Will WorkSafe need to become a VicSafe to address climate change?

Occupational health and safety (OHS) professionals are largely aware of the latest international standard for OHS management systems, ISO45001. This is the core standard for businesses to assess their safe systems of work. Others will be aware of the supplementary guidance to ISO45001, like ISO45003 -guidelines for managing psychosocial risks at work.

Recently Phillipe KL Lai Choo spoke about some of the other OHS guidances due for release or development. One of those relates to climate change which could create unexpected changes to how OHS is regulated and enforced.

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Will firewalking become the norm?

Occupational health and safety (OHS) will have little effect on reducing the pace of global warming. Still, OHS will definitely need to assist in changing how we continue to work in future weather extremes. SafetyAtWorkBlog has previously written about working in extreme heat, but a new multimedia report from the New York Times (paywalled) illustrates the challenges in some uncomfortable ways.

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Heat and the need to change work

Europe is experiencing heat at, or close to, levels never recorded before. This has caused the mainstream media to issue advice on how to avoid adverse health impacts from heat exposure. However, the necessary changes to work are not receiving the attention they should.

Australia has faced such situations before, especially in the last decade, so there is some generic occupational health and safety (OHS) available for translation to the European circumstance.

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What does the IPCC report on climate change say about work?

Global warming will affect the way we work.  This was acknowledged in the most recent report from the International Panel on Climate Change.  The 3,676-page report cited several research papers related to these changes.  Below is a list of those papers and comments on the abstracts, where available.

Vanos, J., D. J. Vecellio and T. Kjellstrom, 2019: Workplace heat exposure, health protection, and economic impacts: A case study in Canada. Am. J. Ind. Med., 62(12), 1024-1037, doi:10.1002/ajim.22966.  https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30912193/

This abstract recommends “Providing worksite heat metrics to the employees aids in appropriate decision making and health protection.” This research adds to one’s state of knowledge but may not help with which on-the-ground decisions need to be made.

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Instead of throwing stones, build a stronger house

Stock photo of hot worker who, yes, should also be wearing long sleeves and a hat.

On 19 December 2019, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) issued a confusing and, ostensibly, three-paragraph media release about working in heat, a hazard that has been regularly analysed by SafetyAtWorkBlog. It states:

“OHS laws which are designed to keep workers safe at work need to be updated to deal with the reality of climate change, which will mean hotter days and more bushfires, resulting in conditions which are hazardous to workers, especially those who work outside.”

Paragraph 1 – update the occupational health and safety (OHS) laws. Paragraph 3 – new regulations needed:

“… we call on the Morrison Government to act urgently to implement new regulations to protect workers from these hazards.”

So which is it – enforce the old or create new?

Continue reading “Instead of throwing stones, build a stronger house”

Scientific Meeting challenges

There is a difference between a conference and a scientific meeting. The latter, like the current meeting of the Australia and New Zealand Society of Occupational Medicine (ANZSOM), provides evidence.  The former tries to provide evidence but is often “infiltrated” by salespeople or the evidence is of a lesser quality.  Both are avenues for gaining information and sometimes the gaining of wisdom.

Day 1 of ANZSOM’s annual scientific meeting was heavy on overhead slides, graphs, Venn diagrams, flowcharts and at least two appearances of photos of Donald Rumsfeld!  There was a curious thread in several presentations – the role of non-occupational factors on workplace hazards and interventions.  This bordered on a discussion of political science and its relevance to occupational health and safety (OHS).  It was a discussion that is rarely heard outside of the basement of the Trades Halls and the challenging questions from die-hard communists and unionists, but it was an important one.  Some time soon we deserve a one-day seminar on the politics of workplace health and safety so that we can better understand what we mean by the lack of political will when we whinge about the slow pace of change. (There will be more on this theme in the exclusive interview with Professors Maureen Dollard and Sally Ferguson soon)

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Can this job be performed in extreme heat?

Parts of Europe are sweltering in extreme Summer temperatures similar to what Australian workers have experienced. A comparison of just temperatures is unreasonable as the European challenge is greater than Australia’s because the society, buildings and operational structures are largely designed and configured for low temperatures and snow. In many ways climate change will be more disruptive for European businesses as Australia has always been hot and dry.

The occupational health and safety (OHS) advice on how to address, or cope with, extreme heat has always been focused on the individual’s capacity to work in heat rather than reconfiguring work to avoid these unsafe and unhealthy conditions. Here is some advice from an American law firm from early this month:

“Summer temperatures can create hazards for workers, and employers can be liable for not addressing conditions that could lead to injuries and illnesses, such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Liability can arise whether work is being done outside in construction, landscaping, and agriculture, or inside in non-air conditioned manufacturing plants and warehouses.”

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