New South Wales Safety Awards Night

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On the night of the 29 October 2008 over 570 people attended the WorkCover NSW Safety Awards.  The awards are in their fifth year and the ceremony was professional, well organised and, perhaps most importantly, an excellent opportunity for safety professionals to meet others.  There were clients and advisers, ergonomists and hygienists, health and safety reps, regulators and employer groups in the audience.  As the CEO of WorkCover NSW, Jon Blackwell said, there were over 570 safety advocates and believers.

The award winners were all worthy of the awards but there needed to be more innovation and there needed to be a spark of inspiration in the nominees and the award winners.  Of the winners, the Dorsal Boutique was a standout for several reasons.  The solution was innovative, quirky and applicable to a wide variety of hospitality worksites.  The boutique won the award for the “Best Solution to an Identified Workplace Health and Safety Issue with bed lifting system that reduced the manual handling hazards associated with making a bed.

Many of the other finalists were often tweaks on existing technology but none were breathtaking.  And it is this extreme that such award processes should aim to reward.  It may be that the pool was small although there were more applications in 2008 than in previous years.

The shallowness of the pool was also indicated by many on the systems awards coming from companies undertaking the legislative OHS duties that have existed for decades.  They were not in new industry sectors or challenging sectors which would have added value. 

This is not to belittle the personal achievements of the finalists and award winners.  Speaking to several on the night, their efforts and sacrifices were clear and in some cases, life-changing for themselves and others but the consultative, compliance standards being rewarded were where the businesses should have been already.

There were several award finalists who, it was stated in the introductions in the Leadership category, had already participated closely in WorkCover’s Assist and mentoring programs.  Participation should not exclude companies from eligibility for a WorkCover Award but the WorkCover involvement would provide a considerable leg-up in the stakes and provide a prominence that other companies may not have access to.

However, it is acknowledged that these are the WorkCover Awards.  The judging panel has three WorkCover representatives, one union representative and one form the employers.  There were no independent safety professionals, ergonomists, engineers or hygienists.

Over the last few years in OHS awards around the country there have been many solutions that have gone on to The New Inventors and many have come through that show.  It’s judging criteria is just as questionable as any other but at least that program is from outside the industry sectors of the inventors, there is some effort for independence, and some understanding of the commercial reality facing many of the applicants.

WorkCover is to be congratulated for providing as much judging criteria as it has on each award.  This adds value and veracity to the award winners and finalists but perhaps with the harmonisation of OHS laws and processes, it is time to save each State regulator big dollars and to put finalists onto a proper national platform by putting all our efforts into the national award process

 

WorkCover New South Wales Safety Awards 2008
WorkCover New South Wales Safety Awards 2008

WorkHealth – end is nigh after less than one year

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Early in 2008, the Victorian Government sprung a surprise on the OHS and health promotion industries by announcing a world-first initiative – WorkHealth.  This program was to be funded by interest generated from the WorkCover scheme to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars over the next five years.

WorkHealth loses stakeholder support

Two weeks ago, a well-respected OHS professional advised that key stakeholders in WorkHealth were very cool on the program.  This confirmed previous questions raised in SafetyAtWorkBlog about the promotion, transparency and organisational support for WorkHealth.  The professional stated that others were questioning the placement of WorkHealth in the OHS field rather than in health promotion.

Rumour has existed for some months that WorkHealth is a scheme that has been pushed by a narrow range of OHS and workers compensation advocates.

What made WorkHealth so interesting was that the concept originated from within the workers compensation field with workers compensation money.  At the time, the wisdom of committing such a large amount of money to the initiative was questioned by many in the trade union and business areas.  Why head in this direction when there were established mechanisms to reduce OHS and workers compensation costs?

The global economic problems, it is suspected, would have flowed to the investments of the WorkCover scheme and it would be interesting to know what the revenue allocation to WorkHealth now is calculated at.

OHS/Industrial Relations conflict

In The Age newspaper on 26 October 2008, WorkHealth gained some attention as business groups have now seen the criteria for the health assessments of workers.  David Gregory of the Victorian Employers’ Chamber of Commerce and Industry described the criteria as a potential “industrial weapon”.  According to the article,

“WorkSafe told The Age the idea of an initial ‘tick test’ screening process had been abandoned, and the proposed $130 million worth of prevention programs are not in the pilot at all.”

As is evident from the quote, it is the pilot scheme that is being rolled out, however it is clear from the comments of David Gregory and the state secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union, Steve Dargavel that industrial relations sensitivities have not been considered.

Gregory makes excellent points that good OHS professionals are already aware of – workplace safety can only succeed when industrial relations implications and conditions are considered before any intervention process.

OHS has broadened to include the hazards of fatigue, stress, anxiety, depression, workloads, bullying and other matters that have encroached on health promotion and human resources over the last decade or so.  A worker health program would have been more likely to be accepted through this osmosis rather than a surprise announcement.

Is this the end?

