Safety conference protest

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Janet Holmes a Court speaking at the Safety In Action Conference 2009  

 

 

Janet Holmes a Court speaking at the Safety In Action Conference 2009

On 31 March 2009, Australian trade unionists (pictured below)  protested outside the Safety In Action Conference.   The crowd was objecting to the presence of Ms Janet Holmes a Court, the chair of  John Holland, as a keynote speaker.  As Dave Noonan, CFMEU Construction Division national secretary, put it

“It is an outrage that a company with a dismal safety record is the key note speaker at a major safety conference,” Mr Noonan said. “John Holland needs to stop talking about safety and start working with the unions to make their worksites safe.” 

Many of the conference delegates who were attended a breakfast seminar were oblivious of the protest outside.  According to a media statement from the Safety Institute of Australia national president, Barry Silburn

“We share the same goal as the unions – to bring safety failures into the public arena and work towards preventing more deaths – so we wholeheartedly support their efforts and were pleased to see them at the conference today,” Mr Silburn said. “We certainly don’t condone the systems failures at John Holland. Janet Holmes a Court’s presentation was an opportunity to hear what went wrong and of her plans to improve those systems. She acknowledged that John Holland had made mistakes and gave delegates the opportunity to learn from them.”  

Recently, the trade union movement has become more strident in its protests about John Holland’s move to the national workers compensation scheme, the only construction contractor to choose this option.  The union argues that safety on John  Holland sites has deteriorated since the move.  They also complain over John Holland restricting union access to their worksites.

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Safety In Action Conference

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For three days next week, SafetyAtWorkBlog will be reporting from the Safety In Action Conference in Melbourne. This is the 12th annual conference and it remains the dominant OHS conference on the Australian circuit for duration, affordability and credibility.

For three days next week, SafetyAtWorkBlog will be reporting from the Safety In Action Conference in Melbourne.  This is the 12th annual conference and it remains the dominant OHS conference on the Australian circuit for duration, affordability and credibility.

More information on the conference is available at www.siaconference.com.au.  Check out the videos below on this page for an introduction to some of the speakers.

Contact me through my email if you are going to be at the conference and want to meet up.

Kevin Jones

Death of a safety leader

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Last weekend Dr Eric Wigglesworth passed away after a long illness. Eric was a strong advocate for safety education and research over decades in Australia. I heard Eric speak several times in my professional career and remember being taught about his incident theories at university.

Over the last few years his profile has increased in the public sphere as he was the (only) Australian expert on the issues related to level crossing incidents.

Last weekend Dr Eric Wigglesworth passed away after a long illness.  Eric was a strong advocate for safety education and research over decades in Australia.  I heard Eric speak several times in my professional career and remember being taught about his incident theories at university.

Over the last few years his profile has increased in the public sphere as he was the (only) Australian expert on the issues related to level crossing incidents.

According to a media statement issued on behalf of the Safety Institute of Australia, in which Eric was an Honorary Fellow,

“Throughout the last 60 years, Eric has been at the fore of strategic thinking in applied accident prevention. While he had many, many interests, his work on railway level crossing accidents was his passion throughout much of his professional life. Reading the recent Victorian Government Report into level crossing accidents, you could be forgiven for thinking Eric was the only one to have input to the inquiry, given how often his opinions and ideas are quoted. It is yet another testament to how highly he was respected,” according to Dr Geoff Dell, Dean of the Safety Institute of Australia College of Fellows.

“Doubtless, the strongest tenet of his career was his often-voiced belief in the need for applied, researcher-driven safety research to underpin decision-making by industry and government, and to provide the basis for effective safety education.”

I have often been critical of Australia not having a safety figurehead.  Eric was the closest to such a position in academia.  Now Australia needs someone to take up the role and provide it with a public face.

Let’s hope that safety professionals don’t forget the pioneers of their discipline.

Kevin Jones

FUNERAL UPDATE

Eric’s funeral will be held on 27 march 2009 at the Monash University Religious Centre, Clayton Campus, at 10.00am.

 

A sport’s culture of excessive alcohol at work functions

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Each November safety publications carry guidances and warnings about unacceptable conduct at company Christmas parties.  Often these warnings are around moderating alcohol consumption and showing due respect to others.  One of the most recent legal advisories was issued in late-2008 by Maria Saraceni of the Australian law firm, Deacons.

This week in Sydney the National Rugby League (NRL)  faced its latest controversy when Brett Stewart of the Manly club was charged with sexual assault at a work function.  The NRL today issued harsh penalties on both Stewart (five match ban) and the club ($100,000).  To understand the context of the penalties and the media hoo-hah surrounding this it would be necessary to look at the many instances of assault and abuse associated with rugby league, and other male-dominated sports, in Australia.

The issue has remained largely on the sports pages of the newspapers except in New South Wales.  The fact that a sporting club was involved and a sport with a sad history in this area has dominated reporting and the OHS, safety management and employer liability angle has been lost in the rush.

The NRL media statement (no direct link available), quoted in part by the ABC, shows that the NRL CEO, David Gallop, is well aware of the safety management issues.

“Brett could not have been in a more high profile position of trust for the game on the eve of a season than he was last week and we believe he should have recognized the honour that he was given and the responsibility that went with it,” NRL Chief Executive, Mr David Gallop, said today.  “By any estimation there was an abuse of alcohol in the aftermath of a club function that has led in some part to the game being placed under enormous pressure.

“The players and the clubs need to know that we are not going to accept that.

