Health, safety and climate change

Sydney, Australia - October 19, 2016: Construction workers set up scaffolding in a construction site.
Sydney, Australia – October 19, 2016: Construction workers set up scaffolding in a construction site.

In a small article on the ABC news site, Professor Peng Bi of the University of Adelaide said occupational health and safety laws needed a review to accommodate the changing climate and

“I reckon some regulations should be set up to get employers to pay [fresh] attention to the occupational health and safety of their employees…”

Contrary to Professor Peng Bi’s request, Australian worksites have done much to accommodate the changing climate conditions and to maintain productivity, primarily, in relation to excessive heat exposure by working within the existing occupational health and safety (OHS) legislation.  This is not to say more should not be done.

The risks associated with working in heat are well established and recognised by Safe Work Australia and State safety regulators but the advice often focusses on personal changes such as ensuring there is adequate hydration or that jobs should be rotated or that long-sleeved shorts are worn.  The amplification of these conditions due to climate change is foreseeable so what should employers, companies and OHS regulators do?

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Overburden exposes the social burden of workplace death and illness

On 26 February 2016, a recent documentary about a portion of the American coal-mining industry, Overburden, was shown with a panel discussion, as part of the Transitions Film Festival in Melbourne. The film is commonly promoted as an environmental film but it also touches on

  • Corporate and executive arrogance;
  • A complete disregard to worker safety;
  • Excessive influence of industry lobbyists in the political process;
  • The socio-economic impacts of allowing an industrial monopoly;
  • Personal perspectives of risk.

The trailer hints at some of these issues. (A traditional mainstream review of the film is available HERE)

The panel drew direct lines between the Appalachian issues raised in the film with the socio-economic issues in Victoria’s LaTrobe Valley that resulted from the Hazelwood Mine Fire. Continue reading “Overburden exposes the social burden of workplace death and illness”

Cancer data needs to start a discussion on effective controls

Cover of Cancer Occupational reportThe Cancer Council of Western Australia has released a report (not yet available online)that states:

“The number of occupationally caused cancers compensated each year equates to less than eight per cent of the expected number.” (Executive Summary)

This is an extraordinary statistic but consistent with the history of occupational health and safety (OHS) statistics where the core data originates from compensation figures rather than incident figures.  Cancer has always been a challenge in this area as it can manifest years after exposure or not at all. But this report also provides important data, and a challenge, for OHS professionals and business owners as

“Occupational exposures to carcinogens are estimated to cause over 5,000 new cases of cancer in Australia each year.” (Executive Summary)

The report has an excellent discussion on why such statistics are estimates and the unreliability of previous data in Australia and overseas but there is only a short, but important, discussion about risk and hazard controls – the principle focus for OHS professionals. Continue reading “Cancer data needs to start a discussion on effective controls”

Book review: Business, Environment, and Society – Themes and Cases

Book coverAustralia’s Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program (HIP) spent a great deal of time looking at the design of what started as an environmental initiative delivered in one way to an economic stimulus package delivered another way.  The HIP, and the people working with it, struggled to accommodate these changes.  A new book from Baywood Publishing in the United States, coincidentally, looks at the growth in ‘green jobs” and, among many issues, discusses how such jobs can affect worker health.

In “Business, Environment, and Society – Themes and CasesVesela R Veleva writes

“Green jobs, however, are not necessarily safe jobs, and, any of the current green technologies pose significant health and safety risks to workers.  A life-cycle approach and greater emphasis on worker health and safety is necessary when promoting future policies and practices. (Page 7)

The advantage of looking at the HIP inquiries as green jobs is that it provides a broader, even global, context to the scheme. Veleva writes:

“While there is no universally accepted definition of a green job, several organisations have proposed working definitions.  The United Nations Environmental Program defines a green job as “work in agriculture, manufacturing, research and development, administrative and service activities that contribute substantially to preserving and restoring environmental quality”…. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics defines green jobs as jobs involved in producing green products and services and increasing the use of clean energy, energy efficiency and mitigating negative impacts on the environment…” (page 9)

