OHS context of leave entitlements

Family-friendly work initiatives always get increased attention around International Women’s Day.  This is a shame as work/life balance is not gender specific, however the dominant Western family structures make the application of the concept relative to gender.  As long as the matter is perceived as a “women’s issue”, it will struggle for attention in a basically patriarchal society.

Family-friendly work structures are predominantly associated with hours of work and leave entitlements.  These don’t seem to be OHS matters as they are mostly handled through HR or the pay department however there is a link and it is a link that work/life and work/family advocates may use as a strong argument for their cause.

Leave is a worker entitlement for several reasons:

  • Situations may occur where the employee is required to stay home to look after an ill relative;
  • The employee may stay home as they are too sick to work; and
  • The employee may feel they need time away from work to rebalance their lives.

The second point has an OHS relevance because going to work while sick may introduce a hazard to your work colleagues – presenteeism.  In many jurisdictions it is a breach of an employee’s OHS legislative obligations to not generate hazards for their work colleagues or members of the public while at work.

The third point relates to an individual’s management of stress and/or fatigue.

In Australia, some workplaces allow for “doona days” (or for those in the Northern hemisphere’s winter at the moment “duvet days”).  These are days where a workplace and the employee would benefit psychologically from some time-out in order to “reboot”.

It may also be a valid fatigue management mechanism where long hours have been worked to the extent where attending the workplace may present hazards to others, or to themselves by feeling impaired, or have the employee working well below the appropriate level of attentiveness for the job to be properly done.

Leave entitlements, to some extent, form part of the employer’s legislative obligations to have a safe and healthy work environment.  But they also support the worker’s obligations to look after themselves and not present hazards to others.

The OHS element of leave entitlements should be emphasized when discussions of family-friendly workplaces occur.  Not only does it legitimately raise the profile of OHS in business planning, it can add some moral weight to an issue that can get bogged down in industrial relations.

Some readers may want to check out recent presentations to the US Senate in early-March 2009, by various people on the issue of family-friendly work structure.  These include

Eileen Appelbaum, Director of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University,

Dr Heather Boushey, Senior Economist at the Center for American Progress Action Fund,

Rebia Mixon Clay, a home health care worker who cares for her brother in Chicago. (Rebia’s video is below)

Kevin Jones

International Women’s Day (of safety)

The global theme for the 2009 International Women’s Day (8 March 2009) is 

“Women and men united to end violence against women and girls”

The organising committee is at pains to stress that although this is a global theme, individual nations, individual states and organisations are able to set their own themes.  Some themes already chosen include

  • Australia, UNIFEM: Unite to End Violence Against Women 
  • Australia, QLD Office for Women: Our Women, Our State 
  • Australia, WA Department for Communities: Sharing the Caring for the Future 
  • UK, Doncaster Council: Women’s Voices and Influence 
  • UK, Welsh Assembly Government: Bridging the Generational Gap

Given that Australian health care workers suffer occupational violence, amongst many other sectors, and that employers are obliged to assist workers who may be subjected to violence at work or the consequences of non-work-related violence, it seems odd that so often the major advocates of International Women’s Day remain the unions.

It is also regrettable that many of the themes internationally and locally are responding to negatives rather than motivating action from strengths.

As is indicated from the list above, the public sector agencies are keen to develop programs around the international day.  The societal and career disadvantages of women are integral to how safety is managed.  

Stress, violence, adequate leave entitlements, security, work/life balance, chronic illness – all of these issues are dealt with by good safety professionals.  Perhaps a safety organisation or agency in Australia could take up the theme of “Safe work for women” and look at these issues this year using gender as the key to controlling these hazards in a coordinated and cross-gender fashion.

In support of women’s OHS (if there can be such a specific category), readers are reminded of an excellent (and FREE)  resource written by Melody Kemp called Working for Life: Sourcebook on Occupational Health for Women

Kevin Jones

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.

Workplace health initiatives in unstable economic times

All through the Presidency of George W Bush, safety professionals have been critical of the lack of action on workplace safety.  As with many issues related to a new Democrat President in Barack Obama, organisations are beginning to publish their wishlists.  The latest is the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM).

On 9 January 2009, ACOEM released a media statement which began

“American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) calls on the Health and Human Services Secretary-designee Tom Daschle to address the critical link between the health, safety, and productivity of America’s workers and the long-term stability of its health care system and economy as he begins work on the Obama administration’s health care agenda.”

The requested changes could be interpreted as a criticism of what the situation has been under George W Bush.  ACOEM says the next government

“must put a greater emphasis on ensuring the health of the workforce in order to meet the twin challenges of an aging population and the rise of chronic disease…”

ACOEM President Robert R. Orford, MD goes into specifics

“…calling on Daschle to focus on preventive health measures aimed at workers that could range from screening and early detection programs to health education, nutritional support, and immunizations.”

The ACOEM reform program is based on the following

  • “investing in preventive health programs for workers;
  • creating new linkages between the workplace, homes and communities to reinforce good health;
  • providing financial incentives to promote preventive health behaviors among workers; and
  • taking steps to ensure that more health professionals are trained in preventive health strategies that can be applied in the workplace.”