“The Manly club has today delivered its report into the function and the measures simply weren’t sufficient to stop drinking getting out of hand in the case of some of the players. Brett was both refused service of alcohol and asked leave the premises.”

Section 20 (2) of the NRL Code of Conduct which states:

“Every person bound by this Code shall, whether or not he is attending an official function arranged for the NRL, the NRL Competition, the Related Competitions, Representative Matches, the ARL Competitions or a Club, conduct himself at all times in public in a sober, courteous and professional manner.”

Peter Fitzsimmons explains why the general conduct of rugby players needs changing.

“They [rugby league clubs] must fix it because they are a powerful tribe within our community, and that community has had a gutful not just of the atrocities, but of the NRL promising to fix it, to educate them, to discipline them, blah, blah, blah, year after year, with no results.”

Kevin Jones

Company directors and OHS obligations

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Since the final report of Australia’s Review into Model OHS Law, discussion has been remarkably quiet.  The ACTU was scheduled to meet for discussions on the report last Monday and no public statements have been made.  Most of the labour law firms have been quiet also.  It is fair to say that most are trying to digest the 480 page report.

But one employer group has provided an opinion piece in the business pages of The Age newspaper on March 2 2009.  The article says little that is new but it is mischievous in some of its comments. 

John  Colvin, CEO of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, writes of his concerns about increased exposure for the Institute’s members.  Colvin is concerned that upcoming OHS laws may be unprincipled and counterproductive.

The Model OHS Law report has said that it supports the statement of OHS principles as are already in place in the Victorian OHS legislation.  According to WorkSafe Victoria

“The Act sets out the key principles, duties and rights in relation to occupational health and safety. The general nature of the duties imposed by the Act means that they cover a very wide variety of circumstances, do not readily date and provide considerable flexibility for a duty holder to determine what needs to be done to comply.”

These principles are

4. The principles of health and safety protection

(1)    The importance of health and safety requires that employees, other persons at work and members of the public be given the highest level of protection against risks to their health and safety that is reasonably practicable in the circumstances.

(2)    Persons who control or manage matters that give rise or may give rise to risks to health or safety are responsible for eliminating or reducing those risks so far as is reasonably practicable.

(3)    Employers and self-employed persons should be proactive, and take all reasonably practicable measures, to ensure health and safety at workplaces and in the conduct of undertakings.

(4)    Employers and employees should exchange information and ideas about risks to health and safety and measures that can be taken to eliminate or reduce those risks.

(5)    Employees are entitled, and should be encouraged, to be represented in relation to health and safety issues.

The article is mischievous in a number of areas.  Colvin mentions how the current laws vary from state to state.  He mentions that

Some carry personal criminal liability for directors, even where they may not have had any personal involvement in a breach. In some states, they reverse the onus of proof, removing the presumption of innocence, and offer narrow legal defences and limited appeal rights.” (my emphasis)

Colvin is talking primarily about New South Wales, the State that everyone agrees has the OHS law that is most onerous for employers.  However, the New South Wales union movement has been remarkably quiet and flexible on the issue of its OHS laws.  There has been some rhetoric for the benefit of its members and to retain some ideological “face” but the union movement across Australia is coming to accept the reality of better OHS outcomes from nationally harmonised legislation.  

Repeatedly the National OHS Law Review panel stated that it has based its decisions on the structure of the Victorian legislation as, for one reason, it has undergone the most recent legal review.  Colvin’s focus on New South Wales OHS law is outdated, reflective, and unhelpful.

Colvin mentions a survey that found

“..more than 65 per cent said the risk of personal liability occasionally made them take an overly cautious approach in the boardroom and another 13 per cent said this happened frequently. Almost two-thirds felt this had inhibited an optimal business decision to a medium to high degree.”

This indicates that the risk of being prosecuted on OHS breaches is being discussed at board level – great result.  Whether this translates to the board improving the OHS performance of their company is doubtful as Colvin’s article implies that directors are looking at ways of avoiding responsibility and liability rather than accepting the reality of their OHS obligations and working to improve them.

Colvin says that

“Directors should not be held criminally liable for a company’s misconduct simply because they are a director.”

Directors are not prosecuted for OHS breaches because of their status or position.  They are prosecuted because of the decisions that they make and the ramifications of those decisions.  If a director is dismissive of OHS issues and palms them off to someone else in the organisation and an incident occurs, should not the director be called to account for why they considered the safety of their workers to be unimportant, even when for over thirty years directors and executives have had responsibility for OHS compliance?

Colvin believes that holding directors accountable implies that directors have more control over the actions of their employers than they do.  Current business and management theories promote the position that directors should be more in touch with what is happening on the shopfloor.  The theories promote informed leadership and an increased awareness of how the company and its people work, they promote a level of engagement that creates a positive workplace culture and displays leadership.   Colvin seems to be encouraging the opposite.

He ends his article with

“More fundamentally, it unfairly treats directors more harshly under the law than the rest of the community.”

He misunderstands the application and aims of OHS law.  All people in a workplace have a responsibility to ensure a safe and healthy workplace for themselves, for employees and for members of public on and off their worksites.  Directors have more detailed obligations, but not less, because they have control of production and benefit more from the success of the company than do the employees. 

Ultimately, Colvin’s article reflects the misunderstanding of OHS that directors and companies have had for decades.  Companies need to realise that the best performing companies in OHS, and those with the best productivity, are those that have embraced their obligations for safety and have incorporated the principles within their own culture. 

The review into model OHS law has indicated the way of the future and company directors would be well-served to realise this and get on board.  Being left behind will benefit no one, especially the shareholders.

Kevin Jones