Wellness programs need to fit business management 2

Recently Corporate Bodies International circulated an annual membership offer (no costs listed in this link) to its Australian market.  It said:

“Employees and their families have access over to over 300 live webinars and exercise classes, monthly health videos, posters, online GP, Dietitian and Exercise Physiologist appointments – from anywhere in the world, just to name a few of the inclusions. All of this for little more than the cost of a cup of coffee.”

It is the last line that requires a bit more consideration as no program only costs just what marketers claim.

Business cartoon about lowering insurance costs by having fit, exercising employees.

The CBI offer included a link to a flyer about its Healthy Bodies Subscription which involves $A1,800 per annum for companies with less than 100 staff to about ten times that for a much larger number of staff. The services extend from webinars, posters for toilet walls and newsletters to “GP2U Online GP Access” which involves:

“Diagnosis, immediate prescriptions, specialist referrals and medical certificates, all from the convenience of the office. Designed for critical workers or the executive team, minimising work disruption”.

For an organisation that has no occupational health and safety (OHS), Human Resources or well-being resources, purchasing a package like this may be financially attractive but it can also lock one into a pool of medical advisors that could generate conflicts later on with, for instance, insurers, legal representatives, project partners and others. The provision of “immediate prescriptions” may also be a benefit that needs some further investigation – prescriptions by who? For any medication?

A company needs to decide whether it wants to be in total control of the medical services it may offer, or may need to offer, to its employees and whether subscriptions are sufficiently responsive to meet the fluctuations that occur with any workforce and with the business’ profitability.

It is also worth considering whether employees can choose to opt-out and continue being diagnosed or treated by their own physician.  How would such a corporate subscription allow for this worker right?  If the worker opts out, would this be seen as being disloyal? Would this reduce the number of workers covered by the subscription and affect the overall cost to the company?

Owning the welfare program for one’s own employees allows a company to shop for the best deal and to tailor the program to match the fluctuations of the company’s needs. Would this cost more than the subscription fees in the table above? Almost certainly, IF the subscription cost was the only cost involved.  It is important to look beyond cost to operating costs like management control, good governance and due diligence – to the broader context to which occupational health and safety law is pushing Australian companies.  These factors are rarely costed and are frequently overlooked, probably as a consequence of not being measured.  It is a shame that such “intangibles” are accepted as part of economic assessments but are dismissed in relation to OHS.

Kevin Jones

The OHS challenges presented by penises, testicles and hotel sex 2

Every profession and occupation has its weird stories, the “you wouldn’t believe it” stories.  Occupational health and safety (OHS) is no different.  There are stories of a degloved penis, complications from piercings in private places or chemical burns on private parts that reinforce the important of washing hands thoroughly after touching chemicals. Such stories can be funny, to those not associated with the incidents, but they also show some of the most difficult challenges to manage.

One true story that was written up in a medical journal in the early 1990s would be a fascinating case study in organisational culture, safety management, harm prevention and workers compensation if it happened today – the incident of scrotal self-repair.

Snopes.com is the best source of straight reporting on this incident that involved:

“An unmarried loner, he usually didn’t leave the machine shop at lunchtime with his co-workers. Finding himself alone, he had begun the regular practice of masturbating by holding his penis against the canvas drive-belt of a large floor-based piece of running machinery. One day, as he approached orgasm, he lost his concentration and leaned too close to the belt. When his scrotum suddenly became caught between the pulley-wheel and the drive-belt, he was thrown into the air and landed a few feet away. Unaware that he had lost his left testis, and perhaps too stunned to feel much pain, he stapled the wound closed and resumed work.”

The full article is well worth reading to understand the background and consequences of this incident. There are several OHS issues that are worth considering.

The man is described as a “loner”.  Many workplace have workers with such personalities and managers should continue to try their best to integrate such people into the workforce.  It can be an enormous challenge and making the worker in the case above less of a loner at worker may not have prevented the incident but inclusion is a major element of establishing a working and developing organisational culture.

There is also the issue of machine guarding that sounds likely to have removed the hazard of the pinch point.  The incident descriptions indicate that the pulley-wheel was not guarded. Even though the manufacturers probably did not anticipate masturbation in their operating manual, pinch points on conveyor belts have been a known hazard for decades.

