Trade unionist talks about nanotechnology risks

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In October 2008, SafetyAtWorkBlog spoke with Renata Mussolino of the Victorian Trades Hall Council.  At that time the trade union movement was finalising its policies and positions on nanotechnology into the campaign  that is being rolled out at the moment.

In the SafetyAtWork podcast released in April 2009, Renata talks about how nanotechnologies links with mesothelioma but also some parallels with genetically modified organisms.  She discusses the need for more information about the nanomaterials and how one should apply the precautionary principle in this case.

More information about Renata is available at the Victorian Trades Hall Council website

Engagement is Consultation re-badged

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Recently an international business established an intranet discussion forum concerning “employee engagement”.  By and large, this is another example of business management twaddle.

Essentially, when one engages with another, there is discussion, a conversation and the sharing of ideas in a cooperative, positive manner.  In OHS circles this is called “consultation”.  By discussing issues, people learn the basics, they refine their understandings and, often, come to a consensus or a resolution.

“Engagement” is another word for what happens on a daily basis in workplaces everywhere.  What is bothersome is when a new management term is generated in order to, primarily, sell a new management book, and in a much lower priority, to provide a new perspective.

In the current edition of Australia’s business magazine, BRW, there is a discussion on engagement, (not available online).  Through an OHS perspective, interpret the following quotes about “employee engagement scores):

“About 40 per cent of employees were failing at the most basic level, saying they either didn’t know what was expected of them or didn’t have the tools to do it.”

OHS = consultation, job description, induction, supervision.

“Those in a leadership position now are taking advantage and redoubling their efforts around employee engagement.”

OHS =  leadership, safety culture

The article makes a useful distinction that an “engaged employee” does not equal a “happy employee”.

The BRW article does not, however, discuss the possible downsides of engagement.  There is a risk that benchmarking of engagement may applied inappropriately and, according to the CIPD:

“Research confirms however that there is a significant gap between levels of engagement found among UK employees and those that would produce optimum performance.  HR professionals need to recognise that engagement is a strategic issue that cannot simply be left to manage itself.”

Engagement is another tool for management but just how many tools are needed?

In short, a management system needs to talk with employees, listen to employees, and support employees.  Wow, how radical.  It can be that simple.

Kevin Jones

Migrant worker safety

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Recently one of the Australian boutique labour law firms ran a seminar on employment issues related to migrant workers.  Australia has a history of using workers from the Pacific Islands, principally, in agriculture.  Chinese have been working in Australia since the goldfields of the 1800s.  New Zealanders are so frequent that the countries almost share an economy in some ways.  Some labour is imported, other labour is invited or sought.

The global economic problems has exacerbated the difficulties many countries face with legal and illegal migrant workers.  Australia is not immune.  There may be less and less water in the country, certainly in the south, but it is still considered a land of opportunity by neighbours.

Workplace safety issues are perhaps the easiest to deal with in this labour sector as the employment status is not relevant to the obligation to provide a safe and healthy work environment.

pages-from-communicatingThe safety training, instruction and supervision matters are similarly unaffected by employment status.  However it has always been a difficult part of an OHS manager and HR manager’s job to make sure that workers understand their obligations and duties.  In Victoria, one of the first OHS Codes of Practice in the 1980s concerned providing OHS information in languages other than English.  It was probably the most ignored Code of Practice of all.

Recently, WorkSafe Victoria has issued Compliance Codes.  Following the recommendations and techniques in these codes implies compliance and can be wonderful for the small business sector.  One of the new codes is on communicating in languages other than English This is a great start but there needs a much greater effort, almost a movement, for Australia to avoid the problems facing countries like England.

In late-March 2009, the UK law firm Irwin Mitchell reported the following statistics

The report [by the Centre for Corporate Accountability], which makes the figures public for the first time and was compiled following Freedom of Information requests to the Health and Safety Executive, shows that a dozen migrant workers died in the construction industry in the year 2007/08 – at least double the figure expected and a six-fold increase in the number who died just five years earlier.

The 12 deaths comprised 17% of the total number of fatalities in the sector last year – more than double the HSE’s estimate of migrants making up around 8% of the total construction sector workforce.

Migrant deaths in other sectors is also on the increase, with the number of fatalities of non-UK workers up from nine in 2005/6 to 18 in 2007/8 and the proportion also doubling from 4.1% to 7.9% in the same period, against figures showing that 5.4% of the total workforce comprises migrants.

No official information is currently available on the level of injuries to migrant workers, as the HSE does not record nationality in injury cases, though estimates put the figure as high as 11% – again, double the expected level.

Many workplaces have already dealt with safety issues with migrant labour. Crews in rail maintenance, for instance, are often on ethical lines so that colleagues educate each other.  Often workplaces call on an established worker from a specific ethnic area to take the lead in supervising others and passing on OHS information.  These adhoc processes still need to be verified as effective but have worked in many workplaces for decades.

A recent rumour posted to the Australian website Crikey.com illustrates the type of attitude to migrant workers and the mixing of concerns about safety and industrial issues.

A Chinese owned mining project is advertising for a Bilingual (English Mandarin) Registered Nurse on their website [since removed].  The role is stated to be designed for liaison with Chinese workers and is required to have industrial safety knowledge, reporting directly to a company director?  How many Chinese workers is this project bringing into Australia given the recent restrictions on 457s [migrant work visas], what about the requirement for foreign workers to have some competency in English, anecdotal evidence that building and construction labour rates are already decreasing and how would the unions view this approach to health and safety of foreign workers?

