NZ announces inquiry into the safety of farm vehicles

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The New Zealand Department of Labour (DoL) has announced a period of public consultation on its OHS guidance on the safe use of off-road vehicles.  The process will include a review of “Safe Use of ATVs on New Zealand Farms: Agricultural Guideline” publication.

Interestingly the DoL says  it

“is looking to extend this publication to apply to the agricultural, forestry and adventure tourism industries.”

There is a potential for a considerable broadening of OHS issues but this may be hampered by the scheduling of the public consultation.  The DoL public commentary period closes on February 13 2010. Both Australia and New Zealand are in Summer holiday mode and many companies are closed down for several weeks in January or operate on a skeleton staff.  SafetyAtWorkBlog has commented on this trend for short consultative periods over the Christmas break previously. Continue reading “NZ announces inquiry into the safety of farm vehicles”

Legal professional privilege and safety management

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The Safety Institute‘s OHS Professional magazine for December 2009 included an article (originally published in an OHS newsletter from Piper Alderman for those non-SIA members) about the application of legal professional privilege using a New South Wales Industrial Relations Commission decision as its basis (Nicholson v Waco KwikForm Limited).  The case received considerable attention by OHS law firms. Continue reading “Legal professional privilege and safety management”

John Holland prosecution

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The John Holland Group has featured several times in the SafetyAtWorkBlog in 2009.  Any organisation as large as this Australian conglomerate who promotes their commitment to safety and whose Board Chair, Janet Holmes a Court, has such a high profile is going to draw media scrutiny.  In fact, the evolution of the John Holland safety culture and the struggle to maintain such a culture as a company grows in profitability and complexity would make a fascinating case study.

On 18 December 2009, Comcare released details of its latest successful prosecution of John Holland.  This time the company was fined $A180,000 over the death of a worker, Mark McCallum, at the Dalrymple Bay Coal Terminal in Queensland in May 2008.  According to the media statement:

“Justice Collier stated that “It is clear that, despite the efforts taken by the respondent to implement a safe working environment, the operation involving the transportation unit was flawed in its original conception. The dangers were obvious from the start, relatively simple to avoid, but unrecognised and unaddressed in a manner which raises the objective gravity of the offence in these proceedings towards the higher end of the scale.” [emphasis added]

When a judge determines that the process was flawed from the very start, one’s expertise in managing an established practice safely should be critically reviewed.  Such fundamental failures in a safety management system should cause any company to realise something is wrong in the way it is addressing safety needs, particularly in an economic climate that is bursting with new infrastructure projects for which one is competing.

The circumstances of the fatality are that

“A team of five John Holland workers were involved in moving large precast concrete decks to the end of a jetty under construction.  The precast concrete decks were being transported on two jinkers that were being pushed by a front end loader.  During this procedure, a worker’s foot became trapped under wooden scaffolding planks on the jetty, and he was fatally injured when he was run over by the wheels of the jinker.”

The Federal Court judgement listed the safety deficiencies that John Holland acknowledged

“The respondent acknowledges that:

(a) its work method statement did not adequately identify the risks associated with the relevant work process, and did not adequately identify suitable control measures to remove or minimise those risks; and

(b) it did not carry out a plant hazard assessment with respect to the front and rear jinkers, which may have identified a requirement for a remote braking system or other controls on the jinkers for use by spotters and others; and

(c) it did not have in place a formal system whereby employees were certified as being competent in the use of jinkers; and

(d) it did not have in place a formal protocol or procedure for the use of radios to ensure that the transmitter of a radio message was able to be informed that the message had been received by its intended recipient and understood; and

(e) it did not have sufficient communication mechanisms in place to ensure that employees working out of sight of the loader operator and the rear spotter were able to communicate directly with spotters and the loader operator; and

(f) it did not ensure that an observer of a trainee jinker operator was also issued with a radio to directly communicate with the other members of the transportation crew responsible for the propulsion of the load; and

(g) it did not provide workers who were working out of sight of the loader operator or rear spotter with any form of alarm or safety device, other than a radio to alert other workers of the occurrence of an emergency situation; and

(h) it did not ensure that the clearance of obstacles in the path of the loader was done in a timely or effective manner, thereby requiring the front jinker operator to perform that duty during the progress of the transportation unit and whilst out of the line of sight of the loader operator.”

Mark McCallum’s death gained even greater media attention when unions challenged John Holland’s nomination for a safety award shortly after McCallum’s death.

Kevin Jones

Quad bike safety sensitivities

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The quad bike safety issue is hotting up on a range of fronts in Australia with the trade unions taking an active interest,  meetings between bike manufacturers and safety designers, and the SafetyAtWorkBlog email box filling up with background content and opinion.

One of these emails reminded me of some court action that was taken in 2005 by Honda against the Victorian State Coroner, Graeme Johnstone.  Johnstone only recently retired from the position after many years and over that time there were fewer more ardent safety advocates, particularly not any that had the same broad audience and media attention.

In 2005 Johnstone was conducting an inquest into several quad-bike related deaths.  At one point he approached a witness outside of the Coronial process to seek their assistance in a training course.  Representatives from Honda took exception to this and began court action in the Supreme Court of Victoria to have him dismissed from conducting the inquests.

Justice Tim Smith found Johnstone remained open-minded and impartial throughout the inquest but the unreported judgement available online illustrates some of the tensions of the time and continue to exist to this day.