Taking up a point from the previous paragraph, many readers would say that the worker was doing the wrong thing with the wrong piece of machinery in the wrong place and they are right. It is implied from the Snopes articles that this was a common practice for this man and that it was not the masturbation with the drive-belt that caused this incident, it was the worker’s inattention and contact with the pulley-wheel.  Guarding would likely have prevented this incident just as it would have prevented entanglement of a loose sleeve.  We don’t know the type of machine, the make or have a copy of the manufacturers’ guidelines but machine guarding is highly regulated and pinch point incidents are far less frequent than in the past.

Many companies have policies and processes that rely on “just culture” and trust and respect.  How would those values be applied in the case of a traumatic masturbation-related injury?  How would the company process any action in such a circumstance that alsi maintains the worker’s dignity?  Is it possible to maintain a dignity when the injury may become the talk of the company?

A more recent case in Australia illustrates the magnitude of the challenge in relation to sex-related injuries.  In 2007 a public servant who was required to stay overnight in a hotel room had sex with a male friend and was injured when a light fitting fell.  Her claim for workers compensation when to Australia’s High Court in 2013 where the decision to deny her workers’ compensation was upheld.  The ABC reported that the Employment Minister Eric Abetz referred to the Court’s decision as a “victory for common sense”. Maybe but the to-ing and fro-ing through the court system indicates that there was an argument to be made.

That case became commonly used as an example of how workers compensation and, by association, OHS had become silly, and how entitlements can be abused.

Whether the issue is a penile piercing being caught on a pallet or a light shade falling on your face during sex, these are injuries that have occurred during work activities and that need addressing, usually, by safety advisers and managers, and most will be able to do this competently.  However such injuries can seriously test a company’s safety management system and, perhaps more significantly, the culture of that company.  Who of us can guarantee that an injured worker will receive the respect that they deserve, regardless of the cause of the injury?

Kevin Jones

Citi’s 2015 Safety Spotlight shines light on some OHS areas Reply

[This article from 2015 was previously password-protected and is now available to all]

Recently a couple of media outlets referred to a report produced by Citi into workplace safety issues related to the top 100 companies on the Australian stock exchange.  The report, “Safety Spotlight: ASX100 Companies & More” (not available online), provides a useful insight to the ASX100 companies’ safety performance but Citi also undertook several thematic analyses which are curious but not always as helpful as expected. (A blog article on a previous Citi report is HERE)

In support of some of the statements at a recent seminar after the Australasian Reporting Awards, Citi found that shareholders and investors now expect to read about occupational health and safety performance in company reports and that the omission of OHS mentions seems suspicious.  Safety can be an indication of the quality of a company’s management and these findings could be a major boost for the issue of OHS accountability and transparency.

The Spotlight report records fatalities for the ASX100 companies since the 2005 financial year and over that time the annual fatality rate has declined however the report acknowledges that recent issues may indicate past statistical deficiencies when one considers the increased attention on work-related suicides and work-related vehicle incidents.

The benefit of having fatality figures, brief descriptions and trend data for each company in this report shows the amount of attention to detail Citi has applied for this report.  This data  is likely to be useful in deciding about investments but the use for safety professionals is limited, however OHS professionals are not the target audience.

Frequency Rates

It is useful to note that 94 of the 127 companies (Yes, it’s still called the ASX 100) reported LTIFR and/or TRIFR as indicators of safety performance. Citi acknowledges that TRIFR “may be a better measure of harm.”

The need for a consistent metric is shown in the report’s footnotes by the plethora of frequency rates.  A sample includes

  • All Injury Frequency Rate
  • Recordable Case Rate
  • Recordable Injury Frequency Rate
  • Recordable Case Injury Frequency Rate
  • Lost Workday Case Frequency Rate

Some of the titles may be exactly the same metric but even when looking at Annual Reports it is difficult to tell. Frequency rates are, largely, a lag indicator but even consistency in these measures would greatly help the comparison of OHS performance.

Thematic Research

The thematic research report areas for this year included

  • Developing vs Developed Country Injury Statistics,
  • Process Safety and Major Hazard Risk,
  • Safety and Executive Remuneration,
  • Workplace Impacts of Obesity, and
  • Western Australian Inquiry into FIFO (Fly-In, Fly-Out) Mental Health.

