Work-related suicides in another militarily-structured organisation

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Australia’s emergency services have had several reviews into accusations of workplace bullying, harassment, mental health or suicides. Melbourne’s Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) is the latest to undergo this type of review but the United Firefighters Union (UFU) is not happy about the release of the final report, which was due out today.  If the final report is consistent, a dysfunctional safety culture will be found.

According to a report in the ABC news website, the review was

“…headed by clinical psychologist Dr Peter Cotton, who wrote a similar report for Victoria Police.” [link added]

SafetyAtWorkBlog readers may recall that an earlier article on psychologically healthy workplaces included this mention of Dr Cotton

“[Dr Chris] Stevens is not blind to the shortcomings of some of the trends in the area of psychologically healthy workplaces. He agreed that the modern workplaces and workers are subject to over-diagnosis of mental health issues and paraphrased some of the work of Dr Peter Cotton who estimated around 30% of workers compensation claims for psychological injury relate to low morale and not psychiatric diagnosis.”

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Smart drinks may be dumb safety

Puzzle head brain mental health symbol idea conceptFatigue and impairment are two of the most difficult workplace hazards to address.  These are further complicated when they are contextualised in workplace mental health.  So it is concerning when an entrepreneur produces a product that is meant to help address mental fatigue but that may also mask occupational health and safety (OHS) actions that are required to provide truly sustainable workplace improvement.

The Australian Financial Review (AFR, $), on 12 December 2016, reported on the establishment of a “smart drinks” company called Shine+.  AFR reporter Misa Han, wrote:

“Shine+ is one of many companies who are trying to take advantage of professionals and students who take drugs in order to enhance their performance and brain functions.”

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Tinnitus can be a safety hazard

I have tinnitus. There I have outed myself along with 18% of men and 14% of women, according to a research report* from Hearing Research journal published recently. For those unfamiliar with tinnitus it is a persistent buzzing or ringing in one’s ears usually caused by exposure to loud noise. It is relevant to occupational health and safety (OHS) in a number of ways:

  • It needs to be considered in issues of communication
  • Tinnitus can be distracting
  • Tinnitus may be a symptom of poor noise management practices at work.

Human Ear PainThe research study conducted by David Moore and others was focusing on “lifetime leisure music exposure” so workplace noise is mentioned in the report only in passing.

It is common that unless a worker is deaf or seen signing, the default assumption is that everyone’s hearing is undamaged. The research data above shows that the assumption is false.

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Research into management perceptions of safety – Yeah But…..

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In August this year Safe Work Australia released “Perceived Levels of Management Safety Empowerment and Justice among Australian Employers”.  The justification for the document is to better understand leadership culture in line with the Australian Work Health and Safety Strategy 2012-2022. It is always useful to understand how business owners and employers see workplace safety as only when we understand their “way of seeing” safety, can we effectively engage in improving occupational health and safety (OHS) but this report could have been so much more.

20161116_091247The perception survey on which the Perceived Levels report was based is an application of the  Nordic Occupational Safety Climate Questionnaire (NOSACQ-50) which is “a tool for diagnosing occupational safety climate and evaluating safety climate interventions”.

The Perceived Levels report found

  • Small business operators felt they didn’t display management safety empowerment and management safety justice enough.
  • The level of activities in these area varied in different industry categories
  • Most employers felt they displayed these activities frequently.
  • Employers with apprentices and young workers felt they displayed these attitudes more.

“Management safety justice” may seem like an odd concept as it is relatively new to Australia and there is very little information available online to clarify.   What might help is the list of questions that was asked in the survey on this topic:

  1. The business collects accurate information in accident investigations.
  2. Fear of negative consequences discourages workers here from reporting near miss incidents.
  3. The business listens carefully to all who have been involved in an incident.
  4. The business looks for causes, not guilty persons, when an accident occurs.
  5. The business knows when to report incidents to the health and safety inspectorate.

The survey results are presented as positives and knowing perceptions is important but the percentages of management safety justice seem alarmingly low for OHS obligations that have existed for decades.  For instance

“Just over half (59%) of employers indicated that their business collects accurate information from incident investigations, although small businesses were much less likely to indicate that they collected this information (54%) compared to employers in medium and large businesses (95% and 94% respectively). ” (page x)

So 41% do not collect information from incident investigations!!  What’s not clear is whether investigations occur at all.

The potential for this type of survey seems good and it would be great to see it carried out more frequently or more broadly and over time so that perception changes the effectiveness of OHS initiatives can be measured.  That is unlikely to occur through Safe Work Australia (SWA), however.

SWA told SafetyAtWorkBlog that it has no plans to repeat the perceptions of work health and safety survey.

OHS people often talk about “work as perceived vs work as done”, acknowledging that planned works are often different from how the work is performed in reality. The SWA report addresses the former but there is no intention to try to verify those perceptions.  SWA advised SafetyAtWorkBlog that

“…to do so would be very challenging from a methodological point of view.”

A major element of OHS management is verifying the reality to the perception, the “work as done” to the work “as planned” through procedures, work instructions and safe work method statements, for instance. Many companies apply a rigorous system of audits, assessments and inspections to verify legal and operational compliance.  Some are beginning to undertake safety culture assessments over time. The benefit to the Australian business community of showing how compatible leadership culture on safety is to the application of safety could have been substantial.

The weight given to this perceptions report needs to be considered carefully as the limitations are identified very early in the document. For instance, the response rate to the 2012 survey was low and the data cannot be said to be representative of the Australian community. Safe Work Australia (SWA) told SafetyAtWorkBlog that

“we cannot be confident that the information is representative of the whole population”.

