Another safety culture disaster in Australia

In August 2007 the Australian equestrian industry was struck by its first-ever outbreak of Equine Influenza (EI).  The Federal Government’s report on the incident has been released and has significant lessons for several reasons.

Australia has been proud of its biosecurity and customs service for decades.  As an island nation at the end of the world, there is a level of purity in its ecology that needs to be preserved (even though there were many earlier mistakes – foxes, rabbits, cane toads – to name a few).  The country’s pride was obviously out of touch with reality as Justice Callinan was highly critical of the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service.  Few government reports have included the clarity (or bluntness) of phrase as this report includes.

“The objective of biosecurity measures at a post-arrival quarantine station for animals, such as Eastern Creek, is to prevent the escape of disease that might be present in the station. It is therefore essential that people and equipment having contact with the animals are adequately decontaminated before leaving the station. That was not happening at Eastern Creek in August 2007. Had such biosecurity measures been in place, it is most unlikely that there could have been any escape of equine influenza from the Quarantine Station.
That such measures were not being implemented was a consequence of a number of acts and omissions on the part of various employees and officers of AQIS at different levels of that organisation and over a number of years.”

As the media reports appeared and the Agriculture Minister, Tony Burke, spoke passionately about the need to review the entire biosecurity process, farmers and other were thanking their luck that the outbreak was EI and not Foot & Mouth or other equally nasty infection.

Indonesia, a consistent sufferer of Avian Influenza, is only a few hundred kilometres away.  If Australia had a poultry industry on its northern shores, would the Government’s approach to quarantine inspecton be different?

Callinan goes on to depict an organisation of mismanagement and is not afraid to point the finger of blame and responsibility.  He summarises:

“What I describe bespeaks an organisation that lacked clear lines of communication between those responsible for formulating procedures and work instructions and those responsible for implementing them; one in which there was insufficient training and education in relation to the procedures and instructions to be followed; one in which there was no checking to ensure that those procedures and instructions were being implemented; and one in which any business plan or other reporting system did not alert senior management to these failures.”

For OHS professionals and risk managers, these systemic failures would fit with too many other risk management failures.  It is too easy a criticism to say that the organisation was devoid of a safety culture.  In the case of quarantining possible infectious animals, the organisation and process was inept.

A few years ago, Chris Maxwell undertook a review of Victoria’s OHS regime and stated that he thought citizens should be able to expect government departments to be exemplars of workplace safety.  It is an expectation that may be unfair in many areas but when an organisation has been urging the public to be super-diligent over the importation of items that could potentially decimate agricultural industries, and then fails disastrously itself, maybe the public campaign funds could have been better spent inside the organisation.

ABC Radio report – http://mpegmedia.abc.net.au/news/audio/pm/200806/20080612-pm01-horseflu.mp3
Government response http://www.daff.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/690704/ei-response.pdf

Australian employer group at the ILO

On 9 June 2008, Peter Anderson, CEO of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI), addressed the 2008 International Labour Conference. The ACCI is an employer association that under the previous CEO, Peter Hendy, was seen by some as a business and economic mouthpiece for the then conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard. Whether this was true or not, it is interesting that Peter Hendy is now a political adviser to the Opposition Leader, Brendan Nelson.

Anderson spoke at the ILO conference about how the ACCI needs modernising whilst maintaining its core values. The only major change in Australia over the last 12 months has been the replacement of a conservative government with a labor government representing a substantial cultural and political switch. The ACCI has realised that it was too closely linked to the conservative political parties and, although business is strongly capitalist, to better represent its constituents, it needed to reflect the values of a broader range of its constituents.

These values, Anderson reiterates, are commitments to

  • an open market;
  • private sector entrepreneurship; and
  • employment as a social motivator.

Anderson states that

“we must do things differently, and not fall back to old prejudices or failed economic prescriptions when things go tight.”

He urges the ILO to provide social policy with a higher profile and advises the government to use public funds to enable a private investment framework. He emphasise that the ACCI can work well with unions and specifically addresses contemporary OHS matters.

“We can now show leadership to industry in this regard [working with trade unions], as there is common work to be undertaken – health and safety, work and family and workforce skills but a few examples.”

Peter Anderson emphasises, perhaps too much, Australia’s position in the Asia-Pacific region. He describes the region as “the powerhouse of globalisation”. This is riding on the coat-tails of China and India and applies Asia-Pacific in a very broad sense.

