Passport to Safety in Australia

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Around the turn of the century a father told me this

“My son was 19 years old and he was killed in an accident in a small warehouse in a suburb of Toronto. In this little shop, it was a small business with only 4 or 5 people there. He got the job through a friend whose Father ran the business. It was the second or third day on the job and he was asked to go back and decant some fluid from a large drum to some small vessels. The action violated every OHS regulation in the book. There were multiple ignition sources, there was no grounding. A spark went off and lit up the fumes that went back in the drum and it exploded over my son. He died 24 hours later.”

That father was Canadian, Paul Kells, and this traumatic event set him on a journey to improve safety for young workers.  Paul established the Safe Communities Foundation.

Paul has travelled to Australia several times and he has been granted audiences with many OHS regulators but it seems that government of South Australia is the most ardent supporter of Paul’s Passport to Safety program.

Over 5000 students in South Australia have completed the program since 2005 and the government is trying to reach the target of 20,000 teenage students.  A sponsorship form is available for download.

SafetyAtWorkBlog supports Paul’s work and the sponsorship initiative of the South Australian government.

This is what the workplace safety ads in Australia are missing, a passionate advocate who speaks about the reality of workplace death and personal loss – someone who has turned grief into a social entrepreneurship.  If only this type of inspiration could happen without the cost of a life.

My 2000 interview with Paul is available by clicking on this link kell-interview.  It was originally published in SafetyAtWork magazine in February 2001.

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OHS advertising

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WorkSafe Victoria is marketing well by tweaking their OHS advertising messages to fit the economic or seasonal requirements of workers and workplaces.  In mid-December 2008, the “Homecoming” ads have been updated to provide a more obvious link to people working during the holiday season.

John Merritt, CEO of WorkSafe, tries to link their two ongoing campaigns – Homecomings and young people at work in the media statement that accompanies the TV release of the ads.  He said, on 15 December 2008, 

“Employers at this time of year need to take exceptional care to ensure their people are properly trained, supervised and working in a safe way.  

“This is particularly true of industries where there are many people taking jobs straight from school or university.  

“With the working environment to become more frantic in the next couple of weeks, now is the time to ensure every workplace has the systems and procedures in place to minimise risk.”

This is true but does not seem to fit the media scheduling.  The television ads began airing this week but 
“The campaign will also run on radio, be shown on outdoor billboards and in cinemas from Boxing Day”

It seems odd to stagger the campaign through the first half of the summer break when the people taking on seasonal jobs, particularly in retail, are starting work prior to Christmas.

Also, previous campaigns aimed at young people  have been criticised by some who say that television is not necessarily the best medium to communicate with the target age group.   Others see the ad as advocating the wrong approach

John Merritt mentions in his statement above that now is the time for reviewing and updating safety systems and procedures.  It could be argued that, in a practical sense, this is unlikely to occur so close to Christmas, when companies are winding down or operating frantically to beat the Christmas deadlines.  

Many school leavers began their new, and first jobs, throughout November.  This would have been the time when safety inductions were conducted and any other training provided.

The campaign certainly has considerable value and it is heartening that WorkSafe has committed to keeping the Homecoming campaign fresh but occasionally the communication strategy seems to hiccup.

For this posting, SafetyAtWorkBlog contacted WorkSafe to include a copy of the ad in this blog and other online OHS publications.  This option wasn’t available at the time 0f posting and the video has yet to appear on YouTube. The posting will be updated when video is available.

Kevin Jones

Deaths in isolated work camp from tropical storm

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It is relatively easy to manage a workplace in an urban environment.  The buildings stay in one place, the neighbours are almost always the same and the weather bureau provides plenty of warnings.  But in isolated areas, particularly in Australia, it seems the work environment is often more exposed.  Certainly this was the case in mid-March 2007 when Cyclone George hit a railway construction camp killing several workers and injuring twenty.

The camp accommodation of demountable units, called dongas, were supposedly cyclone-proof.  At the time, the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union said that administrative staff were evacuated but construction workers were directed to the dongas.

The owner of the worksite, Fortescue Metals Groups said on 11 December 2008 that it will fight 40 charges brought by Worksafe WA under the West Australian Occupational Health and Safety Act.

According to one media report:

“The charges include the failure to provide a safe work environment, failure to design and construct temporary accommodation and other buildings capable of withstanding a cyclone and failure to properly instruct and train workers.”

The installer of the demountable buildings, Sunbrood, had all charges dismissed.

The court case will continue in Western Australia in February and March next year.

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. 

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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.