The demographic challenges facing OHS management

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The best OHS advice, or rather innovative thinking, is frequently coming from those experts from outside the traditional OHS background.

A case in point could be a presentation made by prominent Australian demographer, Bernard Salt, at one of the many Safe Work Australia Week events in South Australia.   Salt provided enough information about population changes that OHS professionals and regulators became uneasy about many of the challenges that they will face in the next few decades.

Consider yourself how the following facts provided by Bernard Salt will affect the way you manage safety in your workplace:

  • A ‘demographic fault line’ occurs in Australia from 2011, when the baby boomers start retiring.
  • More older workers will be in a position to retire than there will be younger workers to replace them.
  • Older workers will stay at their jobs for longer rendering them susceptible to body stressing and similar injuries.
  • Many older workers will scale down their work to a few days or one day a week, and as a result may not be fully attuned to the workplace safety risks.
  • To top up the Australian workforce (and tax base) a substantial migrant intake will be required.
  • These prospective workers (and entrepreneurs) will need to be educated in the Australian OHS culture.

If the OHS profession is to truly be “proactive”, it is these sorts of forecasts that should be anticipated.

Kevin Jones

Using OHS images

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“A picture is worth a thousand words” rings as true for OH&S material as anywhere else. But it’s also true that using images ineffectively or including bad quality ones can detract from the quality of what you’re trying to achieve.

I ain’t no graphic designer or expert photographer, but I’ve spent a bit of time trying to pay attention to what works when using images and how to improve the quality of photographs I use in reports and the like.   This article is about the stuff I’ve learnt.

I use a few “rules” on image used in reports or any other OH&S documentation.  Here are me main ones:

  1. An image has to do work. If it’s not informing the reader I don’t use one. That is, images just to make a report pretty isn’t much chop.
  2. Make the image as big as it needs to be to inform the reader.  I’d rather have a page taken up with one image and a bit of supporting text vs. squeeze in an image that is so small the viewer has trouble working out what is depicted in the image.
  3. Use images to illustrate a piece of equipment that has a workplace-specific name.   I always defer to finding out and using the name a bit of equipment is commonly known as in the workplace.   But I recognise that it can be a mistake to assume that everyone in the workplace knows the commonly used name.   A photo of it puts the identification beyond doubt.
  4. Don’t muck about with a paragraph to describe a location in the workplace.   A photo of a location (with the shot including a readily identifiable reference point) is much more efficient that a written description.
  5. Photos of recommended PPE (with necessary explanatory text) is much better than just relying on a written description.  One thing to be very aware of though is that if the PPE is also identified through colour coding (e.g. gas cartridges for respirators) be aware that colour rendition may vary with different computers.  Always back up a shot with a clear written description if colour coding is part of the way to identify a recommended piece of PPE.

And here is some stuff on gear and techniques I use. I’m well short of being an expert photographer, but I do enjoy it as a hobby.

My two main bits of gear are a digital video camera (Sony handycam) and a digital SLR (a Canon 40D that I love to bits).

The video camera is obviously a useful tool when I want moving footage of a work process.  Comes into it’s own when putting together a wee movie and playing it back to a client to go over risk control options.  I run a Mac and iMovie is perfectly adequate for putting together movies.   Whack in some subtitles over a few frames as a prompt for hazards or risks and Bob’s ya uncle.  But the Sony has another handy use.

When the things I want to shoot don’t demand high quality images and I’m wanting to avoid stopping during an inspection to take notes, I use the vid camera to shoot and describe the issues or location via voice.   That is, the camera is used to capture images and to take dictation on the issues. Trick with that is to keep camera movements slow.   Next step is back at the desk. Download the movie to iMovie.   Take any notes needed from the audio track and then take still grabs from the movie clips.  The still grabs from the movie are what make it important to keep movement of the camera slow and steady.  Too fast and still grabs will be blurred.

