psych?. If you don\’t plan for safety you inevitably fail?

  9. Thanks Kevin for your very balanced and thoughtful analysis.

    The Commonwealth Government has always had a responsibility for the impacts of programs funded by it\’s departments and agencies, There is so much that could be said about Commonwealth program policy and development, implementation and monitoring of grant programs, evaluation, but anyone who takes the trouble to look will see that there is nothing unusual about governments assessing and mitigating the safety risks of it\’s grant programs.

    I found this little document still current on the Department of the Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities web site: It dates from way back, refers to the long defunct NOHSC, but is apparently one of the still active principles understood by departmental program managers in terms of the Ecologically Sustainable Development initiatives (which the HIP was not part of).

    \”Challenge
    To ensure that occupational health and safety (OHS) considerations are fully integrated into processes developed for the implementation of ESD\”

    http://www.environment.gov.au/about/esd/publications/strategy/ohs.html

    However, the lack of updates to this document is evidence that work health and safety concerns are not exactly at the forefront of thinking when formulating programs (under this or any other initiative).

  10. I have a question and an observation.
    Question: is it possible to ascertain the death-rate and fire rates, say per 10,000 home insulation installations, PRIOR to the implementation of \’silver/yellow\’ Batts (few, if any, were Pink) and then the rate DURING the project? This information might provide some rational perspective on this highly partisan-politicised furore.

    As an observation, if the Home Insulation, BER and other schemes were funded by the Feds, but administered by the States, in what ways were the injuries and deaths in these programs directly to be laid at the feet of the Feds substantively different to worker\’s deaths/injuries on a federally funded roads or hospital project?

    Like Annabel, I find it passing strange that the champions of the free market and anti-regulation are screaming about failures of the State to be more of a \’Nanny\’ and control, regulate, oversee, manage, legislate, and involve more bureaucrats.

    When Tony was Health Minister, he proposed direct Commonwealth funding to build a Tasmanian Hospital. In such a scenario, I am genuinely struggling to understand why the funder of a project, carried out under State legislation, and Australian Standards and the BCA etc, can not rely on the umbrella of ALL applicable legislation, including O/WHS, being implemented.

    Are we getting into \’Nanny\’ territory if a worker at a Department of Defence facility anywhere FAILS TO COMPLY with an obligation under WHS, and dies, are the Federal politicians now to be the first place we look to assign blame? This just feels a little weird. I must be missing something.

  11. Excellent post Kevin and just maybe the leaders of our various institutions may take some note, however I doubt that will be the case as will be proven over time.

    I don\’t know that we can sheet all of the blame back to Canberra when each state has its own legislation, regulations and standards that employers \”must\” abide by. The small business sector is always over represented in work injury statistics which has to give us pause for thought and should raise the question, Why?

    The Insulation Scheme was trumpeted very loudly indeed and I don\’t think there would be a safety official in Australia that would not have been aware of the potential for safety disaster, or should have been, after all, are we not experts in \”risk assessment\”.

    I can\’t remember seeing \”advisories\” on the subject being advertised in any of the mass media, such as a full page \”Advertisement\” in every major news paper in Australia for a week at the beginning of the scheme. Given the scheme cost billions, I would have thought a paltry 200k or so might have been deemed reasonable.

    Maybe this is a lesson for those who need to know, that the need for action and compliance message is not getting through to small business and just as importantly, the \”Taking Care of Yourself on the Job\” message most certainly needs a lot more effective effort and money allocated to it.

  12. I would be keen to read such a book/story. So long as it was focussed on idenitfying and uderstanding how the \’system\’ went awry. And some options for reducing the likelihood of a recurrence.

    When I heard the first news headlines of the first deaths and how the \’journalists\’ of the day were seeking to lay the whole blame at the feet of the then government I was \’shouting\’ \”what about the employer\’s obligations under existing safety legislation?\”.

    Too often in my lifetime I\’ve seen government initiatives for inducing economic growth treated simply as a cash grab by unscrupulous \’capitalists\’ who want to access taxpayers\’ money without being held accountable for compliance with the prevailing laws of the land.

    Some questions I\’d like to see answered follow:
    Should the government (federal or state) have to establish specific detailed safety management protocols for these types of programs or should they be able to rely on existing legislation being adequately imlemented as an integral part of the program????

    Haven\’t we, as tax payers, already paid for the development of those laws? And why should we have to keep paying for the same thing as applied to individual/specific issues and programs rather than allowing/requiring the industry/organisaiton that will benefit from the \’incentive\’ doing their part in earning that incentive?

    Is it possible that state based operators thought that, as the incentive was federal, they didn\’t need to comply with state laws in accessing it???

  13. Hi Kevin,
    and thanks for a balanced analysis. It\’s heartwarming to read an article that identifies and analyses various aspects of the issue without sensationalism or emotional tags.
    Well done.

    1. Les, thanks for the compliment. The article was uploaded after the third draft.

      I really think that there is a book or, at least, a long story in this issue. One that illustrates how top level policy affects the safety of people. We have seen such descriptions of social welfare, indigenous health and airline accident investigations but these rarely have OHS as the analytical core. Four Corners investigated the HIP but principally from a political perspective.

      I don\’t think a Royal Commission is necessary but a well-resourced ICAM investigation would be fascinating.

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