Continue reading “Book review: Business, Environment, and Society – Themes and Cases”

A rough ride on OHS

Since I heard about the Gaia hypothesis in the 1980s, I have read most of James Lovelock‘s books.  I was confronted by his argument that nuclear power is undervalued as one of the cleanest and sustainable sources of power, as I have grown up listening to anti-nuclear activists like Helen Caldicott and being frightened by films like Fail Safe and Threads.  I am not sure I agree with Lovelock but I respect him.  In his latest book, though, he makes a couple of negative references to occupational health and safety (OHS) that are cheap shots, unfair or disappointing.

Lovelock says, on page 2 of “A Rough Ride to the Future” that the chemical industry is “now mainly run by an intelligent and usually responsible technocracy” but that

“…we may be hampered in our attempts to solve the large problems [of pollution] by the absurdly zealous application of health and safety laws.” (emphasis added)

In discussing oxygen levels in the atmosphere and how its regulation is so important, Lovelock says, in parentheses,

“We are fortunate there is no inbuilt health and safety system in Gaia, otherwise the dangers of fires would have led to the banning of its production.” (page 13)

This comment, moreso than the former, shows Lovelock misunderstands OHS regulation and application.  Earlier in the book he praises the banning of chlorofluorocarbons on climatic reasons and then, absurdly, implies that OHS would advocate the banning of oxygen. It’s a cheap shot.  OHS is about trying to eliminate the risk of harm and by investigating the source of the hazard, usually through the scientific method. 

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The synchronicity of safety and environment

There has always been a moral similarity between the occupational health and safety (OHS) profession and the environmental advocates.  One focusses on the immediate safety of humans and the other on the long term safety of humans.  This similarity can create challenges for organisations and industries that have workers in both environmental settings such as forestry and mining.  This type of challenge is currently being faced by Dr Nikki Williams of the Australian Coal Association.

In an article in the Weekend Australian on 10 March 2012 Dr Williams expressed concerns over a Greenpeace campaign against coal mining.  (Significantly the newspaper included no quotes from either Bob Brown of the Australian Greens or from Greenpeace.  ABC News did on on March 6 2012)  She inadvertently compliments the campaigners by saying the campaign shows a “a very high level of planning”, is “sophisticated” and “very detailed”. Continue reading “The synchronicity of safety and environment”

Tread carefully when speaking with the media

One of the most important professional lessons is to only talk about what you know.  I found this out personally after a disastrous pre-conference workshop many years ago where I did not understand what the workshop participants expected until I began seeing blank and quizzical expressions from the, thankfully, small audience.

On Australian radio on 14 December 2011, a geologist became embroiled in an interview on asbestos and cancer.

Ian Plimer is a well-known Australian geologist and is a professor of mining geology at the University of Adelaide.  Plimer is a controversial and outspoken critic of climate change.  The climate change debate is a fringe consideration in occupational health and safety but today,  Professor Plimer entered the debate on asbestos, a carcinogen that is responsible for hundreds and thousands of work and non-work related deaths.

On ABC Radio, prominent Australian journalist and writer on asbestos industry issues, Matt Peacock, took Ian Plimer to task about Plimer’s 2008 claim that chrysotile, or white asbestos, is not carcinogenic.   Continue reading “Tread carefully when speaking with the media”

OHS will eventually need to address the big climate change impacts

The latest edition of the Journal of Occupational Medicine (JOM) (Vol 61. No 5 Aug 2011) includes a short article on the occupational impact of climate change, an issue that must be addressed in the work context and one that places additional challenges for those involved with safe design.

The JOM article lists the following hazard categories that are likely to affect workplaces and activities:

  • “Increased ambient temperature (global warming) and resultant climate changes,
  • Increased air pollution (resulting from increased temperatures, ozone levels and airborne particles),
  • Ultraviolet (UV) radiation,
  • Extremes of weather (resulting from global climate change),
  • Vector-borne diseases and expanded habitat,
  • Industrial transitions and emerging technologies,
  • Changes to built environment.”

