Formaldehyde risks of temporary accommodation

There is continuing concern in the United States about the thousands of claims of health problems by survivors of Hurricane Katrina related to living in trailers provided to them by the government. (A 23 July 2008 podcast includes a mention of this issue but the relevant information is within the first 3 minutes)  The problem is that residents were exposed to toxic levels of formaldehyde.

This may sound familiar to some Australian OHS professionals as similar claims were made over formaldehyde exposure in temporary housing for government workers who were participating in the Federal government’s indigenous intervention program.  The ABC reported that the government investigation found 

“department’s response to the complaints was slow and inappropriate given the seriousness of the health risk.”

An earlier report on this matter containing commitments to health and safety by the Minister is available HERE

The full report by Tony Blunn is available for download as is the relevant media statement by Jenny Macklin, the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.

Is the sun good for us or bad?

Exposure to ultraviolet light is a risk for outdoor workers, particularly, that need to be managed well.  The best way to manage this is a point of debate in OHS management circles but I thought the medical argument on skin cancers and melanoma was over.  Apparently not.

According to an article at BMJ Online, Associate Professor Scott Menzies says

“Sun exposure is clearly a major cause of this disease [melanoma]”.

Sam Shuster is not so sure.

“We need to know much more before we can balance the biological books on ultraviolet radiation, even if we can now close the chapter on melanoma.”

When you are discussing occupational safety with your occupational physician (assuming you have one) bring these articles to their attention so that any skin cancer management program you operate is as valid and robust as it can be.  In OHS, a contemporary state of knowledge is an important base.

OHS in the 1970’s

Matthew Knott’s article in the Australian newspaper (21 July 2008 ) included telling comments from  Barry Willis, a 64-year-old former maintenance worker at Amberley air force base.  The article says

“workplace health and safety was non-existent: open cans of chemical sealant were stored in the refrigerators where the men kept their lunch.”

I have been critical of the military in the past as they are usually well-sourced on OHS and often speak proudly of their approach to safety.  Yet just as with the BlackHawk Inquiry findings criticising the safety culture, Barry Willis saw no safety culture in the 1970s.

At the risk of sounding like an old grump, working in that decade was under a different set of cultural rules.  Modern OHS legislation was being considered by most Western jurisdictions and industrial diseases were coming to the fore.  In the early 1980’s I worked in industrial relations concerning award restructuring.  One of the first elements to be restructured was allowances, many of them accurately described as “danger money” – removing roadkill, working at heights, confined spaces and a range of other hazards.

It can be argued that modern salary levels incorporate allowances for hazardous work but the issue of immediate compensation for a dirty or hazardous job, hopefully, has had its day.

Sadly, for people like Barry Willis, the consequences of a hazard, known or discounted, continue and the struggle for acknowledgement and compensation continues.

Minimising stress hazards by managing better

Wendy MacDonald, from Latrobe University’s Centre for Ergonomics and Human Factors, discussed the possible breach of OHS legislation by the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s dismissal of the risk of working excessive hours by public servants, recently on ABC radio.

The podcast can be accessed HERE

By identifying the links between excessive working hours and the increase in cardiovascular problems due to stress, the report echoes other posts in safetyatworkblog but also adds a new dimension to the Victorian government’s WorkHealth strategy.  If the link of excessive working hours to stress-related conditions is proven, and I think the evidence is already there, then there is an obligation under OHS law to control the hazard at the source, to eliminate the hazard. 

I wait to see the WorkHealth publications that advise managers to reduce workload to “healthy” levels, to ensure that adequate leave is taken to ensure people are “fit for work” and that they cap working hours to a safe level.

Aircraft Cabins and Infections

According to a report released on 10 June 2008 by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, 

“passengers’ health is not greatly at risk through air travel and widespread infections are unlikely.”

On the cases that have been reported of infection, the ATSB says

“such transmission was primarily due to the crowding together of a large variety of people in a confined space, not specifically due to aircraft cabin conditions.”

It goes on to say

“Perhaps of greater concern is the opportunity for infection to spread in airport terminals, where passengers who are travelling to or from many destinations are gathered together.”

At the moment Qantas Airways has a reputation of being a safe airline, principally because its planes do not fall out of the sky.  But there is a further definition of a safe airline and that is one whose management actively minimises the risk of infections and pandemics both in the aircraft and the terminal.

Important lessons were learnt from the “dry-run” on modern pandemic from SARS but this focussed on the air traveller and the aircraft and did not include the airport terminal.  Perhaps as well as the safety airline, Australia needs to establish the safety airport.

Boy, web-conferencing is becoming more attractive.

Public Service Workload

At the moment in Australia there are political statements and arguments about the substantially increased workload that the newly-appointed Labor Government is placing on public servants. There are accusations that leaks have occurred from the public service as a protest to the long working hours that the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, expects.  Working hours that, it should be said,…

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Coroner Critical of OHS Regulator in Mine Investigation

In an AAP report on 21 May 2008, the Tasmanian coroner has been highly critical of the OHS legislative regime applicable to Tasmanian mines.  His comments have particular relevance during Australia’s national review of OHS law and as the coronial inquest into the Beaconsfield mining disaster is due to start within the next six months….

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