What if “reasonably practicable” was applied to a disease outbreak?

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There seems to be an increasing trend for the principles of occupational health and safety (OHS) to be applied to matters outside the workplace.  OHS principles were created to reflect the values of society in the 1970s and 80s and, although the laws have changed to reflect economic needs, the principles remain basically the same.  A major legal change has been the move away from preventing harm “at the source” to one of reasonable practicability and this can reduce the overall level of safety available to workers and others.

It is interesting to note that statements on the current Ebola outbreak argue the sense in dealing with the outbreak “at the source”.  Why do we accept a reasonably practicable control measure for harm at work but expect a stronger preventative measure for public health threats?  Shouldn’t we be aiming to reduce all harm “at the source” regardless of the type of harm? Continue reading “What if “reasonably practicable” was applied to a disease outbreak?”

Lack of progress on Safe Work Method Statements shows immaturity

On 27 October 2014 the Safety Institute of Australia, with the support of RMIT University conducted a seminar on safety in the construction industry.  As with the event last year the issue of Safe Work Method Statements (SWMS) dominated the conversation.  The same frustrations were expressed as last year – SWMS are too big and complex, they are demanded for tasks they are not legislatively required for, they are rarely read, they are rarely reviewed and they are written only in English.  What was missing was an indication of  who is (over)demanding SWMS and why.

The seminar contained one client representative experienced in major construction projects who said that he was not directly involved with SWMS as the contract demands only that work is undertaken safely with predetermined levels of risk and reward.  That level of safety may or may not involve the use of SWMS – SWMS were not prescribed.

He did not review SWMS unless there was a specific reason and most of the time there was not.  It could be argued that too much involvement by the client in how the project is to be completed implies a shared OHS responsibility with the client, changing the client/contractor relationship.

One construction industry representative said that they have been able to reduce the number of SWMS to around twenty types for each of the active construction projects.  This has been achieved by limiting the SWMS to the 19 high risk tasks identified in safety legislation.  It was significant that this perspective came from the top-level of construction companies, the Tier Ones.

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Some plain talking on SWMS

In Sydney this afternoon a workplace safety trade show held a fascinating (and free) panel discussion on safety in construction. The topic of Safe Work Method Statements (SWMS) was raised, as expected, but the comments were sound – SWMS are only required for specific high-risk activities so make them simple enough to satisfy legislative requirements…

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WHS, performance indicators, annual reports and other thoughts

Macquarie University researcher Sharron O’Neill is traveling around Australia refining, through consultation and seminars, her research into Work Health and Safety (WHS) Due Diligence. In a Melbourne seminar this week O’Neill, and her colleague, Karen Wolfe,  provided thought-provoking discussions on three principal areas:

  • Due Diligence,
  • Performance Indicators, and
  • Reporting.

Below are some of my thoughts that they provoked.

WHS Due Diligence

WHS Due Diligence is still a poorly understood concept.  Part of the reason is that the major explainers of due diligence seem to be, predominantly, labour lawyers who, not surprisingly, emphasis the legal requirements and origins rather than the safety elements and application.  There are few safety professionals who are explaining due diligence; rather they are discussing OHS/WHS in the context of due diligence.

One colleague explained how an established organisation employed her as their first dedicated OHS professional around the same time as due diligence was being discussed  as part of the national OHS harmonisation process.  By looking through the company’s existing system of work,

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A rough ride on OHS

Since I heard about the Gaia hypothesis in the 1980s, I have read most of James Lovelock‘s books.  I was confronted by his argument that nuclear power is undervalued as one of the cleanest and sustainable sources of power, as I have grown up listening to anti-nuclear activists like Helen Caldicott and being frightened by films like Fail Safe and Threads.  I am not sure I agree with Lovelock but I respect him.  In his latest book, though, he makes a couple of negative references to occupational health and safety (OHS) that are cheap shots, unfair or disappointing.

Lovelock says, on page 2 of “A Rough Ride to the Future” that the chemical industry is “now mainly run by an intelligent and usually responsible technocracy” but that

“…we may be hampered in our attempts to solve the large problems [of pollution] by the absurdly zealous application of health and safety laws.” (emphasis added)

In discussing oxygen levels in the atmosphere and how its regulation is so important, Lovelock says, in parentheses,

“We are fortunate there is no inbuilt health and safety system in Gaia, otherwise the dangers of fires would have led to the banning of its production.” (page 13)

This comment, moreso than the former, shows Lovelock misunderstands OHS regulation and application.  Earlier in the book he praises the banning of chlorofluorocarbons on climatic reasons and then, absurdly, implies that OHS would advocate the banning of oxygen. It’s a cheap shot.  OHS is about trying to eliminate the risk of harm and by investigating the source of the hazard, usually through the scientific method. 

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