It is unlikely that employers will try to tackle climate change through OHS considerations as there are far more important economic pressures.  OHS, in this context, can only be reactive but several of the issues mentioned above are likely to substantially change work methods and planning. Continue reading “OHS will eventually need to address the big climate change impacts”

Integrating climate change impacts into OHS and business management

Today the European Policy Centre in Brussels released the report Climate change: Global Risks, Challenges & Decisions. The findings of this report do not directly affect workplace safety but do indicate new ways in which businesses must manage the economic and social hazards that climate change produces.  These new ways of management must be anticipated and understood by OHS professionals.

Synthesis Report Web coverThe report says that

“Linking climate change with broader sustainable consumption and production concerns, human rights issues and democratic values is crucial for shifting societies towards more sustainable development pathways.”

The need for integrated management of business has never been greater.  The common threat of climate change can only be met with a business strategy that embraces the reality of the threat and has this reality on the table of all business discussions – a desire that many professionals have also been pushing for OHS for years.  The boardroom and management tables are becoming full of issues that some see as competing but are in truth complementary.

The report discusses two types of action that can be taken.  Businesses that produce large amounts of carbon should be well involved with mitigation measures and the political policy frameworks.  Other businesses can benefit substantially from adapation, that is

“…whereby society increases its capacity to cope with the impacts of climate change, so far as possible.”

The report gives developing countries a particular focus for adaptation but the concept is equally relevant, and perhaps more easily implemented, in Western countries.

“Adaptation to climate change cannot be successfully implemented if treated as an “add on” and implemented separately from other initiatives aimed at fostering economic and social development and increasing the resilience of societies.”

Climate change is altering the statistical possibilities of worst-case scenarios.  The one-in-a-million is becoming the one-in-a-thousand.  The once-in-a-hundred-years is becoming once-in-a-decade.  The rapidity of change and the greater extremes and fluctuations of these events are changing the way projects are handled, costed and managed.  These fluctuations will challenge the way that safety is managed and are broadening the scope of the profession.

OHS needs to be seen as a discipline that is as multi-faceted as risk management, as human as human resources and as responsible as corporate social responsibility.  The OHS professional will remain focused on the safety of employees but what used to be on the periphery is now moving to the centre – climate change, business continuity, infectious disease pandemics, travel, risk management, shareholder expectations, quality, auditing, governance and accountability, to name a few.

And none of these issues can be dealth with without an integrated and adaptive approach, an approach that can provide more wide-ranging social benefits than ever before.

Kevin Jones

Climate Change Green Paper – OHS role

At the moment I am watching Senator Penny Wong  releasing the Australian government’s green paper into climate change reduction, focussing on an emissions trading scheme.  Some OHS professionals have disputed the relationship between environmental management and safety management.  In practice there has always been an overlap in the disciplines and increasingly in management pocesses, auditing and standards.

The Green Paper  has a direct OHS impact in the mining industry where fugitive emissions now need to be measured for climate change purposes as well as for health and safety compliance. Section 5.4 of the Summary of Preferred Positions states

The following sources would have minimum standards for emissions estimation methodologies imposed from the commencement of the scheme:
* electricity sector emissions (as required for the National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting Scheme and the Generator Efficiency Standards program)
* perfluorocarbon emissions (from aluminium production, as is current business practice and used for the National Greenhouse Accounts)
* fugitive emissions from underground coal mines (as currently mandated by state safety regulations for the large majority of mines).

The issue of climate change and the government’s emphasis on business impacts means that we need to reassess some of our amentiies, facilities and work methods to accommodate increased risks from climate change.  The Green Paper describes several ways that climate change will change how we work.  For instance when assessing the integrity of our building facilities we need to reconsider the structural tolerances as the report says

In our built environment, a 25 per cent increase in wind gust speed can lead to a 550 per cent increase in damage costs for buildings, with risks to human safety, largely because building or engineering standards have been exceeded.

Business continuity is going to undergo a revolution in criteria to be considered far beyond what we experienced with increased terrorist risks.