Some companies operate globally and safety data varies from country to country. Citi suggests that this may be due to differences in risk perception, the presence of workers compensation schemes, reporting consistency and different workforce demographics and fitness, amongst other factors. This variability affects the interpretation of global OHS performance statistics.

Major Hazards

On the issue of major hazards, Citi found that major companies are increasing their focus on process safety and major hazard risk but wondered whether investors could ask why these companies are acting now rather than years earlier when the risk levels were similar. This type of reaction after major incidents is common and is one of the major frustrations of the OHS profession.  Tragedy motivates change much quicker than leadership.

Recently a colleague mentioned their own frustration with safety professionals and academics who continue to use disasters such as Piper Alpha, Challenger and Three Mile Island, as illustrations of systemic failure.  The theoretical relevance is obvious but to most of the OHS students and graduates such events are of historical interest mainly as these occurred before many were even born.  It is useful to remember that even those children now in their teenage may be unaware of the events of 9/11 even though they may be aware of the consequences of that event.

Citi also makes the point that the measurement of personal safety in this industry sector can provide a false sense of security as it misses the major process disaster risk, a perspective borne out by others in the oil and gas sector.

Someone in Citi has been reading some of the recent work of Andrew Hopkins and others when it writes:

“Executive remuneration schemes may act against management of major hazard risk.”

Executive Remuneration

One section of this report that has generated a lot of attention concerns executive remunerations and how these are linked to safety. Most companies continue to rely on personal safety figures but Citi noted that at least four companies are incorporating safety leadership in this area.

The criteria used with safety as a remuneration factor, as with the safety performance metrics mentioned above, are messy and contradictory.  Some of the criteria used by Australian companies include:

  • injury rates,
  • reportable spills,
  • risk reduction actions on time,
  • personal initiatives and leadership, and
  • occupational health exposures.

Four companies made no mention of safety influencing CEO remuneration!

Obesity

One of the more curious analytical themes was Workplace Impacts of Obesity.  The Citi report highlights this through references to solid data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Australian Bureau of Statistics and others but suggest no OHS solutions other than noting the increase in wellness  and healthy lifestyle programs.

This section is an odd inclusion as it is difficult to see how these statistics could affect the decision making on investments.  The issue is more a quality of life issue that has curiosity value rather than any corporate indicator.

Mental Health FIFO

This topic is a more logical fit to the Citi report as many of the resource companies that use FIFO labour are also part of the ASX100.  More specific OHS information is available from the recent Western Australian inquiry report and through watching the current Queensland inquiry but, as Citi notes, the crucial factor in this sector will be the governments’ responses to the inquiries.  One of these is due in mid-September 2015 and will be a good gauge of the Federal Government’s attitude to the prevention of harm from a psychosocial matter.

In Citi’s advice to investors it mentions potential changes in the following areas:

  • Rosters, Construction and Contractors,
  • Reporting of Suicides, and Inclusion of Mental Health in WHS Requirements, and
  • Accommodation Facilities.

The OHS challenge of this labour practice in this industry sector is to apply a core OHS principle – to eliminate harm, at the source – companies may need to restructure their operations, and change fundamental perspectives on the use of labour. Given that many suggest that the recent mining boom in Australia has ended, the issue of FIFO mental health has diminished except that as the mining labour force has entered other industry sectors, the consequences of FIFO may manifest in the new occupations or, at least, affect a worker’s productivity.

The latest Safety Spotlight is a fascinating document, particularly as the data covers a decade from 2005 and is not limited to Australian safety events but includes global incidents under the “control” of Australian companies.

It is hoped that Citi avoids the temptation of rolling this decade across the next Spotlights (if there are any) as anchoring the data in 2005 allows for trend data across a range of economic fluctuations such as booms and the Global Financial Crisis.  This will be doubly important as, as Citi mentions several times during the report, safety may be directly affected by the varying fortunes of the ASX100 companies.

