Important victory for aircraft maintenance workers

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The Department of Veterans’ Affairs may have to pay compensation to the maintenance crews of F-111 fighter planes.  In the 1970s employees worked within the fuel tanks of the fighters with little, if any, PPE.  In 2004 these workers were excluded from a healthcare and compensation scheme even though, according to one media report, evidence was presented that the workers had

  • a 50% increased risk of cancer
  • a two-fold increase in obstructive lung disease;
  • a two-and-a-half fold increase in sexual dysfunction; and
  • a two-fold increase in anxiety and depression.

One of the reasons the maintenance crews were denied compensation was that the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) had destroyed the maintenance records from before 1992.

An inquiry into the affair has received a submission from the commonwealth Ombudsman, John McMillan, and Labor MP, Arch Bevis, that strongly criticised the destruction and inadequacy of records.

In safety management, record-keeping is often seen, and dismissed, as “red tape”.  The reduction of red tape is not the elimination of red tape and the reality of Australia’s increasing litigious legal system is that more records need to be kept, and for longer, than ever before.

Perhaps, the government, in its pledge to reduce red tape and business costs, should look at the lawyers’ insistence to business that the first port-of-call after an industrial incident is to call them so that everything becomes covered by legal-client privilege.

Perhaps it is the pressure to create paperwork than the paperwork itself that is the problem.  In the case of the F-111 maintenance crews, regardless of the lack of paperwork, justice seems to be happening.  It is just sad that so much pain and suffering had to be endured before getting close to a resolution.

Click HERE for a personal reflection on the health issues of the workers from one of Australian Rugby League’s champions, Tommy Raudonikis.

Mining fatalities and accountability

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The 11 November 2008 edition of The Australian includes a page 2 story where the previous manager of the Beaconsfield Mine has been called on to be held responsible for the management failures that led to the death of Larry Knight in 2006.  The call was made by counsel for Larry Knight’s family and the Australian Workers’ Union in a submission to the Tasmanian inquest into the fatality.

According to the media report, the wrong decision was made in trying to stabilise the working area of the mine and that the risk assessment process was inadequate.  The latter comment should be of considerable interest to OHS regulators and safety professionals.

The importance of the Tasmanian Coroner’s findings are illustrated by comments in the submission by the counsel for the mine.  The media report says that 

“…Dr Neal tells the Coroner the mine had done all it reasonably could to guard against the risk of rockfall and to manage the mine’s notorious seismicity.” [emphasis added]

This is particularly important when considering the introduction of “reasonably practicable” into the OHS legislation throughout the Australian States being considered by the National OHS Law Review.

It is regrettable that the to-ing and fro-ing in the inquest is not getting as much media attention in the non-mining states, as there have been many risk management and accountability issues raised.  The media is likely to wait until the findings of the Coroner, Rod Chandler, and focus on the result rather than the journey.

There was a similar experience in New South Wales with the inquiry that followed the drowning of four mine workers at the Gretley mine in November 1996.  The information did not resonate to the rest of Australia except through the mining sector, yet there were important lessons from the inquiry.  Most OHS professionals, if at all, would recollect the prosecution of Gretley mine managers on matters of culpability, rather than the death of the four workers.

When the Tasmanian Coroner hands down his findings in the near future, it will be very useful to consider them in the light of the earlier reports, assessments and papers, among many others, listed below. 

SafetyAtWorkBlog is a strong advocate of learning new OHS management practices by looking beyond one’s field of expertise.  OHS professionals, safety managers and risk managers need to watch the action in Tasmania and other jurisdictions for themselves and not rely on a small group of OHS lawyers to bring matters to their attention and advise them how to avoid their responsibilities.  Accountability is a moral and legal responsibility.

Holding Corporate Leaders Responsible by Andrew Hopkins

The Impact of the Gretley Prosecutions by Andrew Hopkins

Mine Safety – Law, Regulation, Policy by Neil Gunningham

A submission by the Tasmanian Minerals Council on CRIMINAL LIABILITY OF ORGANISATIONS – ISSUES PAPER NO 9, JUNE 2005 to the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute

N Gunningham, ‘Prosecution for OHS offences: deterrent or disincentive?’ (2007) Sydney Law Review, 29 (3), pp 359-390.

R Guthrie and E Waldeck, ‘The liability of corporations, company directors and officers for OSH breaches: a review of the Australian landscape’ (2008) Policy and Practice in Health and Safety 6(1),
pp 31-54. 

N Foster, ‘Mining, maps and mindfulness: the Gretley appeal to the Full Bench of the Industrial Court of NSW’ (2008) Journal of Occupational Health and Safety – Australia and New Zealand 24(2),
pp 113-129.

