Jim Ward is hardly known outside the Australian trade union movement but many people over the age of thirty, or in the occupational health and safety (OHS) profession, may remember the person Esso blamed for the Esso Longford explosion in 1998. Just after the nineteenth anniversary of the incident that killed two workers and injured eight other, SafetyAtWorkBlog interviewed Ward about the incident but, more significantly, also about how that incident changed his world view.
For some time now Jim Ward has been the National OHS Director for the Australian Workers’ Union. Here is a long interview with Ward that provides a useful perspective on OHS while Australia conducts its National Safe Work Month.
[Note: any links in the text have been applied by SafetyAtWorkBlog]
SAWB: Jim, what happened at Longford, and what did it mean for you.
JW: So, on 25 September 1998, I got up out of bed and went to work, just as I’d done for the previous 18 years of my working life, at the Esso gas plant facility at Longford in Victoria.
There was nothing unforeseen or untoward about that particular day. But due to, as one judge elegantly described it, “a confluence of events”, it turned out to be the most significant day of my life.
Recently Huffington Post Australia posted a video about male suicides called “Men are killing themselves to be real men”. Many of the speakers talked about their experiences at work or with work. The video is highly recommended.
SafetyAtWorkBlog had the opportunity to talk with the Associate Video Editor, Emily Verdouw. Below is an edited transcript.
The Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC) indirectly acknowledged the ILO theme for World Day for Safety and Health at Work in its media release for International Workers Memorial Day 2017. The ILO was calling for more, and better, data on workplace injuries and illnesses. VTHC questioned the official workplace fatality numbers issued by the government. It stated:
“A VTHC analysis shows that in 2016-17 over 200 Victorians died as a direct result of Workplace injury or illness, although the government’s official tally for the year is just 26.”
This disparity needs to be discussed across jurisdictions because occupational health and safety (OHS) data has always been incomplete, a fact acknowledged by many government inquiries in Australia for many years.
When anyone dies, it is important to remember them and their relatives as well as those we did not know personally but who also grieve. Public recognition of deceased workers is a recent phenomenon, even though we have commemorated and noted industrial disasters for over a century. Memorials have always provided a symbolic focus for our attention and grief with the hope that these memorials motivate people to reduce the chances of a workplace death occurring to others.
But worker memorials need to be carefully considered and designed to be inclusive as Death visits all workplaces regardless of the religion of the workers, their ethnicity, the location of the fatality or the workplace conditions. On the eve of International Workers’ Memorial Day for 2017, it may be time to rethink the memorial to deceased workers in Melbourne, Victoria.
Australian workplace mental health advocates often seem to shy away from discussions of suicide, perhaps because suicides are not a regular occurrence at work or because work-related suicide remains stigmatised. To better understand this overlap between suicide and mental health, and the working environment, it may be useful to look at the Japanese experience where work-related suicides, specifically karoshi, seems to have occurred before the appearance or recognition of mental ill-health and depression.
Recently the BBC released a series of broadcasts and podcasts looking at mental health issues. The first episode discussed “Depression in Japan”. The whole series Borders of Sanity will be of interest to mental health students and professionals but the Japanese episode reinforces that the recognition and treatment of depression is not the same around the world. The appearance of depression in Japan is a very recent occurrence and shows the links between mental health and culture, particularly as it relates to the role of work, our place in work and our relationships with our bosses.
Japan has a unique approach to work and the relationships within work. Some of the practices have been exported to other countries as we have seen in companies like Toyota but the perception of workload, diligence, commitment and loyalty has some echoes in Western workplaces.
Karoshi has been reported on in the West many times before, often as a peculiar quirk of the Orient but the recent BBC podcast is less about suicide and more about depression and mental health. The West has a long tradition of psychoanalysis where stress, anxiety and depression have been defined, refined and integrated into our cultures. This is still in its early stages in Japan and the full podcast is a fascinating counterpoint to the Western perception of workplace mental health.