My Sony handycam is about 6 years old.   It doesn’t have a still shot option. More modern ones do.  That can be a substitute for lifting still grabs off the actual moving footage of course.

For high quality images, or in situations where I can’t expect good lighting I use the Canon 40D with a relatively small focal length range in the zoom lens fitted to it (24mm to 85mm).  The “point and shoot” digital still cameras obviously can produce wonderful quality images.  But it was a work gig that revealed their weaknesses.

I was at a workplace a few hours drive from home and the manager was accompanying me during the inspection and photo shoot.   I had my partner’s very good “point and shoot”.

Every shot had to count.   There were no options for a repeat visit.  Plus I felt I had to shoot quickly, just by virtue of having the manager there; didn’t want him to be wasting time.   The point-and-shoot was too slow to manually over-ride auto shots. And I often needed to do that to make sure lighting or details I needed were what I wanted.

The higher end digital still cameras are better designed and laid out to allow quick manual over-ride, or at very least allowing manual setting of critical settings like “film” speed and depth of field.

And here are some simple tips on how to improve the quality of photographs, particularly in the context of how to get good control over what information you’re trying to convey in the shot.   I’ve included some “f’rinstances” to illustrate the tips.

In OH&S World we’re mainly shooting “documentary” images.   We are after objective informative images.   This is much harder to do well than it might seem.   Our wonderful eyes and brains do a huge amount of work to make what we want to see clearer.   It’s important to appreciate the camera doesn’t do that. What it sees you get.  Practice shooting objectively. A good practice thing is to crawl around your car and shoot something you want to concentrate on.   Check the shots and see how simply pointing and shooting will often miss the key bits of information.   I try and constantly remind myself that a photo is like a good bit of writing.   I ask myself, what is the critical bit of information in the scene I’m looking at, and how can I make sure that bit is a feature of the shot?

This is where the trend to make us camera buyers believe we can have a camera make a clever shot is a bit of a deception.  It’s important to understand the core principles like depth of field, rules of composition and proper use of lighting to make sure a shot conveys the information you want it to.  That is, all the traditional skills in photography are important.

Here are some examples of what I’m on about.  The examples are hand-held shots of bits of me car. I used my Canon 40D to take the shots in various modes, including full auto.

“When you think you’re close enough, take a step forward”.

Can’t remember where I read this tip about how important it is to get close to the important feature of your shot; it’s a beauty to keep in mind every time you’re composing a shot.   It’s also a tip that reminds us that our brains can trick us into thinking we have nailed the important feature.  Our brains tell us, “Good, that looks clear”, and when we look at the shot later we often find the important feature is much less prominent than we originally thought when he pushed the shutter button.   What’s in the frame is what really matters and bigger is better.

Shocker top - wide viewShocker top - close up

Let’s say we are interested in the type and quality of the top anchor point of a shock absorber.   The shot on the left shows it’s still there, but not much more.   Zooming in with control over focus point makes the key information bold.  Notice how this also throws bits around the main feature go out of focus; a good way to make your main subject even more prominent.   This business of what is or isn’t in focus in front and behind the focus point is called “depth of field”, it’s an important photographic principle to have a basic working knowledge about.  Your camera manual will have stuff on depth of field and there are plenty of web sources on how depth of field works. (The manual is that wee book you got with your camera.   You know, that thing you, like all of us, just scanned through when you first got your camera!)  I also plonked the close-up shot in a basic photo editor program (in this instance the bog-simple iPhoto, and straightened the original shot up to make it easier to view).  Having a basic digital photo editor and management program can be a real life-saver. Start with a simple one.  Once you get the hang of it, it’s likely you’ll see all the benefits and will be tempted to use more advanced ones like Adobe Lightroom or Aperture.  And be assured; even the pro quality ones are not that tricky to use.