Kevin Jones

 

Underwear, sand, sun and safety culture 2

In October 2016 the Centre for Sustainable HRM and Wellbeing at the Australian Catholic University (ACU) will be welcoming Professor Wayne Hochwarter. Although, according to ACU, he is a “leading international authority on organisational behaviour research, his name was new to me.  ACU advised that Professor Hochwarter has experience in the following areas:

  • Employee entitlement
  • Worker engagement
  • Job stress
  • Employee health and wellbeing
  • Social influence
  • Workplace politics
  • Abuse work behaviours
  • Accountability
  • Leadership-focused motivation strategies

Wayne HochwarterIt is easy to see why I wanted to meet him. I was lucky enough to interview Professor Hochwarter recently while he is still in Florida.  Our conversation is below.

SAWB: Do you think that your area of study will translate from the US to Australia with minimal adjustment?

WH: Of course there are always adjustments when you look at different contexts. I am confident, though, that the things that I study have important and practical implications/applications across and countries. Also, Australian values often are similar to those of workers in the United States. It is my intention to make statements that are as impactful as possible regardless of the country being study.

In sum, the adjustment will take some effort, but I look forward to outcome.

SAWB: How influential are cultural factors on workplace mental health?

WH: Culture can represent a lot of different things. It can reflect the level of participation at work, the shared organizational stories and symbols that employees agree upon, or simply the level of cumulative passion that employees have their jobs and company. Apple has a different culture than GM and Berkshire Hathaway. There are different cultures across departments here at Florida State University that vary widely.

In terms of national cultures, I would argue that there are certain risk factors that influence the amount of stress and anxiety that employees at work experience, make sense out of, and react (good and bad).  It has been well documented that tension predicts a decline in mental health when perceived as excessive. Tension, in some manifestation, would seem to be the conduit to decreased mental health.

As an example, culture can adversely influence mental health when it causes unmet expectations to be particularly burdensome.  Part of the American culture is to continue to push ahead with the hopes that your efforts will lead to more rewards and a better life for you and your family. Although these hopes have been met by many, significantly more have come to the conclusion that their goals and expectations will remain unrealized in the current economic environment.

In terms of a direct effect of culture on your mental health, native Americans suffer depression at a rate twice that of white Americans. Also, Russians report higher levels of depression than those in Australia and New Zealand.

To answer your initial question, cultural factors can certainly be influential on worker mental health.  Because stress experiences and reactions are unique to each individual, the bigger questions are “why”, “when” and “how”.

SAWB: How significant is it that well being and health insurance is part of the employment contract in the US but not in Australia?

WH: In the United States, health insurance represents a necessary condition for employment in most cases. Frankly, most people really don’t spend much time thinking about their health insurance until it is needed. Metaphorically, health insurance is like men’s underwear. It’s important, allows one to go about the rest of the day with some level of protection, and makes people feel uncomfortable if absent. It’s a given for most workers – employees feel entitled to it.

I don’t think Americans typically consider health insurance and well-being as complementary components of work experience. Companies in the United States have made great strides in promoting wellness.  Historically, it has not been a focal consideration and has only become topical when the costs of poor health and mental fitness were brought to leaders’ attention.

But we obviously have a long way to go. Our society is currently experiencing more stress and higher obesity levels than at any other time in history.  Reasons for these realities are many

Although having health insurance may allow employees to worry less about costs associated with illness and injury, I don’t think it tangibly influences work on a day-to-day basis.

SAWB: Does this change the motivators for organisations in wellness?  Do Australian companies need to provide a different evidence set for workplace wellness?

WH: My understanding of the Australian insurance/wellness system is minimal [but] in America, though, there are contrasting messages that are sent to employees. They are told to work late and weekends (either on-site or at home) to get projects done, and also told that they need to participate in some type of exercise program.

They are told that the more nutritious meals, but that are not able to go to the cafeteria to enjoy them due the fact that three people are now doing work done by five the past.

Wellness in many American organizations is something that is discussed but not fully embraced, supported, and rewarded. It is also one of the first things to go when belts need to be tightened. Truth be told, the American workforce is not considered too terribly healthy by most employers and physicians, and research bears this out. This is pretty sad.

SAWB: A lot of wellbeing/wellness programs work impose social factors on the workplace, often ignoring the workplace factors that create mental ill-health and stress. Do you differentiate between these two approaches or dispute the delineation?

