Gerry Ayers on International Workers Memorial Day

On the evening of 28 April 2016, (Australian time), Professor Mike Behm of North Carolina, Ciaran McAleenan in Ireland and others coordinated an online discussion about the importance of International Workers Memorial Day (IWMD).  Dr Gerry Ayers was scheduled to participate but was beaten by technical problems.  However he shared his thoughts about the memorial and has allowed SafetyAtWorkBlog to reproduce his thoughts.  These are included below:

“Wouldn’t it be good if we never had to have an IWMD!   In 2016,  we live in an age often referred to as the age of technology, the digital revolution, the information/travel age, the modern smart world and yet – in 2016…we still have people killed at work and exposed (unprotected) to hideous and cancerous materials and chemicals (e.g. asbestos).  Perhaps we’re not as smart as we think we are!

In our society today, we often hear politicians talk about/rave about their policies for this smart new age and the increased “productivity” world which we  live in.  Seldom, if ever, do we hear politicians talk about workplace health and safety or indeed the prevention of workplace fatalities – especially in political campaigns.  It is “conveniently” forgotten, swept aside, glossed over – workers and their families remain the silent victims…

I see April 28th – IWMD, as the day that highlights and gives workers and their families the opportunity to raise their voice, to express their concerns.  But I also see it as a time for all of us to re-focus, to reflect, to remember and to realise that we still have a huge way to go to protect those most vulnerable and exposed to workplace fatalities – that is  – workers and their families.

For every workplace fatality – a family is left in ruin.  Spouses are left behind;  children left without a parent – a parent who will never be able to share and open up birthday presents, Christmas presents, read a bedtime story, stroke  a child’s head when they’re sick and most vulnerable, a child left to never know the security of that parent’s hug when scared, to share and celebrate the triumphs of the child’s life; brothers and sisters left without a sibling, parents left grieving without a son or daughter.  And we should never forget that sometimes, it is not only workers who die from workplace incidents, but sometimes members of the public, as happened back in Melbourne, in 2013, when a brother and sister (only 18 & 19 years old) and a 33 y.o French women were killed when, while innocently walking along the pavement, a large brick wall on a construction site collapsed onto the street- killing them.

Today – April 28th,  in Australia, marked the 20th anniversary of the Port Arthur gun massacre – a terrible, tragic and shocking event in which 35 people lost their lives.  It had, and it deserved to have huge media coverage and attention.   Socially, it remains a totally unacceptable and tragic event.

But in my industry – construction, the latest official government figures  show that on average, in Australia, 36 construction workers are killed on the job every year.   156 construction workers are injured every day.  And a staggering 12% of those injured workers will never, ever return to work again.  Our own IWMD service here in Victoria had no media coverage at all today.  It is perhaps arguable,  but it is almost become “socially accepted” that workers will ‘sometimes’ die on the job – especially in some occupations such as construction.

We need to make it “unacceptable” to kill workers at work.  Our role is to help make it “socially unacceptable” that workers are still killed, on the job,  in 2016.   That is what makes IWMD so important.”

Kevin Jones

8 thoughts on “Gerry Ayers on International Workers Memorial Day”

  1. Thank you Stephen and Kevin.

    “Perhaps what safety is about is the encouragement of people to take responsibility for their actions but for us to understand the reasons for that action, and to make that action less likely.”

    Precisely, this simple concept exists but is not applied effectively.

    This is how I see it.

    Explore the expectations of the industries, the community, the regulators, and the litigation processes.
    Link them, find out what each of them expect and use them in the detail. Hold industry and regulators accountable for improving outcomes.
    Publish more widely available examples of the failures in expectations within the system, use them more transperantly so everyone can contribute to better outcomes.

    Educate, eliminate the possibility that an individual can use a defence of “I didn’t know that”. Focus on how the failure in the education process has lead to that person, or company, making the decision that lead to the injury or death. How may cases before the courts involved the judge including education or re-education in the sentence?
    Publish more widely available examples of the failures in education within the system, use them more transperantly so everyone can contribute to better outcomes.

