HWCA could be influential in Australia’s workers’ compensation reforms

Australia and New Zealand have a small strategic organisation called the Heads of Workers’ Compensation Authorities (HWCA, pronounced “howca” by those in the know).  It is a regular meeting (some say “love-in”, others say “coven”) of the CEOs of the various workers’ compensation bodies in Australia and New Zealand.  Over the next five years, as the Australian Government begins to harmonise/reform the workers’ compensation system, HWCA will be important to watch.

In early October 2009, HWCA met and endorsed a coordination strategy, that has yet to be publicly released.  The main objectives of the strategy were noted in a media release (also not yet publicly available) to mark the latest meeting.

  • “To deliver best practice services to injured workers and employers to assist recovery: and
  • to build sustainable workers’ compensation schemes.”

The terminology of the first objective may provide a good indication of the type of organisation HWCA seems to be.  “Best practice services”???  “Best practice” is one of the worst corporate jargons being used at the moment.  This article at Wikipedia outlines the context of the phrase well.

“As the term has become more popular, some organizations have begun using the term “best practices” to refer to what are in fact merely ‘rules’….”

In other words, HWCA has a strategy to do what its member organisations should have been doing all along – enforcing the rules of good customer service and providing the best level of service to injured workers.

Perhaps it is the second strategic objective that best illustrates the aims of HWCA – to make sure that the workers’ compensation schemes do not lose money.

According to the communique that is released after every meeting (top points for open communication)

“HWCA agreed the Bio-psychosocial Rehabilitation Working Group would develop a national action plan regarding prevention of long-term disability and work loss, which will support the strategy.”

Prevention is the role of the OHS authorities in Australia and the Department of Labour in New Zealand.  Clearly HWCA will be discussing these strategic aims with those in charge of preventing injuries and illnesses.  But can the various WorkCovers and WorkSafes cope with biopsychosocial hazards?  Surely HWCA will also be talking with all the NGOs who lobby on depression, anxiety, fatigue, stress, wellness, happiness ………….. (Get ready for even more influence for BeyondBlue)

Consultation will also be needed with the various government departments involved with health promotion, public and occupational.  Not to mention the unions, employer associations and health professional bodies.

A strategy of such magnitude would require considerable resources and horse-trading through government ranks in all jurisdictions.  It is hard to see this being achieved through a meeting of Chief Executive Officers, and should such a strategy be pushed through individual workers’ compensation bodies anyway?

To achieve true reform of workers’ compensation and to resist the substantial pressure that is likely to come from the Australian and international insurance companies, the Australian government is going to need considerable negotiating skills.  Because of the involvement with the financially influential insurance companies, it is doubtful the intended reforms will be achieved. (HWCA already has discussions with the “Heads of Compulsory Third Party Insurers” according to the communique)

Almost as a post-script, it is noted that Greg Tweedly, CEO of WorkSafe Victoria, takes over the chairmanship of HWCA from the CEO of WorkCover NSW, Jon Blackwell.  Tweedly is a very busy CEO and will become more so, if the rumour proves true that he will be joining the National Board of the Safety Institute of Australia.

As the chairmanship moves from New South Wales, so will HWCA’s administrative support.  The next HWCA meeting is scheduled for 5 February 2010 and will be coordinated through the Victorian Workcover Authority or Comcare.

Kevin Jones

Prophet and Loss – review

I bought tickets to the Jane Woollard play Prophet & Loss in almost totalProphet & Loss 002 ignorance of the play and, as a result, sat in the old church on a cold Winter’s night wondering what I was in for.  The program was detailed but I hadn’t time to read it.  I knew the play was about issues related to workplace death.  That’s the “loss”.  The “prophet” was Isaiah and that was the element that I could not understand without later reflection.

However, finding out about Isaiah could wait till we got home and then we could research a further dimension to what we saw.  The stories that told of the impact of workplace fatalities on families and workmates were compelling although a couple were familiar to me.  They told of bureaucratic confusion, the disinterest of insurance company call centre staff, the psychological legacy of a traumatic death and the inability to understand the survivor experience without having experienced it firsthand.

The venue was small but high and so the actors were close and the pain and grief was well presented.  All of the actors were very good even though I was sure I had seen one of them before somewhere.  It wasn’t till I looked at the program that the actor who looked like Helen Morse was indeed Helen Morse.

The stories’ subjects were frustrating and bleak, there is little opportunity for humour on this topic, but there was opportunity for theatricality and motion.  Fanny Hanusin broke the rhythm with her portrayal of Merpati who was hyperventilating in panic over the lack of understanding of her situation.  As Glynis Angell, the grief counsellor, Merrilyn, began breathing slowly to decrease Merpati’s panic, most of the audience were breath along.