WH: I completely agree. So my reward for having a crappy job is the opportunity to walk around the block and think about what a crappy job I have? Gee, thanks.

I am hopeful that I made some strides in this area by examining how workplace factors influence depressed mood at work. Getting a handle on depression, and other long-term metal disturbances is hard to get at via a survey and harder without MD after your name. Most people do research see mental health issues as an ingrained, genetic condition that is either there or it isn’t. I think everybody has mental health issues to some degree. People are insecure, people have lower levels of confidence than they should, people have learning issues that hinder their growth and development, and some people are simply more reactive to stressors or threats. Some people are just sad, and they don’t want to be.

If we are ever able to fully understand mental health issues, both in life and at work, we need to recognize and adopt a holistic approach. Typically, it’s not just “one thing”.

In my opinion, employee mental health will be one of the top three most critical issues facing organizations in the years to come.  Unfortunately, I have little faith that companies are either prepared for, or capable of, making positive steps.

SAWB: Organisational structures and job design have been identified as major factors in workplace well being, yet the majority of research seems to focus on the individual’s coping skills and resilience. Should the OHS/HR focus be on organisational change or individual change for the most sustainable benefit?

WH: Most employees couldn’t describe their structure or job design. I can’t. Also, structure and design both tend to be distal to most employees. They really don’t care what was developed at the company headquarters 300 miles away. They can’t influence it (or contemplate it), so they hit the delete key.

When conducting research, therefore, academics tend to shoot for things that everyone experiences, and can offer opinions about, while at work. Most people can tell you how they cope with anxiety, whether they push ahead, or give in when things get rough. We can measure it, so we measure it.

Also, grant money is much more accessible if research is conducted at the individual level rather than macro perspectives.

I think it is irresponsible to adopt an either or mentality when addressing health and well-being at work. It is not always organizational factors that are the most harmful, just as it is not always the case that individual perspectives warrant the most attention. Just as organizations are different, so are the people working there. Looking at the waterfall from as many angles as possible will result in the most accurate depiction of its beauty and potency. The same can be said of social interactions at work – both positive and less desired. This is tough research to conduct.

The problem from an academic standpoint is that we go into organizations with a preconceived notion of what is going on with no idea of what realities exist. “My research looks at X…”. Maybe the company is X-less. This is a problem…physicians don’t remove gall bladders without a series of examinations beforehand. So we try to hammer a nail into a bucket of water. Good luck with that one.

SAWB: Do you believe that HR and OHS operate best as separate organisational streams?  Can the two disciplines be blended? Which of these options do you think provides the best outcomes for both workers and companies?

WH: In principle, they are best understood as complementary and important components of an employee’s quality of work life.  In practice, the company needs to do what is best for its employees. In the US, HR departments are drowning in work, restructurings, and layoffs/mergers – often facing these daunting tasks with a shell of the staff they used to have.

Thrusting an additional burden on them would be considered criminal by some.  They just can’t do it, they just don’t want to do it, they just don’t care about it. They are thinking of one thing – Friday.

Again, assuming that they are best combined or separate in all instances is a narrow perspective. It’s not a matter of how it is conceptualized, the overarching focus should be centered exclusively on the development and maintenance of employee long-term health and well-being. What Tim needs is probably not what Tammy needs. Nonetheless, we throw a tarp over everyone and wonder why employees are less than grateful.

SAWB: A lot of research and change strategies in the areas of OHS and HR occur in large corporations. How important is it to research in the small-to medium-sized enterprise sector?

WH: Academics tend to focus on larger organizations for research settings for a variety of reason – the biggest one is “publish-ability”.  I can’t get an article in a decent journal if I am assessing the coping habits of seven beauticians working in an upper-east side hair salon.

In reality, studying smaller sized organizations makes both academic and practical sense. Academically, I have a much better chance of understanding how those seven beauticians experienced stress and how they manage to make sense of their world and cope accordingly. What can I learn from 1100 computer salespeople fill out a four-page survey? Not much, really.  Sometimes a richer understanding trumps a more “surface-y” one.

Practically speaking, more people work in small and midsize companies and in larger ones. So, you are talking about a huge chunk of working people who often have unique opportunities and challenges as a result of the size of their employer.