The judgement mentions the purpose of the inquest:

“The major disputed issues in the inquest relevant to the present application were the following:

  • whether the lack of roll-over structures on their ATVs caused the death of Mr Crole and Dr Shephard
  • whether roll-over structures should be installed on ATVs
  • whether the question of the provision of roll-over structures for ATVs should be investigated further.”

In describing the context of Johnstone’s contact with the witness, Dr Raphael Grzebieta, the judgement hints at the Coroner’s inquest findings (which are not available online)

“In addition, notwithstanding Dr Grzebieta’s conclusion that Dr Shepherd and Mr Crole [the deceased] would have been saved by the fitting of the roll bars and that this would be sufficient to justify a recommendation that they be fitted, the coroner expressed a provisional view that:

“My view at the moment is that it does not give me enough to recommend roll-over protection.””

The Victorian Coroner continues to be active in investigating quad-bike related deaths as seen in this newspaper article from earlier in 2009.  A related article quotes John Merritt, WorkSafe’s executive director as saying:

“This inquest came about as a result of a terrible spate of fatalities in the past two years… WorkSafe’s position on this is clear. It believes that a quad bike is like any piece of farming equipment and those who use them need the appropriate training to be able to use them safely.”

If a quad bike is like any other piece of farming equipment, the equipment designers would be reviewing their designs to minimise the risk of injury as the field bin and silo manufacturers have, or the milk vat designers have or the windmill manufacturers have or, indeed , as have the tractor manufacturers who actively promote the safety features of their new tractors.

The unreported Supreme Court judgement provides a good indication of the major players in the quad bike safety discussion, particularly the expert witnesses for and against.

Many of the issues are resurfacing because safety and work practices continue to change and the only satisfactory resolution is when hazards are controlled and harm is reduced and, hopefully, eliminated.  2010 in Australia looks set to be a year when quad bike safety gets a good going over once more.

Kevin Jones

Formaldehyde upgraded to human carcinogen

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On 4 November 2009, the United States’ National Toxicology Program (NTP) upgraded formaldehyde to a “known human carcinogen”.  This widely used chemical, principally in wood products, has been suspected of being carcinogenic for some time.

The suspicion was a major reason why, in Australia, Comcare issued a cautionary safety alert on using some shipping containers as converted accommodation.  But the Comcare advice was based, and reasonably so, on a manufacturers’ material safety data sheet (MSDS).

One such MSDS selected at random from the Australian internet sites has this to say about formaldehyde:

Reported fatal dose for humans: 60-90 mL

Oral LD50 (rat): 800 mg/kg

Inhalation LC50 (rat): 590 mg/m3

Low concentrations of formaldehyde may cause sensitisation by skin contact. Formaldehyde vapour is irritant to mucous membranes and respiratory tract. Asthma like symptoms have occasionally been reported following inhalation.

Animal studies have shown formaldehyde to cause carcinogenic effects. In particular, chronic inhalation studies in rats have shown the development of nasal cavity carcinomas at 6 and 15 ppm. These cancers developed at concentrations which produced chronic tissues irritation and would not be voluntarily tolerated by humans. [IPCS Environmental Health Criteria 89, Formaldehyde, World Health Organisation [WHO], Geneva, 1989.]

Some positive mutagenic effects have been reported for formaldehyde. Available animal data do not show embryotoxic or teratogenic effects following exposure to formaldehyde.

The NTP notes that formaldehyde effects have now been identified as having a role in leukaemia and not just localised inhalation-related cancers.

The MSDS is dated 2004 and Australian OHS legislation only requires MSDS to be updated at five-yearly intervals.  Of course they can be updated more frequently should the employer chose or, perhaps if the manufacturer advises them of a reclassification.

It is interesting that a 2004 MSDS still refers to WHO data that is fifteen years old and that the reference is to a non-Australian criterion.  It is accepted that chemical reclassification and research are long processes but what should the updating timeline be now that the US has made this significant re-categorisation?

Perhaps the Australia classifications will gain speed given that the more compatible European re-categorisation of formaldehyde, and other chemicals, was announced overnight.  The EU-OSHA website states

“Formaldehyde was confirmed as carcinogenic to humans. There is sufficient evidence in humans of an increased incidence of nasopharyngeal.”

However the human leukaemia issue was discusses in the evaluation summaries:

“The Working Group was almost evenly split on the evaluation of formaldehyde causing leukaemias in humans, with the majority viewing the evidence as sufficient for carcinogenicity and the minority viewing the evidence as limited.  Particularly relevant to the discussions regarding sufficient evidence was a recent study accepted for publication which, for the first time, reported aneuploidy in blood of exposed workers characteristic of myeloid leukaemia and myelodysplastic syndromes with supporting information suggesting a decrease in the major circulating blood cell types and in circulating haematological precursor cells.  The authors and Working Group felt this study needed to be replicated.”

Given that wood products that contain formaldehyde are used frequently in cabinet-making it is fair to expect MSDSs and OHS guidances on hazardous substances and wood dusts would be reissued and databases updated fairly quickly.  Just as important is the fact that particle boards are commonly sold in hardware and timber outlets in Australia and that Spring and Summer is often the DIY peak.

It is not hard to picture an unscrupulous media outlet generating a panic about the presence of formaldehyde in these products regardless of how the chemical is bound or whether inhalation risks are minimised.

Kevin Jones