OHS context of leave entitlements

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Family-friendly work initiatives always get increased attention around International Women’s Day.  This is a shame as work/life balance is not gender specific, however the dominant Western family structures make the application of the concept relative to gender.  As long as the matter is perceived as a “women’s issue”, it will struggle for attention in a basically patriarchal society.

Family-friendly work structures are predominantly associated with hours of work and leave entitlements.  These don’t seem to be OHS matters as they are mostly handled through HR or the pay department however there is a link and it is a link that work/life and work/family advocates may use as a strong argument for their cause.

Leave is a worker entitlement for several reasons:

  • Situations may occur where the employee is required to stay home to look after an ill relative;
  • The employee may stay home as they are too sick to work; and
  • The employee may feel they need time away from work to rebalance their lives.

The second point has an OHS relevance because going to work while sick may introduce a hazard to your work colleagues – presenteeism.  In many jurisdictions it is a breach of an employee’s OHS legislative obligations to not generate hazards for their work colleagues or members of the public while at work.

The third point relates to an individual’s management of stress and/or fatigue.

In Australia, some workplaces allow for “doona days” (or for those in the Northern hemisphere’s winter at the moment “duvet days”).  These are days where a workplace and the employee would benefit psychologically from some time-out in order to “reboot”.

It may also be a valid fatigue management mechanism where long hours have been worked to the extent where attending the workplace may present hazards to others, or to themselves by feeling impaired, or have the employee working well below the appropriate level of attentiveness for the job to be properly done.

Leave entitlements, to some extent, form part of the employer’s legislative obligations to have a safe and healthy work environment.  But they also support the worker’s obligations to look after themselves and not present hazards to others.

The OHS element of leave entitlements should be emphasized when discussions of family-friendly workplaces occur.  Not only does it legitimately raise the profile of OHS in business planning, it can add some moral weight to an issue that can get bogged down in industrial relations.

Some readers may want to check out recent presentations to the US Senate in early-March 2009, by various people on the issue of family-friendly work structure.  These include

Eileen Appelbaum, Director of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University,

Dr Heather Boushey, Senior Economist at the Center for American Progress Action Fund,

Rebia Mixon Clay, a home health care worker who cares for her brother in Chicago. (Rebia’s video is below)

Kevin Jones

George W Bush and workplace safety

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In 2001, one of the first legislative actions of George W Bush was to repeal the United States ergonomics standard.  At the end of his presidency there are indications that he is thinking about the regulatory impost of OHS on businesses again.

Crikey.com and others have reminded us of the Bush Administration’s plans concerning the exposure of workers to chemicals

“David Michaels, an epidemiologist and workplace safety professor at George Washington University‘s School of Public Health, said the rule would add another barrier to creating safety standards, in the name of improving them.

“This is a guarantee to keep any more worker safety regulation from ever coming out of OSHA,” Michaels said. “This is being done in secrecy, to be sprung before President Bush leaves office, to cripple the next administration.””

Propublica has reported that new rules that seem to run counter to current fatigue management guidelines elsewhere have been finalised.

“The Department of Transportation has finalized an interim rule for the number of hours a truck driver may spend on the road per day and per week. The rule, which has essentially been in effect since 2004, allows truckers to drive for 11 hours and work no more than 14 consecutive hours each day. They must rest 10 hours between shifts, and may not work more than 60 hours a week.”

An audio report from 2007 on the issue of working hours is available at NPR

It is hard to see the justification for these safety rule changes but these are just two of many changes in place or being finalised in a rush.  Perhaps there is a grander strategy that the bigger perspective will show.  

The actions are disappointing but not without precedent.  It should be remembered that Democrat President, Bill Clinton, took full advantage of the opportunity.

In Australia and elsewhere, the movement to “cut red tape” gathers strength, it just seems that no one yet is applying the US solution of eliminating the regulatory need.

It is sad to see that throughout Bush’s tenure safety advocates and lobbyists  were not able to gain concessions.  It will be doubly difficulty to gain anything that may involve a cost to business in the current economic problems.  

