Leading from the top on impairment

Advocates of safety culture regularly profess that it must be lead from the top of the corporate structure down.  This applies a false definition of leadership.  Leadership is innovation, understanding and support regardless of one’s position on the corporate ladder.

It is true that professing leadership and corporate goals should be supported by the appropriate actions but that is often the avoidance of hypocrisy rather than seeking active change. It must be acknowledged that leadership can also come from below  – in the mail rooms, the cellars, the janitors and from the shopfloors.

Workers in many industries are subjected to random drug and alcohol tests.  Often these apply to those workers who operate machinery or drive transport vehicles.  And rightly so.  These workers must undertake their tasks without any impairment of their cognitive functions.  Impairment is a concept that the Australian union movement has struggled with for well over a decade mainly because in the industrial relations world this is close to being “fit for work” and how does one define that?  It also has some relationship to “blaming the worker”.  In occupational health and safety, it is seen as looking after one’s self whilst looking after others and the obligation to do this has existed for decades in OHS legislation.

Impairment is commonly discussed now in terms of driving while drunk or stoned or while using a mobile phone.  But long before this there was “impaired judgement”.  As well as being fit-for-work, people needed to be fit-to-think. 

On 4 December 2008, the New South Wales Health Minister (and former Industrial Relations Minister) John Della Bosca rejected a proposal from the Rail, Bus & Tram Union (RTBU) to “to make breath-test kits available on a voluntary basis to MPs wanting to check their blood alcohol levels before they turn up for late night votes.”

It is reported that the RTBU secretary Nick Lewocki has said 

“All rail workers are subjected to random drug and alcohol tests, an infringement on their personal lives that they are told is necessary due to the safety critical nature of their work. But driving the state is every bit as safety critical, and decisions our politicians make on issues as diverse as health, education and transport policy do affect public lives.” 

Ignoring the political devilment of the RTBU, the comment focuses on being unimpaired when making decisions, regardless of the occupation, work task or corporate position.  The Minister has been put in a difficult position where he can’t be seen as responding to union naughtiness but there is merit in leading from the top and making breath-test kits available.  They are not suggesting random testing or mandatory testing but it is reasonable to expect important decision-makers to be fit-to-think and fit-to-decide.

Perhaps drug testing in the workplace would not be seen as the contentious issue it is if it had already been introduced in the boardroom.  The gesture would not be as empty as the corporate leaders may think particularly leading into the season when sauce and ganders were traditionally eaten.

 

Safe Driving and OHS management impacts

SafetyAtWorkBlog has always been critical of those OHS professionals who try to explain OHS in comparison with driving.  They are different processes in different environments with different purposes and different rules.

However, there is a section of overlap and this relates to those whose work environment is transport and driving.

Worksafe Victoria has released a “Guide to safe work-related driving“.  This is essential reading for fleet managers, in particular, but good fleet managers would already have OHS as part of their driving policies.

For those of us who have not known how to interpret OHS obligations for our company vehicles, WorkSafe has issued these clarifications:

  • purchasing and maintaining a safe and roadworthy feet
  • ensuring employees have the relevant appropriate driver licences
  • scheduling work to account for speed limits and managing fatigue
  • providing appropriate information and training on work related driving safety
  • monitoring and supervision of the work related driving safety program.

In this type of workplace, workers seem to have as many obligations as employers but WorkSafe has listed for following as employee duties:

  • holding a current, valid drivers licence
  • abiding by all road rules (eg speed limits)
  • refraining from driving if impaired by tiredness or medication
  • reporting any incidents required by the employer’s program
  • carrying out any routine vehicle checks required by the employer.

There are many areas of contemporary life where the OHS obligations can seem absurd but work-related driving has always been a neglected area of workplace safety.  Every time SafetyAtWorkBlog receives notification of traffic incidents, the emergency services are asked whether the vehicle was being used for work purposes.  Unless it is a bus or a chemical tanker, the question is rarely asked or the information recorded at the scene of the crash.  As a result, the data on work-related driving incidents is scant and WorkSafe has done well in applying what there is.

The guide is terrific but it won’t raise the awareness of these necessary business and employee obligations until WorkSafe’s enforcement and investigative resources are included in traffic incidents and until a case law of OHS prosecutions for work-related driving is established.

The practice of having police and criminal prosecutions replacing OHS prosecutions for work-related incidents must end.  A transport vehicle is a mobile workplace and should be treated as such by having prosecutions under the road transport legislation AND OHS laws.  If not, we will be getting more airbags and less hazard elimination.

