WorkHealth – end is nigh after less than one year

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Early in 2008, the Victorian Government sprung a surprise on the OHS and health promotion industries by announcing a world-first initiative – WorkHealth.  This program was to be funded by interest generated from the WorkCover scheme to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars over the next five years.

WorkHealth loses stakeholder support

Two weeks ago, a well-respected OHS professional advised that key stakeholders in WorkHealth were very cool on the program.  This confirmed previous questions raised in SafetyAtWorkBlog about the promotion, transparency and organisational support for WorkHealth.  The professional stated that others were questioning the placement of WorkHealth in the OHS field rather than in health promotion.

Rumour has existed for some months that WorkHealth is a scheme that has been pushed by a narrow range of OHS and workers compensation advocates.

What made WorkHealth so interesting was that the concept originated from within the workers compensation field with workers compensation money.  At the time, the wisdom of committing such a large amount of money to the initiative was questioned by many in the trade union and business areas.  Why head in this direction when there were established mechanisms to reduce OHS and workers compensation costs?

The global economic problems, it is suspected, would have flowed to the investments of the WorkCover scheme and it would be interesting to know what the revenue allocation to WorkHealth now is calculated at.

OHS/Industrial Relations conflict

In The Age newspaper on 26 October 2008, WorkHealth gained some attention as business groups have now seen the criteria for the health assessments of workers.  David Gregory of the Victorian Employers’ Chamber of Commerce and Industry described the criteria as a potential “industrial weapon”.  According to the article,

“WorkSafe told The Age the idea of an initial ‘tick test’ screening process had been abandoned, and the proposed $130 million worth of prevention programs are not in the pilot at all.”

As is evident from the quote, it is the pilot scheme that is being rolled out, however it is clear from the comments of David Gregory and the state secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union, Steve Dargavel that industrial relations sensitivities have not been considered.

Gregory makes excellent points that good OHS professionals are already aware of – workplace safety can only succeed when industrial relations implications and conditions are considered before any intervention process.

OHS has broadened to include the hazards of fatigue, stress, anxiety, depression, workloads, bullying and other matters that have encroached on health promotion and human resources over the last decade or so.  A worker health program would have been more likely to be accepted through this osmosis rather than a surprise announcement.

Is this the end?

WorkHealth could work if it had been generated as a workplace application of public health programs.  The challenge would have been to legitimise the expenditure in an already cluttered health promotion sector.  How would WorkHealth have achieved this testing regime when business is already assessing its workers for psychological disorders, cholesterol, prostate health, hearing, asthma, and a whole range of modern health issues?  It is unlikely that it could so.

It came down to health assessments in a different context – a context where there had been insufficient groundwork to establish the value of the program to its fundamental stakeholders, the unions and employer groups.  To a much lesser extent, the program was not sufficiently integrated into the WorkSafe authority’s program before the announcement.

Also, the timing has been proven to be wrong.  The global economic problems are beginning to squeeze business’ bottom line.  The calls for workers’ compensation premium relief will increase in the same way that businesses have begun questioning the viability of an emissions trading scheme.  WorkHealth is likely to be one of those program cut, so the government will claim, due to the changing economic climate.  The lessons to be learnt are more wide-ranging than just economics.

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

New Work Safety Ads from Australia

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Twenty years ago, I was at a FutureSafe conference in Sydney, Australia, where Eileen McMahon of WorkSafe Victoria showed a series of graphic ads.  The audience were impressed and roundly supported the use of such ads in their own States.

At the time confronting ads were de rigueur as road safety campaigns had been using the same technique for a while.  Ads from both government authorities won critical acclaim and many awards.

Confronting workplace safety ads recently ran on Canadian television to a mixed receptionWorkSafe Victoria has clearly adapted these ads and their concepts to the Australian circumstance in its campaign that was launched on Australian television on 5 October 2008.

 

WorkSafe Young Workers Campaign
WorkSafe Young Workers Campaign

The Australian ads have emphasised the  lack of information and induction provided to young workers.  Rather than having the incident victim talk to the camera, WorkSafe emphasises the confused thought processes of a young person in a bakery being unsure of how to operate a machine safely, a young man experiments with a nailgun, and a young person scalded in a commercial kitchen.

In The Sunday Age, WorkSafe CEO, John Merritt, said that the graphic content was to gain the attention of young workers:

“It’s confronting, it’s not pleasant, but young workers have challenged us to confront them with the reality of what happens…”

“The guts of this campaign is to say to young workers: for goodness sake, if you’re not sure about something, speak up.”

“”It was clear from the research that nothing else would have impact.”

Media reports make no acknowledgement of the Canadian campaign which seems a little odd given the similarities of the kitchen-based ad, in particular.

The challenge of this type of ad is to run it for just long enough to make an impact but not so long that viewers get “graphic fatigue” – particularly important for appealing to young workers.  This is also a lesson that should have been learnt from the original WorkSafe ads a couple of decades ago.  The combination of both a workplace safety campaign and road safety campaign using the same techniques limited the effectiveness of both.

There is no doubt about the validity of the safety risks in WorkSafe’s target market but it is vital that these ads be balanced with the more gentle and parent-friendly “homecoming” ads and the workplace inspector ads aimed at business operators.  All three should be broadcast over the same period in order to provide the broadest context and the one that reflects the reality.

 

WorkSafe Young Workers Campaign
WorkSafe Young Workers Campaign

Clearly, the WorkSafe ad campaign is intended to maximise the retirn on the advertising budget by generating media debate.  This was vrtually acknowedlged by John Merritt when he said

“There will undoubtedly be a conversation and a debate about that message.”

A danger with this tactic is that the ads become the story rather than people discussing the safety of young workers.  Let’s watch who supports the ads and who criticises.