Small business can equal depression, stress and mental health problems

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According to an article in  the Australian Financial Review on 16 February 2010 (only available online through subscription):

“The isolation of working at home or in a small shop or factory by themselves can wear down many in the small and medium  enterprise sector.  In the most severe cases, it can lead to depression and cause major problems for their family and business.”

Andrew Griffiths provides a quote that illustrates well the work/life conflict in the small business sector: Continue reading “Small business can equal depression, stress and mental health problems”

Move your way to better health

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Further to the recent posting on cardiovascular disease research, Dr David Dunstan participated in an online media briefing on 12 January 2010. (Video and audio interviews have begun to appear on line)

It is often difficult to identify control measures for workplace hazards from the raw research data.  Dr Dunstan, this morning elaborated on the possible workplace control measures that employers can design into workplaces in order to reduce the CVD risk from prolonged sedentary work.   Continue reading “Move your way to better health”

Shoemaking in South East Asia – book review

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Some of the best OHS writing comes from the personal.  In a couple of days time a new book will go on sale that illustrates big issues from a niche context and brings to the research a degree of truth from the personal experiences of the author.

Pia Markkanen has written “Shoes, glues and homework – dangerous world in the global footwear industry” which packs in a range of issues into one book.  The best summary of the book comes from the Preface written by the series editors.

“Pia Markkanen’s extraordinary first hand investigation of the dangers of home work in the shoe industry in the Philippines and Indonesia is an important contribution to our understanding of work, health and the global economy. She also carefully documents the intersection of gender relations and hierarchy with the social relations of “globalised” economic development and reveal as the important implications for the health of women, men and children as toxic work enters the home.”

As one reads this book, local equivalents keep popping into the reader’s head.  For instance, Markkanen’s discussion of the home as workplace raises the definition of a “workplace” that is currently being worked through in Australia.  She briefly discusses the definition in her chapter “Informal Sector, Informal Economy” where she refers to an ILO Home Work Convention, and usefully distinguishes between the homeworker and the self-employed, a distinction that Australian OHS professionals and regulators should note.

Markkanen does not impose a Western perspective on her observations and acknowledges that regardless of the global economic issues and social paradigms, “shoemakers felt pride for their work”.  This pride goes some way to explaining why workers will tolerate hazards that others in other countries would not.  In many OHS books this element is often overlooked by OHS professionals and writers who are puzzled about workers tolerating exposure and who look to economic reasons predominantly.

In South East Asia, limited knowledge can be gleaned from literature reviews as the research data is sparse.  Markkanen interviewed participants first hand and, as mentioned earlier, this provides truth and reality.  She describes the shoe makers’ workshops in Indonesia:

“Shoe workshops are filled with hazardous exposures to glues, primers, and cleaning agents, unguarded tools, and dust.  Work positions are often awkward, cuts and burns are common, as are respiratory disorders.  Asthma and breathing difficulties are widespread when primers were in use.  Workers were reluctant to visit doctors because of the expense.”

She then reports on the interviews with Mr. Salet, a shoe manufacturer, Ms. Dessy, the business manager, Mr Iman, the business owner, Mr Ari, a skilled shoemaker, and many others.

Markkanen also illustrates the shame that the minority world and chemical manufacturers should feel about the outsourcing of lethal hazards to our fellows.  In the chapter, “Shoemaking and its hazards”, she writes:

“Shoe manufacturing will remain a hazardous occupation as long as organic solvents are applied in the production.  It is notable that in 1912, the Massachusetts Health Inspection report declared that naphtha cement, then in use for footwear manufacturing, was considered hazardous work.  The 1912 report also referred to a law which required the exclusion of minors from occupations hazardous to health – the naphtha cement use was considered such hazardous work unless a mechanical means of ventilation was provided and the cement containers were covered…. minors were prohibited from using the cement.  Almost a century later, hazardous footwear chemicals are still applied – even by children – in the global footwear industry.”

There is little attention given to the OHS requirements of majority world governments by OHS professionals in the West, partly because the outsourcing of manufacturing to those regions has led to the reporting of OHS infringements and human rights issues more than information about the legislative structures.

