Who is all this OHS harmonisation for?

The public comment phase of Australia’s review of its OHS law harmonisation process begins in September 2009.   To a large degree it is at this stage that the stakeholders can start refining their horse-trading.  It will also be interesting to watch as the distraction of the new industrial relations legislation has gone since that law was introduced.

Safe Work Australia is using the traditional limited consultative troika – government, employers and unions, and will need to give public submissions considerable weight to balance interests.

Two of the employer groups have already started setting out some guidelines and expectations.

SafeWork    -0X1.DB7490P+747ustraliaMR_Aug_2009A statement from the CEO of the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA), Mitchell Hooke, was released on 14 August 2009.  The only new element of the media release was

“The MCA has called for the National Mine Safety Framework to form the basis of national minerals-industry specific regulation within the Model OH&S Act.”

One of the aims of the harmonisation movement is to minimise regulations for specific industry sectors.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce & Industry was more expansive in its statement of 5 August 2009.  The ACCI overstates the cost burden of OHS legislation in each State.  The Model OHS Law Review Panel found overwhelming similarities between the legislations but acknowledged that the variations would be difficult to resolve.

ACCIHarmonisation-ACCIPerspective CoverThe following quote from the ACCI statement illustrates the value of the ACCI perspective and also its major shortcoming.

“However, harmonisation of legislation is not of itself the solution to the compliance burden problem, but rather it will be the final content and quality of the model legislation and the approach to its implementation and enforcement that will be the critical determinants as to whether or not productivity gains are in fact realised in practice.”

It is accurate to say that the success of the legislation will be gauged by its implementation and enforcement.  However, the conservative  ideology of the ACCI is on show when it states that the harmonisation is intended to provide productivity gains.  OHS legislation’s first aim should always be to improve the safety and health of the workforce which, in turn, increases productivity.

ACCI and other employer associations too often jump the safety element and go straight to productivity yet it is the safety of employees that is by far the greatest value that employers share with the community and the unions.  Elsewhere in the ACCI statement, the importance of safety is acknowledged but the communication of priorities is muddled.

The ACCI also says “OHS laws should never be used as a vehicle to drive other agendas,” and then goes on to push issues of industrial relations and union behaviour that are not the core focus of the OHS model legislation process.

The ACCI statement closes on a more philosophical approach to OHS.  It talks about “cooperative development”, “safety culture” and  “continued engagements” but its own cooperation can be seen as conditional in the majority of the statement.

There is one statement that all involved in OHS law reform should consider. The ACCI states that practical and easily understood regulation is required.

“This is particularly important for the majority of employers who operate only in one jurisdiction and who will not receive a direct productivity benefit under harmonisation but who will bear the cost of understanding and complying with a new OHS Act and regulations.”

Not much will change for those companies who operate in a single State of Australia.  It is also useful to note that the vast majority of businesses in Australia are small- and micro-businesses  for whom all of this national hoo-ha is almost totally irrelevant.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics said in a webpage that was updated in September 2008 that

“Small businesses comprise the vast majority of Australian businesses. The importance of the small business sector to the Australian economy is recognised by researchers, government and policy makers as well as the business community as a whole. It is acknowledged that the characteristics and business drivers of small business are potentially very different to those of larger businesses and as such require specific, targeted policy initiatives. Central to the development of effective policy initiatives is a sound understanding of the nature and characteristics of this sector of the business economy.”

The employer associations do not represent the largest employment sectors in Australia – small businesses, micro-businesses and home-based businesses.  Nor do the trade unions.  So who exactly are the biggest beneficiaries of this whole OHS harmonisation process?

Kevin Jones

New Australian workplace safety statistics

New South Wales Workcover has released its statistics for 2007/08 on workplace fatalities, injuries and diseases.  Statistics are popular posts in SafetyAtWorkBlog and it is recommended that the full report be downloaded.

cover statistical_bulletin_2007_2008_5906Statistical incompatibilities continue between Australian States so the NSW statistics should be kept within that State however the report says

A total of 109,835 workplace injuries were reported in 2007/08, a reduction of less than one per cent from 110,160 in 2006/07 and a two per cent reduction in the incidence rate of 37.4 per 1,000 workers in 2006/07 to 36.5 in 2007/08.

Any reduction is good news but over the long term, the government initiatives may be failing.  A couple of aims of  the National OHS Strategy 2002-2012, to which NSW is committed, are:

  • to sustain a significant, continual reduction in the incidents of work-related fatalities with a reduction of at least 20 per cent by 30 June 2012 (with a reduction of 10 per cent being achieved by 30 June 2007), and
  • to reduce the incidence of workplace injury by at least 40 per cent by 30 June 2012 (with a reduction of 20 per cent being achieved by 30 June 2007).

