“Reasonably Practicable” – alternative perspective

A developing sticking point in the review of Australia’s OHS laws is the inclusion or otherwise of “reasonably practicable”. This is an important legal concept but less so for safety management. Safety management is an aim and legislative responsibility and compliance is ill-defined. “Reasonably practicable” was an acknowledgement of the difficulty in complying with a…

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Australian Workplace Injury Statistics

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On 15 July 2008, the Australian government released the 2005-2006 Compendium of Workers’ Compensation Statistics Australia. I am pleasantly surprised that although the number of fatalities is never at an acceptable level the trend data is very positive in terms of safety management.

Some key findings and trends reported in the Compendium include:

  • Preliminary data for 2005-06 shows there were 231 compensated fatalities, 93 per cent of which were men.
  • Preliminary data for 2005-06 reports the transport and storage industry accounted for the largest number of fatalities (41), followed by construction (33) and manufacturing (28).
  • Trend data results showed all industries experienced a fall in incidence rates of injury and disease between 1997-98 and 2004-05, with the greatest falls being in the priority industries of mining (45 per cent decrease), construction (27 per cent decrease), transport and storage (20 per cent decrease), agriculture, forestry and fishing (19 per cent decrease) and manufacturing (18 per cent decrease).
  • Reflecting Australia’s ageing labour force, the proportion of claims for employees aged 45 years or more increased from 33 per cent in 1997-98 to 39 per cent in 2004-05.

Such decreases in these major industries should be applauded. Certainly the background to the statistics should be analysed for a proper consideration but the mining results are terrific given that the sector is booming in Australia with new mines opening frequently and is suffering a shortage of skilled labour. Colleagues of mine in that sector have been crowing about the improvements for some time and they seem to be supported by this compendium.

The data can be downloaded HERE

The crash of Blackhawk 221 and safety culture

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The Australian’s government’s report into the crash of a Blackhawk helicopter on the deck of the HMAS Kanimbla in November 2006, in which two defence personnel were killed, has been released by Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston.

According to media statements

“The principal and overarching finding of the Board of Inquiry was that the cause of the crash of Black Hawk 221 was pilot error by the aircraft captain,” Air Chief Marshal Houston said. “Justice Levine stated that the principal finding, however, could not be viewed in isolation nor blame attributed to a highly experienced and well-respected Black Hawk pilot.

“This accident was the regrettable result of a number of factors coming together which culminated in this tragic incident.  There was a gradual adoption of approach profiles which, on occasions, exceeded the limits of the aircraft.  Other factors included a ‘can do’ culture in the Squadron, inadequate supervision, the pressures of preparing for operations, the relocation of the Squadron and a high operational tempo.”

Amongst the control measures introduced following the Blackhawk 221crash and an earlier incident, the Army issued a new risk-management policy in October 2007.  It provides “commanders with clear instructions on how to conduct risk management on operations and in training.”

Ultimately, good has come from the results of the Blackhawk crashes.  The decision to release this report, provide audio of the press conference and considerable inquiry background, is commendable. However, as reflected in the Air Chief Marshal’s comments above, and expanded upon in the must-hear podcast (35Mb MP3), safety management standards had slipped over time.  He is keen to emphasise that the crashes need to be seen in a broader organizational context, as any incident investigation should.

But, in my opinion, that broader context remains damning.  The Defence Forces should, through their strict hierarchical system and regimented decision-making, be an exemplar of safety and risk management.

It is always the case that we should learn from our mistakes but it seems, as in the private sector, that those organizations with considerable safety resources who are best equipped to avoid problems continue to experience them.

With many workplace investigations the excuse for incidents that is frequently trotted out – poor safety culture – is becoming a term of reduced relevance.  The failure of a safety culture is not an “act of God” although the phrase, safety culture, is being used in the same manner.  It implies that there was only so much that could be done but it also indicates that prior to any incident not enough was done.

Safety improvements through hindsight have become the mainstay of contemporary management.  If there is a stuff-up, acknowledge the fact and promise restitution.  Don’t accept responsibility. Don’t admit liability.  In fact, don’t mention the incident, only mention what improvements one intends to make.

The depressing part of a no-blame investigation is that it can feel so unsatisfying.

Climate Change Green Paper – OHS role

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At the moment I am watching Senator Penny Wong  releasing the Australian government’s green paper into climate change reduction, focussing on an emissions trading scheme.  Some OHS professionals have disputed the relationship between environmental management and safety management.  In practice there has always been an overlap in the disciplines and increasingly in management pocesses, auditing and standards.

The Green Paper  has a direct OHS impact in the mining industry where fugitive emissions now need to be measured for climate change purposes as well as for health and safety compliance. Section 5.4 of the Summary of Preferred Positions states

The following sources would have minimum standards for emissions estimation methodologies imposed from the commencement of the scheme:
* electricity sector emissions (as required for the National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting Scheme and the Generator Efficiency Standards program)
* perfluorocarbon emissions (from aluminium production, as is current business practice and used for the National Greenhouse Accounts)
* fugitive emissions from underground coal mines (as currently mandated by state safety regulations for the large majority of mines).

The issue of climate change and the government’s emphasis on business impacts means that we need to reassess some of our amentiies, facilities and work methods to accommodate increased risks from climate change.  The Green Paper describes several ways that climate change will change how we work.  For instance when assessing the integrity of our building facilities we need to reconsider the structural tolerances as the report says

In our built environment, a 25 per cent increase in wind gust speed can lead to a 550 per cent increase in damage costs for buildings, with risks to human safety, largely because building or engineering standards have been exceeded.

Business continuity is going to undergo a revolution in criteria to be considered far beyond what we experienced with increased terrorist risks.

Workplace Safety Inspector Ad

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WorkSafe Victoria has launched a new advertising campaign emphasising its role as an OHS inspectorate (click image below to view).  The emphasis fits that of WorkSafe’s CEO, John Merritt, who has pledged mre inspectorate resources and enforcement in the future.

The ad is clever in its structure by relieving the boss’ tension over an expected WorkSafe inspector visit and then reinforcing the surprise nature of many WorkSafe visits.  The ad is also very well acted but I wonder about the effectiveness of the message as a TV ad.  Not being privy to WorkSafe ad strategies, I would have thought that billboards in and around industrial sectors with the boss’ worried face may be more effective.

One small point though, the female worker being asked about office cabling is too stereotypical.  However I acknowledge that having a female machine operator may have distracted the focus from the main message.

Still from new WorkSafe inspector ad
Still from new WorkSafe inspector ad