Full auto shooting isn’t really that handy

It can be a temptation to have full auto shooting “rusted” in position on your camera photo mode dial.   Fine for the happy-snaps of barbies and parties, not so good for documentary type photography. Full auto mode is not your friend: the “P” mode is.  Lots of cameras have this priority mode as a selectable option; it allows you to manually adjust some of the most critical shooting controls like depth of field (via aperture control – also called “f-stops”) while leaving the camera to make it’s own decisions about other less important adjustments.

Muffler - autoMuffler - focus and AV control

Here is an example of how full auto can be a real pain. I’m up close to the muffler.   Let’s say our interest is in the general quality of the critical welds in front of the muffler. (PS: It’s a diesel, hence no catalytic converter.)   The shot on the left is with all guns blazing – full auto.   Notice how the flash creates distracting shadows and the auto selection of focus points mucks up the key information needed.   The shot on the right was done in “P” mode. I had control over focus, depth of field and whether I wanted to use flash or not.  (I’ll say more about use of flash in the next tip.)  With only a very small amount of knowledge I was able to quickly decide what settings to use and the result is a sharper depiction of the 2 front welds.   Many cameras have selectable spots in the viewfinder or viewing screen that locates the primary focus point or points.   This can be handy, but like full auto, the convenience can be a bit of a trap.  I find that at least half of the time when doing work shots (and even fun stuff) it’s better to focus manually. It allows me to compose the shot for maximum effect , a very important thing.  I can put the key feature where I want it in the viewfinder frame and decide what other things I need in the shot to make the shot do all the work I need it to do.   That is very tricky and time-consuming to do when the camera is making it’s best decision on what needs to be in focus.  A good habit is to look at each part of the scene separately; that applies whether you are peering into a conventional viewfinder (which I tend to prefer over using my LCD viewing screen) or looking at your larger LCD viewing screen.   By systematically looking all over the different bits of a framed scene we can be sure we don’t have irrelevant or distracting things in the frame before shooting.

Natural is best – flash with caution.

Natural light is always better than a light generated by a flash, unless you’re in a studio with total control over the light and colour effects.  A flash will tend to flatten out shapes, distort colour reproduction and mostly just look awful.  As a general rule, set your camera to flash off: it’s a good way to look to ways you can use other settings to make best use of naturally available light, and that includes shots in what may seem to be dark situations.

Cable boot - full autoCable boot - no flash high speed + compositionUni joint - flashUni joint - natural light

The top line of shots have the cable boot as the primary feature.  The shot top left is the full disaster.  Auto on, flashing blazing away, no real concern for composition.   The flash has slammed a huge shadow on the top part of the image, the colour of the boot is not natural (and a bit of reinforcement wire has found it’s way into frame, distracting a viewer).  The shot to it’s right was done in P mode.  I used a high ISO setting (the higher the ISO the more light the camera sensor absorbs, with big shots that will come with a degradation in detail.  For smaller sized shots that degradation is not very noticeable.)  In the absence of flash the cable boot is seen in its more natural colour.   No severe shadows also means the viewer is able to put the cable boot in context with the rest of the bits around it.   As an aside, notice how the top right shot is up in the upper third of the frame?   This exploits the weird principle of “thirds”.   It was discovered a long time ago that by dividing an image into thirds, vertically and horizontally, we generate natural points of interest. Don’t ask me why, it just is.   This is nice for arty-farty shots, but it’s also real good for documentary shots.   It means we have multiple points in a frame where the viewers eye will want to go to naturally.

The bottom 2 shots are focusing on the universal joint in front of a differential.  These are trying to show the “flattening” effect of a flash. Both shots are pretty much in focus.   But see how the left one, by filling all shadows detracts from the form of the universal joint?   If it’s important to depict the shape of something it will almost always be vital that you shoot without the flash.  A simple tip when in dark situations, apart from cranking up your ISO speed to shoot, is to exploit the nice thing that light travels in straight lines.  Depending on the size of the thing you’re trying to photograph of course, nothing more than a bit of reflector can direct some useful amount of light on your subject.   With the car bits topics I’ve used here, an A4 white sheet of paper on a clipboard would be all I needed to almost double the amount of available light.  None of the shots I’ve used were done using that technique but I think you get me drift. Experiment with it.   Grab a clipboard with an A4 white sheet on it (even with print on it, it will be better than nothing).   You’ll be surprised at how much extra light you can direct onto a subject with that simple reflector. Keep it as close to the subject as you can.