Markkanen provides a great section where she describes the OHS inspectorate resources of the Indonesian Government and the fact that Indonesian OHS law requires an occupational safety and health management system.  Granted this requirement is only for high-risk industries or business with more than 100 employees but there are many other countries that have nothing like this.  Markkanen quotes Article 87 of the Manpower Act 2003:

“Every enterprise is under an obligation to apply an occupational safety and health management system that shall be integrated into the enterprise’s management system.”

It is acknowledged that this section of legislation is hardly followed by business due to attitude and the lack of enforcement resources but we should note that safety management is not ignored by majority world governments.

Lastly, Markkanen provides a chapter on the gender issues associated with the shoemaking industry.  She makes a strong case for the further research into the area but it is a shame that to achieve improvements in women’s health the reality is  that

“women’s health needs female organizers and female women trade union leaders who understand women’s concerns”.

Some male OHS professionals may be trying to be “enlightened” but this seems to not be enough to work successfully in some Asian cultures.

Overall this book provides insight by looking at a small business activity that illustrates big issues.  The book is a slim volume of around 100 pages and it never becomes a difficult read because it is concise and has a personal presence that other “academic” books eschew.  As with many Baywood Books, the bibliographies are important sources of further reading.

At times it was necessary to put the book aside to digest the significance of some of the information.  Occasionally the reality depicted was confronting.  Baywood Books could do well by encouraging more writers to contribute to it Work, Health & Environment Series.

Kevin Jones

[SafetyAtWorkBlog received a review copy of this book at no charge.  We also noted that, according to the Baywood Books website, the book is available for another couple of weeks at a reduced price.]

Perhaps a step too far on homes as workplaces

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According to an AAP report released on 8 October 2009, Australian homeowners could be liable for the injuries of workmen on their premises.  According to Michael Tooma of Deacons law firm, the breadth of the proposed OHS model laws could cause big legal problems for homeowners (as if interest rate rises and balcony collapses were not enough).

“..if I call out a tradesperson to do some work at my home, my home is their workplace and I would be a person at their workplace.  As such, I would have a duty to take reasonable care for my own safety and the safety of others and to cooperate with their reasonable instructions in my own home.  If I breach that duty I could be liable for a criminal offence.”

The duty of care applied regardless of whether the worker was injured or not, Mr Tooma said.  “If the person is exposed to risk, then potentially you’ve committed a criminal offence.  Previously, there were clear boundaries around a home that really made it sacrosanct.”

The crux of Tooma’s argument is that

“The definition of a workplace in the legislation is so broad that any place where a worker works is deemed a workplace”.

Many corporations have struggled with their OHS obligations for staff who telecommute.  Home-based businesses have a clearer legislative responsibility even if many of them are unaware of the responsibility.

The Model Safe Work Provisions Exposure Draft’s defines a workplace as follows

“(1) A workplace is a place where work is carried out for a business or undertaking and includes any place where a worker goes, or is likely to be, while at work.
(2) In this section, place includes:

(a) vehicle, ship, boat, aircraft or other mobile structure; and
(b) any installation on land, on the bed of any waters or floating on any waters.”

Discussionpaper_ExposureDraft_ModelActforOHS_RTF _1_In the Discussion Paper there is an example provided of what is not a business

“A householder hiring an electrician to repair a faulty electrical socket in their home (however the electrician will either be a worker for a business or undertaking or a business or undertaking in their own right if they are self employed).”

Tooma’s point would be what if the electrician was undertaking the work in  a home office (if designated) or the whole house/workplace.

Of all the “modern working arrangements” listed in the Discussion Paper, working from home is not listed.  If it had been, Tooma’s comments would have seemed less alarmist, probably because their would have been more general alarm as perhaps hinted at in the AAP article.

In that article, Tooma also says

“We’re talking about the Occupational Health and Safety Act intruding on the family home and imposing criminal liability on individual home owners under legislation that is supposedly aimed at safety in the workplace.

“It’s really a quirk of the way the definition works in that everywhere a worker goes, so goes the workplace.”

AAP does not treat the issue as “a quirk”.  Not with a headline in The Canberra Times of “Home owners ‘could be liable'”.

