A history of Australian trade unionism

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Occupational Health and Safety in Australia is invariably related to the role of the trade union movement.  OHS legislation legislates a presence for the Health and Safety Representative in most jurisdictions and historically, the HSR has been a union member.

I suspect that union members still make up the largest proportion of HSR training courses.  HSRs are the shopfloor OHS enforcers.  Lord Robens acknowledged that a constant worksite presence was an important element of safety compliance and the union movement jumped at the chance of formal legislated presence.

Tom Brambles, the author of the article on the right, has just written a book entitled “Trade Unionism in Australia – A history from flood to ebb tide” (pictured below).  The book covers the union movement over the last 40 years and details some of the political campaigns that may have contributed to their decline. 

bramble-cover-001

Significantly for Australian workplaces, Bramble points out that union membership now lies at just under 20%.  In May 2008, Tasmanian Premier Paul Lennon resigned as his personal approval rate hit 17%.   Brendan Nelson hit a 17% approval rating in August this year while he was Opposition Leader.  17% is a political benchmark for change and the union movement is approaching that figure.

For years, I have been questioning whether the political influence of the Australian trade union movement is justified; whether tripartism is of more historical relevance than contemporary; and how workplace safety can be adequately policed on the shopfloor when there are so few police.

Tom Bramble’s book is not about OHS but about the waning of an important societal element that was very important to OHS management systems.  Yes it’s about industrial relations but it is also about human resources and social campaigns and may provide some tips on how the  safety profession should, and should not, go about building a national presence and spreading its influence with key decision-makers.

Kevin Jones

This post first appeared in a slightly longer version in SafetyWeek – Issue 166 in early October 2008

A transcript of short piece that Tom Bramble read for Australia’s Radio National is available at http://www.abc.net.au/rn/perspective/stories/2008/2412452.htm

Injury Reporting Rates

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Government OHS policies are, more often than not, based on statistics.  The most common statistic is workers’ compensation claims as they are trackable and involve money.   Another is fatality data.

Many countries have an obligation on employers to notify the proper authorities if a serious injury has occurred.  We know that in some countries injuries and deaths are under-reported.  In the legal, and illegal, coal mines in China, sometimes workplace deaths are actively disguised, ignored or denied.

Just this week, a Vietnam news service reported on the lack of injury reporting identified by the  Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs’ Labour Safety Department, in Vietnam.

The report says that “only 7,000 companies reported work-related accidents” for 2008 and that this equates to only 10 per cent of the reportable accidents.  Using the mathematical calculation skills of SafetyAtWorkBlog (an Arts graduate) that means that over 60,000 workplace injuries are not being reported.

Earlier this year a more explanatory article appeared which estimated 500 deaths each year form workplace incidents.

Perhaps there is some hope that if the government is aware of the lack of reporting, it can accommodate this in its national programme on labour protection, safety and hygiene that aims for a reduction of at least 5% in work incidents by 2010.

OHS impact of the Fair Work Australia Bill

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Over the next few weeks, many Australian law firms are running information seminars on the government’s Fair Work Bill.  This legislation will change the way that workplaces are managed, particularly in the area of personnel management.

The overlap with OHS will come through the increasingly contentious issue of “union right of entry”.  Frequently unions request access to a site in order to investigate an OHS matter.  This is a legitimate part of the tripartite consultative structure that underpins workplace safety.

Given that the National Review into Model OHS Law has already flagged Victoria’s OHS Act as a useful template, it is worth noting that Victoria went through the same right-of-entry concerns in the development of its 2004 OHS Act as the Fair Work Bill is generating now.

Victoria established a system of licensed union OHS delegates through the Court system in 2005.  Earlier this year the CEO of WorkSafe Victoria, John Merritt said 

the ARREO system had been working well since it was introduced in mid 2005.

Mr Merritt said only eight matters involving ARREOs have been reported to WorkSafe since this section of the Act (Part 8 – Sections 79 to 94) took effect in mid-2005.