There is one less commonly known use of a flash that can be very handy.   That’s when shooting outside in daylight.  We can’t always control where we shoot from and that may mean that the thing we want to feature has the sun behind it.   If the thing you want to shoot is in shadow and you can get within the effective range of your flash (usually only about 3 or 4 metres in daylight) turn your flash on and check the shot.  This is called using “in-fill” flash.   With a bit of experimenting you’ll see that by keeping a good distance away from your subject the harsh flash light will disperse a bit and you’ll get a nice bit of light to lessen harsh shadows.

Well, that’s it.  To sum up the photography bit:

  • Semi-pro digital cameras give you more control over your shot, but a “point and shoot” can be made to work well – if you learn it’s abilities and experiment.
  • Closer and bigger is best with images.
  • Take control over depth of field, focus points and ISO speed as a bare minimum. It lets you make the important features of your shot stick out, and that means your image works harder to inform the viewer.
  • Your on-camera flash is more likely to ruin a shot when you are relatively close to your subject. However, using a flash outside in daylight can work in your favour when used as “in-fill” light.

Col Finnie

SafeWork Australia releases six workplace statistical reports

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In early September 2009, Safe Work Australia released four national statistical reports.   On 19 October 2009 a further six in the 2005-06 stats series were released:

It is not possible to provide the executive summaries of each report in this instance but there were several issues of particular interest as listed in the media release that Safe Work Australia:

  • “part-time workers in the retail trade industry recorded a frequency rate of injury nearly double that of full-time workers
  • agriculture, forestry and fishing workers experienced the highest rate of injuries, with 109 injuries per 1000 workers
  • employees in the construction industry recorded a similar rate of injury to self-employed workers. Similarly there was little difference in rates of injury between those working on a contract and those not working on a contract
  • young workers (15 to 24 year olds) in the manufacturing industry recorded an injury rate 44% higher than the corresponding rate for young workers in the Australian workforce as a whole, and
  • transport and storage workers aged 35 to 44 years recorded an injury rate 75% higher than the rate recorded by all Australian workers of this age.”

Kevin Jones

Evidence of heart attacks due to secondhand smoke

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According to a media release from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) in the United States, a new research report says:

“Smoking bans are effective at reducing the risk of heart attacks and heart disease associated with exposure to secondhand smoke, says a new report from the Institute of Medicine.  The report also confirms there is sufficient evidence that breathing secondhand smoke boosts nonsmokers’ risk for heart problems, adding that indirect evidence indicating that even relatively brief exposures could lead to a heart attack is compelling.”

iStock_000008022857Large match lowThe report claims to have undertaken “a comprehensive review of published and unpublished data and testimony on the relationship between secondhand smoke and short-term and long-term heart problems”.  It has looked at “animal research and epidemiological studies” and “data on particulate matter in smoke from other pollution source”.

The study was sponsored by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which has summarised the report on a new webpage.  SafetyAtWorkBlog has been unable to obtain a copy of the full report.

The report is unlikely to help those safety professionals who need to control the hazard of secondhand smoke in the workplace.  Legislation has been in some States of America for over thirty years identifying where people cannot smoke and around the world the major control measures are moving smokers outside and encouraging them to quit.

The IOM report seems to confirm the seriousness of the issue but provides no new ideas for control.  This would be like producing a new research report that says mercury, lead or asbestos are harmful – like duh?

