A rough ride on OHS

Since I heard about the Gaia hypothesis in the 1980s, I have read most of James Lovelock‘s books.  I was confronted by his argument that nuclear power is undervalued as one of the cleanest and sustainable sources of power, as I have grown up listening to anti-nuclear activists like Helen Caldicott and being frightened by films like Fail Safe and Threads.  I am not sure I agree with Lovelock but I respect him.  In his latest book, though, he makes a couple of negative references to occupational health and safety (OHS) that are cheap shots, unfair or disappointing.

Lovelock says, on page 2 of “A Rough Ride to the Future” that the chemical industry is “now mainly run by an intelligent and usually responsible technocracy” but that

“…we may be hampered in our attempts to solve the large problems [of pollution] by the absurdly zealous application of health and safety laws.” (emphasis added)

In discussing oxygen levels in the atmosphere and how its regulation is so important, Lovelock says, in parentheses,

“We are fortunate there is no inbuilt health and safety system in Gaia, otherwise the dangers of fires would have led to the banning of its production.” (page 13)

This comment, moreso than the former, shows Lovelock misunderstands OHS regulation and application.  Earlier in the book he praises the banning of chlorofluorocarbons on climatic reasons and then, absurdly, implies that OHS would advocate the banning of oxygen. It’s a cheap shot.  OHS is about trying to eliminate the risk of harm and by investigating the source of the hazard, usually through the scientific method. 

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Safe Work Method Statement templates cause concern

On 30 November 2012, SAI Global announced a commercial arrangement with SafetyCulture for the sale of generic Safe Work Method Statements (SWMS), particularly for high-risk industries. This has caused something of a stir with some Australian safety professionals who claim that this runs contrary to good safety practice. The controversy of SWMS in Australia is a hot topic and one that is unlikely to be resolved soon, as it goes to the heart of some of the safety red-tape objections from the business sector.

SAI Global announced:

“SAI Global Limited (ASX: SAI) has signed a distribution agreement with SafetyCulture Pty Ltd one of Australia’s leading providers of Occupational, Health and Safety information and materials, to publish and sell their “Safe Work Method Statements”.

These Safe Work Method Statements, developed by SafetyCulture, are templates documenting procedures and methods for safely executing common tasks and operations on construction sites.

These templates cover a wide range of potentially dangerous tasks and activities which:

  • Save construction companies time and effort drafting various OH&S procedures for different applications.
  • Are available in Word format and can be easily tailored to meet the requirements for specific construction sites.
  • Are based on industry expertise and latest OH&S best-practice for high-risk construction work.”

SafetyAtWorkBlog has written previously about the commercial situation and strategy of SAI Global and its relationship with Standards Australia. SAI Global has always been a commercial organisation that has marketed the work undertaken by Standards Australia. This has never sat well with many safety professionals as some, including SafetyAtWorkBlog, have argued that any Standards referenced in workplace safety legislation should be free or at a reduced cost due to their role in preventing incidents and harm. Continue reading “Safe Work Method Statement templates cause concern”

Inside Australian PM’s political problems is a nugget of workplace safety

Prime Minister Gillard (centre) and others at Government House Canberra in March 2012

The Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has been under intense media pressure over an issue concerning her conduct as a lawyer around 17 years ago.

It involves legal work for unions, her personal relationship at the time with a union official who has been described as “dodgy” and of most relevance to this blog, workplace safety.

Missed in all the debate is that the workplace safety issue seems to support the assertions of many in the business and industry associations that OHS is frequently used by trade unions as an excuse for action in other areas.  These other areas are usually industrial relations but in this instance OHS was used to mask a unionist’s alleged misuse of member and industry funds. Continue reading “Inside Australian PM’s political problems is a nugget of workplace safety”

UK’s approach to OHS reform is flawed by short-term political strategy

England’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, has described OHS as a “monster” in a speech to small business owners on 5 January 2012. It is important to note the PM’s comments prior to his monster reference that have not been repeated in the mainstream press. He refers to

“… a great big machine of health and safety that has built up over years.”