The ACCI speech at the ILO conference was carefully balanced to maintain its position as an employer delegate and to flag to its members that its approach will change. It outlines a changed approach which should be interesting in the upcoming hard negotiations necessary on industrial relations and workplace safety.

Aircraft Cabins and Infections

According to a report released on 10 June 2008 by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, 

“passengers’ health is not greatly at risk through air travel and widespread infections are unlikely.”

On the cases that have been reported of infection, the ATSB says

“such transmission was primarily due to the crowding together of a large variety of people in a confined space, not specifically due to aircraft cabin conditions.”

It goes on to say

“Perhaps of greater concern is the opportunity for infection to spread in airport terminals, where passengers who are travelling to or from many destinations are gathered together.”

At the moment Qantas Airways has a reputation of being a safe airline, principally because its planes do not fall out of the sky.  But there is a further definition of a safe airline and that is one whose management actively minimises the risk of infections and pandemics both in the aircraft and the terminal.

Important lessons were learnt from the “dry-run” on modern pandemic from SARS but this focussed on the air traveller and the aircraft and did not include the airport terminal.  Perhaps as well as the safety airline, Australia needs to establish the safety airport.

Boy, web-conferencing is becoming more attractive.

60 Minutes, Dust and Responsibility for Workplace Safety

On 8 June 2008, a US 60 Minutes report on combustible dust joined the conga-line of critics of the Occupational Safety And Health Administration.  The tone of the report is set by the reporter, Scott Pelley’s introduction stating that it is OSHA’s responsibility to avoid the explosions.  For OHS practitioners and professionals this is a peculiar statement as it is usually the employer’s responsibility for workplace safety.

The 60 Minutes report illustrates the difficulty that OHS inspectors face when visiting workplaces. Can an inspector be expected to identify ALL the hazards present in a workplace?  This is a constant problem for OHS regulators, employers and sadly, the Courts.

The accusation in the 60 Minutes report is that inspectors had no information or training on the explosive hazards of dust.  Training is not the solution for everything and an inspector’s state of knowledge should have identified dust as a potential hazard.  Even if the hazard was identified in terms of an inhalation risk, or housekeeping, the explosive risk would be reduced if housekeeping was applied properly.

OSHA clearly stated the responsibility of workplace safety being on the employers.  The missing element of the entire 60 Minutes report is that the site operators and employers who have experienced dust explosions were not interviewed.

 

More information on the February 2008 explosion at the Imperial Sugar plant mentioned in the report is available by clicking HERE

For those of you who find dust explosions exciting a video of a dust explosion in a silo is available HERE

For those employers or inspectors who did not do high school science, a schoolroom example of the combustible hazards of dust can be found HERE

 
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Workers Compensation changes in Australia

In The Australian on 10 June 2008, Paul Kerin , Professorial Fellow of the Melbourne Business School writes on the rescuing Australia’s various workers’ compensation schemes by removing any state involvement in the insurance schemes.  He makes a strong case but writes a few peculiar comments that need consioderation. He says “US workplace deaths would be one-third…

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Economic fallout of Apache Energy pipeline explosion

 

According to an AAP report published in The Australian on 6 June 2008, Paul Adams, head of research at DJ Carmichael, spoke about the impact of the Apache Energy explosion.

“If damage to the Apache plant turned out to be significant, the incident had the potential to “hit WA’s mining industry hard”, Mr Adams said.

Apache could face a massive compensation bill if the incident was found to be the result of negligent maintenance practices, Mr Adams said.”

Further details emerged about the damage from the explosion.  Apparently at least three of Apache Energy’s online pipelines were on fire.  Apache could not say how long the shut down of the plant would continue for as the site needs to be further investigated.

Incident scene 5 June 2008

 

 

New York Crane Safety Podcast

On 3 June 2008, Brian Lehrer of radio station WNYC conducted a discussion on the issues of occupational health safety as it relates to New York City’s second crane collapse in a couple of months and a sharp rise in construction deaths so far in 2008.

The speakers are very critical of the Federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration and the resources provided to it by the Federal Government.  Speakers also raise the issues of the rate of construction, the skill levels of inspectors, shortage of building equipment, union membership, in passing, the legal status of migrant workers, and the assessment criteria of inspectors on construction sites.

The resource levels and strategic planning matters raised in this discussion echo many of the debates that are occuring in Europe and Australia.

The podcast is available for download by clicking HERE

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