    Accountability – How long should we continue to allow industries to accept an underlying culture within the workplace that directly contributes to workplace injury and death. Focus on making it unacceptable for examples of attitudes and historical practices to influence unsafe workplace activity.
    Those that think….
    The rules and guidelines are only applicable if there is a chance of being caught.
    The rules and guidelines do not apply to me, and rules and guidelines do not apply to my industry.
    These people train, mentor and supervise others. The next generation learn and apply the same unsafe practices, over and over and over again.
    How many cases before the courts have examples of these people?

    “the same old excuses and pleadings keep coming up over and over again – I was drunk, I was on drugs, I had a brain snap, I was tired, fatigued, I wasn’t thinking (well I will accept that last one as being honest at least) , it was’nt my fault, etc. The move in the courts to not consider lack of funds for training or putting off the training to later, that results in a serious or fatal injury was way overdue, but we really have to see it implemented at all levels of business to be effective.”

    Publish more widely available examples of the failures in holding individuals and companies to account within the system, use them more transperantly so everyone can contribute to better outcomes.

    And, publish more widely examples of adherence to law, policy, rules and guidelines. Demonstrate through our now vast communication and media network how the right thing is achievable in everyday work places.
    Explore why workers, supervisors, managers and companies choose safe practice as opposed to unsafe practice, and show examples of how positively this can impact on industry and the community.
    Use this more transperantly so that everyone can see it, support it, promote it, and most importantly expect it.

    IMW day to commemorate those lost it important, the community needs to reflect together.
    We are all impacted by the loss of an individual who will no longer contribute to our everyday life, at home, at work, and in the community.

    Those who have lost someone this way want to know it cannot, and will not happen to another.
    The is the only potentially positive outcome that may give comfort is that the example of what happened can influence change.
    Use this more transperantly so that everyone can see it, support it, promote it, and most importantly expect it.

    1. Theresa, I think one of the impediments to the acceptance of workplace health and safety as a non-negotiable is that once laws are passed, they dominate the consideration of business owners. It seems to be that only when something is, or becomes, illegal that it enters the radar of business owners and employers. However most last, and definitely those associated with OHS, have been created in response to disasters or excesses that have harmed people. Regulation is not created from a vacuum but in response to a crisis. The domination of laws as our reason to do things in a certain way has been the most significant cultural impact on how business operates in the long term. The OHS profession has been at fault as well by perpetuating this focus.

      The obligation to not hurt anyone is a basic moral requirement of almost all societies and this morality is usually the reason people become involved with workplace safety, if not in response to personal trauma. The morality is really what people are meaning when they say they find the job satisfying, valuable or even warm and fuzzy. This satisfaction is not based on legislative compliance, it is something more personal and more valuable.

      But the morality of OHS has been hijacked or diverted into other areas, often legal and risk considerations. These considerations are important but are often allowed to outweigh the importance of the person and the consequential social harm that an incident, injury or illness creates.

      I remain skeptical of the “safety, differently” movement but do support its re-emphasis on the importance of the person. I am hopeful that this movement embraces the discussions of morality that come, usually, through religion and philosophy. I am hoping that discussions on business ethics start to consider ethics generally and not just in the business context because there are core values in our business, social and economic operations that deserve, and demand, attention.

      Your comment urges us to continue the discussion of safety, of the hardships, the difficult decisions and the failures. It is disappointing that most of the ongoing discussion has to occur in social media, with all its limitations, because the mainstream media rarely follows an OHS issue to its conclusion. But there are some forms of social media that encourage longform articles and investigation, and sometimes on OHS-related matters. These need our support and encouragement because they do influence policy and practice and will do so more in the future.

  2. Kevin – thank you for participating in our event. Our students and colleagues in the States gained a greater appreciation for IWMD by the international perspective provided (EU, Canada, Australia, and US). We hope to encourage more events here in the US next year.
    Regards, Mike

  3. In South Australia, we had our highest attendance of immediate family members to our workers’ memorial service this year.