WorkHealth could work if it had been generated as a workplace application of public health programs.  The challenge would have been to legitimise the expenditure in an already cluttered health promotion sector.  How would WorkHealth have achieved this testing regime when business is already assessing its workers for psychological disorders, cholesterol, prostate health, hearing, asthma, and a whole range of modern health issues?  It is unlikely that it could so.

It came down to health assessments in a different context – a context where there had been insufficient groundwork to establish the value of the program to its fundamental stakeholders, the unions and employer groups.  To a much lesser extent, the program was not sufficiently integrated into the WorkSafe authority’s program before the announcement.

Also, the timing has been proven to be wrong.  The global economic problems are beginning to squeeze business’ bottom line.  The calls for workers’ compensation premium relief will increase in the same way that businesses have begun questioning the viability of an emissions trading scheme.  WorkHealth is likely to be one of those program cut, so the government will claim, due to the changing economic climate.  The lessons to be learnt are more wide-ranging than just economics.

“Suitably qualified” OHS professionals – who benefits?

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For many years OHS regulators have been concerned about the quality of advice that OHS experts have been providing to businesses in Australia.  Some States have a regulated profession, others do not. Certainly there is no regime in Australia that compares to the “closed-shop” of Singapore.

I have seen no evidence of bad OHS advice to business.  Looking through legal databases doesn’t help, as cases are too difficult to find and the regulators say they have evidence but they usually don’t share.

For over thirty years, OHS legislation has stated that OHS management in a workplace is, principally, the responsibility of the employer.  This also means that an employer is responsible for any OHS decisions made based on their own assessments, which may involve advice from an external adviser.

As an OHS consultant I provide the best advice I can.  If the client needs advice in an area that I am not knowledgeable in, I contract a suitably knowledgeable colleague as part of servicing my client.  Any advice I provide is clearly specified as coming from the information provided by the client and my observations on the day.  What decision the client makes is up to them. This point is made in the WorkSafe Victoria paper mentioned below.  The paper says

“It is important to note that employing or engaging a suitably qualified person to provide OHS advice does not discharge the employer from their legal responsibilities to ensure health and safety as required under Part 3 of the OHS Act. This duty cannot be delegated”

This week WorkSafe Victoria released a position paper to clarify a section of the OHS Act.  According to the website

“This document sets out WorkSafe’s position on the meaning of section 22(2)(b) in the context of duty holders meeting their obligations under Part 3 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act).

Part 3 (sections 21 to 23) of the OHS Act places duties on employers to ensure health and safety.

Section 22(2)(b) provides that employers must, so far as is reasonably practicable, employ or engage persons who are suitably qualified in relation to occupational health and safety to provide advice to the employer concerning the health and safety of employees of the employer.”

My belief is that OHS consultants should be called in, primarily, for a second opinion.  This opinion is provided after the employer and worker representatives have “had a go” at identifying hazards.  In my experience, businesses have a fair idea of the workplace hazards present but are not sure how to prioritise the controls of those hazards, and may be unaware of new control measures.  This is where the OHS consultant comes in.

Few OHS professional associations in Australia provide their members with information on how to do your job, or how to apply your knowledge in a commercial context.  Until recently few tertiary institutions provided this service and I would like to hear of those OHS courses that now do teach business practices to graduates.

(I remember attending a Ergonomics Society conference in Sydney almost ten years ago.  It was the first time anyone had spoken on the issue of professional ethics to the ergonomists.  I would be surprised if other Australian professional associations have progressed this far)

According to the position paper, these are the elements that they consider “may” make a suitable qualified person:

  • Knowledge
  • Industry experience
  • Professional activity
  • Reputation
  • Professional association
  • Communication skills
  • Technical expertise
  • OHS legislative understanding:
  • Risk management strategies

From that basis, below is my plain English checklist for businesses to assess their OHS advisers. Comments are in brackets:

  • Knowledge: Does the professional have an educational qualification that is relevant for your needs? (I have never been asked to show my education qualifications by a client. Also, having an educational qualification does not equate to competence, in itself, no matter what the education evangelists say)
  • Industry experience: Do they know what they are talking about? (This is impossible to verify unless they have worked in an industry for a long time in a prominent role. One could ask for references but the references are always friendly to the adviser)
  • Professional activity: Can the person demonstrate recent professional activity in the relevant OHS field? (Activity does not mean that the quality of that activity was any good. A snake-oil salesman could have been in business for a decade but they still sell snake oil. This is also relevant to the educational evangelists – academic papers in peer-reviewed journals do not indicate competence in advising companies on the best hazard control measures)
  • Reputation: Have they been any good in the past? (This can be indicated by googling their full name. I recently found an OHS adviser with a criminal record and jail time for “failing to act honestly as a director of various companies”. However, an internet campaign can be used to unfairly discredit someone. The best way of checking their reputation is the talk with the adviser’s professional association, should they be in one and should that association know what it’s on about.)
  • Professional association: Do they belong to a relevant professional association? (This is a good move but many associations allow advisers to buy membership without any verification of their competence? The flaw in this criterion is the validity of the association, its disciplinary procedures and its criteria for membership. Do not over-emphasise this criterion)
  • Communication skills: Can they read and write?
  • Technical expertise: Do they know how to use their tools properly?
  • OHS legislative understanding: Do they know there is an OHS law? Have they read it? Do they understand it?
  • Risk management strategies: Does their advice control the hazard or simply reduce its impact?