I wrote something that ended up in the Wall Street Journal a few years back that talked about bullying at work. Basically, what I found is that employees in larger companies could hide from the bowling whereas those in smaller companies could not. This may not sound like much, but it really is a big deal you are the one being bullied.

I try to take advantage of every chance I get to visit or conduct research in small and midsize companies. They are also easier to work with and they really are interested in what is found and how it can impact real change.

In these companies, real change can actually take place. Apple? General Motors? Not likely and certainly not as expediently as in smaller firms.

SAWB:  Although Australian trade unions represent only 19% of Australia workplaces, this rate is higher than in the US.  How important is the cooperation of the trade union movement to improving workplace health and safety?

WH: In the United States, very few employees equate representation and health and safety.  Relative to what was going on years ago, people simply do not consider their jobs to be physically hazardous. I have several family members in the olden days that lost fingers and limbs at work (mostly working in printing presses in Chicago). Our blue-collar level of employment is much less now that even 20 years. As a result, unions have begun to emphasize other potential hazards like stress, treatment at work, and protecting off-work time for employees.

For example, unions are emphasizing paternity leave, which would have been scoffed at in the past.

Overall, unions can have a distinct role on health and well-being.  However, it is not in the ways emphasized in the past. It is through quality of life issues, the assurance of equitable, fair, and humane treatment, and maintaining job status in increasingly volatile and unpredictable work settings.

SAWB: In one of your research papers (“Examining the interactive effects of accountability, politics, and voice”) you talk about voice behaviour.  How can proactive voice behaviour contribute to, or strengthen, organisational culture? (OHS is very excited about the importance of safety culture at the moment).

WH: I define organization culture simply as the “agreed upon ways of best doing things around here so everyone can flourish”.

NASA is a great company; I give talks there every year.  I love the people there and they are beyond good to me. It wasn’t great about 30 years ago when the space shuttle blew up over the skies of Florida. Why? Someone knew the O-rings were faulty but failed to step up.

On the surface, a culture of openness and unfettered participation sounds lovely. This is lip service in many companies despite the recognized benefits. Most upper-level employers don’t want the rank and file to have so much influence on things, and having say in what goes on (even if it only to voice ideas) is considered influence. The “do what we tell you to do when we tell you to do it” mentality still dominates.

Employees, fearful of losing their jobs with little hope of finding one that is suitable, decide that silence is better than a soup line.

The companies moving forward are the ones that let the most influential do the most influencing with little pride, envy or fear of looking inept.  Universities are bad about this.

SAWB: How important is it to communicate your research findings outside of academia?

WH: Any professor worth his/her salt must readily admit that he/she has an ego larger than the Great Victoria Desert – and mine is bigger than the Sahara. Sahara plus the Gobi for that matter.  Actually, I just want to see how many people misspell my name…

All kidding aside (and I’m kidding), I don’t know why anyone would hoard something that may have some impact on someone or something. Truth be told, I have made leadership and organizational development consultants lots of money over the years.  They take my studies on the road and convince others that they can fix the foibles that have been reported in my research.

I have heard from hundreds, maybe thousands, of people, who have been generous with their praise for the issues that I have been fortunate enough to bring forward. Many have gone to his/her boss with the research with an accompanying “I told you so” message. Often, something positive has resulted, even if it is to initiate a conversation

A long time ago, I decided to quit reading other people’s knowledge and generate my own.  It has been a lot more fun, a lot less boring, and a great opportunity to meet some incredible people. I’ve looked at bad bosses, parent guilt, hurricane stress, politics, the seven deadly sins, supervisor narcissism, layoff, how people think about threat at work, and proactive approaches to coping.  Yes, the world has become my laboratory.

I pride myself on examining only the issues that influence the daily lives of ALL workers.

Finally, I’m in the teaching business.  Generating knowledge for those outside the classroom is equally important to me. Poets let others read their efforts. Physicians hope to change health by sharing their findings. Literature professors publish their works.  Why shouldn’t I? I’ve never worried about people stealing my ideas.  I find it flattering.

SAWB: Some organisations in the US require all research to also produce a “Research-To-Practice” document in Plain English so that research can be easily understood and applied by the layperson.  Are you supportive of this requirement?