All of the actors interchanged roles, with each taking a turn as an overcoated Isaiah writing on the wall and speaking ancient Hebrew (I later found out).  The role changes worked well on reflection but I could not work out the thematic structure of the play until three-quarters in.  The different outfits, the stories, Isaiah, were all confusing because the pairing of the characters with the stories took too long to establish.  I am not a great wearer of hats but the different characters could have been more readily identified by the audience with hats, as well as the changing of clothing.  Hats are more visible and illustrate different identities more clearly.  It may have shortened my confusion.

What differentiated this play from a series of monologues, given that I didn’t understand the Isaiah context, was the music.  The soloist, Deborah Kayser, the seraphim, sang beautifully and the acoustics of the venue were ideal although the 13th century language was totally lost on me. (A sample of Kayser’s singing can be heard online) I have never heard a double bass played to such beautiful effect as was played by Nick Tsiavos.  The depth of sound from a bow on bass could be felt in one’s chest and how he was able to pluck and stroke those strings at the same time was a mystery until he came into the light in the second half.

Kayser and Tsiavos, the seraphim, were a musical Greek chorus to the tales of grief and frustration.  This role was perhaps emphasized by their wings which were effective but initially confusing.  Kayser introduced the play in character with words that were cryptic but set the tone for the play.

The staging was effective in its industrial appeal and the use of 44-gallon drums as props and seats worked.  Early on the actors slowly rotated these drums to provide a chilling sound which I was hoping for more of throughout the play.

Each character laid out the clothes or uniform of their deceased loved one through the play, providing a useful personal profile that complemented each story.  I recall one character had worn her partner’s clothes for three days in a grieving intimacy.  She would only relinquish the clothes when they no longer smelt of her partner but now of her.

The play was being performed at the Centre for Theology and Ministry near the University of Melbourne for a limited season and as a lead-in to a major theological conference.  The play was supported by the Creative Ministries Network that provides a counselling service for those affected by workplace fatalities.

Prophet & Loss could travel well with its combination of an occupational/social theme, beautiful music and faith.  Please look out for it.

Kevin Jones

Workplace safety insurance – podcast

Douglas_A 2Recently I interviewed workplace lawyer, Andrew Douglas, pictured right, while researching an article concerning the application of statutory liability insurance policies to workplace safety management.

SafetyAtWorkBlog is pleased to provide our latest podcast which includes my interview with Andrew.  The interview provides simpler information on the statutory liability issue but also, and perhaps more importantly, we discuss how business perceives the role of insurance  in managing safety and risk.  We also contemplate the impact of such insurance on OHS regulators’ enforcement policies.

 

Kevin Jones

Audit report says “could do better”

Cover of 20090603_workcover_full_reportOn 3 June 2009, the Victorian Auditor-General released the audit report, CLAIMS MANAGEMENT BY THE VICTORIAN WORKCOVER AUTHORITY.  The objective of the audit was to assess the effectiveness and efficiency of VWA’s claims management.

The report found that the current claims management model 

“has not substantially improved RTW [return-to-work] outcomes, or the effectiveness of agents’ case management practices”

Although the report notes that the system has not deteriorated.

The report also says

“Agents’ case management practices, on average, were considered generally adequate, however, there is substantial scope for improving agents’ performance.”

“Adequate” is not a ringing endorsement of the system and the workers’ compensation agents should pay particular attention to criticism of their performance.

Safety managers and professionals have been trying to incorporate psychosocial hazards into their safety management processes but it seems that agents are having similar problems:

“Agents did not systematically consider psychosocial barriers to RTW such as attitudes toward recovery, stress, anxiety, workplace issues, substance abuse, and family matters, when assessing the injured worker’s status, needs and risks to recovery. In most cases assessments were narrowly focused on the physical injury and its impact.”

The report notes that many issues raised are already being addressed by the Victorian WorkCover Authority.

Almost the only statements made on the workers’ compensation scheme by the State Ministers over the last decade have related to premium fluctuations, how the business costs of the system are being controlled or unavoidable.  However it seems now that the system has only been cruising, but not improving, or keeping up with the contemporary workplace hazards and employee needs.

The white collar public service, in particular, has a high incidence of stress-related claims.  The reality of the hazard has been acknowledged through preventative guidance notes from the OHS regulators and the general growth in the work/life balance movement.  Yet in 2009, the workers’ compensation agents  are criticised for giving this hazard insufficient attention.

Even when an audit report is politely critical, it remains critical and demands attention.

