Ever since the UK Government reduced the occupational health and safety (OHS) obligations on small business, there have been concerns that a similar strategy could occur in Australia.  Of all the States in Australia, Victoria is the most likely to mirror the UK actions, particularly as its WorkSafe organisation continues with its restructuring and (ridiculous) rebranding, and Victoria’s conservative government continues to see OHS as a red tape issue for small business.  However a recent finding by the Queensland Coroner should be considered very seriously when thinking of OHS in small business.

In 2011 Adam Douglas Forster

” … came close to the rotating ball mill, then accidently (sic) became ensnared by the protruding bolts and was dragged underneath the ball mill which continued to rotate, thereby causing his fatal injuries.”

The inquest found

“There were no guards, barriers or other apparatus restricting access by any persons to the ball mill.” and

Forster “did not know how to turn the ball mill on or off”.

It must be noted that Forster’s official duties, he was a sales and marketing manager, did not involve any action with the ball mill but that he did help out now and then in some areas of the plant, as is a common occurrence in many small businesses.

The Coroner made particular note of a point made by Mrs Forster concerning the level of education on OHS matters in small business.  The Coroner said:

“This was an operation that, because of its size and location, was not generally open to the scrutiny of officials, unions, passers-by or others who might have raised concerns about the level of safety measures around the ball mill.

It has taken this fatal incident to focus attention on this particular workplace.

The recommendation made now is for the policy makers and advisors of WHSQ to consider the circumstances of Mr Forster’s death to see what else may reasonably be done or done better to educate very small business operators in order to foster a culture of workplace health and safety into their operations.”

OHS inspectors rarely visit small and micro-businesses like the one above, a company of four employees, as these rarely operate in what is considered “high risk” activities.  Certainly there is little risk of multiple fatalities or much impact on the public but Forster’s death shows that this sector needs OHS attention and support.  OHS regulators would say that there is plenty of OHS information available tailored to this sector and that some have specific advisory programs.  However, making something available does not mean it will be used.

For some time, OHS regulators have been advertising to the small business sector with ads about an unexpected visit from an inspector but this is an unlikely occurrence, particularly if the workplace is “low-risk”.  Many regulators have increasingly focused on encouraging workers themselves to refuse unsafe tasks, reflecting a general attention to personal empowerment for controlling hazards.  Partly, this approach is due to a continuing decline in union oversight and influence on OHS matters and the lack of companies applying the consultative mechanisms advocated in the OHS laws such as OHS committees and Health and Safety Representatives.  But it could also be a continuation of the misunderstanding of employer obligations to provide a safe system of work and what is actually meant by a “system of work”.  There is also the increasing distraction from direct cause-and-effect incidents by advocates of mental health and wellness programs.

Significantly the Queensland Coroner encourages “a culture of workplace health and safety” as a broad strategy to increase the attention given to OHS in small businesses. Work Health and Safety Queensland has as much safety information as most other OHS regulators including documents on culture, leadership and safety culture as well as a program of workshops for small business.  But even with all of this information available there remains a disconnection between valuing OHS and practicing OHS.

Clearly a new strategy is required beyond OHS pamphlets and support programs by the regulators.  Some thoughts for consideration:

  • A mentoring program of small businesses by corporate safety professionals in similar industry sectors.
  • A safety collective based around industrial neighbourhoods in industrial/business parks.
  • Continuous Professional Development points/credit for pro bono work by OHS professionals.

At some point, safety must be integrated into the operational mind of all businesses and the front of mind of all workers.  Brochures and guidances go some way.  Marketing has generated a change in OHS values in some in the community as well as. perhaps, generating unrealistic expectations on OHS inspectorates. It may be time to stop looking at the regulators for leadership on OHS in the small business sector and instead provide it directly to those workplaces that slip under the inspectorate radar but that can still kill people like Adam Douglas Forster.

Kevin Jones