In seminars prior to the 2004 Act, workplace lawyers, some who have gained considerable prominence since, warned that “the sky was going to cave in” once unions gained this level of access.  It didn’t, but the law firms gained some new clients.  This type of scaremongering is being repeated currently in the Australian press at the moment.

Yes, under the Fair Work Bill, unions can access a broader range of company data than ever before, including salary information of senior executives, as asserted in The Australian Financial Review, but there are considerable safeguards and limitations in place within the legislation.  These safeguards have worked in relation to Victoria’s OHS laws and they will in industrial relations.

In terms of safety management, the establishment of a cooperative relationship with employees is the best way to minimise union involvement.  It is also the best way to minimise the visits of the OHS regulators.  

Remember that those who complain loudest are those with the most to fear.

Kevin Jones

 

OHS Right of Entry Guide
OHS Right of Entry Guide

Inherently Dangerous

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Every so often one will hear of an occupational that is “inherently dangerous”.  Every time we hear this or see the phrase in print we should protest loudly.  If a safety professional uses the term, they should be shunned.

Anything that is described as “inherently dangerous” reflects on the lazy thinking of the describer.  Working on a house roof was once inherently dangerous.  A firefighter running into a burning building was once (still is in the United States) an inherently dangerous activity.

Nothing is inherently dangerous when it comes to safety management.  Although it may be that a suitable control measure has yet to be devised, danger can be minimised or eliminated.  

The Confederation of Australian Motor Sports (CAMS) juxtaposes “inherently dangerous” with OHS in its policy:

The Confederation of Australian Motor Sport Ltd (CAMS) is committed to providing, so far as it is practicable, its stakeholders with a structured environment to minimise risks to health, safety and welfare. CAMS recognise that motor sport is inherently dangerous and will continue to strive to minimise risk to those involved through a shared and integrated approach to health and safety.

In a Brief History of Lighting in the US, the elimination of an inherent risk is amply illustrated with the move from gas lighting to electricity over time.

Around 1920, word was out that gas lighting was inherently dangerous and too many homes were burning down, and homeowners should remove their gas lighting and give the safer new-fangled electric lights a chance, even though electricity was probably just a fad.

“Inherently dangerous” dampens innovation (a buzzword in modern management) and should be avoided at all costs.  

One wonders how safe our world would have been if “inherently dangerous” was allowed to dominate our legislation in the way that “reasonably practicable” has.

Kevin Jones

Manual handling and childcare workers

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Yesterday, a reader posted the following question

Are their any articles available on manual handling risk factors for workers in the childcare service industry (including programs for risk control)?

Below are some of the resources that are readily available in Australia, specifically on childcare.  In many cases the control measures employed for nurses overlap but in may OHS advisory and regulatory sites the hazards for nurses dominate the advice.

As an example of the dire need for accessible information in this area, there is a Canadian guide to “Health in Child Care Settings“.  It’s over 200 hundred pages with lots of great information.  The only mention of manual handling hazards for workers is 

“Use of proper lifting and transferring techniques can significantly reduce the risk of injury. Providers’ education in this area is essential.”

Yet we know that the medical evidence for safe lifting techniques is dubious.

There is a commercial DVD available at www.themedia.com.au  I would advise that playground equipment should be reviewed for durability AND ease of transport (there are many types of castor wheels with brakes available for heavy items) 

There is a training course that includes “Lifting Techniques & Manual Handling for Child Care Workers” available (in Australia – there are many more around the world)

In 2001 the Queensland OHS authority released  a guide called “Manual Tasks Involving the Handling of People Advisory Standard 2001“.  Again this reads very nurse-y but it specifically includes the handling of children.

Without knowing the background to the question – whether concerned with the handling of children or equipment – it is difficult to go further.  Perhaps the reader can provide more detail and we can see if other readers can help with specifics.

Kevin Jones