Why isn’t safety and health a continuum in a worker’s life?

Several years ago I attended a safety seminar hosted by Seacare.  Maritime safety is not part of my “brief” but safety is, and I was seeking alternate perspectives on my specialist area.  Seacare conducted a session where the treatment and management of an injured worker was work-shopped from incident to return-to-work.

It was the first time I had seen a panel of experts deal with the life of a worker across the injury management continuum.  The session showed the necessity to communicate across several disciplines and to always keep the focus on the injured worker.  I had never seen a better example of risk management in relation to an  employee’s welfare.

If only the real world was as organised.

WorkLife Book Covers 003Work/life balance in Australia is skewed towards those workers who have young families or a role as a carer.  This is due to work/life balance evolving from the feminist and social concepts of the 1970s and in response to the increased number of women in paid employment.  Barbara Pocock sees these matters in the 1970s as themselves a reaction to the “male-dominated employing class” that, in one exampled, believed that 3 month’s long-service leave was more important than maternity leave. (p212, The Work/Life Collision)

Work/Life Balance Origin

(Wikipedia has a peculiar article on work/life balance that has some interesting points and reference links but then undoes its good work by relying on a couple of major sources and many of them are commercial consultants.  That the Australian work in this area is not referenced, indicates a major deficiency.  Please note that the concept of balancing work life and non-work life existed well before “work/life balance” was first used.  SafetyAtWorkBlog would point the concept’s origin to around the same time as Australia’s introduction of the eight hour day in the mid-1800s or even earlier with Robert Owen in the UK calling for a 10-hour day.)

WorkLife Book Covers 005In the 2000s the emphasis remains not on work/life balance but work/family.  As a result, work/life balance will remain an issue handled in the management silo of human resources and being seen as relevant to a lifestage of an individual rather than the individual themselves.  There is also an inherent gender bias that could be minimised if the silo was removed.

The Seacare workshop illustrated for me that an injured worker is managed by different silos throughout their rehabilitation.  Wherever possible the employer outsources this management to experts in OHS, trauma counselling, medicine, physiotherapy, return-to-work coordinators, and other specialists.  The common element through all of these silos is the individual and that person’s health.

OHS & Work/Life Conflict

WorkLife Book Covers 001Occupational health and safety has a big advantage over work/life balance in that it focuses on the individual first.  Employers must provide for the health and safety of the worker and, by and large, employers get the safety obligation right.  This part of the process has long-established practices based principally on engineering solutions – stopping things falling on a worker, stopping the worker falling into machinery, stopping the inhalation of toxic dust – effectively “blue collar” solutions to “blue collar” hazards.

The mental health of the worker was not a big concern.  This is partly because in most of Australia, legislation only ever related to health and safety, and rarely to welfare.  Where welfare was a legislated consideration for the management of workers, the social context of the worker was acknowledged myuch earlier and work/life issues began to grow.

The regrettable element of this evolution was that “health” remained a narrow workplace definition instead of embracing the “welfare” or mental health of the worker.  If health had been supported by a definition that included welfare in all Australian States’ OHS legislation, the mental health needs of workers and the social contexts of worker management would have been discussed much earlier and in parallel.

Work/Life Balance Awards – A Missed Opportunity

An example of the divergence and the need, in my opinion, to reintegrate work/life balance and occupational health comes from some correspondence I have had with the organisers of the National Work/Life Balance Awards in the Australian Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR).  Until very recently, these awards were called the National Work and Family Awards.

WorkLife Book Covers 004DEEWR includes in its structure Safe Work Australia, the organisation responsible for monitoring OHS across the country.  It seemed odd to me, from the big holistic picture, that DEEWR has not included Safe Work Australia in the judging panel for the 2009 Work/Life Balance Awards.  DEEWR advised me that it believes the OHS experience of two of the judging panel, the Australian Council of Trade Unions and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, was sufficient.  Perhaps but why not draw on the OHS expertise of one’s own staff as well?

It also seemed odd that one organisation would conduct two national awards programs – the National Work/Life Balance Awards and the Safe Work Australia Awards.  DEEWR advised me that

“The [National Work/Life Balance Awards] recognise organisations that are outstanding in achieving positive outcomes through the implementation and communication of work-life balance policies, practices and initiatives which meet the needs of both the employer and its employees. The Safe Work Australia Awards focus on OHS more broadly and recognise businesses and individuals for their outstanding efforts in OHS and for making safety a high priority in their workplace.”