Pages from NationalOHSStrategy200212According to WorkCover’s Annual Report for 2002/03 the incidence rate “remained steady in 2001/02 at 20.3”.  But the statistical report quoted above says the incidence rate is 36.5 in 2007/08.  Clearly the incidence rate has increased by 16.2 over this period.

SafetyAtWorkBlog is, sadly in this case, written principally by an Arts graduate whose grasp of statistics has been illustrated before.  But it seems curious that a percentage reduction is being applied to a non-percentage benchmark that is

“the number of injuries per 1,000 employees working in New South Wales”.

There is a lot of room for statistical wriggling in this definition.

SafetyAtWorkBlog is researching more statistical data on the National OHS Strategy to see who is going to meet the target and what will be done by those who do not.

But then again, the world is ending in 2012 which equates to good planning on the government’s part.  Non-achievement of OHS targets? Who cares, it’s armageddon anyway.

The economic costs of a heart attack

A new Australian report estimates the total costs of heart attack and chest pain (Acute Coronary Syndrome or ACS) to the Australian economy – “total economic cost of $17.9 billion.”  This Access Economics report, released in June 2009, has broad application for public policy but has some relevant information for safety and health management in the workplace.

Costofheartattackandchestpain coverIf we take “productivity” as applying to work, as is reasonable, the report states that for 2009

“Indirect [health care system] costs [from ACS] are expected to account for $A3.8 billion, primarily due to lost productivity.”

This is a useful statistic for those workplace health advocates.  In fact, the report specifically identified the workplace as

“…an excellent environment to facilitate the ongoing rehabilitation and lifestyle changes to prevent the re-occurrence of ACS event”.

One gap it identified in the treatment and monitoring of ACS was  something that many have been advocating for some years, particularly with the aging population and increasing obesity rates:

“a standardised national program to support employees and employers and the extension of rehabilitation practices.”

Much of the report advocates important rehabilitation resources and services for when the patient is discharged from hospital.  The report includes the following graphic but also recommends the basic elements of post-hospital care after an ACS event.

Costofheartattackandchestpain-261-2 rehab table

“For rehabilitation to be effective, comprehensive patient follow-up interviews after discharge are essential.  At these follow-up interviews, the patient should undergo both physical assessments (e.g. blood pressure, cholesterol tests, ECGs) and emotional and psychological assessments (e.g. signs of depression, anxiety, stress, financial hardships).  The psychological impact following an ACS event is an important, but often neglected, area in the management of ACS.  Thus, if patients can better understand their conditions, it can empower them to cope with their anxieties caused by ACS.”

In specific reference to workplaces, the report says:

“Returning to work can require an adjustment in duties and the conditions under which the employee works.”

It is up to OHS and return-to-work professionals to determine exactly what strategies should be applied in these circumstances.

There were a couple of references in the report that may be worth following up:

Bhattacharyya MR, Perkins-Porras L, Whitehead DL, and A Steptoe (2007), Psychological and clinical predictors of return to work after acute coronary syndrome, European Heart Journal, Vol 28, Iss. 2, pp. 160-165.

Kovoor P, Lee AKY, Carrozzi F, Wiseman V, Byth K, Zecchin R, Dickson C, King M, Hall J, Ross DL, Uther JB, and AR Denniss (2006), Return to full normal activities including work at two weeks after acute myocardial infarction, American Journal of Cardiology, Vol 97, No. 7, pp. 952-958.

Kevin Jones

Cost of occupational injuries and illnesses rise

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

OHS context of leave entitlements

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

Workplace health initiatives in unstable economic times

All through the Presidency of George W Bush, safety professionals have been critical of the lack of action on workplace safety.  As with many issues related to a new Democrat President in Barack Obama, organisations are beginning to publish their wishlists.  The latest is the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM).

On 9 January 2009, ACOEM released a media statement which began

“American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) calls on the Health and Human Services Secretary-designee Tom Daschle to address the critical link between the health, safety, and productivity of America’s workers and the long-term stability of its health care system and economy as he begins work on the Obama administration’s health care agenda.”

The requested changes could be interpreted as a criticism of what the situation has been under George W Bush.  ACOEM says the next government

“must put a greater emphasis on ensuring the health of the workforce in order to meet the twin challenges of an aging population and the rise of chronic disease…”

ACOEM President Robert R. Orford, MD goes into specifics

“…calling on Daschle to focus on preventive health measures aimed at workers that could range from screening and early detection programs to health education, nutritional support, and immunizations.”