The challenge will be even greater in Australia where the Safe Work Bill has been withdrawn from Parliament and the Government is willing to weaken election commitments, such as on climate change, due to the economic context.

In just over a month’s time, we will see how new President Barack Obama acts on safety; Australia has much longer to wait.

Safe Driving and OHS management impacts

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SafetyAtWorkBlog has always been critical of those OHS professionals who try to explain OHS in comparison with driving.  They are different processes in different environments with different purposes and different rules.

However, there is a section of overlap and this relates to those whose work environment is transport and driving.

Worksafe Victoria has released a “Guide to safe work-related driving“.  This is essential reading for fleet managers, in particular, but good fleet managers would already have OHS as part of their driving policies.

For those of us who have not known how to interpret OHS obligations for our company vehicles, WorkSafe has issued these clarifications:

  • purchasing and maintaining a safe and roadworthy feet
  • ensuring employees have the relevant appropriate driver licences
  • scheduling work to account for speed limits and managing fatigue
  • providing appropriate information and training on work related driving safety
  • monitoring and supervision of the work related driving safety program.

In this type of workplace, workers seem to have as many obligations as employers but WorkSafe has listed for following as employee duties:

  • holding a current, valid drivers licence
  • abiding by all road rules (eg speed limits)
  • refraining from driving if impaired by tiredness or medication
  • reporting any incidents required by the employer’s program
  • carrying out any routine vehicle checks required by the employer.

There are many areas of contemporary life where the OHS obligations can seem absurd but work-related driving has always been a neglected area of workplace safety.  Every time SafetyAtWorkBlog receives notification of traffic incidents, the emergency services are asked whether the vehicle was being used for work purposes.  Unless it is a bus or a chemical tanker, the question is rarely asked or the information recorded at the scene of the crash.  As a result, the data on work-related driving incidents is scant and WorkSafe has done well in applying what there is.

The guide is terrific but it won’t raise the awareness of these necessary business and employee obligations until WorkSafe’s enforcement and investigative resources are included in traffic incidents and until a case law of OHS prosecutions for work-related driving is established.

The practice of having police and criminal prosecutions replacing OHS prosecutions for work-related incidents must end.  A transport vehicle is a mobile workplace and should be treated as such by having prosecutions under the road transport legislation AND OHS laws.  If not, we will be getting more airbags and less hazard elimination.

Politicians’ workplaces

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Western Australian Premier, Alan Carpenter, is to be applauded for stating that the Parliament is a workplace.  This sounds like stating the bleeding obvious but Parliament has often turned a blind eye to this fact.

Certainly, the Premier is in election mode so there is an additional context in this period to everything he says. On 22 August 2008, he was talking about a working bar that exists in the State Parliament and how inappropriate it is. The media reported him saying:

“Parliament House is a work place, the members of parliament should not be able to drink freely during working hours,” Mr Carpenter said.  “Having a bar serving alcohol during working hours is completely out of step with community expectations. It is completely unacceptable that members of parliament are able to sit in a bar in their workplace and drink when they should be working on behalf of the community.”

There may be good reasons for having a bar in a workplace, but it may be inappropriate for workers to use the facility during business hours.  For years, many workplaces have introduced policies concerning drugs and alcohol to, in my opinion primarily, to cover themselves against legal action.  Thankfully such policies can also have a workplace safety role in the reduction of impairment.

Impairment relates to one’s fitness for work and is easiest to understand in the transport industries where one person is responsible for the safety of many members of the public.  But I have never understood why the logical extension of impairment to decision making in other workplaces has not be made.

In a workplace, such as a Parliament, or a goverment building, where decisions are made that will affect the safety and welfare of the public, decisions should be made with no impairment,  Policies should not be decided over a couple of bottles of scotch which was reported to be done by an education minister in Victoria several years ago.  Another politician was “under-the-weather” in Federal parliament some years ago, even though the current Federal Parliament has no bar onthe premises.

