An Ombudsman for the safety profession

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WorkSafe Victoria is very keen for the safety advice and management discipline to become professional.  It is providing considerable technical and financial support to the Safety Institute of Australia and other members of the Health and Safety Professionals Alliance (HaSPA).  The current status of HaSPA in Australia has been discussed in other SafetyAtWorkBlog articles.

HaSPA likes to compare itself to other managerial professions such as accounting, medicine and the law, and is trying to establish a contemporary profession.  One of the professions mentioned, law, an established profession for hundreds of years, is seriously considering the introduction of an ombudsman, a concept that should have been established already for the safety sector.

According to a media report in The Australian on 4 September 2009:

A taskforce of federal and state officials is working on a plan to create a national legal ombudsman with unprecedented power over the nation’s lawyers.

If the plan goes ahead, the ombudsman would be able to set standards for all lawyers, oversee the handling of all complaints from consumers and intervene with the profession’s state-based regulators.

One option being considered would establish the office of the legal ombudsman as a new national institution drawing authority from a network of uniform state laws.

This would unify the regulation of lawyers and give state governments a role in confirming prospective candidates for the new national office.

Lawyers, rather than taxpayers, could be asked to pay for the cost of establishing their new regulator.

The taskforce, which has been appointed by federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland, is examining the possibility of establishing the new office as the centrepiece for the promised regulatory overhaul of the legal profession.

OHS law in Australia is undergoing its most major national review in decades.  Shouldn’t the safety profession also develop the “Office of the Safety Ombudsman”?  The legal profession is doing all the work on a model.

Australia has a tradition of effective industry-based ombudsmen.  A list is available online but the most publicly well-known would be the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman.

[In the last couple of years the safety profession has heard from the Victorian Health Services Commissioner, Beth Wilson, on the purpose and role of the commission and how the safety profession can learn from her support, adjudication and  advocacy.  The commissioner is not an ombudsman but there may be a role for a safety commissioner to address WorkSafe’s concerns over the quality of safety advice being provided by safety professioanls to business.  A video of Beth Wilson briefly discussing the role is available on YouTube.]

The application of an Ombudsman model in the safety profession should be discussed but similar objections will be raised to those of the legal profession in the article quoted above.  Underpinning the objections is that an established profession is resistant to change and suspicious of relinquishing the power it has established over its lifetime.

If the safety advocates are truly committed to establishing a contemporary profession, the concept of a safety ombudsman must be discussed or else  the system of self-regulation will continue and so will the lack of independence, the lack of accountability, the limited communication and the lack of faith by the general community that safety professionals can be trusted to do a good job.

Kevin Jones

The importance of handling professional complaints professionally

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Any member of any profession can be subject to the complaints process of that profession’s governing body.  A complaints procedure is an essential element of any organisation.  In fact, one could argue that the professionalism and maturity of an organisation can be judged by how that organisation investigates and handles a complaint.

Not only must a complaint be handled professionally, it must be seen to be handled professionally.

Regardless of whether a complaint is valid or baseless, it is essential to have

  • Clear guidelines on how to make a complaint and the consequences of lodging a complaint;
  • Defined complaints handling procedures;
  • Complaints procedures that have been tested through desktop exercises and simulations;
  • An independent assessor/mediator;
  • An understanding that of natural justice;
  • An independent appeals process; and
  • The commitment to support, in practice, the professional ideals espoused.

Many executives, particularly of volunteer organisations whose good intentions are often not supported by the necessary administrative procedures, resources or skills, run the risk of exacerbating both frivolous and valid complaints.

As can be seen by some of the articles in SafetyAtWorkBlog, from James Hardie Industries to restorative justice to handling aggressive customers, people expect a certain dignity and accountability in their professional dealings.  A major element of safety management, and basic professionalism, is the ability to apologise when mistakes have been made.  For only through an acknowledgement of mistakes can the integrity of a process be (re)established.

Australia’s Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has shown the power of the apology when he acknowledged in 2008 the injustices done to Australia’s indigenous population.  It took courage to apologise for actions done long ago by someone else.  The ability to apologise shows a maturity and professionalism that is still lacking from many Australian organisations, voluntary and corporate.

Kevin Jones

Restorative Justice and workplace fatalities – Part 1

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The city in which SafetyAtWorkBlog is edited, Melbourne, is struggling to manage a spate of street violence – some racially-based, a lot influenced by alcohol and drugs.  The Age newspaper carried a feature article on 25 August 2009 discussing the concept of “restorative justice”, a concept that is barely known outside of some legal or civil liberties areas, in relation to handling offenders and victims of street violence.

Pages from RJ_and_Work-Related_Death_Consultation_ReportOnly last week, there was an important launch of a research report into the application of restorative justice for those affected by workplace fatalities.  It is a fascinating new area of application for restorative justice in Australia and one that seems a more natural fit than for the more common acts of violence.

The research project builds on a lot of the work already undertaken into workplace fatalities by the Creative Ministries Network. Their research, mentioned in the project report, has shown

“…that families and company directors, managers and workers grieving a traumatic death suffer more prolonged and complicated grief due to delays in legal proceedings, public disclosure of personal information, lack of information, and increased stress from involvement in the prosecution process and coronial and other litigated processes.”

Over the next few days SafetyAtWorkBlog will run a series of articles on the concept and its application as well as being able to make available copies of the research reports and transcripts of interviews with research participants.

