Australian Minister’s latest comments on OHS law reform

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Last week the Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, spoke at the ACTU Congress for 2009.  Industrial relations was clearly the principal agenda issue but Gillard did mention OHS.  The relevant OHS text of her speech is below.

For those wishing more information about her rowdy reception, coverage is available at several Australian news sites.

The OHS content got no mention in any of the mainstream press and some of the political websites also ignored it.  

Prior to the Deputy PM’s speech, the congress held a minute’s silence for all those who lost their lives through traumatic injuries at work.  The Deputy PM was presented with a petition (details to come). 

During the silence, two relatives of  young construction workers in Queensland who had died, were on stage.  On screen a role call of the dead scrolled slowly as a backdrop.  

Occupational Health and Safety

Friends, as representatives of working Australians you know that nothing is more important to them than safety at work.

Recently State Ministers for occupational health and safety and I reached a vital reform milestone: agreement for the creation of a uniform national occupational health and safety regime. 

This is a massive advance for workplace safety. As you will recall, the first, but ultimately unsuccessful steps towards a uniform occupational health and safety regime were taken by the Hawke Government in 1984.  25 years is too long to wait for better laws to cut preventable workplace deaths and accidents.  But we are now primed to achieve a great outcome for Australian workers and businesses alike. 

Under current occupational health and safety laws, only four jurisdictions allow workers to stop unsafe work – Western Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the ACT.  This represents approximately 14.5% of Australian workers. The new occupational health and safety laws will extend this right to all Australian workers.

For too long employers have thought that they could cut costs by cutting corners on health and safety.  Under these new laws every employer will understand that cutting corners comes at a huge price. 

The penalties under the new occupational health and safety laws will far exceed existing penalties in today’s legislation in Australia.  Currently, the highest maximum fine for a corporation is $1.65 million.  In some jurisdictions the maximum is significantly less.  Under the new laws, the maximum will be increased to $3 million, almost double the largest penalty in the country today. 

Through the tripartite body, Safe Work Australia, you will be partners in developing the model laws for this new national system. 

Kevin Jones

Big fine for go-kart death

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The AAP and others are reporting a big fine over the death of Lydia Carter whilst driving a go-kart at a work function held in Port Melbourne in 2006.  The significance of the $A1.4 million fine is that the company, AAA Auscarts Imports Pty Ltd,  is not a large or multinational corporation.

Ms Carter was wearing a seat belt that did not fit properly and safety barriers on the track had been incorrectly installed.  

Judge Duncan Allen said 

“There is no doubt in my mind that (Auscarts) not only was fully aware of the risk, but was fully aware of the ways to reduce them” 

“The company showed a gross disregard concerning the safety of employees and the public.”

For OHS professionals this case, which ended today (12 May 2009) in the Victorian County Court, will generate a fair degree of attention because of the fine’s size.  However, from the information currently available, the case seems one of the go-kart company having a work environment that was unsafe for customers, the company being aware of this and not doing enough to fix it.

SafetyAtWorkBlog is also looking  into how Ms Carter’s death has changed her employer’s organisation, what effect it had on her colleagues, what policy changes have been made, amongst other matters.

The judgement will also be made available as soon as possible.

Kevin Jones

The real business cost of safety

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In February 2009, BHP Billiton forecast a full-year production target of 130 million tonnes of iron ore.  On 6 May 2009, the BHP president, Ian Ashby, has admitted that the company will be a “few million tonnes short”.  The reason?  Workplace deaths.

Ian Ashby was talking at a conference yesterday and pledged to improve safety however BHP, as has been pointed out in previous SafetyAtWorkBlog postings, has professed to place a high value on safety and its staff for some years.  This is not a new issue for the company and that is what makes the statements of the president potentially hollow.

It is useful to look at the areas that Ashby has identified for additional attention for the implication is that this is where the OHS management system has been deficient.  The measures to be adopted, according to media reports, include

  • restricting access,
  • improving traffic management, and 
  • suspending non-essential night-shift work.

In 2008 the spot price for iron ore had reached $US190 per tonne.  In late 2008, the price fell to $US77 per tonne.  BHP is currently negotiating prices for its iron ore so no accurate figure of value is available.  But let’s allocate a conservative figure of 3 million tonnes to the Ashby quote above and perform a rough calculation for the cost of poorly managed OHS in BHP.

      3 million x $US77 = $US231 million; or 

      3 million x $US190 = $US570 million

Following the economic crisis of 2008-09, shareholders are going to be less forgiving on corporate performance.  This has already been seen on the issue of executive salaries but the BHP experience should have shareholders asking why the management activity has not kept up with the safety rhetoric and the corporate values.  Because soon the poor safety practices in the outback mines of Australia will be hitting the shareholders’ pockets and they are justified in expecting answers form the executives.

The trap for shareholders is to forget the deaths of the workers and only hear the commitments of the executives for the future.  Should one believe the future promises when the corporate values of safety have not been upheld in the recent past?

Note: an independent government review was undertaken and a report was handed to the government in early May.  The report has yet to be released and may not be.

Kevin Jones

UPDATE: 8 May 2009

A spokesperson for the West Australian Dept of Mines & Petroleum has advised SafetyAtWorkBlog that the report into BHP was undertaken under Section 45 of the Act and therefore cannot be released unless in the course of a prosecution.  However, just as has occurred with the Melick Report into the Beaconsfield Mine collapse, there is always hope.

Falling under the safety radar

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The tricky thing about getting safety right is making sure you are on top of where the dangers are. One danger that seems to be consistently “off the safety radar” for lots of workplaces, particularly small businesses, is falls.

Here’s some key stuff you need to be looking at:

  1. Rule #1 for all safety problems is to try and eliminate the danger first. For fall hazards this means; have you exploited all the available storage space that can be reached from the ground (i.e. without the need to use a ladder)? Lots of places have all the ground level storage space they need, but because of its convenient access that space gets filled with junk. Turfing out the junk to exploit the ground level storage areas is the key thing to do. Ground level storage – good. Elevated storage spaces – not so good.
  2. Step ladders are used a lot to get access to high shelves, and the ordinary type of step ladder is notoriously unstable the further up the ladder you go. If people have to be on the last couple of steps, or worse still, right on top of a step ladder to retrieve stuff from high racking, then you have a serious injury or fatality waiting to happen at your business. (WorkSafe Victoria has reported deaths of workers who have fallen off step ladders.)
  3. Consider reconfiguring your storage racking so that the highest shelves are all the same height so you can use a proper order picking ladder to get access to those high shelves (i.e. ones at 2 metres or above). (WorkSafe has a guide on order picking) Consider getting lower versions of this type of ladder for middle height racks.
  4. Most Australian laws will say you have to do very specific things about stopping falls if workers are working at 2 metres and above. But keep in mind deaths have happened for falls as low as 1 metre, they are more common than you’d think.
  5. Lots of workplaces use mezzanine or above-room spaces to store things. First, see tip #1. If you have to use those spaces make sure a) that the floor of those spaces are safe to walk on; b) have guard rails around the perimeter; and c) that the way to get up to those space is as safe as it can be. It’s not safe to have only one hand free to get up or down a ladder.

Preventing falls is an excellent example of why the common legal duty to first look to eliminate a hazard or risk is a clever thing. I get the sense that lots of people quickly dismiss elimination as a viable option; it shouldn’t be the case. Hard thinking about elimination solutions needs to be first cab off the rank in risk control decisions, particularly when it comes to preventing falls.

Col Finnie