One OHS expert at the law firm’s seminar accepted that the language requirements were woefully inadequate and not suited for the workplace situation.  It would be refreshing to see an OHS professional association begin lobbying the government on improving the language criteria for visa eligibility.  

The unions would be equally concerned about the safety of any workers onsite, hopefully regardless of the workers’ union membership status. 

Australia is in a lucky situation where many workplaces could continue to operate without migrant labour but the world and its economy is changing, and Australia will be dragged into the real world of the modern international workforce.  It is lucky because it has the opportunity to prepare.  It is such a shame that the preparation remains so thin.

Kevin Jones

WorkSafe Victoria’s plans for the future

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At the Safety In Action Conference in Melbourne last week the CEO Of WorkSafe Victoria, John Merritt, told the delegates that over the coming weeks and months we will see the following:

  • The “Homecomings” series of workplace safety ads have been purchased by Washington State and will be broadcast shortly.  Merritt expects the campaign to spread across the United States and, maybe, into Canada;
  • WorkSafe has developed fake vending machines for use at exhibitions and trade displays which display replacement body parts, fingers as  USB sticks (pictured below);
  • WorkSafe will be introducing an advisory support scheme for the medium-sized businesses, modelled on the Small Business scheme;
  • A team of advisers is targeting poor-performing large employers.  Merritt said that  “50 large employers account for 11% of all injuries WorkSafe sees”;
  • A major street art campaign will be launched by the end of April 2009
  • A new series of ads to be run on regional and rural television based on local sporting legends as part of the country football and netball sponsorship;
  • The graphic young worker advertisements will be re-run at appropriate times.  Merritt acknowledged that the ads have generated many complaints but are transmitting the right message to the target audience.

WorkSafe will also maintain their focus on the “jugglers” those business people or administrative staff that are essential to each organisation because they are in charge of dozens of business processes.  WorkSafe surveys of the jugglers have shown that less than 10% of their time is spent on OHS matters, around 30% of them are trained in their tasks and most operate without support.

Kevin Jones

replacement-body-part-machinefinished-machine-8

Why won’t the Tasmanian government release the OHS report into the Beaconsfield mine collapse?

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Since the 2006 rockfall at Beaconsfield Mine in Tasmania, the public has received limited information.  There have been books about the rescue of two workers and the Coroner’s inquest into the death of Larry Knight.  Greg Mellick undertook an investigation into the rockfall and found that noone was to blame for the rockfall.

Many workplace disasters have generated royal commissions in Australia.  The rockfall did not.  However, industry specialists, OHS professionals and others have established an expectation that investigations and reports into industrial disasters are publicly accessible.

The expectation is not unreasonable given that the OHS profession, legal profession, engineers and others operate within a belief that the analysis of disasters can provide ways of avoiding a recurrence.  Apparently the Tasmanian Government does not understand the significance of information in improving the safety of workers and the public in its State, even though its OHS and mine safety legislation is structured around prevention.

The Tasmanian Coroner released his findings into the death of Larry Knight.  The findings quoted extensively from the 400+ page OHS report from Professor Michael Quinlan that was part of Greg Mellick’s investigation process.  But the report itself is yet to be released.  Nor has the larger report undertaken by Greg Mellick.

The Director of Public Prosecutions has chosen not to lay charges over the rockfall.

The mine is back at full operation.

The survivors of the rockfall are rebuilding their lives.

Only a couple of weeks ago, the Legislative Council Select Committee on Mining Industry Regulation released its report into the State’s mining legislation.  The terms of reference have evolved from the findings of various investigations including Quinlan’s.  The committee was required to investigate

  1. Regulation and workplace standards within the mining and related industries in Tasmania.
  2. Safety performance of the Tasmanian mining industry compared to other primary industries in the State and the mining industry nationally.
  3. The role of Workplace Standards Tasmania in the regulation of the mining and associated industries.
  4. The efficacy and limitations of the co-regulatory model within the mining industry in Tasmania; and
  5. Any other matters incidental thereto.

On 2 April 2009 at the Safety In Action Conference in Melbourne, Professor Michael Quinlan expressed bewilderment at the decision to not release his investigation report.

SafetyAtWorkBlog contacted the OHS regulator in Tasmania asking for the Quinlan report.  We were advised that it was likely that the only way to obtain a copy was through Freedom of Information with the Department of Premier & Cabinet. (DPAC)  A representative of DPAC will contact us about the report’s status.

DPAC has a copy of the Mellick report.  The Australian Workers Union has a copy of the Mellick report.  SafetyAtWorkBlog believes there are leaked copies of the report in existence but for some reason, unknown at this time, the public is not permitted to see the report.

The Queensland government has available four reports into mining disasters in the Moura area with one report going back to 1972!!

In the years after the ESSO-Longford gas explosion, Professor Andrew Hopkins published “Lessons From Longford“.  It was for a long time the publisher’s best-selling book.  It is quoted extensively in the OHS and management professions.  Some of Andrew’s terminologies and concepts of safety culture have become ingrained in the psyche of OHS professionals in Australia.

It is hard to see any reason in April 2009 for the Mellick and Quinlan reports not be be publicly available.  Indeed there are many important professional and community reasons for the reports to be seen.

What is the professional legacy of the Tasmanian government’s investigations into the Beaconsfield Mine rockfall in 2004?

What will the government say when the next rockfall occurs in an underground mine?  What will the Premier or the Minister say to the next generation of widows or to the carers of the crippled miners?  Certainly David Bartlett or David Llewellyn cannot say that they did all they could to make workplaces safe.

Kevin Jones