Many workplace deaths for BHP Billiton

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The Australian Workers Union are justifiably angry at the latest workplace death associated with BHP Billiton.   According to the company’s media statement on 19 march 2009

“We regret to inform that we have been advised by Mines and Port Development (a Joint Venture of Fluor and SKM), who manage our major construction activities, that there has been a fatal accident involving a John Holland employee at the construction site in Newman.”

The company’s own website provides the background to the union’s concern.

25 February 2009

It is with regret that BHP Billiton Iron Ore advises that an employee, Bob Blake, a track machine operator, aged 56, was fatally injured in a rail accident approximately 74km south of Port Hedland at 3.30am on Tuesday 24 February.

25 February 2009

It is with sadness that BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance (BMA) advises that John Barker, an employee of Nixon Communications working at Blackwater Mine, was fatally injured in a motor vehicle accident at the mine late this morning.   

4 September 2008

We regret to advise that a fatality has occurred at BHP Billiton’s Yandi mining operations involving a HWE Mining employee.

26 August 2008

BHP Billiton Iron Ore regrets to advise that an incident occurred during the night at its Yandi mine site, which resulted in the death of an HWE Mining employee.

29 July 2008

BHP Billiton Iron Ore regrets to advise that an incident occurred at approximately 11.00am today at its Nelson Point operations in Port Hedland, which has resulted in the death of an employee.

17 January 2008

It is with deep regret that BHP Billiton reports that a fatality has occurred today at the Cannington silver, lead and zinc operation in north-west Queensland.

In the “Chairman’s Review” for 2008,  Don Argus wrote about the growth in demand for its products from the Asian region:

Our response has been to streamline our business to enable us to produce as much product as fast as possible within the non-negotiable framework of the highest safety and environmental standards.

The CEO, Marius Kloppers, states that even though the company has achieved its seventh consecutive year of “record attributable profit”

While we can report financial success, I regret to report we have not performed well on safety. In FY2008, 11 of our employees died at work. Many more lives will have been impacted, some forever, by these tragic and avoidable events. We have reflected deeply on what more we must do to reach our goal of Zero Harm. In FY2009, we are making even greater efforts to improve our safety performance.

As shown above, the FY2009 performance statistics are not looking too good.

In the 2008 Corporate Governance Summary, the Directors are lauded.

The non-executive Directors contribute international and operational experience; understanding of the sectors in which we operate; knowledge of world capital markets; and an understanding of the health, safety, environmental and community challenges that we face.

In its 2008 Annual Report under Risk Factors, safety is listed within assets.  It reads like an acceptance that contractors are not living up to their OHS obligations or BHP Billiton standards.  This rings hollow as contractor management should be an area that a company of such size, resources, longevity and experience, manages in an exemplary fashion.

Some of our assets are controlled and managed by joint venture partners or by other companies. Some joint venture partners may have divergent business objectives which may impact business and financial results. Management of our non-controlled assets may not comply with our management and operating standards, controls and procedures (including health, safety, environment). Failure to adopt equivalent standards, controls and procedures at these assets could lead to higher costs and reduced production and adversely impact our results and reputation.

Later in the Risk Factor chapter:

Despite our best efforts and best intentions, there remains a risk that health, safety and/or environmental incidents or accidents may occur that may negatively impact our reputation or licence to operate.

The company is active though.  It has a Code of Conduct that applies to everyone, including contractors.  In it there is a quick test:

If you are in doubt about what to do or whether to speak up, it may help to do the Business Conduct Quick Test by asking yourself some simple questions:

  • The values test: Does it fit with the values in our Charter?
  • The safety test: Could it directly or indirectly endanger someone or cause them injury?
  • The law test: Is it legal and in line with our policies and standards?
  • The conscience test: Does it fit with my personal values?
  • The newspaper test: If the story appeared in the paper, would I feel comfortable with the decision?
  • The family test: What would I tell my partner, parent or child to do?
  • The ‘feel test’: What’s my intuition or ‘gut feel’? If it ‘feels’ bad, then it probably is bad!

Failing any of the above ‘tests’ indicates that you need to talk with someone about the concern you have.