This Safe Work Australia report provides a glimpse into managerial perceptions but little more. Safe Work Australia does provide other more substantial reports from which there is often more to learn.  One such report, from May 2011 – “Motivation, Attitudes, Perceptions and Skills: Pathways to Safe Work” provided these findings, amongst others

“Commitment to work health and safety as a desirable characteristic of workplaces is strong among those who work in them.Commitment to work health and safety and individual efficacy does not translate into consistent adherence to safe work practice: Talk does not match action.

Talking about work health and safety is essential to impart understanding, but it needs to be accompanied by institutional structures that allow broad participation and that consistently mainstream safe practices.

A key element in talk and action is cooperation among managers, workers, work health and safety authorities, and unions. These actors are interdependent and each is needed to enable the effectiveness of the other. The inverse is also true. Each has capacity to undercut the effectiveness of the other.

Workplaces underperform on safety when management does not put safety first for its own sake (managers don’t walk the talk) and when participation and communication about safety are not consistent and institutionalised: In these circumstances individuals ‘close down’ as active learners and participants of safety.

Social demographic groups did not differ markedly in this report but two consistent trends were observed. Those who are most dismissive of authority while expressing concern about safety and reporting negatively on the safety of their workplaces comprise a disproportionately large proportion of younger respondents and respondents from smaller workplaces.”

Curiously, the Motivations & Attitudes report was not referenced in the employer perception report.

Research relies on replication to validate original research and it is very disappointing that Safe Work Australia cannot replicate this survey. But SWA does have the capacity to build on these survey results and provide a more detailed analysis of these perceptions, often from its existing resources, publications and reports, as seen from the Motivation report quoted above.

OHS benefits enormously from literature reviews that pull together similarly-theme research into an assessment of the current state of knowledge about workplace safety topics. The Perceived Levels report would have benefited greatly from placement within a literature review on managerial perceptions on workplace safety.  It would have also been useful for a more detailed discussion of the assessment themes of “management safety empowerment and management safety justice”.  These concepts are new to Australia and could have been discussed independently and to provide an Australian context.  SafetyAtWorkBlog has been critical of the importation of Scandinavian (and US) concepts to Australia in the past as the socioeconomic structures of Scandinavia are very different from the Australian.

Safe Work Australia should be congratulated for trying something new and it is hoped that someone in Australia continues this work.

Kevin Jones

No one is hurt, so there is nothing to see

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When talking about workplace health and safety there is almost always questions about why one type of workplace hazard is given more priority than others.  This is most common in discussing the neglect of mental health and psychosocial issues in comparison to incidents that result in physical Night photo of Houses Westminster Bridge and Big Ben, Londoninjury or death.  The reasons given are almost always social ones, external to the workplace. A commentary in The Guardian newspaper for 1 November 2016 by David Conn adds another reason.

Parts of the English community have been calling for an inquiry into the “battle of Orgreave” which occurred in 1984 during the miners’ strike.  This call was strengthened following the findings into the Hillsborough disaster and the cover-up by police. Orgreave campaigners were given hope by statements from the UK parliamentarian Therese May, upon becoming Prime Minister.

On 31 October 2016, the Home Secretary Amber Rudd told Parliament that no inquiry at all will be held into the event at Orgreave over which protesters were taken to Court in a prosecution that fell to bits after police evidence was found to be “unreliable”..

What is most pertinent to OHS is this comment from Conn:

“Rudd declared there was not a sufficient basis for an inquiry, partly because nobody died at Orgreave, as if this is the bar now being set for whether wrongdoing should be held to account.” (Emphasis added)

Rudd’s original statement said this:

“Despite the forceful accounts and arguments provided by the campaigners and former miners who were present that day, about the effect that these events have had on them, ultimately there were no deaths or wrongful convictions”

The Orgreave campaigners accepted that no one died on the day of the incident but that did not seem to be the point of the campaign.  The allegation is that the conduct of the police generated unnecessary harm.  Lives were ruined, families broken.  The campaign was for justice.

Rudd establishes a moral benchmark that only fatalities generate official inquiries.  Mental health and the impact of traumatic events get a lower billing.  This reflects a similar approach to workplace incidents and harm.  Broken legs get more attention than broken heads yet it is fair to say legs heal faster.

Fatalities, in some ways, are easier to manage because there is no disputing that death has occurred, only how and why.  Trauma, mental illness, psychosocial problems are more complex as the illness themselves are often disputed or, at least, the extent of harm is disputed.  Such psychosocial conditions also have a greater potential to reveal uncomfortable organisational truths such as poor management, poor leadership, exploitation, incivility, disrespect and abuse.

The U.K. Government venerates its political leaders but continues to show poor leadership in areas that could extend political careers (let’s acknowledge that motivation) as well as restoring faith in the political process, which is suffering badly around the world, and providing comfort to its citizens.

Governments are shy of inquiries, particularly independent ones, for many reasons, including cost, but they miss the fact that even though inquiries provide findings, it is often the exposure that provides greater benefit than the list of recommendations in the final report.  This is evident from many of the continuing inquiries into child sex abuse by church leaders and others.

Governments, safety regulators and businesses need to accept that psychosocial hazards and incidents have as much merit for investigation as do physical injuries.  Ignoring this perpetuates the harm and compounds the inequity and injustice which impedes resolution and the continuous improvement that society expects and OHS legislation requires.

Kevin Jones