Cost of occupational injuries and illnesses rise

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According to a report in the Australian Financial Review (page 5, not available online) on 14 April 2009, the costs of work-related injury and disease has increased to $A57.5 billion.  This represents 5.9% of the country’s gross domestic product, up from 5% in 2000-01.

Of perhaps more concern is the sectors of society which are estiimated to bear these increasing costs.  49% of costs are borne by workers, 47% by the community and 3% by the employers.  Even if the insurance costs were allocated to employers, this would only amount to 18% of the injury and diseases costs.

The figures from the report conducted by the Australian Safety & Compensation Council could justify the push by some in the OHS profession to move workplace safety into the area of public health.  Regardless, the spread of the cost should be borne in mind when OHS organisations lobby government for more support and attention.

Kevin Jones

April 28 – Workers’ Memorial Day

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memorial-poster-2009This 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.

Kevin Jones


OHS context of leave entitlements

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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)

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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

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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.