US OSHA provides some data on legislative interventions on tobacco smoke but new information on this hazard in the workplace setting is thin.  The US Cancer Institute issued a monograph in 1999 defining ETS as

“…an important source of exposure to toxic air contaminants indoors. There is also some exposure outdoors in the vicinity of smokers.  Despite an increasing number of restrictions on smoking and increased awareness of health impacts, exposures in the home, especially of infants and children, continue to be a public health concern.  ETS exposure is causally associated with a number of health effects.”

More recent monographs are available at the Tobacco Control Research site.

The UK Health & Safety Executive provides this specific environmental tobacco smoke advice

  1. Employers should have a specific policy on smoking in the workplace.
  2. Employers should take action to reduce the risk to the health and safety of their employees from second hand smoke to as low a level as is reasonably practicable.
  3. Smoking policy should give priority to the needs of non-smokers who do not wish to breathe tobacco smoke.
  4. Employers should consult their employees and their representatives on the appropriate smoking policy to suit their particular workplace.

The status of workplace smoking and secondhand smoke in most westernised countries seems to have plateau-ed or perhaps got to the point where every control measure that is reasonably practicable has been done.

That people continue to die directly and indirectly from tobacco smoke illustrates the flaw in the reasonably practicable approach to safety legislation and management which is “so what do we do next?”  Perhaps the attention being given to nano particles may help but is it the particulates in secondhand smoke that is the problem or the fumes themselves? Regardless, a new approach is needed to control this persistent workplace hazard.  Shoving smokers onto the streets and balconies is not enough.

Kevin Jones

What Trevor Keltz gets right

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Madonna has just released another greatest hits CD.  Trevor Kletz has done similar in releasing the fifth edition of “What Went Wrong?” He admits that almost all of the content has appeared elsewhere.  It’s been almost 20 years since I had to read Kletz’s books and articles as part of working in a Major Hazards Branch of an OHS regulator in Australia.  Not being an engineer, the books informed me but were a chore.  This is not the case with the last edition.

Kletz has two parts to the book.  The first is a collection of short case notes recording as he says

“…the immediate technical causes of the accidents and the changes in design and methods of working needed to prevent them from happening again”.

The second discusses the weaknesses of management systems.  In short, the book reflects the expanding nature of safety management over the last forty years.  Kletz may be from the Olde School of safety engineers (he is 87 years old) but often one needs a fresh perspective on a profession and coming from a person with such extensive experience, Kletz is worth listening to.  Thankfully, he does not sound like a grumpy old man.

Kletz notes that process industry lessons seem to fade after a few years.  In my opinion this may be an effect of the transience of modern careers where corporate memory is often fragmented.  It may also be due to the shipping of manufacturing and process industries off-shore and the establishment of large complexes in countries with different (lax) safety requirements.  It may also be due to a corporate performance regime where maintenance is not valued or understood as that supports long term thinking rather than quite returns on investment.

Regardless of the cause, the short-term memory makes the need for such books as this as more important than never.

In anticipation of his look at management systems he notes in his preface, that management systems need maintaining and, more importantly, reading.  In some circumstances, too much faith is placed in the system (I would refer to the Esso Longford explosion as an example).  Kletz says all systems have limitations.

“All they can do is make the most of people’s knowledge and experience by applying them in a systematic way.  If people lack knowledge and experience, the systems are empty shells.”

What Kletz does not write about is human error because, as he says, “all accidents are due to human error”.  He avoids making the weak logic jump that the behaviouralists make where, “if all accidents are due to human error then fix the human and you fix the hazard”.  Kletz devotes a whole chapter to his classification of human errors as

  • Mistakes;
  • Violations or noncompliance;
  • Mismatches;
  • Slips and lapses of attention.

This edition of “What Went Wrong?” provides a baseline for the safety concepts we have come to accept but also a critical eye on safety and manufacturing management shortcomings.  The style is very easy to read although occasionally repetitive.  Thankfully the process technicalities are avoided unless they relate to the technical point Kletz is making.  I found part B hugely useful but it is recommended for all safety professionals.

Kevin Jones