Contributors wanted

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SafetyAtWorkBlog has received a lot of compliments since it began in Janury 2008 and I am pleased at the increased reach of the blog and the variety of regular readers.  To keep the content fresh, I am looking for people with strong opinions on workplace-related topics to register as contributors. 

You made need a WordPress account but as these are free and very easy to set-up, I hope you won’t mind.  You can open an account at

If you think that you have the time to provide, at least, one post each week, please contact me, Kevin Jones, at jonesk99 (at) (excuse the spam avoiodance email address)

Australian CEOs and workplace safety

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One of the tasks I have in my consultancy is assisting the Safety Institute of Australia to promote their Safety In Action conferences.  As part of this I have been able to provide some videos from the May 2008 conference.  The videos are excerpts from the presentations of four of the chief executive officers and company directors who spoke of day one of the conference about their experiences with workplace safety issues at board level.

Dr Ziggy Switkowski
Dr Ziggy Switkowski

One speaker is Dr Ziggy Switkowski, current  chairman of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation and former CEO of Telstra Corporation.  Dr Switkowski’s video is the longest and possibly the most interesting.  His manner is relaxed and chatty as he builds on some of the comments of the former speaker, Jerry Ellis.



Peter McMorrow
Peter McMorrow

Peter McMorrow, managing director of Leighton Contractors, was perhaps the most instructional in terms of safety management. I have written briefly about his full presentation before. In this video, he talks about his early engineering days, how he went clay pigeon shooting with a shotgun and hard hats and how he was too close to an explosive charge.  These tales contrasted well with his presentation of contemporary safety standards.

Glenn Henson of ExxonMobil speaks about accountability and the human role in safety, and Colin Blair, deputy CEO of Standards Australia, discusses how experienced a near miss in his early days as a young engineer.

Each of these speakers were asked about what motivated their interest in workplace safety.  These casual introductions to their main presentations reminded us in the audience that early work experiences, intense or humourous, do provide a structure or shadow to how senior managers in major corporations approach safety.

Until the end of August 2008, the videos will only be accessible at to those who sign up for a regular conference newsletter.

New work accommodation for Torres Strait nurses

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In February 2008, a nurse was raped in her remote house on Mabuiag Island.  The accommodation was provided as part of her occupation and risk assessments have identified that the house was not secure, poorly maintained and, in my opinion, unsafe. Previous SafetyAtWorkBlog posts on this issue are available HERE.

Stephen Robertson, Minister for Health
Stephen Robertson, Minister for Health

On 19 August 2008, the Queensland Minister for Health, Stephen Robertson, officially opened primary health centres on both Warraber and Erub Islands.

The Warraber Island facility cost $A4.45 million and includes:

  • two, two-bedroom staff accommodation units
  • expanded clinical areas
  • a dental chair
  • a conference room.

The $6.84 million Erub Island facility includes:

  • a three-bedroom doctor’s residence
  • two, two-bedroom staff accommodation units
  • expanded clinical areas, including a dental chair, a morgue, and a conference room for video conferencing.

The media release emphasizes a feature rarely mentioned:

“Both centres have secure accommodation units to ensure the safety of local health staff.”

Theses costs are for upgraded clinics with very good facilities and housing is only part of the projects.

Beth Mohle, Assistant Secretary with the Queensland Nurses Union, told me today that the official opening of these facilities had been delayed for several months due to the difficult of providing a reliable electricity supply to the clinics.  These facilities had been planned for a considerable time, well before the February 2008 attack.  In fact the previous facilities on Erub Island had been so bad that the facility was condemned.

Beth said that the new clinics had been assessed by the union’s OHS officer in March 2008 and found to be very suitable.  There were several minor security issues but the union was generally happy with the clinics.

A formal maintenance schedule for the facilities has been committed to be the government.

Beth said that the remaining outstanding issue for negotiation with Queensland Health is the operation of duress buttons for its members. However a trial of a satellite-based system through Skynet Mobile Communications is under way where the community police will be informed immediately of any problems.  

The underlying challenge for all OHS issues in Torres Strait seems to be the remoteness.  Many of the islands have no mobile phone communication coverage and nursing staff have only recently received automobiles.  Previously wheelbarrows were used for transporting equipment on the islands.

To update readers about the circumstances of the nurse who was attacked on Mabuig Island, the case against the attackers is still before the Courts.  The nurse is no longer working in that profession and she has a WorkCover claim relating specifically to the effects of the attack.  

Beth Mohle spoke optimistically about the progress made on the campaign to improve housing and facilities in these remote communities but we must remember the unnecessarily unsafe conditions that workers were expected to operate in.  The future may be hopeful but much of this hope is built on pain and trauma.