    Admittedly our IWMD service has been well attended by families for a few years, but this year was a bit special and it was very much the executive of the new SafeWork SA that made the difference.

    It just goes to show, when the community and the bureaucracy both work on the same page, good things can happen.

    The lunch immediately following the IWMD service was attended by more than 50 family members – and for the first time, the director and liaison staff also attended. It was informal. It was respectful. There was a lot of listening going on.

    See … I think we learn most about safety in the workplace by those who have paid the ultimate cost. There are far too many vital facts and evidence buried in the criminal justice system under current processes. There is no easy solution to this but by getting people talking, maybe the pieces start to come together.

    For the first time in over a decade of advocating for change to OHS ‘attitudes’ in South Australia, I sense a very positive shift with a more inclusive plan. Perhaps for the first time we are seeing contrasting opinions converge in the middle in revisionist problem-solving.

    I believe the ‘April 28’ focus should remain very precisely on the worker who has lost his or her life doing a job. If this endures and is not hijacked by egos and personal agendas, the byproduct is apparent enough – the public mind will naturally shift to safety – and that’s a very good thing.

  4. How does the O/WHS industry, as such lobby for a “day” to be nationally recognised? There seem to be “days” for nearly everything. Can the various regulators rally together for this to happen?

    1. Richard, I don’t know that the day needs to be nationally recognised of formalised in that way. There are memorials to workers in most Australian States and a National Memorial was opened in Canberra only a couple of years ago to considerable fanfare. The status of the day should come from how it is commemorated, perhaps.

  5. and Amen to that Kevin!!!

    Smart digital age, technology, productivity, smart policies. Yeah. unfortunantely we have all been there and heard that before.

    From a political perspective, rather than leading it is where-ever you go now in wester society, down to point scoring, sniping, cata calling, rubbishing, denigrating, ad infinitum.

    Policiticans bow to pressures from the big end of town in all guises and forums. When we get a politician who is prepared to stand up and take hard decisions even though unpopular then we really have a leader and a statesman.

    Politically making people accountable is always unpopular and loses votes, but it is becoming a work and social imperative more and more and needs to be seen as such. What we do safety in our work places needs to be translated every day of our lives into our normal non work activities, just as is being demonstrated now in adddressing domestic violence. However our though processes should not go to the point of making our upcoming genrations so risk averse that they won’t do anything at all.

    Having worked in the legal system on both sides as well as having done investigations, the same old excuses and pleadings keep coming up over and over again – I was drunk, I was on drugs, I had a brain snap, I was tired, fatigued, I wasn’t thinking (well I will accept that last one as being honest at least) , it was’nt my fault, etc. The move in the courts to not consider lack of funds for training or putting off the training to later, that results in a serious or fatal injury was way overdue, but we really have to see it implemented at all levels of business to be effective.

    If as a society we are really serious about this sort of totally unacceptable statistics, then we need unilateral action and politicians with the real intestinal foritude to act for the people, not just bythose directly electing them but the Australian nation, to cover both work and non work situations.

    More power to your blog Kevin!

    1. Stephen, part of the contemporary OHS challenge is to encourage/enforce accountability at the same time as a applying a “no blame” or just/fair culture model. I don’t think there has been enough discussion on how to blend these two apparent opposites.

      Perhaps what safety is about is the encouragement of people to take responsibility for their actions but for us to understand the reasons for that action, and to make that action less likely.

      On the issue of politics, I noticed that Bill Shorten mention workplace safety as an example, of the need for fairness in this budget reply speech last night – “the importance of getting home safely” or some phrase like that. This should not be a surprise given his union background but it is a hint that he is aware of the OHS context of the policies he proposes. Some see his background as a political weakness but given the role of unions in improving workplace safety, in OHS terms, it may be an advantage. (I have discussed the politics of safety elsewhere in SafetyAtWorkBlog)

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