Cameron feels that he needs to address an OHS regulatory system and enforcement strategies that have become too complex for, particularly, small business to comply with. Part of his solution is to exempt the self-employed, in some specific sectors, from OHS laws. This is a questionable decision as it effectively establishes a two-tier safety management regime and sets a precedent for other similar sectors to lobby for an exemption from other, perceived, onerous laws.

It may be that OHS laws in the UK have become overly complicated over time but the role of the media must be considered in that it has focussed on many absurd managerial decisions that have resulted from a skewed understanding of OHS and risk. Frequently the media reports have no relation to OHS laws and all to do with an increasing litigious society and the pursuit of money through, potentially spurious, public liability insurance claims.

In the 5 January 2012 speech Cameron states that

“…the key about health and safety is not just the rules and the laws and the regulations – it is also the culture of fear many businesses have about health and safety.” (emphasis added)

Cameron explains his answer for reducing this fear of health and safety, the capping of fees that lawyers can earn from legal action against businesses on behalf of their clients, usually, employees. There is no fear of health and safety, it is a fear of litigation. Cameron is not on about OHS law reform, his concern is about “unnecessary” litigation costs. This is unlikely to be reduced by cutting the budget of the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) which must reduce services as the HSE resources have been contracting for some time. Continue reading “UK’s approach to OHS reform is flawed by short-term political strategy”

The intersection of OHS and public liability becomes more urgent

In mid-November 2010, a gymnasium in Queensland was fined A$70,000 following the death of a 19-year-old Michelle Maitland.  Ms Maitland fell and hit her head on a part of the floor that was not covered by a safety mat.  The case has been regularly reported in Queensland media since the death in June 2009 and the reports provide additional details of the fall and the hazard control measures that could be considered.

Workplace Health & Safety Queensland was unable to provide SafetyAtWorkBlog with details of the case or comment as the gymnasium has lodged an appeal against the judgement.

This tragic death is the latest illustration of a challenge that businesses and OHS regulators have faced regularly – the line between public liability and occupational health and safety law.   Businesses have applied a rule of thumb where injuries related to work activities are OHS matters but risks presented to customers or visitors who are in the workplace have been dealt with through public liability insurance.  The Maitland case shows that businesses may face an insurance payout as well as an OHS prosecution.

The significance of this demarcation will greatly increase with the introduction in Australia of new laws that redefine a “workplace” as wherever work is being undertaken.   Continue reading “The intersection of OHS and public liability becomes more urgent”

IOSH responds to OHS misperceptions

If ever there was an indication that the UK’s Institute of Occupational Safety & Health (IOSH) is the leading OHS organisation around the world, its entry into the OHS debate generated by the new UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, and the inquiry into OHS by Lord Young confirms it.  “Rebalancing Act?” is a terrific summary of the major points of contention in the debate.

But, IOSH is also pursuing a reform that should have a much greater impact on the OHS profession.  It is establishing a professional accreditation scheme that should set the benchmark for other OHS professional associations elsewhere, particularly in Australia.  The scheme is not revolutionary but the process IOSH has used to build the scheme is admirable, especially when compared with the Australian HaSPA program that has stagnated, apparently, due to organisational politics. Continue reading “IOSH responds to OHS misperceptions”

Gods and Leaders – the fantasy distraction of the safety profession

For years, safety professionals have whinged about their profession and their skills not receiving the attention of Chief Executive Officers and board members.  They take some solace in the occasional missive that executives understand leadership and, by extension, safety leadership but the reality is that OHS professionals do not understand CEOs.

CEOs are Olympian Gods and OHS professionals live amongst the crowd of citizens in the valleys.  Occasionally a God will go slumming and have sex with one of us but it does not mean that they respect us or, even that they will remember our name.  If we are lucky, they may remember that we were welcoming.

CEO attitudes were discussed in the Australian Financial Review on 21 May 2010, in an article about corporate governance Continue reading “Gods and Leaders – the fantasy distraction of the safety profession”