Union influence on OHS – interview with Professor Michael Quinlan

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Professor Michael Quinlan of the University of New South Wales believes that the influence of Australian trade unions in improving OHS conditions should not be underestimated or past achievements, forgotten.  

In talking with Kevin Jones in a recent podcast, Quinlan said that the persistent accusation of unions using OHS as an industrial relations tool is “largely an ideological beat-up”.  Although he does believe that Australian trade unions have not pursued workplace hazards to the extent they should have, even with the impeding launch of a campaign on cancers. 

Professor Quinlan mentioned that

“most health and safety management systems are, in fact, largely management safety systems.  They not deal a lot with health….. Their KPIs [Key Performance Indicators] are always expressed in terms of zero-injuries or zero-harm.”

 He also emphasised that that more Australian workers are killed as a result of occupational disease than injury.

He also addresses the growing demand for occupational health and safety regulation to move from industrial relations to the area of health.  Quinlan believes this will never happen because matters to do with employment, organisational restructuring and others have an OHS impact.  He says that running OHS as “an entirely separate agenda…is intellectually and factually flawed.”

Quinlan acknowledges the argument that Robens-style legislation was relevant for the time and where union-presence persists but he said

“where you don’t have effective or worker input, you will have serious problems with health and safety”.

He reminded us that Roben’s also advocated self-regulation, a concept of which there is now great suspicion in a range of business areas.

Quinlan spoke highly of some of the initiatives of OHS regulation, for instance, the adaptation of the inspectorate to duty-of-care matters and a broader operational brief. He also said that the current OHS legislation in Australia “is the best we’ve ever had” and believes some of the recent criticism needs to be supported by evidence.  Also none of the critics have proposed a viable alternative.

Professor Quinlan is a keynote speaker on Day 3 of the Safety In Action conference.

Kevin Jones

Note: the author assists the Safety Institute in the promotion of the Safety in Action conferences.

Safety promotion needs backup

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WorkSafe Victoria has had considerable advertising success by focusing on the social impact of workplace injuries and death.  In the newspapers and television over Christmas 2008, WorkSafe ads, like the billboard above, were on high rotation but, after the high number of workplace fatalities in January 2009, the strategy must be needing a review.

In terms of OHS promotion generally, branding and awareness strategies are valid however, when the messages of the strategies continue to be ignored, alternatives need to be developed.  The fatality figures imply that family is “the most important reason for safety” but only for a short time or in limited circumstances.  When you return to work the work environment or your approach to the work tasks are worse than before Christmas.

The reality of advertising is that it is often cheaper to raise awareness than change the behaviour of clients, in terms of OHS, this would be both the workers and the employers.  Raising safety as a business priority requires considerably legwork by regulators on-site and through industry associations.  Few OHS authorities around the world seem to be applying hands-on approaches to the extent required.

Part of the reason is that trade unions used to be the shopfloor safety police, as anticipated by Robens in the early 1970s, but trade union membership is at record low levels.  The deficiency in the safety profile on the shopfloor or at the office watercooler is not being picked up by the employers.

Media campaigns are the public face of safety promotion but they should not be a veneer.  Regulators need to provide more information on the alternative strategies they already employ, or plan to introduce, so that promotion is not seen as an end in itself.  

Direct business and CEO visits have been used in the past but given up because these were short term initiatives.   In Victoria, high level visits by regulators to CEOs, board members and directors had a considerable impact in the 1990s but there was no follow-up strategy to maintain that profile.   Ten years on there are a new set of senior managers who could do with a bit of prodding.

Kevin Jones

Latest WorkSafe ad – now online

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The Christmas ad campaign by WorkSafe Victoria is now available for viewing on line.

I saw it with my family for the first time last night on television and it had a terrific impact on my wife.  The hug from the teenage daughter is the clincher.  My teenage son had seen the ad previously and thought it was very effective.

A major change in the campaign is dialogue.  Refreshingly the conversation is not about safety and there is an undercurrent of fear of injury to the normal/banal family conversation that locate the action into our own homes.

The Homecoming ad made good use of the Dido music, for the time, but that campaign relied on visuals.  The latest ad hits the core family values and concerns and deserves a wide audience.

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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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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.