ACTU Congress’ draft OHS policies deserve serious analysis

Pages from draft-2015-actu-congress-policies-2015-consolidatedThe Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) commences its 2015 Congress this week.  Each year around 800 trade union delegates meet to discuss changes to policies and to develop or refine strategies. This year the ACTU released its draft policies publicly prior to the Congress.  These policies have a long and strong historical and industrial relations context.  Occupational health and safety (OHS) is an important part of these policies and should spark discussions in the union movement and the OHS profession.

Early in the document, the ACTU states its “bargaining agenda” in which is included

“better work, life and family balance.” (page 7)

Curiously, the ACTU has chosen “better” rather than “safe”.  Better is a more inclusive term but harder to define.  Better for whom?  Better could be better paid or more secure or safer.

Trade unionists often see OHS as being monitored and enforced through the mechanism of the Health and Safety Representatives (HSRs) and would argue that OHS is throughout all the draft policies due to the HSR role but there are more workplaces in Australia without HSRs than with and it is worth considering the policies as independent from the HSR structure, if that is possible..

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Impairment argument fails to convince Fair Work Commission over unfair dismissal

On 16 January 2015 the Australian newspaper (paywall) reported on a Fair Work Commission (FWC) decision involving an unfair dismissal claim by a worker who, as a result of a random drug test, was found to have methylamphetamine in her system “at levels four times above the minimum detection level”.  The company, Downer EDI Mining, sacked the worker, Leah Cunningham, as she presented a hazard to her work colleagues. The newspaper article was called “CFMEU slammed for drugs defence” and the FWC decision is Tara Leah Cunningham v Downer EDI Mining Pty Limited (U2014/1457) (14 January 2015).

The Australian, a newspaper with no love for the trade union movement and the CFMEU in particular, focussed on the apparent absurdity of a trade union, that places such a high priority on workplace safety,  contesting the dismissal of a worker who presented a hazard to herself and others at work.  The newspaper quotes Commissioner Ian Cambridge:

““It was highly regrettable to observe during the hearing that an organisation, which apparently conducts campaigns which strongly advocate safety in the workplace, could contemplate a proposition which, in effect, would countenance a person driving a 580-tonne truck whilst having methylamphetamine in their body at a level four times the reportable cut-off figure,” he said in his decision this week.

“Any realistic and responsible pursuit of the case on behalf of the applicant should have been confined to the development of evidentiary support for the applicant’s explanation for the presence of the methylamphetamine. Indeed, much greater energy and focus should have been devoted to such an evidentiary position rather than any attempt to defend the indefensible.”

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Sniping in social media raises issues about hydration

A spat has recently emerged on one of the safety discussion forums in Linkedin.  The catalyst was a statement that

The source of this data, not disclosed at the time of the original post, was a company that sells

“…a great tasting, scientifically proven mix of cutting-edge branch chain amino acids and low Gi carbohydrates for sustained energy release, combined with a formulated blend of electrolytes for optimum hydration in harsh Australian conditions”.

The discussion quickly refocused from the original safety concern to one of unreliability of statements; sadly the discussion also became personal and abusive. but the discussion raised two discussion points:

  • The reliability of statements on the internet, and
  • the issue of hydration and work performance.

Continue reading “Sniping in social media raises issues about hydration”

Where is the evidence for new moves on drug and alcohol testing?

On 1 July 2014, the Victorian Government introduce a mandatory drug and alcohol testing regime for the sections of the construction industry.  According to the government’s media release:

“New requirements for tighter screening of drug and alcohol use at construction workplaces across Victoria will commence from 1 July, helping to ensure a safer and more secure environment for workers.”

This decision has been made on the basis of “widespread reports of workers being intoxicated, and of drug distribution and abuse” but the rest of the media release reveals other reasons for these changes including political pressure on its Labor Party and trade union opponents in the months before a close State election. Premier Denis Napthine has indicated that the move is also about cracking down on “outlaw motorcycle gangs dealing drugs on the sites”.

But are reports of potential criminality on building site enough to introduce a drug and alcohol testing regime? It is worth looking at some of the existing research on drug and alcohol use (or its absence) in Australian and Victorian work sites.