WH: Certainly when applicable.  There are times when the findings of research should be shielded from society/lay persons, as is the case with defense-related studies. There are other examples when findings disseminated to society could have potential safety and health implications. If research has shown that one in a million patients with a rare disease respond favorably to a certain drug, a mother with a child suffering from said ailment may do whatever is necessary to get the drug. These are obviously rare cases that do not capture most of the research.

I get numerous publications that describe the research accomplishments of others across my university and others.  Most of the time, I don’t get past the first paragraph – I don’t understand it and it has no bearing on me.

We should not be flippant about the way we craft our discussions either. Credibility may be jeopardized and harm potentially evoked if great care is not taken when explanations are provided.

My advice…simple is okay!

I think that an ability to explain what you are doing as a professor to your grandma, for example, will make you a better scholar in the long-run.

Professor Hochwarter seemed an intriguing person and more so when I asked him what he was most looking forward to by living in Australia for a while.

WH: The smell of the wind.

The shape of the buildings.

The smile of the locals at the coffee shop.

The thoughtfulness of a stranger who will give me directions to a museum.

Meeting the undergraduate students.

Meeting the graduate students.

Meeting the doctoral students.

Helping the undergraduate students.

Helping the graduate students.

Helping the doctoral students.

New colleagues

New friends.

The sand.

Someone telling me that my research is a pile of crap.

Someone telling me that my research isn’t a pile of crap.

Learning, learning, learning.

Kevin Jones 

Is it time for on-the-spot fines in Victoria? 5

Showing the red card concept for bad business practice, exclusion or criminal activity

The public comment phase of the Victorian Government’s Independent OHS Review into WorkSafe Victoria has concluded and most of the submissions are appearing on the review’s website. Some submissions are extensive, others are simply a whinge.  One topic did not get much of a mention in the 40 submissions currently available – on-the-spot fines.

The topic was mentioned by Vasalia Govender (IROHS004) and the Victorian Branch of the Australasian Meat Industry Employees’ Union (AMIEU) (IROHS016).  Govender wrote that

“It has been 32 years since the OHS ACT has been introduced and for this reason there ought to be stronger emphasis “on the spot fines” and prosecutions.”

AMIEU stated that

“The AMIEU would support the use of ‘on the spot fines’ or ‘penalty notices’ as used by SafeWork NSW and Workplace Health and Safety Queensland as long as this did not replace prosecutions.”

WorkSafe Victoria has long had the legislative capacity to impose on-the-spot fines, often referred to as infringement notices, but, apparently, not the will or perhaps the political support.  With the current OHS review focussing on enforcement, it would very surprising if on-the-spot fines were not mentioned.  In some ways the time is right for the introduction of this type of penalty but then it has been close to being introduced previously.

According to the SafetyAtWorkBlog archives in 2000 I attended a

“breakfast meeting … where WorkCover minister spoke about the proposed new legislation involving on the spot fines for employers.”

This was likely to be Bob Cameron during the afterglow of the Australian Labor Party coming to power in late 1999. Later that year at a Safety Institute of Australia conference WorkSafe’s Max Costello presented a paper in which he wrote:

“This paper was prepared in February 2000, when changes in the enforcement approach in the form of legislative changes were being foreshadowed by the Minister for WorkCover. The Herald Sun of 23 February quoted the Minister as saying that “legislation would be introduced in the autumn session of parliament increasing the penalties for employers and individuals breaching the Occupational Health and Safety Act”. The article went on to speculate what the penalties might be. Other media reports referred to the proposed new offence of industrial manslaughter, and to the proposed introduction of infringement notices, that is, on-the-spot-fines.”

On-the-spot fines were discussed several times at the Central Safety Group in that year with WorkSafe’s Barry Durham stated such a fine was a certainty:

“Another enforcement tool to be introduced will be on-the-spot fines. These fines, or infringement notices, have been used successfully in other states, and provide WorkCover with a flexible enforcement tool.”

Also at the Central Safety Group, a representative of the Master Builders Association

“…was asked about the introduction of on-the-spot fines. He believes that the NSW experience was that many of the fines were for frivolous issues that devalued the process into the perception of fines as a revenue generation task. The MBA has had assurances from VWA that this would not be the case in Victoria.”