Accepting that one Australian State, Victoria, is considerably smaller than the US (Victoria  has a population of around 5,200,000, the US had 301,621,157 in 2007), it is interesting to remember what the Victorian Government proposed (or promised) just on 12 months ago concerning its WorkHealth initiative.

“Over time the program is expected to free up $60 million per year in health costs, as well as:

  • Cut the proportion of workers at risk of developing chronic disease by 10 per cent;
  • Cut workplace injuries and disease by 5 per cent, putting downward pressure on premiums;
  •  Cut absenteeism by 10 per cent; and
  •  Boost productivity by $44 million a year.”

[It would be of little real benefit to simply multiple the Victorian commitments by the differential with the US population to compare monetary commitments, as there are too many variable but if the WorkHealth productivity was imposed on the US, there could be a $2.6 billion, not a lot considering the size of President Bush’s bailouts and Barack Obama’s mooted bailout package.  However, in the current economic climate, in order to gain serious attention, any proposal should have costs estimated up front and, ideally, show how the initiative will have minimal impact on government tax revenues – an approach that would require.]

In each circumstance there is the logic that unhealthy people are less productive than healthy people.  This sounds right but it depends very much on the type of work tasks being undertaken.  It is an accepted fact [red flag for contrary comments. ED] that modern workloads are considerably more supported by technology than in previous labour-intensive decades.  Perhaps there are better productivity gains through (further) increased automation than trying to reverse entrenched cultural activity.

In late 2008 an OHS expert said to a group of Australian safety professionals in late-2008 that WorkHealth

“is not well-supported by the stakeholders.  The trade unions feel it is a diversion away from regulated compliance and that it is going to refocus the agenda on the health of the worker and the fitness of the worker as the primary agenda, which is not what the [OHS] Act is setup to focus on. The employers are basically unkeen to get involved on issues they think are outside their control.”

The expert supported the position of some in the trade union movement that WorkHealth was always a political enthusiasm, some may say folly.

This is going to be of great importance in Australia with the possibility of new OHS legislation to apply nationally but also muddies the strategic planning of any new government that needs to show that it is an active and effective agent of change, as Obama is starting to do.  In the US, the public health system is not a paragon and the workplace safety regulatory system is variable, to be polite.  Fixing the public health system would seem to have the greater social benefit in the long term, and a general productivity benefit.

(It has to be admitted that the packaging of health care in employment contracts in the US is attractive employment benefit and one that seems to be vital to those who have it.  Australia does not have that workplace entitlement but those employers struggling to become employers-of-choice should serious consider it, particularly as a work/family benefit.)

Each country is trying to reduce the social security cost burden on government and it would seem that public health initiatives would have the broader application as it covers the whole population and not just employees, or just those employees who are unfit.

Work health proposals in both jurisdictions need to re-examine their focuses and to pitch to their strengths.  Business has enough to worry about trying to claw its way out of recession (even if the US government is throwing buckets of money to reduce the incline from the pit).  OHS professionals have enough work trying to cope with the traditional hazards and recent, more-challenging, psychosocial hazards.  Workplace health advocates are muddying the funding pool, confusing government strategic policy aims, and blending competing or complementary approaches to individual health and safety in the public’s mind.  

 Kevin Jones

Update 16 January 2009

More information on this issue is available HERE

Safety challenges for English pantomime

Today, the UK Daily Mail published an example of the mish-mash of safety management problems that are confusing the public about what an OHS professional does.

An amateur Christmas pantomime is confused by the plethora of safetyand health obligations being placed on them by, it is assumed, a variety of regulators.  Let me speculate on what may be behind some of the issues.

“scenery is free from sharp edges” – a good set designer, even an amateur one, should already have this aim as part of their skills.  Backstage in theatrical productions is notoriously dark and often full of people, round the edges of scenery is not an unreasonable expectation.

The theatre company chairman says that the facility is not the best.

“Mr Smith, 59, a training manager, also claims that Brierley Hill Civic Hall’s backstage facilities are ‘poorer than Cinderella’s kitchen’ making it all the more difficult to meet the health and safety requirements.”

Ice cream and milk temperature is a matter of food safety.  These can easily be managed by the facility manager providing suitable refrigeration.  If the facility is a regular venue for theatrical productions it is not unreasonable to expect the venue to be fit-for-purpose.  Graeme Smith says that the company has already solved the issue to some degree:

“The 100-strong am-dram group, which was first formed 60 years ago, has also bought a freezer because it does not trust the reliability of the venue’s, Mr Smith said”

Clearly, Mr Smith has as many problems with the venue as he does with the safety needs of his production.

Climbing a beanstalk with a harness – many theatrical productions have incorporated harness into aerial effects or revised their sets and direction to depict climbing without physically climbing 30 feet.  This is a pantomime and it involves acting so act like you’re climbing a beanstalk.