Considering that Parliaments are workplaces, the governments should review other hazards that are being addressed in other Australian workplaces.  The top of the list would be reasonable working hours, fatigue and stress.  In most Parliaments, the security issue is being dealt with but workplace bullying could be applicable.

Alan Carpenter’s comments were political statements in an election campaign so they have a dubious weight but let’s start thinking of Parliaments as workplaces and start seeing our politicians as exemplars in OHS.  If safety culture starts with leaders and safety champions, then can we blame workers and business operators who follow our leaders’ examples?

New Guidance on Preventing Fatigue

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Australian OHS authorities have been struggling for many years to address issues of fatigue in the workplace.  Partly this has been because the issue of stress and bullying came to dominate the psycho-social agenda.

The transport industry has pushed fatigue into the unavoidable hazard basket.  New South Wales’ experience with this issue has been particularly interesting and continues to do so. France’s experiment with a maximum set of working hours, partly on the grounds of occupational health and safety, has proven to be a brave experiment.  The Australian Trade Unions’ campaign on “reasonable hours” had safety echoes.

But, as with so many long-term OHS initiatives, Australia waited until England’s Health & Safety Executive (HSE) did all the leg work before tailoring fatigue guidelines to its own circumstances. At least this guideline acknowledges the HSE’s work.

On 4 August 2008, WorkSafe Victoria and WorkCover New South Wales published their guidelines on “Fatigue – Prevention in the Workplace”.  As far as it goes, it is a good addition to OHS information and, if its existence is publicised sufficiently, should place fatigue on the radar of OHS professionals.  Prior to this guide, the only fatigue information that WorkSafe produced was concerning fatigue in the forestry industry in March 2004! – hardly something that any other industry would see as relevant to themselves.

It is worth comparing some of the basic concepts that the OHS regulators have put forward.

The differing definitions reflect the perceptions of the OHS regulators, the state of knowledge at the time, the approach taken by the organisation consulted in the development of the guidances, they anticipate the level of resources allocated to the promotion and enforcement of fatigue management.  The contrast between the Victorian “definitions” of 2004 and 2008 are particularly marked.

Guidelines only go so far and then it is up to business to consider the advice and decide what to do.  The success of the new fatigue guideline won’t be in evidence for several years and, of course, that relies on the very dim chance of anyone undertaking an assessment of the guideline at all.

There are several issues that I think should be considered when reading the new guidance:

The role of the second job.

Second jobs, often undertaken by shift workers are assessed, if at all, for potential conflicts of interest.  The impediment in being “fit for work” in the principal employment is never assessed.  This guideline, in a roundabout manner, identifies this risk. 

The need for nightshift.

Often nightshift, or specific shift rosters, are traditional structures.  “This is the way it has always been done”.  The existence of nightshift in every workplace should be reassessed on a regular basis as economic factors change and as knowledge of the extent of harm presented by nightshift accumulates.

Overlap of Human Resources and OHS

I have bleated on for years about the silo mentality of the OHS and HR disciplines.  The demarcations have been eroding for ages in the real world of business and this trend has been increases as more and more psychosocial hazards are placed within the OHS context.  But the HR professional and the OHS professional continue to speak different languages and with competing agenda.

Fatigue cannot be successfully managed without a common understanding between HR and OHS.

Impairment

Impairment has been a concept floating around the trade unions for some time and they have never found the right approach to getting this on the OHS agenda.  Much of the content in the new fatigue guideline is broader than fatigue and deals with interaction with our employees and colleagues.  The guideline clearly identifies issues from outside work that may exacerbate fatigue in the workplace. (That other demarcation between work and non-work hazards does not apply to fatigue)

Fatigue impairs judgement as well as actions.  Mental fatigue is applicable to a broader range of occupations than physical fatigue and reaches into occupations that are not familiar with OHS, such as judges and politicians, whose important decisions must not be impaired.

 

Fatigue should not be one of the workplace hazards that are increasing shuffled off into the miasma that is work/life balance and wellness.  It relates directly to the traditional areas of OHS but can only be controlled by non-traditional approaches.  There lies the challenge.