Kevin Jones

Statutory liability insurance and OHS penalties

nsca-article-0409-001Recently I wrote an article for National Safety magazine entitled “Trials and Tribulations”.  It came about because I heard about an OHS consultancy that was offering safety management services that included a component of insurance.  The insurance was explained to me as covering any OHS fines or penalties that may eventuate for the consultancy’s clients.

This combination of services is very attractive and addresses fundamental OHS questions asked by employers of different sizes – “do I comply?” and “how do I know that I have a safe workplace?”.  They’re slightly different questions but ones I come across regularly.

OHS regulators are getting better at helping small business establish a compliance benchmark through the use of compliance codes for some elements of workplace safety management – a semi-return to prescription.  However, many small business owner do as much as they can to provide a safe workplace and still get prosecuted by the OHS regulator.  This is frustrating and demoralising and in this context an insurance policy is attractive.  The insurance would cover any penalties that the business receives even if the incident that generated the prosecution was “unforeseeable”.

The National Safety article includes legal opinions and insurance company opinions that don’t quite fit.

Some of the interviews I conducted with insurance brokers did little to assuage my unease at insurance policies.  It seems to me that some insurance policies are taken out unnecessarily while other policies often exempt coverage for the very risks one thought the policy covered.  I agree with many insurers who recommend that business insurance is best handled by an experienced risk manager.  Sadly many OHS professionals do not have those skills.

In the context of the OHS consultancy, clients may be reassured by such an insurance policy but it should be an unnecessary expense.  The consultancy provides a monthly assessment service that steers the company through specific workplace hazards.  The consultancy provides some initial OHS advice and resources but no independent audits of the OHS system and the monthly monitors are not trained in OHS.

 The consultancy says that following this system will provide compliance, and maybe it does.  But even compliant workplaces can have incidents that could generate a prosecution.  It is here where the insurance policy should apply. 

The monthly assessment system needs to be diligently followed and payments kept current because non-compliance with the obligations of the system could leave an “out” for the insurer.

Statutory liability insurance, particularly for small business, needs to be examined by the OHS regulators.  Most regulators approached would not comment on the record about such policies, others were dismissive.  The article examines the legal issues further and, sadly, the article is not available online. 

If the regulators are truly supportive of small business and OHS compliance for this sector, there should be some guidance on statutory liability issued.  But like OHS professionals, regulators are not comfortable with policies that compensate (other than workers compensation).  They focus on prevention and prosecution.  It’s time to establish a broader source of OHS policy development, one which includes insurance companies, brokers and risk managers.

Kevin Jonesnsca-cover-0409

Genetic discrimination at the workplace

In the Men’s Health page (page 59, not available online) of the Australian Financial Review on 16 April 2009 was a mention of a verified case of genetic discrimination in worker’s compensation.

It says that a woman slipped at work and lodged a worker’s compensation application.  The assessment tribunal noted that some members of her family manifested Huntington’s disease which, in its early stages, may cause clumsiness and the tribunal requested a genetic test for the Huntington’s gene.

It is a shame that this article was limited to the Men’s Health page as the issues raised have considerable impact on how safety and return-to-work obligations are handled in workplaces.  

There are two studies quoted in the article and it is unclear which had the worker’s compensation case quoted.  It may have been Genetics in Medicine  but blog readers’ help would be appreciated.

Kevin Jones

An interesting short article on genetic discrimination from late-March 2009 is available online.

 

 

Insurance for OHS penalties

OHS law is generally structured in a positive way and based on the logic that people will act appropriately if there is a deterrent for doing the wrong thing.  This logic applies to many levels of public administration, commerce and psychology.

Some years ago, this logic was challenged during some consultation I undertook for a prison workshop.  It was necessary to assess the guarding of a machine not just for the “accidental” injuries but for malicious and purposeful injuries.  This established a lower common denominator than in the majority of workplaces. 

In this work environment to some inmates, the penalty for harming oneself and others was worth the risk.  It did not deter everyone.

Recently, an allegation has come to the attention of SafetyAtWorkBlog that a company providing OHS compliance advice to small businesses in Australia is also offering insurance coverage for OHS penalties.  Should a business proprietor be financially penalized by the OHS regulator for a breach of the legislation, the business proprietor would pay an excess of around $2000 and the (unnamed) insurance company would pay the balance.

Such a service places a $2,000 cap on OHS penalties and would remove a major reason behind penalties for unsafe practices and workplaces.

This is of concern to OHS professionals as we “trade” on the importance of OHS having a strong business case as well as a social benefit.

SafetyAtWorkBlog would be interested to hear from anyone who may have come across such insurance options elsewhere or have an opinion on such an option.