Tooma may have raised a valid point but the AAP article shows how the media can “ice the cake” of an issue.  It may have been better to present this quirk to the Government through the Public Comment process (and I am sure Tooma will) but it is also on all OHS advocates to bring the relevance of OHS matters to the attention of those who may not understand the risks they could be exposed to.  This blog article could be considered an example of this.

The Public Comment phase on the draft documents is still young.  If Tooma’s intention was to stir debate (and not alarm) he has raised an interesting issue that should be discussed.  Whether the wider community of homeowners, home-based businesses and telecommuters take this perspective, we’re yet to see.

Kevin Jones

Who is all this OHS harmonisation for?

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The public comment phase of Australia’s review of its OHS law harmonisation process begins in September 2009.   To a large degree it is at this stage that the stakeholders can start refining their horse-trading.  It will also be interesting to watch as the distraction of the new industrial relations legislation has gone since that law was introduced.

Safe Work Australia is using the traditional limited consultative troika – government, employers and unions, and will need to give public submissions considerable weight to balance interests.

Two of the employer groups have already started setting out some guidelines and expectations.

SafeWork    -0X1.DB7490P+747ustraliaMR_Aug_2009A statement from the CEO of the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA), Mitchell Hooke, was released on 14 August 2009.  The only new element of the media release was

“The MCA has called for the National Mine Safety Framework to form the basis of national minerals-industry specific regulation within the Model OH&S Act.”

One of the aims of the harmonisation movement is to minimise regulations for specific industry sectors.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce & Industry was more expansive in its statement of 5 August 2009.  The ACCI overstates the cost burden of OHS legislation in each State.  The Model OHS Law Review Panel found overwhelming similarities between the legislations but acknowledged that the variations would be difficult to resolve.

ACCIHarmonisation-ACCIPerspective CoverThe following quote from the ACCI statement illustrates the value of the ACCI perspective and also its major shortcoming.

“However, harmonisation of legislation is not of itself the solution to the compliance burden problem, but rather it will be the final content and quality of the model legislation and the approach to its implementation and enforcement that will be the critical determinants as to whether or not productivity gains are in fact realised in practice.”

It is accurate to say that the success of the legislation will be gauged by its implementation and enforcement.  However, the conservative  ideology of the ACCI is on show when it states that the harmonisation is intended to provide productivity gains.  OHS legislation’s first aim should always be to improve the safety and health of the workforce which, in turn, increases productivity.

ACCI and other employer associations too often jump the safety element and go straight to productivity yet it is the safety of employees that is by far the greatest value that employers share with the community and the unions.  Elsewhere in the ACCI statement, the importance of safety is acknowledged but the communication of priorities is muddled.

The ACCI also says “OHS laws should never be used as a vehicle to drive other agendas,” and then goes on to push issues of industrial relations and union behaviour that are not the core focus of the OHS model legislation process.

The ACCI statement closes on a more philosophical approach to OHS.  It talks about “cooperative development”, “safety culture” and  “continued engagements” but its own cooperation can be seen as conditional in the majority of the statement.

There is one statement that all involved in OHS law reform should consider. The ACCI states that practical and easily understood regulation is required.

“This is particularly important for the majority of employers who operate only in one jurisdiction and who will not receive a direct productivity benefit under harmonisation but who will bear the cost of understanding and complying with a new OHS Act and regulations.”

Not much will change for those companies who operate in a single State of Australia.  It is also useful to note that the vast majority of businesses in Australia are small- and micro-businesses  for whom all of this national hoo-ha is almost totally irrelevant.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics said in a webpage that was updated in September 2008 that

“Small businesses comprise the vast majority of Australian businesses. The importance of the small business sector to the Australian economy is recognised by researchers, government and policy makers as well as the business community as a whole. It is acknowledged that the characteristics and business drivers of small business are potentially very different to those of larger businesses and as such require specific, targeted policy initiatives. Central to the development of effective policy initiatives is a sound understanding of the nature and characteristics of this sector of the business economy.”

The employer associations do not represent the largest employment sectors in Australia – small businesses, micro-businesses and home-based businesses.  Nor do the trade unions.  So who exactly are the biggest beneficiaries of this whole OHS harmonisation process?

Kevin Jones