On 31 March 2009, Australian trade unionists (pictured below) protested outside the Safety In Action Conference. The crowd was objecting to the presence of Ms Janet Holmes a Court, the chair of John Holland, as a keynote speaker. As Dave Noonan, CFMEU Construction Division national secretary, put it
“It is an outrage that a company with a dismal safety record is the key note speaker at a major safety conference,” Mr Noonan said. “John Holland needs to stop talking about safety and start working with the unions to make their worksites safe.”
Many of the conference delegates who were attended a breakfast seminar were oblivious of the protest outside. According to a media statement from the Safety Institute of Australia national president, Barry Silburn
“We share the same goal as the unions – to bring safety failures into the public arena and work towards preventing more deaths – so we wholeheartedly support their efforts and were pleased to see them at the conference today,” Mr Silburn said. “We certainly don’t condone the systems failures at John Holland. Janet Holmes a Court’s presentation was an opportunity to hear what went wrong and of her plans to improve those systems. She acknowledged that John Holland had made mistakes and gave delegates the opportunity to learn from them.”
Recently, the trade union movement has become more strident in its protests about John Holland’s move to the national workers compensation scheme, the only construction contractor to choose this option. The union argues that safety on John Holland sites has deteriorated since the move. They also complain over John Holland restricting union access to their worksites.
On 18 March 2009, Steve Mullins the OHS Officer with the Australian Council of Trade Unions presented a paper on nanotechnology hazards to the “Science Meets Parliament” forum. His concerns over worker safety are not shared by the nanotechnology industry as media reports show but, as Steve points out, nanotechnology hazards have some interesting parallels with asbestos.
Below are the concerns that Steve has over the nanotechnology manufacturing industry in Australia:
No regulatory acceptance that nanomaterials are more hazardous
No nano specific risk assessment or controls mandated
No nano specific monitoring equipment
No nano specific MSDS
No exposure levels
No requirement to inform
No health surveillance
No nano specific PPE
Where nano specific risk management applied or promoted, end up trying to apply controls designed for larger material anyway
There is no coordinated approach
An exclusive interview with Steve is available by clicking HERE.
In 2008 Australian theoretical physicist Amanda Barnard was awarded the L’Oréal Australia For Women in Science Fellowship. Barnard is developing computational tools to predict the behaviour of nanoparticles in the environment.
This annual event seems to receive more attention in Europe than elsewhere although over the years several Australian capital cities have erected workers’ memorial stones. It is usually here that ceremonies occur.
I always attend these services in my own right as it helps to keep me grounded as I wade through risk assessments, policies, consultations, and other safety ephemera.
One of the chilling parts of the service is always the reading of those who have died over the previous twelve months. This has echoes of the 9/11 recital each year but for the worker memorial there is a new set of names each year and a new set of families and a new round of grieving.
Please check your local town and city activities lists and attend this year’s event.
In support, the UK’s Hazards magazine has produced a simple but effective poster that can be downloaded.
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.
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.