Eliminate the hazards

The first control measure on the “hierarchy of controls” is to eliminate the hazard.  OHS consultants and professionals should always consider ways to achieve this.  It may prove to be impractical, or politically unpopular, but it should always be discussed or recommended.  Reports and submissions that do not consider this control measure can be considered invalid.

In late-January 2009, the organic farmers in Australia reminded the media that its farming members are developing a safer industry for the customer and the producer.  This industry has boomed in Australia since the 1970’s in as a result of a desire and commitment to “eliminate the hazard”.

Interviews conducted by Biological Farmers of Australia (BFA) to help  discover why producers ‘go organic’ reveal a high number of farmers consider the switch for the health of themselves and their families.

Rob Bauer (Bauers Organic Farm, Qld), one of Australia’s largest organic horticultural growers, says he turned to organic farming 27 ago after farmers in his area became ill with cancer.

He says he wanted to decrease health risks associated with synthetic farm chemicals.

“I started thinking about farming differently after growing up in the Lockyer Valley (Qld) where friends and family passed away in their fifties after years of intensive agrichemical production.”

He says neurological problems, tumours, and cancer were among the chronic diseases he watched take their toll on his local farming community.

“I wasn’t comfortable with producing food using harsh farm chemicals for consumers,” he says.

Steve Skopilianos, commercial lettuce producer from Ladybird Organics in Keilor (Vic) looked into organics when he started a family.

“We had been applying pesticide blends with no understanding of their effect on people and employees.  There were times prior to organic conversion where I would not take my own produce home for my family to eat.”

Biodynamic producers of macadamias are happy to avoid high levels of agrichemicals typically used on the nuts.

“Working without a high exposure to synthetic chemical farm products is a weight off your mind,” says Marco Bobbert, from Wodonga Park Fruit and Nuts macadamia plantation (Qld), certified biodynamic since 1987.

He says direct chemical exposure could easily occur on conventional farms from accidents in production. “All it takes is a broken spray pipe.”

He says it is not just organic farmers who are concerned – “All farmers try to minimise their contact with chemicals on-farm. But organic production actively works toward negating that risk”.

Research has shown there is good reason for producers’ concern – a high exposure to some farm chemicals can lead to major health problems.

Particularly problematic substances include organophosphate insecticides and pesticides, which have been connected to several types of cancer, sterility and cognitive deficits (1).

The agrichemical endosulfan is one example of a highly toxic  organochlorine cyclodiene) insecticide still in use in Australia.

1. (1) Ciesielski, S, Loomis, D, Rupp Mims, S, Auer, A, Pesticide Exposures, Cholinesterase Depression, and Symptoms among North Carolina Migrant Farmworkers; American Journal of Public Health, 1994.

How to talk safety

Safety advocates often say that safety begins at the top.  Yet few CEO’s will talk overtly and publicly about safety to the extent that Janet Holmes a Court has in Australia.  Janet is a rarity but John Bresland of the United States Chemical Safety Board is making a good attempt through YouTube technology.

In January 2009, Bresland has produced on of CSB’s “safety messages” and, he is not afraid to criticise his political colleagues.

In the latest safety message he criticises those American states who do not allow state employees to be covered by federal OHS legislation and he uses an actual fatality incident to make the point very clear.

For those outside of the US, the video is a good example of a safety advocate putting his face out there and broadcasting about safety to his constituents and interested parties.  Political criticism is seen as valid in this case due to Bresland pointing out an anomaly and showing how an anomaly can kill, injure and maim.

Too many senior executives and professional associations are scared of making political statements even though they support the mission statement of their organisation.  This is an immature position based on insecurity – a quality that should have no place in the coordination of corporations and professional bodies.

Branding is a worthwhile process but it will only succeed if what is being promoted has substance.  The Chemical Safety Bureau has been a solid platform for education and safety improvement for years and deserves support by OHS professionals learning the lessons being shared and displayed.

Kevin Jones

Possible cancer cluster at fish hatchery

For several weeks News Limited papers have reporting weird goings on around a fish hatchery in Queensland.  In a small area of Cooloothin Creek people living on properties neighbouring the Sunland Fish Hatchery have been noticing an increase in cancers.  The latest victim is a hatchery foreman who has been diagnosed with bowel cancer.

The issue has been bubbling along since a two-headed fish larva was discovered around 11 January 2009.  On 26 January 2009, the foreman has formally requested an investigation into a cancer cluster.  The 26 January quotes cancer expert, Bruce Armstrong.