As SafetyAtWorkBlog has no legal expertise restorative justice needed some investigation.  Below are some useful definitions and descriptions:

Restorative justice is a theory of justice that relies on reconciliation rather than punishment. The theory relies on the idea that a well-functioning society operates with a balance of rights and responsibilities. When an incident occurs which upsets that balance, methods must be found to restore the balance, so that members of the community, the victim, and offender, can come to terms with the incident and carry on with their lives.”

Restorative justice brings victims, offenders and communities together to decide on a response to a particular crime. It’s about putting victims’ needs at the centre of the criminal justice system and finding positive solutions to crime by encouraging offenders to face up to their actions.”

“The term “restorative justice” is often used to describe many different practices that occur at various stages of the criminal justice system including:

  • Diversion from court prosecution (i.e. to a separate process for determining justice);
  • Actions taken in parallel with court decisions (e.g. referral to health, education and employment assessment, etc.); and
  • Meetings between victims and offenders at any stage of the criminal process (e.g. arrest, pres-sentence and prison release.”

[Of course, one can also read the Wikipedia entry)

The intention of restorative justice has more often been to reduce the likelihood of a re-offence.  The application of restorative justice for workplace fatalities seems to be slightly different.  In America, it would be difficult to avoid using the word “closure” (a phrase SafetyAtWorkBlog refuses to use as there is never a close to grief, only a way of living with it) as one of the aims of the workplace fatality application.

There are many effects of a workplace fatality on executives and companies.  It is hard to imagine a company that, after one fatality, would not do all it could to avoid another.  Restorative justice has the potential to heal the surviving victims – family and company.  It can also reduce the animosity that often results from the traditional adversarial justice system, particularly for those participants who may not have been exposed to such processes before.

Kevin Jones

Peanut allergy fatality saga to continue

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Safety management in the education sector seems to be one of the hardest management challenges.  There are overlapping safety obligations through OHS legislation, education department guidelines, public health matters and meeting the demands of parents and students.

700 Peanuts - Federal Court coverA decision in the Federal Court of Australia on 30 June 2009 illustrates the challenges.

A 13 year old boy from Scotch College, in Melbourne, Nathan Francis, died after eating from a ration pack of beef satay on a Defence Forces camp.  The school, which was supervising the camp, were aware of the boy’s severe allergy to peanuts.

The Australian Department of Defence was fined over $A200,000.

The full judgement of the court raises several  issues that are relevant to the management of safety of people in one’s care.  The judge has recommended a State coronial inquest to determine the roles and responsibilities of Scotch College in Nathan’s death.

Justice for Nathan and his family is likely to have many more months to go. [ SafetyAtWorkBlog will follow the issue.]

A fantastic audio report on the decision is available at the ABC website. The payment of the fine back to the government is not dealt with in this blog.

The first section of the judgement (below) indicates what the judge believes are the failures that need to be addressed through an appropriate safety process:

  • Communication;
  • Instruction;
  • Provision of appropriate supplies;
  • The importance of labelling; and
  • Following procedures and guidelines

Some readers may find that this prosecution could make an interesting case study for safety management.

Kevin Jones

Justice North found that the Federal OHS Act was breached by the Commonwealth government through the Chief of Army.  The respondent

(a) supplied Cadet Nathan Fazal Francis, Cadet Nivae Anandaganeshan and Cadet Gene van den Broek with one-man combat ration packs (CRP’s) containing a satay beef food pouch which contained peanuts or peanut protein for their consumption despite having been informed that the said cadets were allergic to peanuts;
and, in so doing, it failed to:

(b) warn parents of the [Australian Army Cadets] AAC cadets about the contents of the CRP’s;

(c) warn AAC cadets about the contents of CRP’s;

(d) warn AAC cadets with pre-existing food allergies of the contents of CRP’s;

(e) make appropriate use of information provided by AAC cadets and parents of AAC cadets regarding pre-existing or known allergic conditions and correlate that information with the potential risk of being exposed to allergies through the supply of food contained in CRP’s;

(f) ensure that the contents of CRP’s allocated to AAC cadets did not include food products or allergens that may have triggered allergic responses by removing or requiring the removal of peanut-based food products from CRP’s;

(g) prevent distribution or provision of peanut-based food products to AAC cadets with pre-existing allergic reactions by:

i. inspecting the contents of CRP’s to be allocated to those individual AAC cadets who had given notice of allergic conditions;

ii. isolating cadets with pre-existing medical conditions and/or notified food allergies at the time of distribution of CRP’s and issuing them with CRP’s that did not contain peanut products or other food allergens;

iii. removing all CRP’s known to contain peanut protein or other food allergens from circulation amongst AAC cadets;

iv. requiring all AAC cadets with notified allergic conditions to provide their own food supplies;

(h) issue any or any adequate instructions or provide adequate supervision regarding distribution of CRP’s;

(i) issue any adequate instructions or provide adequate supervision regarding consumption of contents of CRP’s;

(j) prevent the consumption of CRP’s containing food allergens by AAC cadets with food allergies;

(k) distribute CRP’s after consulting or considering pre-existing medical conditions; and

(l) take into consideration the findings of a report dated 22 November 1996 by the Australian National Audit Office entitled ‘Management of Food Provisioning in the Australian Defence Force’.

Beaconsfield Coronial Inquest Walkout

On 22 July 2008 the Tasmanian Coroner continued with his inquest into the death of Larry Knight at the Beaconsfield mine on 25 April 2006. Shortly after the start the legal team representing the mine walked out. Newspaper, radio and TV have covered this extraordinary development. Other reports in SafetyAtWorkBlog told of the lawyers’ attempts…

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