Is consultation really a “two-way exchange”?

Talking about safety in the workplace is, by far, the best way to introduce and foster a healthy OHS environment.  OHS regulators in Australia have been pushing this for sometime.

A colleague of mine has pointed out an apparent anomaly in relation to consultation posted by WorkSafe Victoria on their website earlier this week.  In relation to Provisional Improvement Notices, WorkSafe says

“Consultation can still be said to have occurred even if:

* the duty holder does not respond to the HSR [Health and Safety Representative] in a reasonable time or at all.  In this case, the HSR can take the failure to respond into account before deciding to issue the PIN.  There does not have to be a two-way exchange – only the opportunity for this to occur;”

This sounds odd to me and I hope that one of the SafetyAtWorkBlog readers may be able to explain.

My colleague posed this question on the issue of consultation:

“If the duty holder generated an OHS issue and the HSR did not respond, would there still only need to be an ‘opportunity for this to occur’?”

It seems a far question when workplace consultation is supposed to be a “two-way exchange”.

New Work Safety Ads from Australia

Twenty years ago, I was at a FutureSafe conference in Sydney, Australia, where Eileen McMahon of WorkSafe Victoria showed a series of graphic ads.  The audience were impressed and roundly supported the use of such ads in their own States.

At the time confronting ads were de rigueur as road safety campaigns had been using the same technique for a while.  Ads from both government authorities won critical acclaim and many awards.

Confronting workplace safety ads recently ran on Canadian television to a mixed receptionWorkSafe Victoria has clearly adapted these ads and their concepts to the Australian circumstance in its campaign that was launched on Australian television on 5 October 2008.

 

WorkSafe Young Workers Campaign
WorkSafe Young Workers Campaign

The Australian ads have emphasised the  lack of information and induction provided to young workers.  Rather than having the incident victim talk to the camera, WorkSafe emphasises the confused thought processes of a young person in a bakery being unsure of how to operate a machine safely, a young man experiments with a nailgun, and a young person scalded in a commercial kitchen.

In The Sunday Age, WorkSafe CEO, John Merritt, said that the graphic content was to gain the attention of young workers:

“It’s confronting, it’s not pleasant, but young workers have challenged us to confront them with the reality of what happens…”

“The guts of this campaign is to say to young workers: for goodness sake, if you’re not sure about something, speak up.”

“”It was clear from the research that nothing else would have impact.”

Media reports make no acknowledgement of the Canadian campaign which seems a little odd given the similarities of the kitchen-based ad, in particular.

The challenge of this type of ad is to run it for just long enough to make an impact but not so long that viewers get “graphic fatigue” – particularly important for appealing to young workers.  This is also a lesson that should have been learnt from the original WorkSafe ads a couple of decades ago.  The combination of both a workplace safety campaign and road safety campaign using the same techniques limited the effectiveness of both.

There is no doubt about the validity of the safety risks in WorkSafe’s target market but it is vital that these ads be balanced with the more gentle and parent-friendly “homecoming” ads and the workplace inspector ads aimed at business operators.  All three should be broadcast over the same period in order to provide the broadest context and the one that reflects the reality.

 

WorkSafe Young Workers Campaign
WorkSafe Young Workers Campaign

Clearly, the WorkSafe ad campaign is intended to maximise the retirn on the advertising budget by generating media debate.  This was vrtually acknowedlged by John Merritt when he said

“There will undoubtedly be a conversation and a debate about that message.”

A danger with this tactic is that the ads become the story rather than people discussing the safety of young workers.  Let’s watch who supports the ads and who criticises.

OHS uniformity is looking unlikely

Michael Tooma, a lawyer with Australian law firm Deacons, has stated

“Despite the enthusiastic manner in which the harmonisation agenda has been pursued, and the appearance of progress in that regard, it is likely that the quest for uniformity in OHS laws across Australia will remain elusive.”

His reasons for this statement in a recent edition of Safety Solutions magazine (August/September 2008) are

  • The National OHS Review was set up to develop model legislation for implementation in each State jurisdiction;
  • Duty of Care is absolute in two States, Queensland and New South Wales;
  • “Reasonable practicable” is not applied in each State to the same extent;
  • The New South Wales right for unions to undertake prosecutions for OHS breaches;
  • Not each State has a legal forum dedicated to handling OHS prosecutions;
  • The level of enforcement of OHS law is inconsistent between States; and
  • The level of maximum penalty available.

Tooma is worth listening to for lots of reasons but principally he seems to be less wrapped up in political baggage compared with other OHS legal commentators.

Tooma seems to favour an industrial or OHS court because of the substantial jurisprudence that has been achieved through the New South Wales Industrial Commission.  I support the expansion of this type of court as NSW decisions, regardless of legislative differences, can be particularly useful is clarifying the most suitable OHS interventiosn for particular hazards.

He also says that enforcement must be consistent.  This is true or else, if given the chance, an employer could undertake certain hazardous tasks in the jurisdiction where enforcement or prosecution is less effective and active.