Professor Armstrong said the fact there was more than one type of cancer would normally militate against a cluster. But the deaths and health problems among chickens, horses and dogs — as well as the fish — were extremely worrisome. “Clearly, there does seem to be an ecological issue here,” he said.

He suggested an investigation could help determine if the agrichemicals posed a threat to humans.

Local residents produced a video about the issue of crop spraying which is available on YouTube.

This current case will increase the pressure on government’s for increased regulation of farm chemicals and delivery systems.

UPDATE – 28 January 2009

Queensland’s Primary Industries and Fisheries Minister Tim Mulherin has established a taskforce to investigate the Noosa fish abnormalities.  It’s first meeting will be on 28 January 2009.

It includes private aquaculture veterinarian Dr Matt Landos, who says the available  evidence points to farm chemicals.

According to a ministerial media release Dr Landos said

“I am extremely pleased that the minister is keen to progress this issue and welcome the opportunity to work with the minister and the State Government. We need to consider interim alternative chemicals and farming practices in co-operation with macadamia farmers, to provide improved safety for aquatic animals and sustainable macadamia production.”

The ministerial release also said  that

“claims of a cancer cluster in the area are a matter for Queensland Health to consider.

Queensland Health has said the need for an investigation into an alleged cancer cluster will be determined once specific information is received from the community about their health concerns.”

SafetyAtWorkBlog will be following the taskforce’s progress.

Government report into plastics and chemicals

Australia’s Productivity Commission has released a report into the national regulation of plastics and chemicals.  The supplementary report has additional topicality as it is released a week before the Review Panel into Model OHS Law presents its report to the government.  The key points of the Productivity Commission report are

  • “The Productivity Commission has recently completed a research report on the regulation of chemicals and plastics in Australia. In most cases, national approaches to regulation were found to deliver significant benefits compared with each state and territory pursuing its own approach. This supplementary paper provides a more detailed examination of some of the features of these national arrangements.
  • National approaches to regulation should draw on the strengths of each level of government:
    • Commonwealth, state and territory governments acting together through Ministerial Councils or other forums can provide leadership and policy frameworks for national issues.
    • The Australian Government may be best placed to play a role in policy coordination, and to undertake national risk assessments.
    • State and territory governments are often best placed to enforce regulations and respond to the needs of sub-national constituencies.
  • Improvements in national consistency can be achieved through a range of mechanisms, including through jurisdictions:
    • adopting uniform regulations
    • harmonising key elements of their regulatory frameworks
    • mutually recognising other jurisdictions’ regulations.
  • In chemicals and plastics, the most common legislative mechanisms for achieving national consistency have been to use template or model legislation, regulations and codes of practice. The template and model approaches can be effective, but both have their weaknesses.
  • Because the process of developing and implementing nationally-consistent regulations can be costly and drawn out, reform should only be pursued where there are prospects of material net benefits.
  • In the past, the Commonwealth has provided incentives for state and territory governments to forgo some sovereignty so as to achieve the benefits of national consistency. This approach was effective in encouraging and enabling the reform process.”

The report recommends that national intergovernmental bodies set policy, the national government coordinates policy and the States enforce it.

The three mechanisms for consistency will be familiar to safety professionals and OHS advocates.

  • “adopting uniform regulations” – already being investigated through the national review panel
  • “harmonising key elements of their regulatory frameworks” –  this was flagged almost two decades ago by the National OHS Commission and work in some industrial and regulatory areas has been completed on this
  • “mutually recognising other jurisdictions’ regulations” – the east coast states have already achieved this with some of their licencing.  OHS regulators in New South Wales are already co-producing and co-badging OHS guidelines

Although the development and implementation of legislation should not be dictated to by economics, the review panel came about through a push to reduce red tape and business costs so it is unlikely that any suggestion that may increase cost to business will appear, particularly as the Prime Minister is reiterating the hard financial challenges we all face.

The risk in an approach where 

“reform should only be pursued where there are prospects of material net benefits”

is that important long-term improvements can be ignored or, worse, dismissed.

The last point above seems to support the recent statements by the Minister for Workplace Relations, Julia Gillard, on achieving trade-offs, some would say pay-offs, at state level in order to achieve change through the intergovernmental consultative structures.

It is important to note that the Productivity Commission’s report is not about OHS but industrial regulation.  The release of the Commission’s report is likely to be a coincidence but, for some sectors, it can be seen as preparatory for the OHS Law Review Panel’s final report.

Kevin Jones

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