Chaperoning children – mothers of stage children have been doing this for years.  The nature of backstage may require supervision of children to reduce the hazards of dozens of excited children causing problems and creating hazards for other stage workers.  Depending on the layout of the facility the dressing rooms may some way from the stage, perhaps through public areas, and supervision is not an unreasonable expectation.

“do not enter the props storage area” – all workplaces have areas that restrict unauthorised access for good reason.  Supervision may be the best available control measure for the circumstances.  The article refers to pyrotechnics.  If these were to be used in this production and the pyrotechnics were stored in the props area, entry restriction would be more than reasonable.

“inform the audience before the performance if pyrotechnics are to be used.”  It is peculiar that the audience is informed as pyrotechnics should be configured to operate with no risk to audience, actors, or stage staff.  If the reason for this advice is fire safety, then this relates again to the suitability of the facility itself, to fireproofing, fire exits etc.  Given the fires that have resulted from unsafe use indoors of pyrotechnics over the last few years, increased warnings seems appropriate.

I am not sure about the need to identify curtain users but the need to prevent people falling into the orchestra pit is obvious.  It is implied that this would only occur outside of productions and rehearsals and, in that case, this would be the responsibility of the facility manager.  Boarding up the pit may be an excessive control measure and alternative barriers may be appropriate.  Again this also relates to the initial design of the facility.

There are enough hints in the article to show that the suitability of the Brierley Hill Civic Centre for theatrical productions needs to be reviewed.  Many of the theatre company problems seem to be to accommodate design and layout deficiencies.

The Australian theatrical union issued safety guidelines for live theatre productions in 1999

The HSE and the Association of British Theatre Technicians has safety guidelines on pyrotechnics  and a range of other publications related to theatrical productions.

Clearly there is no “idiot’s guide to amateur productions” but there may be a need for such a publication.  The experience of the Brierley Hill Musical Theatre Company shows how one small event can be bombarded by attacks from all sides when all the company wants to do is put on a pantomime.  Theatrical productions have always been big management challenges and health and safety has always been part of this process. 

It was a fantasy sixty years ago when Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney could put an elaborate stage show together overnight in the movies. It remains a fantasy.

Kevin Jones

Mobile Phones and Driving

Work tools, such as the company car and the mobile phone, can be fun and functional but when used at the same time, the combination is deadly. 

According to media reports a study by the Federal Department of Transport survey of 1500 drivers has shown that 

[in Victoria] about 61 per cent said they had used a mobile while driving, up from 47 per cent in 2005…. More than one-quarter admitted reading a text message while driving, while 14 per cent said they had sent one.
Yet 42 per cent of drivers nationally supported any law banning the use of hands-free mobiles while driving.
Victoria Police caught more than 1800 drivers for mobile phone offences during the holiday period.

SafetyAtWorkBlog has mentioned previously that road safety research rarely logs whether a vehicle is being used for work purposes.  The full survey report is  not yet available and, to a large extent, the media reports have focused on activities related to the Australian h0liday season – alcohol use as well as texting.  

When it is available, SafetyAtWorkBlog will report on any data that could indicate the use of work vehicles as it is inaccurate to simply use road safety data as an overlay of occupational activities.

The use of company vehicles is a complicated area due to the status of the vehicles changing depending on whether the vehicle is a “pool vehicle” or whether the vehicle is able to be used for private purposes.  The one vehicle could be both a work vehicle and private vehicle at different times of the day.  This is the challenge for OHS professionals – to deal with a workplace and an employee who is neither of these 100% of the time.  Unless this status is clarified, any potential policy on mobile phone use whilst driving remains problematic.  Yet the hazard remains.

safe_driving-coverWorkSafe Victoria released a safe driving guide in November 2008 that acknowledges the hazard but clearly leaves it up to the employer to determine the appropriate policy:

The TAC  (Transport Accident Commission) and WorkSafe recommend that hands free calls be kept to a minimum and reserved for emergency type calls.
Handheld mobile phone use is illegal and should not be considered under any circumstances while driving.  Texting or reading texts or caller ID should not be done at any time whilst driving.

Without definitive advice from regulatory bodies but with mounting evidence of the heightening risk of injury and property damage, it will be a brave company that bans the use of mobile phones whilst driving (the ideal OHS control measure).  However, this is one of the risks faced when evidence of hazards is called for but we don’t like the evidence.

OHS Podcast with Andrew Douglas

One of the services that Workplace Safety Services (the company behind SafetyAtWorkBlog) provides to its clients are podcasts.

The Safety Institute of Australia had a podcast produced principally to promote its Safety In Action Conference, which is in Melbourne Australia on 31 March to 2 April 2009, that includes an interview with Andrew Douglas.  Andrew is speaking at the SIA09 conference and is a director of Douglas Workplace and Litigation Lawyers.

In the podcast he discusses making OHS a core business function, the OHS role in small business and the not-for-profit sector, and how important it was for him personally and professionally to be involved with the Safety In Action conference.

The podcast is a short promotional one but you may find Andrew’s comments of interest and use.

Concatenate Web Development
© Designed and developed by Concatenate Aust Pty Ltd