OHS as an agent of change

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Tom Bramble is a Queensland socialist academic who recently published a history of Australian trade unionism.  I attended his book launch in Melbourne and found it partly inspiring and partly disconcerting.

Tom (pictured here) was an excellent speaker and seemed to be a knownbramble-book-launch-0011 entity to the strongly socialist audience.  It was the audience that I found disconcerting.  I had not been in so overtly socialist circles for over a decade and although disconcerted, the atmosphere was refreshing due to the level of passion in the speakers.

I regularly write about the industrial relations context of workplace safety  so I was disappointed that Tom did not mention OHS as an agent of change.  I went back to his book and looked for mentions of workplace safety knowing that there have been disputes over OHS in the trade union movement and often workplace fatalities have generated politic pressure and outrage.  

There were some mentions of of safety or health conditions but these were often as an add-on to the more industrial issues such as wages.  Perhaps this is where OHS should be but I can’t help thinking that safety and health can be important elements of emphasising the importance of a dispute by appealing to basic worker and human rights.  One example in Tom’s book is the Mount Isa Mine dispute in 1964 where the state of amenities block was a source of tension.  Given the devastating effect of asbestos, lead and other industrial illnesses, I expected health and safety to have a much higher profile.

Perhaps, my expectations were too high as I had been reading a history of the Queensland Fire Service where the safety and safety equipment were important elements and even motivators for disputation.  Indeed, the issue of PPE in the emergency services remains a hot issue even in 2008.

Arguing for improved safety equipment is a useful example of OHS as an agent of change because of the direct relationship of PPE as a hazard control mechanism.

I don’t accept the position that firefighting is riskier than working in construction. Construction faces a constant presence of hazards whereas firefighting is highly intermittent even though the risks may be more intense.

Australian workplaces have a sad history of fatalities, falls, poisoning, suicides, amputations, crushings, runovers and drownings.  Each of these issues have generated change in specific workplaces.  Some have generated political, organisational and cultural change.  It seems to me that a history of workplace safety in Australia may be needed to show people how the little brother of industrial relations affects change from an, arguably stronger moral position.

Kevin Jones

Those at risk of exposure to asbestos

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Over this last weekend, asbestos-safety advocates, ADSVIC, took advantage of the topicality of the navy’s poor management of asbestos by including half-page ads in major Australian newspapers.  The ads focused on the risks associated with DIY home renovators but law firm, Slater & Gordon, related their asbestos information sheet directly to the media attention about the Australian Navy.

Slater & Gordon, a former employer of Australia’s industrial relations and education minister, Julia Gillard, have always been active in seeking new clients and have participated in many class actions based on workplace safety issues, particularly the James Hardie Industries legal action of earlier this century which was important for many reasons, including the furthering of political careers.

Slater & Gordon’s information sheet includes a list of those people who it believes are at risk of asbestos-related diseases.  It doesn’t much leave room for anyone to feel safe from this risk.

  • Miners
  • Asbestos plant workers
  • Handlers and waterside workers
  • Asbestos factory workers
  • Carpenters, plumbers, electricians and builders
  • Wives and children of workers
  • Office workers
  • Mechanics/brake workers
  • Power plant workers/refinery workers
  • Teachers and students
  • Hospital workers
  • Telstra workers
  • People at home

Kevin Jones

“Illegal” asbestos use in the Australian Navy

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The defence forces operate with a different understanding of risk and safety.  In the past there are many instances where soldiers lives have purposely been sacrificed for the greater good.  This has been an integral part of many “heroic” battles. 

The Australian federal OHS authority, Comcare, is at the forefront of a clash between occupational safety and armed services culture.  The Age newspaper has revealed the Australian navy’s continued use of chrysotile asbestos in its ship and navy bases years after the substance was banned for use.  The newspaper says that a risk assessment report has found

..”the risk to personnel was significant, exposure to asbestos was almost certain and the consequences were “potentially catastrophic”.”

OHS standard practice is to identify the control of hazards in line with the Hierarchy of Controls which seems to have been done as the newspaper reports

“A ban on the use of and import of asbestos-containing materials in Australia came into force on January 1, 2004. But the ADF [Australian Defence Force] requested and won an exemption [page 5 of the SRCC 2005-06 Annual Report] to continue using chrysotile asbestos parts until 2007 on two strict provisos: that the parts were “mission-critical” – meaning their absence would ground equipment and jeopardise a mission – and that no non-asbestos replacement parts could be found.”

So the hazard can’t be eliminated or substitutes found.  That’s the first two levels of the hierarchy down.  The report goes on to assert that the (in)action of the Navy could be illegal and says the exemptions were renewed for another three years (page 81 of the SRCC Annual Report 2007-08)

The remaining levels of the control hierarchy are not addressed in recent media reports or documents available through Comcare’s website but the continuing cases of asbestos-related diseases reported by the lobby groups would indicate that personal protective equipment may not have been used or used appropriately. 

Most organisations are aware of the hazard of asbestos if not how the hazard relates to the specific circumstances.  The Navy cannot claim this as it has specifically claimed exemptions for the hazard. 

The current Defence Minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, took action on the defence force’s use of asbestos products almost 12 month’s ago and even though it was reported that he gave the Defence chiefs a “dressing down” over the issue, circumstances seem not to have improved. 

“But Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon, who first accused the Defence Force of lethargy in its efforts to remove asbestos in 2007, when he was in opposition, said despite the massive cost of ridding the ADF of asbestos, its continued use was unacceptable.”

For those who habitually argue that worker safety is not affordable, the Minister’s quote above shows commitment.  Sadly it is these types of comments that can come back and haunt politicians.

It is suspected that the Minister or the Navy is receiving letters about non-asbestos gaskets from keen equipment suppliers as you read this blog.  But that raises the problem of the labyrinthine issues of defence equipment procurement.  Perhaps the fact that anti-asbestos campaigner and former trade union leader, Greg Combet, is now the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Procurement may fast-track the issue.  It is hoped that on the issue of asbestos in the defence forces, Greg speaks up soon.

Kevin Jones