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The voice of OHS is being reduced to a squeak

The decline of trade union influence in Australia, as membership remains low, has the sad effect of also seeing a reduced voice for some core elements of occupational health and safety (OHS) such as the importance and prominence of the “safe system of work”, the myth of the “careless worker” and the insidious hazard of impairment. These OHS issues remain significant and demand attention but who will be the new voice of workplace safety?

Impairment

Impairment is a collective term that many trade unionists use for workplace hazards such as fatigue, drug use, alcohol use and other psychosocial hazards, such as stress.  Impairment is a useful term as it relates to the worker’s fitness for work and the level of attentiveness that the employer expects as part of the employment contract.  It also ties into the issue of labour productivity as an impaired worker, regardless of the cause of the impairment, is unlikely to be working as hard or as effectively, or productively, as the employer expects.

The downside is that using a collective term makes it more difficult to focus on specific interventions.  Drug and alcohol use can be combated by a combination of preventive education and enforcement through testing  but such strategies cannot be applied to fatigue or stress although both these elements may be contributory factors to drug and alcohol use.  Stress and fatigue are more effectively reduced by job redesign and a reassessment of the organisational structure and morality, in other words, the establishment of a “safe system of work” as required by both the OHS and Work Health and Safety (WHS) laws.

Impairment may have some connotations of disability but its attraction is that it is a neutral term for describing something, or someone, that is not working as intended due to an external factor.  It is a good descriptor but a poor term from which to base anything more than general action.

Safe System of Work

The “safe system of work” has been a term whose definition never seemed to have stabilised in Australia’s legislation.  This is partly because it has been treated similar to a workplace culture, something that is thought to exist but never really understood.

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Master Builders’ curious response on construction safety

In November 2012, the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) government released “Getting Home Safely“, a damning report written by Lynette Briggs and Mark McCabe, into the safety culture and performance of that territory’s building and construction industry.  But the Master Builders Association of the ACT has rejected several recommendations and questioned many others, yet refuses to release the evidence that it is assumed would support their position.

Cover of http___www.mba.orgIn February 2013, ACT’s Minister for Workplace Safety and Industrial Relations, Simon Corbell, accepted all 27 recommendations of the report, much to the surprise of some of us.  Corbell said in his media release that

“It is no longer acceptable for people in the construction industry to say there are safety issues in construction sites and then do nothing about them. This report compels unions, employers and government to stand up and actively promote a culture where everyone looks out for their mates, and everyone can go home safely every day…”

“As the report highlights, this is not simply an issue for Government. Safety is an issue for every person on a construction site with principal contractors, sub-contractors, workers, unions and the Regulator all working together.

“The Government expects employers and unions to demonstrate leadership on this issue.”

Safety Leadership or Conspiracy Theory

Today the Master Builders Association of the ACT released its response to “Getting Home Safely” (the Gower review).  That response indicates that not all Minister Corbell’s expectations are going to be met with the MBA.  In some ways this confirms many of the concerns in the report. Continue reading “Master Builders’ curious response on construction safety”

CSB pushes for a more effective discussion on fatigue management

Occupational health and safety has many examples of addressing small or short-term issues rather than  facing the difficult and hard, but more sustainable, control measures. I was reminded of this by a recent media statement from the United States Chemical Safety Board (CSB) in relation to fatigue management.

In 2007 the CSB recommended that, following the Texas City refinery fire,

“the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the United Steelworkers International Union (USW) jointly lead the development of an ANSI consensus standard with guidelines for fatigue prevention in the refinery and petrochemical industries.” [links added]

The progress of API and USW in developing the 2010 ANSI-approved Recommended Practice 755 (RP 755) has been reviewed by the CSB staff and they have found the following disturbing problems:

  • “The document was not the result of an effective consensus process, and therefore does not constitute a tool that multiple stakeholders in the industry can “own.” It was not balanced in terms of stakeholder interests and perspectives, and did not sufficiently incorporate or take into account the input of experts from other industry sectors that have addressed fatigue risks. Continue reading “CSB pushes for a more effective discussion on fatigue management”