It’s not that BHP Billiton seems to have fallen into a heap in the last couple of years.  Following a major explosion in 2004 at its remote Boodarie Hot Briquette Iron (HBI) plant in Western Australia, it was fined $200,000 plus costs for “failing to provide and maintain a working environment in which employees were not exposed to hazards.”   The explosion killed one worker and injured several others.

The court case revolved around the May 2004 explosion at the Port Hedland Boodarie HBI plant where one man died, and others received severe burns.

The prosecution case was that BHP Billiton undertook two activities, with the potential to cause an explosion, together without a proper risk assessment. This was considered to be a serious and substantial breach of the obligation to provide and maintain a safe working environment.

There is much more OHS performance information available at the BHP Billiton website but it is worth ending this post with the OHS statement included in the Code of Conduct:

BHP Billiton is committed to achieving leading industry practice in health and safety.

In all cases, we will aim to meet or exceed applicable legal and other requirements, as we believe that all accidents and occupational illnesses and injuries are preventable.

Our priority is to ensure that all our people – regardless of where they work or what they do – return home safely.

Kevin Jones

Air Safety Culture – Turkish Style

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SafetyAtWorkBlog would not purport to be knowledgeable about airlines, Turkish or Australia but there was a fascinating article published in Europe on 12 March 2009 that discusses the safety culture in Turkish Airlines. The article is entitled “Islam and the art of aircraft maintenance” by Claire Berlinski

SafetyAtWorkBlog would not purport to be knowledgeable about airlines, Turkish or Australia but there was a fascinating article published in Europe on 12 March 2009 that discusses the safety culture in Turkish Airlines.  The article is entitled “Islam and the art of aircraft maintenance” by Claire Berlinski (Thanks to Melody Kemp for bringing this to our attention)

There are some similarities to the current issues running in Australian media and industrial circles over the maintenance services of Qantas aircraft.

The crash of a Turkish Airline flight in Amsterdam on 25 February 2009 gained worldwide attention.  According to Berlinski’s article this crash

“…was caused by mechanical failure, exacerbated by severe pilot error: The aircraft’s altimeter – which had malfunctioned twice in the past eight landings – was faulty, and the pilots failed to note this or respond appropriately.”

A spokesperson for the airline insisted that the quality of servicing was the equal of European airlines.  (God help, airline passengers in Europe.)

Berlinski reported that

“Technicians were given maintenance tasks after two or three hours of training”

and that according to a reputable Turkish publication “Tempo Dergisi”, a technician was interviewed who 

“..claimed to be responsible for engine maintenance: he admitted that he was not licensed to do this job.”

Lastly she reports that

“And in December, 2006, it was widely reported that Turkish Airlines workers had sacrificed a camel on an Istanbul airport ramp as a gesture of thanks for having at last got rid of a batch of troublesome planes.”

There is much more in Berlinski’s article of concern and the full article is recommended but the relevance to SafetyAtWorkBlog is its example of a dysfunctional safety culture in an industry that is used as a positive example throughout the world, principally, as a result of James Reason’s work.

There will be good and bad in every industry and one will always be able to find a poor example of safety management in some country somewhere but the airline industry is different.  It projects itself as well-regulated and operates to international benchmarks of efficiency and safety.  It promotes its maintenance industry as “world’s best practice” but the generalisation is as empty as all generalisations.

OHS professionals are taught to manage safety in a way that includes the lowest common denominator in the workplace.  Safety is built around the highest risk or the stupidest act. 

It is useful to read the Berlinski as an article that reflects the infamous Darwin Awards except that the victim is not only the pilot but hundreds of innocent passengers.

Kevin Jones

A sport’s culture of excessive alcohol at work functions

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Each November safety publications carry guidances and warnings about unacceptable conduct at company Christmas parties.  Often these warnings are around moderating alcohol consumption and showing due respect to others.  One of the most recent legal advisories was issued in late-2008 by Maria Saraceni of the Australian law firm, Deacons.