If the Safe Work Australia Awards focus on “OHS more broadly” why not have one set of awards that acknowledges both the work and social contexts of employees?  This is harder to answer when

“Applicants for awards must consent to an assessment to determine whether they have complied with the Fair Work Act 2009, the Workplace Relations Act 1996 and any relevant state or territory legislation, award or other industrial instruments” [my emphasis]

This would surely include the OHS legislation of each State and the Commonwealth.

DEEWR does not involve any of the state OHS regulators in the awards process.  The judging panel does not analyse the workers’ compensation premium awards rates of award contenders.  State regulators could surely provide a useful perspective as it is mostly under their jurisdictions that businesses are prosecuted for OHS breaches.  Worker’s compensation premiums are used by all regulators as a major (sometime the only) indicator of safety performance and for targeting of enforcement programs.  The judges of the National Work/Life Balance Awards do not.

OHS professionals and return-to-work coordinators acknowledge that the non-work life and mental health of workers are important elements in regaining a fully-functional employee.

DEEWR made the decision to rebrand the awards to Work/Life instead of “work and family”.  This does not reflect the complex interrelations of the social and individual contexts of the health and safety of individual workers.

DEEWR is coordinating the reforms of laws into both OHS and workers compensation.  The Australian Government is working on legislative harmonisation across all legislative jurisdictions in workplace health and safety.  These OHS laws are likely to extend employer obligations well beyond workers to the public and those potentially affected by work practices..

However DEEWR is missing a major opportunity to set the agenda for the future by acknowledging that the impacts on an individual of the work life and the home life should be managed across the social and employment disciplines.

Kevin Jones

The images included in this posting show some of the many terrific books dealing with, or mentioning, work/life management.

New Work/Life Research

There seems to be new institutes and academic schools popping up regularly over research into the issue of work/life balance.  Recently one of the oldest and most prominent of the institutes, the Centre for Work + Life at the University of South Australia, released new research data.AWALI--full cover

The latest Australian Work and Life Index (AWALI) was released in late July 2009.  The executive summary identifies several important issues relevant to OHS:

“Three years of data about work-life interference in Australia tell us that many employees experience frequent interference from work in their personal, home and community lives, many feel overloaded at work and feelings of time pressure are also common and growing.”

“Work hours are central to work-life interference….. Many Australians are a long way from their preferred working hours and the 2008/09 economic downturn has not made any difference to the incidence of this mismatch.”

The work by Barbara Pocock and others at the Centre is characterised by recommendations for improvements rather than simply describing a situation.  In this data the researchers say

“Our AWALI reports over the past three years suggest that employers and public policy makers can help workers deal with work-life pressures.  This involves improving the quality of supervision and workplace culture, controlling workloads, designing ‘do-able’ jobs, reducing long working hours and work-related commuting, increasing employee-centered flexibility and options for permanent part-time work, improving the fit between actual and preferred hours and increasing care supports.”

It is obvious from these comments that OHS professionals need to work hard on these matters to create, or maintain, their workplace safety cultures.

Kevin Jones

Workplace bullying possibly increasing

A United States report draws a parallel between increasingly difficult economic situations and an increase in workplace bullying.   This video report is lightweight but is a recent airing of the issue with a different approach.

The angle taken in the story is that of a “pink elephant” that women are just as likely to bully their workmates as men are.  Some of the speakers in the video try to relate female bullying to issues of female empowerment but bullying is more often a reflection of personal nastiness than a social movement.

Bullying received increased focus when workplace culture emerged but rather than a gender issue, our increasing intolerance for bullying is coming from a broader cultural movement than just through the workplace.

The video report originated through research undertaken by the Workplace Bullying Institute, an organisation that has existed for sometime and has very recently upgraded its website.

Kevin Jones

Latest Australian OHS Statistics

Below is an edited summary of the findings from the latest compendium of statistics issued by the Australian Safety & Compensation Council.  The stats relate to 2006-07 primarily but with some comparative data from 2000-01 onwards.  The full report is available for download as is a media statement from the Council Chairman, Bill Scales.compendium200607-cover

132 055 serious workers’ compensation claims in 2006-07  = to 14 claims per 1000 employees or 9 claims per million hours worked.