OHS harmonisation could create disharmony

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OHS experts have said that the Victorian OHS legislative structure is leading the way in being a major influence on the National OHS Model Law Review. A leaked email, reported in the 15 August 2008 edition of the Australian Financial Review, has John Merritt, CEO of WorkSafe Victoria, calling for a summit before the end of 2008 at which tough enforcement policies are to be discussed with his counterparts from other Australian States.

His call seems to be in response to an equivocation on OHS harmonisation that would allow States to have different ways of applying national OHS laws. This flexibility has been flagged for some time and has the potential to allow just as much jurisdictional confusion and overlap in a new structure as there is currently.

The leaking of the email does not help the process of OHS legislative review but it does identify a potential weakness in the national OHS model law review process if the government is not decisive. The Rudd government has been in for less than 12 months and has applied a rapid pace of legislative review. Several reports and recommendations have already been released with the impact of wet lettuce. For instance, Bracks’ automotive industry review has cost a lot of money for minor tweaks to the status quo unless you are a conservative voter who chooses an imported vehicle.

Whatever the government’s response to the OHS law review, it needs to be one that will stand the test of time, as the UK’s Roben’s review has since the early 1970s. It also needs to be brave enough to see OHS law as independent from industrial relations law. Too often OHS is the tail to the IR dog. The OHS and IR Acts are separate legislation even though the application of the laws overlap at the shopfloor.

We have to remember that harmonisation is the sum of many different voices making up a song, not everyone singing the same tune at the same time. Perhaps the the wrong goal was aimed for at the start of the process.

Media reporting of workplace bullying

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As a publisher my mailbox is constantly bombarded by media releases.  Some are irrelevant but most relate to safety in some way.

Over the years the amount of attention given to workplace bullying has grown phenomenally.  In my opinion the attention it garners is way beyond the level it deserves.

That is not to say that those subjected to workplace bullying are not seriously harmed, they are, but the big-picture issue is disproportionate.

This is partly because many people who talk about workplace bullying do not apply the definition of the hazard, and as a result other non-bullying matters get included.  A media release I received today, 14 August 2008, illustrates this point.

Workpro has undertaken a survey of

“2,146 employees applying for work through recruitment agencies across Australia, to gain an understanding of the experiences and beliefs about bullying and discrimination among Australian employees today”.

The survey found

“almost one in three (30%) employees claiming they have been bullied at work; one in four (24%) claiming they have been discriminated against, and 44 per cent stating they have witnessed their colleagues experience either of these”.

That data is pretty clear and you can expect the Australian media to run articles on the survey results tomorrow.  These surveys usually get a good hit rate.

The media release provides the impression that 30% of employees have been bullied at work.  This is not the case.  Thirty per cent of employees who are looking to change jobs say they have been bullied at work.  This does not represent 30% of the workforce but that is the impression we are given.

Another part of the release is annoying.

“27 per cent of respondents say they feel bullying or discrimination has happened to them within the past two years.”

Bullying and discrimination are very different interactions.  Discrimination can be a one-off event, bullying must be a repeated action.  To ask about these two disparate items within the one question is inappropriate or, if the results of two questions are combined, it provides a false impression.  Did 10% nominate bullying and 17% say discrimination or was it vice versa?

The media release says

“When asked about their peers, almost half (46%) of respondents say they have seen their colleagues bullied or discriminated against within the past two years; 31 per cent of this group say multiple times.”

The point about definition made above applies here but why ask about other people anyway?  The multiple times quote muddies the water because it is impossible to be bullied once, a single attack is just that an attack or in OHS parlance, “occupational violence”.

A spokesperson for WorkPro, Tania Evans, says

“It’s quite shocking to hear from employees that this sort of behaviour continues to happen in modern times, but organisations need to realise that bullying and unfair treatment of staff is occurring and could be impacting their own workplace culture or worse still, exposing them to the risk of liability, possible fines and even brand damage.”

Now we have something called “unfair treatment” in the mix.  (And I hate “impact” as a verb) The penalties could be liability, fines or brand damage, what about workers compensation claims for stress and bullying?  Not only is this a substantial business cost, the cause of the claim may result in the employee never being able to work again or lead a functional life?  I place these risks higher than brand damage.

Media releases are not the be-all and end-all of a survey.  Press statements are intended to generate contact in order to provide further information and hopefully generate business opportunities.  Alarmism is an effective tool and this media release is unhelpful.

You can imagine the articles in tomorrow’s papers where the journalists, if they can be bothered, will have asked the OHS regulators or unions for their response to the statistics, even though it may only be those statistics in the media release that they have seen.

I would have liked this survey to be reported in two parts, bullying and discrimination, to reflect their difference but also to report on the different control mechanisms for the harm that each of these hazards can generate.

But, I forgot, that’s my job.

Kevin Jones