This week in Sydney the National Rugby League (NRL)  faced its latest controversy when Brett Stewart of the Manly club was charged with sexual assault at a work function.  The NRL today issued harsh penalties on both Stewart (five match ban) and the club ($100,000).  To understand the context of the penalties and the media hoo-hah surrounding this it would be necessary to look at the many instances of assault and abuse associated with rugby league, and other male-dominated sports, in Australia.

The issue has remained largely on the sports pages of the newspapers except in New South Wales.  The fact that a sporting club was involved and a sport with a sad history in this area has dominated reporting and the OHS, safety management and employer liability angle has been lost in the rush.

The NRL media statement (no direct link available), quoted in part by the ABC, shows that the NRL CEO, David Gallop, is well aware of the safety management issues.

“Brett could not have been in a more high profile position of trust for the game on the eve of a season than he was last week and we believe he should have recognized the honour that he was given and the responsibility that went with it,” NRL Chief Executive, Mr David Gallop, said today.  “By any estimation there was an abuse of alcohol in the aftermath of a club function that has led in some part to the game being placed under enormous pressure.

“The players and the clubs need to know that we are not going to accept that.

“The Manly club has today delivered its report into the function and the measures simply weren’t sufficient to stop drinking getting out of hand in the case of some of the players. Brett was both refused service of alcohol and asked leave the premises.”

Section 20 (2) of the NRL Code of Conduct which states:

“Every person bound by this Code shall, whether or not he is attending an official function arranged for the NRL, the NRL Competition, the Related Competitions, Representative Matches, the ARL Competitions or a Club, conduct himself at all times in public in a sober, courteous and professional manner.”

Peter Fitzsimmons explains why the general conduct of rugby players needs changing.

“They [rugby league clubs] must fix it because they are a powerful tribe within our community, and that community has had a gutful not just of the atrocities, but of the NRL promising to fix it, to educate them, to discipline them, blah, blah, blah, year after year, with no results.”

Kevin Jones

Is there a Mars safety and a Venus safety?

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A research paper released last month in Germany caught my attention even though it does not relate directly to research undertaken in a work environment.  

There seems to be an established train of thought that men and women choose to take risks based on some sort of gender criteria.

Alison L. Booth and  Patrick J. Nolen have published “Gender Differences in Risk Behaviour: Does Nurture Matter?”  They researched risk behaviour along gender lines in secondary education, a different sample choice to other researchers who mostly looked at their university students.  Booth and Nolen found

“…gender differences in preferences for risk-taking are sensitive to the gender mix of the experimental group, with girls being more likely to choose risky outcomes when assigned to all-girl groups.  This suggests that observed gender differences in behaviour under uncertainty found in previous studies might reflect social learning rather than inherent gender traits.”

Gender studies are fraught with ideological baggage and it is a brave person who chooses this line of study, as I learnt through studying sociology and Russian literature at university (but that’s another story).

The full report is heavy going for those with no sociology background but the research flags an issue that could be useful to pose to the growing band of workplace psychologists and culture gurus – what are the gender-based variations in unsafe behaviours in the workplace?

Could the available research mean different safety management approaches in workplaces with different gender mixes?  

When people talk about workplace culture, could there be a male culture and a female culture?  (We certainly refer to a macho culture in some industries)  In other words, is there a Mars safety and a Venus safety?

Workplace safety tries hard to be generic but has variations based on industry types.  Perhaps we should be looking more closely at the demographics of these types and varying our safety management approaches?

Kevin Jones

Company directors and OHS obligations

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Since the final report of Australia’s Review into Model OHS Law, discussion has been remarkably quiet.  The ACTU was scheduled to meet for discussions on the report last Monday and no public statements have been made.  Most of the labour law firms have been quiet also.  It is fair to say that most are trying to digest the 480 page report.

But one employer group has provided an opinion piece in the business pages of The Age newspaper on March 2 2009.  The article says little that is new but it is mischievous in some of its comments. 

John  Colvin, CEO of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, writes of his concerns about increased exposure for the Institute’s members.  Colvin is concerned that upcoming OHS laws may be unprincipled and counterproductive.