There was clearly an interest in infringement notices, particularly from the union movement, and such a penalty was mentioned by Chris Maxwell QC, apparently with enthusiasm,  in his 2004 review of Victoria’s OHS legislation.  Maxwell wrote:

“In 1998 the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission commissioned a report to evaluate the impact of on-the-spot fines on prevention outcomes in Australian workplaces. The report found that on-the spot fines were generally considered an effective preventive measure by inspectors and by most industry respondents.

Furthermore, the Industry Commission’s 1995 report relating to workplace health and safety recommended that all jurisdictions adopt a system of on-the-spot fines for breaches of OHS legislation. One obvious advantage is that infringement notices are capable of having an effect as soon as a breach of the legislation is detected. The penalty is directly and immediately associated with the breach.”

Unions like them.  A precursor to Safe Work Australia, the NOHSC liked them. The previous Productivity Commission, the Industry Commission liked them. Maxwell seems to have liked them. And there was apparently some evidence in support of on-the-spot fines. Richard Johnstone wrote this in 2003:

“This [position] is bolstered by the only Australian empirical study of OHS infringement notices (Gunningham, Sinclair and Burritt, 1998) which suggested that the positive impacts of infringement notices included the perception that a notice was an effective means of ‘getting the safety message across’; that it was treated as a significant ‘blot on the record’ which spurred preventive activities; and that it was an indicator for judging the safety performance of site/line managers (in some larger companies).”

But infringement notices still failed to appear. Somebody must not have liked them.

The Victorian Automobile Chamber of Commerce (VACC) submitted to Maxwell that:

“VACC argues that employers will be burdened financially with the introduction of infringement notices often referred to by industry as “on the spot fines” and there is no justification for change.” (page 35)

The Australian Industry Group also told Maxwell:

“It is stated in paragraph 472 that a NOHSC report into the impact of on-the-spot fines found that “… on-the-spot fines were generally considered an effective preventative measure by inspectors and most industry respondents.” However, AiGroup is unaware of any empirical evidence to support this contention. Prior to any action in this area, we should be certain it would have a desirable impact on behaviour.” (page 29)

Neither organisation seems to have been aware of the 1999 Gunningham, Sinclair and Burritt document and I can’t find it on line but a paper on the same issue was published by Dr Elizabeth Bluff in April 2004.  The paper, “The Use of Infringement Notices in OHS Law Enforcement” discusses on-the-spot fines and concludes that:

“Infringement notices are now part of OHS law enforcement in several Australian states and territories, as well as in New Zealand. In principle these notices have the potential to favourably influence OHS performance. However, it is difficult to draw firm conclusions about effectiveness in view of limited empirical evidence as well as the considerable diversity in existing schemes.” (page 12-13)

Potential but no proof.  Bluff also writes that

“The indications are that infringement notices are more suited to non-complex offences where the breach is clearly defined in law and the facts are easily verified. There is a challenge to define expiable OHS offences which are clear-cut and ambiguous but which also clearly have preventive value by virtue of a direct link to OHS risk control. There are reasons for regulators to be more cautious about applying infringement notices to offences involving decisions about ‘(reasonable) practicability’ or the adequacy of risk management processes.” (page 13)

The complexity of reasonable practicability seems to strike again.  It may be that the vagueness of compliance has reduced the opportunities, and certainly the clarity required, for inspectors to apply the infringement notices.

Victoria’s approach to on-the-spot fines has been curious.  It has had the authority to impose them but has chosen not to, even though the early indications were that it was going to happen.  There have been indications from other jurisdictions like New South Wales and New Zealand that such infringement notices have a legitimate place in any prosecution strategy.  It may be that the business lobbyists have had more influence than trade unions but OHS policy is formulated through a tripartite structure so one would think that the issue has been discussed and resolved, even though we do not know the details.

It is also odd that such an infringement notice did not appear in discussions about “red tape”.  There is an argument that an on-the-spot fine would be a reduction in paperwork and processing but such fines would, it seems, be predominantly applied to the small business sector, a sector which all political parties are afeared of upsetting, even at the risk of improving workplace safety.

But perhaps that is the sticking point.  Do on-the-spot fines improve workplace safety, or could the fines become just another cost of doing business instead of a catalyst for change?

Kevin Jones