This relates, in a way, to Tooma’s last point on penalties.  An OHS offence in Victoria could lead to jail but in Tasmania, not.  A monetary fine of over $1 million could apply in some States with only $180,000 in another.

It seems that the fantasy of one OHS law for Australia will remain a fantasy.  The trick will be whether, after months of government review and hundreds of submissions, there will be sufficient consistency across the States.  The likelihood is that we will be slightly better off but still with State variations.  We have a little less red tape but red tape nonetheless. 

My question will be, was it worth it?

What does the government mean by “flexibility”?

Australian governments have all missed the solid, positive support that workplace safety can provide in pushing through useful OHS, and industrial, initiatives.  It would be a courageous employer who argued against any initiative that is intended to imporve the level of safety in any workplaces. 

The Deputy Prime Minister and IR Minister, Julia Gillard, reminded me of this when she spoke about the intoriduction of the government’s Fair Work Australia authority.  I have written elsewhere that the time is right for the Minister to also announce a “Safe Work Australia” authority which can arise out of ashes of the Australian Safety & Compensation Council. I would suggest that Safe Work Australia could also use the structure of the Workplace Ombudsman, have Comcare for the paperwork, establish a dedicated OHS stream in the justice system and use the moral authority of a new independent OHS Ombudsman.  This would be my mix for a strong, fair, independent and national OHS process for Australia.

In Gillard’s speech on Fair Work Australia though, she provided little hope of such an achievement.  This government continues to consider OHS as a separate discipline (or perhaps a subset) to Industrial Relations except when business accuses the unions of gaining IR advantage through OHS actions.  OHS could be legtitimately used to present consultation and consensus in a united IR strategy but there is little indication of that, indeed the gulf is widening. 

In Gillard’s speech on industrial relations she mentions “promoting workplace flexibility” as an important part of the platform.  This appears a couple of lines after a mention of “business flexibility”.  These are not interchangeable terms and seem to be included to soften the message, as there is no further mention, or expansion, of these concepts.

In HR and OHS terms we are looking at flexible work structures that can reduce workplace hazards, improve staff retention, increase career longevity and provide sustainable productivity.  Whether this is workplace flexibility or business flexibility seems to depend on which end of the management structure you come from but there should be no ambiguity in government statements on the issue of flexibility.  Then again maybe staff health, safety and welfare is only a distraction.

“Negligence” and salvation

SafeWork SA recently released details about the successful prosecution of MCK Pacific P/L (trading as Plexicor) over two injuries in a carpet manufacturing plant in South Australia that occurred in January 2006 and July 2007.

The company was fined a total of over $40,000.  The new management has been congratulated on its new OHS management program (to such an extent that it won a Safe Work Award in 2006) and for achieving a positive safety culture.

It’s a shame that the prosecution didn’t focus on the lack of a safety culture that had lead up to two injuries on the same machine at the same MCK Pacific plant both involving the trapping of a worker’s foot in exactly the same nip point.

Risk Assessment

According to the report from the SA Industrial Relations Tribunal a risk assessment had been undertaken after the first incident but the control measures were not undertaken:

“The recommendations involved re-wiring the machine and ensuring safe work practices were put in place. …… The defendant failed to act on the identified risk. Further there was no hazard identification or risk assessment done with respect to the particular issue of cleaning and maintaining the foaming press being the function Wilson was performing at the time he was injured.”

There are several issues raised in this prosecution that need discussing.  The first is that the company was able to save over $10,000 by “early guilty pleas, cooperation and contrition” assumably by the new management.  In other words, once you are caught, get an easy 25% deduction on the penalty by realising you’ve been caught and saying sorry.

What has happened to the previous management who allowed for a second injury from an unguarded machine 18 month’s after a serious incident?  Are those directors and executives excluded from managing a company unless they have had safety training?  Have they acknowledged that they were negligent?

Regardless of the argy-bargy over an executive’s personal accountability and what is a company’s “controlling mind”, this case seems to be a good example of business owners not being held accountable for their (in)action.  Once may be a mistake but twice is negligent.

It is also clear from the Tribunal findings that basic safety procedures were not followed and that workers were unaware of interlock devices.

“There was an isolation key but this was not common knowledge to all employees. Wilson and the other employees working on the machine at the time of the incident indicated that they were not aware of any lockout procedure. There was no documented lock out procedure with respect to the cleaning and maintenance of the machine.”

Following the second incident the company made substantial improvement:

Following the [second] incident … a lockout and isolation procedure was developed together with training for employees in relation to that procedure. Safe work practices were developed for all of the processes involved with respect to the foaming press. A space entry permit was required to be completed and signed prior to the entry of personnel into the press. Audible alarms were fitted. Hoses on the tool die were relocated to the front of the die which eliminated anyone standing behind the die and potentially out of sight of employees at the control panel.