The Model OHS Law report has said that it supports the statement of OHS principles as are already in place in the Victorian OHS legislation.  According to WorkSafe Victoria

“The Act sets out the key principles, duties and rights in relation to occupational health and safety. The general nature of the duties imposed by the Act means that they cover a very wide variety of circumstances, do not readily date and provide considerable flexibility for a duty holder to determine what needs to be done to comply.”

These principles are

4. The principles of health and safety protection

(1)    The importance of health and safety requires that employees, other persons at work and members of the public be given the highest level of protection against risks to their health and safety that is reasonably practicable in the circumstances.

(2)    Persons who control or manage matters that give rise or may give rise to risks to health or safety are responsible for eliminating or reducing those risks so far as is reasonably practicable.

(3)    Employers and self-employed persons should be proactive, and take all reasonably practicable measures, to ensure health and safety at workplaces and in the conduct of undertakings.

(4)    Employers and employees should exchange information and ideas about risks to health and safety and measures that can be taken to eliminate or reduce those risks.

(5)    Employees are entitled, and should be encouraged, to be represented in relation to health and safety issues.

The article is mischievous in a number of areas.  Colvin mentions how the current laws vary from state to state.  He mentions that

Some carry personal criminal liability for directors, even where they may not have had any personal involvement in a breach. In some states, they reverse the onus of proof, removing the presumption of innocence, and offer narrow legal defences and limited appeal rights.” (my emphasis)

Colvin is talking primarily about New South Wales, the State that everyone agrees has the OHS law that is most onerous for employers.  However, the New South Wales union movement has been remarkably quiet and flexible on the issue of its OHS laws.  There has been some rhetoric for the benefit of its members and to retain some ideological “face” but the union movement across Australia is coming to accept the reality of better OHS outcomes from nationally harmonised legislation.  

Repeatedly the National OHS Law Review panel stated that it has based its decisions on the structure of the Victorian legislation as, for one reason, it has undergone the most recent legal review.  Colvin’s focus on New South Wales OHS law is outdated, reflective, and unhelpful.

Colvin mentions a survey that found

“..more than 65 per cent said the risk of personal liability occasionally made them take an overly cautious approach in the boardroom and another 13 per cent said this happened frequently. Almost two-thirds felt this had inhibited an optimal business decision to a medium to high degree.”

This indicates that the risk of being prosecuted on OHS breaches is being discussed at board level – great result.  Whether this translates to the board improving the OHS performance of their company is doubtful as Colvin’s article implies that directors are looking at ways of avoiding responsibility and liability rather than accepting the reality of their OHS obligations and working to improve them.

Colvin says that

“Directors should not be held criminally liable for a company’s misconduct simply because they are a director.”

Directors are not prosecuted for OHS breaches because of their status or position.  They are prosecuted because of the decisions that they make and the ramifications of those decisions.  If a director is dismissive of OHS issues and palms them off to someone else in the organisation and an incident occurs, should not the director be called to account for why they considered the safety of their workers to be unimportant, even when for over thirty years directors and executives have had responsibility for OHS compliance?

Colvin believes that holding directors accountable implies that directors have more control over the actions of their employers than they do.  Current business and management theories promote the position that directors should be more in touch with what is happening on the shopfloor.  The theories promote informed leadership and an increased awareness of how the company and its people work, they promote a level of engagement that creates a positive workplace culture and displays leadership.   Colvin seems to be encouraging the opposite.

He ends his article with

“More fundamentally, it unfairly treats directors more harshly under the law than the rest of the community.”

He misunderstands the application and aims of OHS law.  All people in a workplace have a responsibility to ensure a safe and healthy workplace for themselves, for employees and for members of public on and off their worksites.  Directors have more detailed obligations, but not less, because they have control of production and benefit more from the success of the company than do the employees. 

Ultimately, Colvin’s article reflects the misunderstanding of OHS that directors and companies have had for decades.  Companies need to realise that the best performing companies in OHS, and those with the best productivity, are those that have embraced their obligations for safety and have incorporated the principles within their own culture. 

The review into model OHS law has indicated the way of the future and company directors would be well-served to realise this and get on board.  Being left behind will benefit no one, especially the shareholders.

Kevin Jones