Politicians’ workplaces

Western Australian Premier, Alan Carpenter, is to be applauded for stating that the Parliament is a workplace.  This sounds like stating the bleeding obvious but Parliament has often turned a blind eye to this fact.

Certainly, the Premier is in election mode so there is an additional context in this period to everything he says. On 22 August 2008, he was talking about a working bar that exists in the State Parliament and how inappropriate it is. The media reported him saying:

“Parliament House is a work place, the members of parliament should not be able to drink freely during working hours,” Mr Carpenter said.  “Having a bar serving alcohol during working hours is completely out of step with community expectations. It is completely unacceptable that members of parliament are able to sit in a bar in their workplace and drink when they should be working on behalf of the community.”

There may be good reasons for having a bar in a workplace, but it may be inappropriate for workers to use the facility during business hours.  For years, many workplaces have introduced policies concerning drugs and alcohol to, in my opinion primarily, to cover themselves against legal action.  Thankfully such policies can also have a workplace safety role in the reduction of impairment.

Impairment relates to one’s fitness for work and is easiest to understand in the transport industries where one person is responsible for the safety of many members of the public.  But I have never understood why the logical extension of impairment to decision making in other workplaces has not be made.

In a workplace, such as a Parliament, or a goverment building, where decisions are made that will affect the safety and welfare of the public, decisions should be made with no impairment,  Policies should not be decided over a couple of bottles of scotch which was reported to be done by an education minister in Victoria several years ago.  Another politician was “under-the-weather” in Federal parliament some years ago, even though the current Federal Parliament has no bar onthe premises.

Considering that Parliaments are workplaces, the governments should review other hazards that are being addressed in other Australian workplaces.  The top of the list would be reasonable working hours, fatigue and stress.  In most Parliaments, the security issue is being dealt with but workplace bullying could be applicable.

Alan Carpenter’s comments were political statements in an election campaign so they have a dubious weight but let’s start thinking of Parliaments as workplaces and start seeing our politicians as exemplars in OHS.  If safety culture starts with leaders and safety champions, then can we blame workers and business operators who follow our leaders’ examples?

Roadside drug testing of commercial drivers

On 1 June 2008, the South Australian Minister for Road Safety, Carmel Zollo, announced an increased enforcement campaign against drug-affected drivers

In her media statement, Ms Zollo says

“When people take drugs and drive, they are taking a deadly risk – and the worst possible outcome of such irresponsible behaviour is a tragic crash. Drug testing is relatively new and we need to do all we can to change attitudes – we need people to know they will pay a price, one way or the other – and we need to convince them the best thing to do is to stay off the roads.”

Given the large number of commercial vehicles and drivers on the road, I asked the Minister’s office how this enforcement process and increased fines would apply to drivers who are found to be drug-affected in a work vehicle or undertaking work tasks.  I haven’t had a response from the Minister but I put the same scenario to the SafeWork SA.

A spokesman for SafeWork SA told me that “the situation regarding the new drug driving laws in SA doesn’t change a whole lot as far as [SafeWork SA is] concerned. Such offences would fall under the Road Traffic Act in the first instance, and would be handled by SA Police.”

He emphasises that this issue 

“…is another compelling reason for employers who do have staff on the road to ensure a policy is in place regarding alcohol and other drugs in the workplace. This will ensure that all workers are clear about what expectations exist in relation to drugs and alcohol on the job, and what the consequences will be for any breaches.  Such a policy would assist employers in managing their legal obligation to identify hazards, assess risks and implement appropriate control measures for those risks.”

I agree and appreciate the fact that he did not say, as many employees and managers assert, that having a policy makes the workplace safer. Having a policy does not even imply compliance, only action and enforcement can achieve that.

What his comments do indicate though is that a workplace hazard that OHS professionals are expected to manage goes through several processes before it reaches, if at all, the relevant OHS authority and regulator.  Is it any reason that the drug driving of workplace vehicles gets little attention when a major motivator of change, legal OHS action from a government regulator or at least the threat of action, is not occurring in the OHS context.

The driver penalty structure only applies within the general driving conditions controlled by the Road Act even though a driver could be severely impaired in a mobile workplace. The workplace context applies in other safety legislation such as rail safety and mining safety, why is not the work context of a positive roadside drug test being applied?  On the issue of impairment, there is little difference between a white delivery van driver and 18-wheeler.  Both can kill others and themselves.

Perhaps the Australian National OHS Review can consider occupational issues in other traditionally public areas of safety – security staff in nightclubs? level crossings?