Men accounted for 68% of all serious claims

Incidence rates for male employees almost twice that of females

There were 9 claims per 1000 employees aged 15-19 years, which increased to 17 claims per 1000 employees aged 60-64 years.

“The Manufacturing, Transport and storage, Agriculture, forestry and fishing, and Construction industries had incidence rates substantially above the national rate of 14 claims per 1000 employees.”

The occupational group with the highest incidence rate of serious claims was Labourers and related workers (39 claims per 1000 employees).

Transport workers and some others had the second highest rate with 29 claims per 1000 employees.

The majority (73%) of the serious claims involved injury or poisoning (95 910 claims)

The remaining 27% (36 145 claims) were disease related.

The most common injury (41%of all serious claims leading to a serious claim was Sprains and strains of joints and adjacent muscles.

Fractures and Open wounds (8% of all serious claims )not involving traumatic amputation were the next most common injuries

The most common diseases were:

  • Disorders of muscle, tendons and other soft tissues (7% of all serious claims),
  • Dorsopathies – disorders of spinal vertebrae (6%), and
  • Mental disorders (5%).

23% of all serious claims involved the Back. Hand (13%), Shoulder (9%) and Knee (9%).

Manual handling mechanisms (Body stressing) were the cause of 41% of all serious claims, with: 

  • lifting objects (18%)
  • handling objects (15%)

The most common mechanism was Falls on the same level (13%).

Non-powered handtools, appliances and equipment represented 26% of all serious claims.

Over the period 2000-01 to 2005-06, the number of serious claims decreased 6% from 144 740 claims to 136 575.

“The Agriculture, forestry and fishing industry recorded the highest time lost from work of 4.6 working weeks in 2005-06 but due to the lower salaries in this industry, it recorded one of the lowest median payment amounts ($5100 in 2005-06 compared to the all claims median of $6100).  The highest median payments were recorded in the Mining industry ($10 400 in 2005-06).”

Compensated Fatalities

Preliminary data show that in 2006-07 there were 236 compensated fatalities = an incidence rate of 2.5 fatalities per 100 000 employees.

Of the fatalities, 91% were male employees.

Over the period from 2000-01 and 2005-06, the number of fatalities fell 21%.


The Construction industry recorded the highest number of fatalities (50).

Transport and storage industry = 45 fatalities (of which 31 were in Road freight transport).

Mechanism of injury or disease

A third of the fatalities (81) were due to Vehicle accident

33 deaths due to Long term contact with chemicals or substances,

19 due to Being hit by moving objects and

18 due to Being hit by falling objects.

Is there a Mars safety and a Venus safety?

A research paper released last month in Germany caught my attention even though it does not relate directly to research undertaken in a work environment.  

There seems to be an established train of thought that men and women choose to take risks based on some sort of gender criteria.

Alison L. Booth and  Patrick J. Nolen have published “Gender Differences in Risk Behaviour: Does Nurture Matter?”  They researched risk behaviour along gender lines in secondary education, a different sample choice to other researchers who mostly looked at their university students.  Booth and Nolen found

“…gender differences in preferences for risk-taking are sensitive to the gender mix of the experimental group, with girls being more likely to choose risky outcomes when assigned to all-girl groups.  This suggests that observed gender differences in behaviour under uncertainty found in previous studies might reflect social learning rather than inherent gender traits.”

Gender studies are fraught with ideological baggage and it is a brave person who chooses this line of study, as I learnt through studying sociology and Russian literature at university (but that’s another story).

The full report is heavy going for those with no sociology background but the research flags an issue that could be useful to pose to the growing band of workplace psychologists and culture gurus – what are the gender-based variations in unsafe behaviours in the workplace?

Could the available research mean different safety management approaches in workplaces with different gender mixes?  

When people talk about workplace culture, could there be a male culture and a female culture?  (We certainly refer to a macho culture in some industries)  In other words, is there a Mars safety and a Venus safety?

Workplace safety tries hard to be generic but has variations based on industry types.  Perhaps we should be looking more closely at the demographics of these types and varying our safety management approaches?

Kevin Jones

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