Australian Greens Senator speaks on OHS legislation

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Senator Rachel Siewert spoke on Australia’s review of OHS law on 13 October 2008.The Senator summarised the statistical reason for OHS legislation (included here as statistics is a popular issue at SafetyAtWorkBlog), as well as the societal context.

Australian Greens Senator for Western Australia Rachel Siewert
Australian Greens Senator for Western Australia Rachel Siewert

“The importance of occupational health and safety is obvious from looking at even just a few key statistics. In 2004 Access Economics estimated that there were 4,900 work related deaths each year in Australia. The ABS calculated that 690,000 employees suffered from a work related injury or illness in 2006. The Productivity Commission found that, in 2004, workplace deaths, injuries and illnesses cost the economy over $30 billion a year. These figures go to the economic and, importantly, the personal and social costs of workplace injuries and deaths. Behind each of those numbers is a person with a family, workmates, friends and a community.”

Senator Siewert reiterates the timetable for the initial report of the National Review into Model Occupational Health and Safety Laws is due by the end of this month but also identified a plethora of inquiries, agreements and discussions that will also inform the Australian government’s ultimate decision on OHS law. She supports the concept of tripartism:

“We believe that building on best practice in OH&S in this country and around the world is to implement genuine tripartism and independence. On these criteria, this legislation is too skewed in favour of governments and to the detriment of other key stakeholders in OH&S regulation-that is, employees and employers. [The Robens report in the 1970s]. It went on to recommend that statutory recognition of joint consultative practices-including government, employees and employers-need to underpin the new approach.”

But also makes the pitch for broader representation:

“If you agree with this approach-and all of Australia’s OH&S laws are based on this concept-then you also have to acknowledge the importance of genuine participation of employers and employees through a representative structure. The NOHS Commission did recognise this and was established as a statutory corporation with a membership structure incorporating employee and employer representatives. Its functions included formulating policies and strategies relating to OH&S matters, reviewing and making recommendations for the making of laws relating to OH&S matters, researching OH&S matters and conducting inquiries into OH&S matters.”

My recollection of NOHSC was that representation remained the domain of employer associations, trade unions and the government. Independent OHS specialist were few and far between. Given the dreadfully poor rate of union membership in Australia, it would have been more progressive for the Senator to nominate independent OHS specialists and to propose a 25% ratio of represntation for each of the representative groups so that (hopefully) apolitical opinion could be provided on a subject that should be apolitical. (And I still think an OHS Ombudsman is a practical and useful concept.)

In 2004, in its report into national workers compensation and occupational health and safety frameworks, the Productivity Commission made a number of recommendations relevant to the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission, including having a specific objective of achieving national uniform OH&S regulation and joint funding from the states. We note that this bill does implement these recommendations. The Howard government, however, instead of implementing those recommendations, once it got its chance by taking control of the Senate, abolished the commission. Prior to being able to abolish the commission, the previous government had already reduced its funding significantly. Between 1996 and 2005 the then government slashed the budget by over $4 million. We believe OH&S was never much of a priority for the Howard government.

The Senator places the proposed Safe Work Australia authority in a particularly awkward position:

“Safe Work Australia fits somewhere in the middle of the NOHSC and the ASCC. It continues the practice of being tripartite-although inexplicably downgrading the representation of employee and employer representatives-and, while more independent of government than the ASCC, is significantly less independent than the NOHSC.”

Other Greens’ concerns are:

  • reduced representation
  • vague definitions on ‘authorising body” or those associations who become represnetatives
  • excessive and unnecessary ministerial control, including veto
  • two-thirds majority decisions
  • insufficient funding for research

It would be interesting to hear the thoughts of other minor parties although the position of Family First may change in line with varying economic situations.

Varanus Island Report released

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On 10 October 2008, the Western Australian Mines and Petroleum Minister, Norman Moore, released the final report into the Varanus Island pipeline explosion.  Sadly due to legislative restrictions the report is not being made available in an electronic edition accessible through the internet.  However, hard copies can be requested from the government.

Recent media statements indicate that “the immediate physical cause of the gas explosion at the island’s gas production facility operated by Apache Energy Ltd was the rupture of the 12-inch gas sales pipeline.”

Some media reports mention the dreaded n-word – negligence.  Apache Energy has stated that investigations into the 

Varanus Island explosion were premature and based on an incomplete investigation 

Contrary to most incident investigation techniques known to SafetyAtWorkBlog, Apache Energy says that it will continue to investigate in order to determine the “root cause”.  

Since the incident, there has been a change to a conservative State government so the statements contain a political edge.  The current Minister says that the terms of reference were too narrow and did not allow for investigation into “regulatory oversight” however deficiencies in this area were illustrated through media reports in the weeks following the incident.