Maintaining professional standards by looking outside the discipline

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I am a great believer that solutions to hazards in one industry can be applied or adapted to other industry sectors.  Regular readers of SafetyAtWorkBlog are aware of the cross-referencing between general workplace hazards and some solutions from the sex industry.

However, solutions can come from other countries as well, and not just from the United States.  Last week, a car bomb set off by Basque separatists in the University of Navarra in the northern city of Pamplona resulted in 248 people being treated for respiratory trouble, coughing and nausea from inhaling unidentified gases.  A university spokesperson, Javier Diaz, reportedly said that the fumes were generated by repair works that “are related to the terrorist attack.”

This occurred seven years after the 9/11 attacks in New York and after the resultant and widespread reporting of persistent health issues suffered by relief workers and emergency services personnel.  Yes, fumes are different from airborne particles of asbestos but the hazard, and the control mechanisms, are similar.  The lessons of exposure by emergency workers in disasters are obviously still to be learnt.

This morning, 10 November 2008, we wake up to a Russian submarine disaster that immediately reminds us of the tragedy of the Kursk in 2000.  Overnight 200 submariners and shipyard workers were affected in  the K-152 Nerpa submarine from exposure to freon gas.  Three servicemen and seventeen civilians have died.  Initial reports say that the gas was released when the fire extinguisher system was activated.

Russian submarines off the east coast of Russia can easily be dismissed by newspaper readers and business professionals as largely irrelevant but the media has said that 

“A Russian expert has reportedly said that a lack of gas masks among too many untrained civilians may have elevated the death toll in the submarine.”

Does insufficient PPE and training sound familiar? The release of gas in a restricted area?

For OHS professionals everything is relevant to making the best decisions possible for clients and employers.  The trick is to allocate the appropriate level of relevance to the information.  Risk managers and OHS professionals need to filter information from the widest possible pool of knowledge in order to provide the best advice.

We are not all Russian shipyard workers in a just-built submarine but, increasingly, we could be helping people from the rubble of a collapsed building, or helping in the aftermath of a natural disaster or a terrorist attack, or advising on a fire safety procedure and safe design of buildings.  We need to read, listen and digest so as to maintain and improve our personal core body of knowledge.

Bullying, duty of care and compensation

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The growth of attention to psychosocial hazards in Australia received a considerable boost from a stress survey undertaken by the ACTU some years ago.  During the survey of union-members, it became clear that bullying was a major generator and perpetrator of workplace stress.  The unions went to town on this data and set the agenda for some time in OHS.  Their success was echoed and mirrored in the United Kingdom and Europe. (In fact, Europe seems to be the jurisdiction that has kept the momentum)

The survey and campaign got the attention of regulators and OHS professionals to the presence of, perhaps, the next generation of occupational health and safety activity.

Since that time psychosocial hazards have splintered into sub-groups of stress, occupational violence, workload, fatigue management, shift work, dignity at work and a range of other matters. However bullying persists as the front runner.

As with many elements of OHS, risk management and cultural studies the defence forces provide signposts to future civilian issues. Yesterday the Australian Defence Force agreed to pay ex-gratia payments to family members of defence personnel who had committed suicide as a result of bullying suffered at the hands of their colleagues.  There are many significant signposts from these incidents but one of particular note was that the payments were not made to dependents but to other family members.

According to the ABC radio report by Karen Barlow:

“The suicides date back up to 12 years, when Lance-Corporal Nicholas Shiels killed himself after accidentally shooting his best friend dead during Army training.

Private John Satatas hanged himself at Holsworthy Barracks, in western Sydney, five years ago after being bullied and racially taunted.

Private David Hayward committed suicide four years ago after he was injured and had gone AWOL.” 

The Defence Minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, was interviewed on this issue, and others, on Radio National on 23 October 2008 and  has referred the matter to a general review of the defence forces. Fitzgibbon acknowledged that “shortcomings in the defence force system” contributed to the situation and could have been better handled after the event.

The day before the media attention the Australian Defence Force released the findings of its annual attitudinal survey of personnel.  The 2007 survey found, according to a media statement:

“… a marked improvement in knowledge of mental health issues as well as members’ assessments of their own mental health. Since 1999, the data also shows an increasing proportion of personnel who believe that unacceptable behaviour is well managed.”

As Australia moves to a national OHS and workers compensation system, or at least a harmonised system, more attention should be given to some of the responses and OHS initiatives in Commonwealth departments as these will be just as influential on OHS law and management as any State initiative.