 But then, this could all be tosh.  Seek a second opinion.

Bullying, duty of care and compensation

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The growth of attention to psychosocial hazards in Australia received a considerable boost from a stress survey undertaken by the ACTU some years ago.  During the survey of union-members, it became clear that bullying was a major generator and perpetrator of workplace stress.  The unions went to town on this data and set the agenda for some time in OHS.  Their success was echoed and mirrored in the United Kingdom and Europe. (In fact, Europe seems to be the jurisdiction that has kept the momentum)

The survey and campaign got the attention of regulators and OHS professionals to the presence of, perhaps, the next generation of occupational health and safety activity.

Since that time psychosocial hazards have splintered into sub-groups of stress, occupational violence, workload, fatigue management, shift work, dignity at work and a range of other matters. However bullying persists as the front runner.

As with many elements of OHS, risk management and cultural studies the defence forces provide signposts to future civilian issues. Yesterday the Australian Defence Force agreed to pay ex-gratia payments to family members of defence personnel who had committed suicide as a result of bullying suffered at the hands of their colleagues.  There are many significant signposts from these incidents but one of particular note was that the payments were not made to dependents but to other family members.

According to the ABC radio report by Karen Barlow:

“The suicides date back up to 12 years, when Lance-Corporal Nicholas Shiels killed himself after accidentally shooting his best friend dead during Army training.

Private John Satatas hanged himself at Holsworthy Barracks, in western Sydney, five years ago after being bullied and racially taunted.

Private David Hayward committed suicide four years ago after he was injured and had gone AWOL.” 

The Defence Minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, was interviewed on this issue, and others, on Radio National on 23 October 2008 and  has referred the matter to a general review of the defence forces. Fitzgibbon acknowledged that “shortcomings in the defence force system” contributed to the situation and could have been better handled after the event.

The day before the media attention the Australian Defence Force released the findings of its annual attitudinal survey of personnel.  The 2007 survey found, according to a media statement:

“… a marked improvement in knowledge of mental health issues as well as members’ assessments of their own mental health. Since 1999, the data also shows an increasing proportion of personnel who believe that unacceptable behaviour is well managed.”

As Australia moves to a national OHS and workers compensation system, or at least a harmonised system, more attention should be given to some of the responses and OHS initiatives in Commonwealth departments as these will be just as influential on OHS law and management as any State initiative.

Unions question the targeting and success of graphic WorkSafe ads

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One of the most popular recent postings at SafetyAtWorkBlog has concerned the graphic ads aimed at young workers by WorkSafe Victoria. Last week a safety group meeting was told that WorkSafe focus groups of teenagers had said that to get the attention of young people on workplace safety, advertisements needed to be graphic and confrontational.

However, other young workers tell a different story.  According to the Victorian Trades Hall,

“Feedback from young workers taken recently indicates the message they are taking from the ads is that if you get injured at work it is your fault. They paint a very negative stereotype of young workers.”

Trades Hall also reveals that WorkSafe’s own research does not necessarily fit with some of the current WorkSafe language:

“Research conducted for WorkSafe by Sweeneys in April this year does not demonstrate that young workers are ‘apathetic’. Rather it advises that young workers:

  • lack knowledge of their rights at work, what to do if they got injured, and of IR and OH&S issues;
  • mimic the behaviour and attitudes they observe around them from older workers and supervisors;
  • had a general reluctance to speak up or ask question because they are intimidated and worried about losing their job or think their boss will think they’re stupid;
  • are perceived as apathetic or arrogant by employers, which the research noted was due to young workers being too intimidated and worried about looking stupid to speak up.”
UPDATE: ads are now available through Youtube – nailgun, bakery,    kitchen  
It seems that the WorkSafe Victoria ads are not available on Youtube but the Canadian WSIB ads are.  It is worth reading some of the comments posted under the videos to see what a small section of Youtube viewers, presumably the “Youtube generation” the ads are aimed at, think of the ads.
Given that next week is Safe Work Australia Week and WorkSafe Victoria is likely to promote the young worker ads as a cornerstone of its safety promotions campaign, it is worth trying to listen behind, or between, the good news to determine if the campaign will, in reality, achieve the aims of reducing young worker deaths and injuries.
Recent satirical television shows, such as The Hollowmen, have shown a possible manipulation of focus groups in a similar way that the production of departmental reviews were shown to be politically influenced in Yes Prime Minister.  Focus groups and market research may be the best techniques we have but that doesn’t mean that the findings should be uncritically accepted.