The Minister has not ruled out ordering a  “a full and independent investigation into this issue… at a later date” but I suspect only if there were political benefits rather than safety benefits.  There are a considerable number of voices supporting a broader inquiry from unions and industry groups

The report is said to identify the following three contributing factors:

  • ineffective anti-corrosion coating at the beach crossing section of a 12-inch sales gas pipeline, due to damage and/or dis-bondment from the pipeline;
  • ineffective cathodic protection of the wet-dry transition zone of the beach crossing section of  a 12-inch sales gas pipeline on Varanus Island; and
  • ineffective inspection and monitoring by Apache Energy of the beach crossing and shallow water section of the pipeline.

Mr Moore stated that

“Under the safety case regime, the operator is required to identify hazards and assess risks to health and safety and to implement control measures to reduce those risks. The ongoing inspection, monitoring and maintenance of control measures are associated with those risks and the management regime. The report has indicated that Apache and its co-licensees may have committed offences under two pipeline Acts.”

A Senate inquiry is looking into the economic impact of the Western Australian gas crisis and the State Government’s response to the incident.

New presenteeism survey figures

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Frequently I receive audio media releases from the US about a range of workplace safety matters.  These releases are scripted and can sometimes sound corny but within them is a usually a useful nugget of information.

The latest one I received concerns presenteeism and mental health so, being so close to World Mental Health Day, I thought it is worth mentioning.  The audio release is from Cigna Health Care, an American insurance company, and can be heard by clicking 35580_09ny08-0039-_cigna-w

Cigna has a couple of fact sheets in support of the survey findings and an article specifically concerning mental health and wellness which may be worth a look. 

An earlier posting on presenteeism is available and I recommend going to the World Health Organisation, UN or ILO sites for more independent information.

When managing stress, are safety managers looking at the wrong thing?

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Today is World Mental Health Day and the media, at least in Australia, is inundated with comments and articles on mental health.  This morning, Jeff Kennett, a director of beyondblue, spoke on ABC Radio about the increasing levels of anxiety that people are feeling in these turbulent economic times.  Throughout the 5 minute interview, Kennett never once mentioned stress.  This omission seemed odd as, in the workplace safety field, stress is often seen as the biggest psychosocial hazard faced in the workplace.

SafetyAtWorkBlog spoke with Clare Shann, the senior project manager with beyondblue’s Workplace Program, about the role of stress in the workplace and its relation to mental health.  She clarified that stress is not a medical condition but a potential contributor to developing a mental illness, such as anxiety disorders or depression.

To put the situation into context, there is a fascinating interview with a Darren Dorey of Warrnambool in Victoria.  The 20 minute interview was conducted on  a regional ABC Radio station on 9 October, and describes the personal experience of depression and anxiety that stems, to some extent, from work.

It seems that in trying to manage stress, OHS professionals may be focusing on the wrong element in worker health.  Perhaps what are considered workers compensation claims for stress should be re–categorised as claims for mental illness.  This may result in a better acceptance of the existence of this workplace hazard.

An exclusive interview with Clare Shann can be heard clare_shann_mental_health

Inadequate resources generate workplace stress

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Survey findings released on 9 October 2008 by recruitment company Talent2 indicate that Australian employees are feeling stressed at work as a result of the effects of redundancies.

John  Banks of Talent2 said 

“… 71.7% say they currently do the job of more than one person, and this makes for a very stressful and unproductive workplace.”

The press release for the study stated

“More than half of Australian employees believe they are operating under extremely low staffing levels and 82.1% say they are expected to do far more work today than they were 5 years ago, according to a survey of 2,703 people.”

Almost 60% of respondents in Western Australia said that their workplaces are understaffed.  Between 48% and 58% of respondents in other Australian States agreed.

Banks said that companies can create a “false bottom line” by minimising staff numbers.  He said 

“Across the board, the sales/marketing sector has been most affected with 74.7% of employees in that industry asked to do additional work. The manufacturing sector is also guilty of asking staff to cover the work of more than one person with 74.2% of those surveyed dobbing in their bosses, and the legal sector is not too far behind at 70.4%.” 

It is acknowledged that the volume of claims for compensation for workplace stress increases during periods of corporate economic hardship and redundancies.

A terrific short article on the costs and impacts of workplace stress in Australia can be found in a newsletter by the law firm, Landers & Rogers.

It is also useful to note that the Talent2 survey results were released in the same week that the ILO has been promoting decent work, Australia is running Mental Health Week and the United Nations has its World Mental Health Day.