The ACOEM reform program is based on the following

  • “investing in preventive health programs for workers;
  • creating new linkages between the workplace, homes and communities to reinforce good health;
  • providing financial incentives to promote preventive health behaviors among workers; and
  • taking steps to ensure that more health professionals are trained in preventive health strategies that can be applied in the workplace.”

Accepting that one Australian State, Victoria, is considerably smaller than the US (Victoria  has a population of around 5,200,000, the US had 301,621,157 in 2007), it is interesting to remember what the Victorian Government proposed (or promised) just on 12 months ago concerning its WorkHealth initiative.

“Over time the program is expected to free up $60 million per year in health costs, as well as:

  • Cut the proportion of workers at risk of developing chronic disease by 10 per cent;
  • Cut workplace injuries and disease by 5 per cent, putting downward pressure on premiums;
  •  Cut absenteeism by 10 per cent; and
  •  Boost productivity by $44 million a year.”

[It would be of little real benefit to simply multiple the Victorian commitments by the differential with the US population to compare monetary commitments, as there are too many variable but if the WorkHealth productivity was imposed on the US, there could be a $2.6 billion, not a lot considering the size of President Bush’s bailouts and Barack Obama’s mooted bailout package.  However, in the current economic climate, in order to gain serious attention, any proposal should have costs estimated up front and, ideally, show how the initiative will have minimal impact on government tax revenues – an approach that would require.]

In each circumstance there is the logic that unhealthy people are less productive than healthy people.  This sounds right but it depends very much on the type of work tasks being undertaken.  It is an accepted fact [red flag for contrary comments. ED] that modern workloads are considerably more supported by technology than in previous labour-intensive decades.  Perhaps there are better productivity gains through (further) increased automation than trying to reverse entrenched cultural activity.

In late 2008 an OHS expert said to a group of Australian safety professionals in late-2008 that WorkHealth

“is not well-supported by the stakeholders.  The trade unions feel it is a diversion away from regulated compliance and that it is going to refocus the agenda on the health of the worker and the fitness of the worker as the primary agenda, which is not what the [OHS] Act is setup to focus on. The employers are basically unkeen to get involved on issues they think are outside their control.”

The expert supported the position of some in the trade union movement that WorkHealth was always a political enthusiasm, some may say folly.

This is going to be of great importance in Australia with the possibility of new OHS legislation to apply nationally but also muddies the strategic planning of any new government that needs to show that it is an active and effective agent of change, as Obama is starting to do.  In the US, the public health system is not a paragon and the workplace safety regulatory system is variable, to be polite.  Fixing the public health system would seem to have the greater social benefit in the long term, and a general productivity benefit.

(It has to be admitted that the packaging of health care in employment contracts in the US is attractive employment benefit and one that seems to be vital to those who have it.  Australia does not have that workplace entitlement but those employers struggling to become employers-of-choice should serious consider it, particularly as a work/family benefit.)

Each country is trying to reduce the social security cost burden on government and it would seem that public health initiatives would have the broader application as it covers the whole population and not just employees, or just those employees who are unfit.

Work health proposals in both jurisdictions need to re-examine their focuses and to pitch to their strengths.  Business has enough to worry about trying to claw its way out of recession (even if the US government is throwing buckets of money to reduce the incline from the pit).  OHS professionals have enough work trying to cope with the traditional hazards and recent, more-challenging, psychosocial hazards.  Workplace health advocates are muddying the funding pool, confusing government strategic policy aims, and blending competing or complementary approaches to individual health and safety in the public’s mind.  

 Kevin Jones

Update 16 January 2009

More information on this issue is available HERE

Economic cost of Varanus Island pipeline explosion

According to the Australian Treasurer, Wayne Swan, has said, on 3 December 2008, that the Varanus Island explosion

“is estimated to have subtracted around a quarter of a percentage point from [Gross Domestic Product] in the September quarter.”

This follows earlier estimates from the Reserve Bank of Australia that the disruption from the explosion would cause a negative blip of $2.5 billion in GDP.

The Senate Economics Committee report to the government yesterday said that the real economic impact will never be known because it occurred amongst other economic confusion.  

Business cases for the importance of occupational safety management are notoriously difficult to quantify, although some OHS colleagues disagree.  OHS has a far stronger argument through the moral imperatives than economics but economics is the language of the business world.  The Senate Committee report includes a lot of macro- and micro-economic data for those who want it.

The fallout from the Varanus Island investigations continue in Western Australia but it may be possible to say that for the wont of regular assessments and maintenance on a pipe in a remote location, Australia has lost billions of dollars in revenue, in a time of economic difficulties.

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