Supplier Obligations

There is also a movement in OHS for contractors to meet the OHS standards of the commissioning company.  Plexicor lists the following companies as its clients – Chep Australia, Ford Australia, Holden, JC Decaux, Mitsubishi, Pacific Center Cyber Works, and Telstra.

In 2004, before the injuries mentioned above, Holden made this statement in its 2004 Community and Workplace Report:

“Supplier Management
GM’s Worldwide Purchasing Policy includes a number of practices that guide its suppliers in purchasing activities throughout the world. Suppliers and any goods or services supplied must comply with all applicable regulations or standards of the country of destination, including those relating to environmental matters, wages, hours, conditions of employment, subcontractor selection, discrimination, occupational health and safety and motor vehicle safety.” (my emphasis)

Holden doesn’t seem to have pushed this obligation with Plexicor.

Holden sets out its current expectations for its suppliers on its website.  One of the criteria, which seems a little contrary to well-resourced OHS management systems, is “Lean Manufacturing” – “the production of durable goods with a minimum consumption of capital investment, floor space, labour, materials, time and distance”.  Holden states that

“For Holden to be successful a a low cost producer of quality vehicles, Holden suppliers also must be committed to the lean ethic.”

Similar obligations are imposed by Ford Motor Company through its joint venture with Futuris Automotive (the new owners of Plexicor and the defendant in the SA IR Tribunal case).

The Magistrate was certainly optimistic about the safety future of Plexicor under the tutelage of Futuris.  If only Futuris had bought Plexicor earlier.

Workplace depression approaches are too narrow

Further to other SafetyAtWorkBlog posts concerning Ms Paula Wriedt’s sacking, Ms Wriedt has issued a statement expressing her disappointment at Premier David Bartlett’s decision.

One comment from a newspaper columnist struck me as odd but worthy of note.  The columnist said that Paula Wriedt’s public statements have followed the line pushed by beyondblue, a depression support and lobby group.  I have had no dealings with beyondblue but note that newspaper articles often end with “For further information on depression contact…..” similarly television news reports.

beyondblue has been a spectacular success in self-promotion and, hopefully, increasing awareness of depression.  In the context of the Premier’s decision on Paula Wriedt, David Bartlett contacted the chair of beyondblue (and former Victorian Premier) Jeff Kennett, prior to his decision.  The Weekend Australian newspaper reported

“I have not taken this decision lightly; in fact, decisions don’t come any tougher than this,” Mr Bartlett said. He received support from former Victorian Liberal premier Jeff Kennett, the chairman of depression support group Beyondblue.

After speaking to Mr Bartlett, Mr Kennett told The Weekend Australian he believed the decision was a very tough call for the Premier, but added: “When you balance up all his responsibilities, the correct one. It might just be what Paula needs to start rebuilding her health.  That is, she doesn’t have other ministerial responsibilities now and she can now focus more directly on her recovery.”

beyondblue does admirable work and has acheived much but it is dominating the discussions on psychosocial issues in the workplace.  It is difficult for other groups to raise matters that are just as relevant to the workplace, if not more so, such as occupational violence, stress, dignity at work, and so on.

We are not yet clear on all the circumstances of Paula Wriedt’s suicide attempt, and we may never know.  We do not know if work stresses or private stresses caused her self-harm but that is not necessarily the point.  Occupational health and safety long ago left the confines of the workplace and controlling workplace hazards, particularly psychosocial issues, needs a bigger canvas.  There must be an approach that assists the individual in work and non-work contexts. 

Some countries and States are trying this through work/life balance initiatives but the approaches are usually skewed to focus on interventions on the individual rather than looking at the social structures.  In OHS we look at the “system of work” to determine the most effective interventions.  To affect true and lasting change, we must apply the “system of living”.  We must be careful not to over-emphasise the individual and be distracted from the cultural initiatives.

Politician who attempted suicide is “sacked”

In early August 2008, Paula Wriedt, Tasmanian MP, tried to commit suicide.  Six weeks later the Tasmanian Premier has sacked her from Cabinet, according to an ABC report.

Premier David Bartlett denies this is a sacking, more a “withdrawal of commission”.  He says it is for the good of the government and for the good of Ms Wriedt.

Ms Wriedt was asked to resign her Cabinet position but the Premier says she was “not in a position to make such a decision”.

An audio interview with the Premier put to him that his decision was “despicable” and “reflects the way the state deals with people with mental health problems”.

Ms Wriedt’s suicide attempt had already raised discussion on the workplace issues of stress, compensation, workloads and mental health.  The listener’s question in the audio interview will reflect the majority of the community’s response to the Premier’s decision and Premier Bartlett will have a difficult time explaining how his decision was for Ms Wriedt’s benefit.

Ms Wriedt’s current situation and future career decisions will provide an interesting illustration on how the public service and Tasmanian politics manages an employee with mental health issues, particularly when, on OHS matters, the public service should be exemplars.

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