Safety, Maintenance and Business Continuity

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America and Europe have a huge advantage over Australia – they know how to respond to a broad range of disasters. Australia has had its share of bushfires and cyclones but because the country is so large and the geology so stable, the large metropolitan centres of Sydney and Melbourne have been spared. This stability has led to less emphasis on the fragility of infrastructure by business operators than there should be.

America and Europe have a huge advantage over Australia – they know how to respond to a broad range of disasters. Australia has had its share of bushfires and cyclones but because the country is so large and the geology so stable, the large metropolitan centres of Sydney and Melbourne have been spared. This stability has led to less emphasis on the fragility of infrastructure by business operators than there should be.

In the Herald-Sun newspaper on 12 April 2008, there was a cover story on the organizational neglect of the State’s electrical infrastructure. This was emphasised recently when it took 6 days for many homes to have power restored after a serious storm, a storm that was of the level that Sydney experiences regularly and that the tropical areas of Australia and designed to withstand.

A government inquiry will be held into the delay but this is unnecessary. Privatised corporations are notoriously neglectful of the need to maintain infrastructure services as there is little profit in holding resources in reserve for large-scale disasters. Numerous inquiries into the disasters on the privatised rail networks in England have shown the corporate values of privatised transport companies, some of whom have investments in Australia.

The poor and unsafe conditions of the infrastructure are not the fault of the companies if we take it that their raison d’etre is to make profit. But we cannot extend the same understanding to governments who forsake the public good for the sake of an improved bottom line.

Poor maintenance leads to unsafe conditions which lead to disasters. As safety professionals we need to stress that adequate levels of maintenance are a core part of any preventative strategy. Not only will it reduce the social impact of any disaster but it maintains a robust corporate economy, reduces employees’ exposure to trauma and establishes a company as an important community asset.

Safety Professionals and Social Safety

Many OHS professionals however come from academic, or office or technical backgrounds, who have mostly experienced industrial relations as barriers to the sensible safety control measures they recommend. Frequently union and employee stances don’t make OHS sense but they make perfectly sound IR sense. It is this dichotomy that is behind those safety professionals and employers who accuse unions of “using” OHS to further industrial relations ends.

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Many OHS professionals however come from academic, or office or technical backgrounds, who have mostly experienced industrial relations as barriers to the sensible safety control measures they recommend. Frequently union and employee stances don’t make OHS sense but they make perfectly sound IR sense. It is this dichotomy that is behind those safety professionals and employers who accuse unions of “using” OHS to further industrial relations ends.

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Accountability for industrial accidents in Malaysia

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This last week, the New Strait Times reported on an initiative by the Malaysian government to increase companies’ responsibility for workplace safety by making “professionals” “responsible for accidents in the workplace”.

It may be a terminological argument about whether safety professionals or risk managers or company directors are to be held personally responsible for safety infringements and incidents

This last week, the New Strait Times reported on an initiative by the Malaysian government to increase companies’ responsibility for workplace safety by making “professionals” “responsible for accidents in the workplace”.

It may be a terminological argument about whether safety professionals or risk managers or company directors are to be held personally responsible for safety infringements and incidents – a discussion that is echoed in many jurisdictions around the world. It is likely to result in some reassessment of management responsibility in Malaysian companies. I would also speculate that the applications for OHS manager jobs may decline in Malaysia.

The article quotes the Human Resources Minister Datuk Dr S. Subramaniam as saying “If a crane accident occurs at a construction site, we want the engineers involved in ensuring the crane’s safety to be answerable.”

The initiative is clearly one that is directly related to the limited resources available to a safety regulator when every business is a workplace. Again this is a problem shared by regulators worldwide.

What is interesting is that this position has not (yet) evolved into one of corporate killing or industrial manslaughter legislation or corporate accountability, as it has elsewhere. Always the case by employer groups is that such a level of accountability would deter businesses from entering activities which would present an unacceptable level of risk, thereby harming economic growth. I suspect that the level of economic growth in Malaysia and the Asian region is likely to keep the debate going for quite some time without any resolution.

Note: a short video of  Datuk Dr S. Subramaniam speaking at the April 2008 conference is available HERE at the 2.43 minute mark

Level Crossings, Driver Behaviour and Politicians

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Victoria has experienced several more level crossing incidents in late-March 2008. The significance of one of the recent incidents is that a vehicle driver survived, as happened with the Kerang incident which resulted in multiple fatalities. Curiously, the most recent survival also involved a vehicle colliding with the side of a train already on the railway crossing.

In this case there were no fatalities as the train was freight. But the driver’s comments are interesting. 59-year-old Laurie Heffernan was reported by AAP as admitting using the crossing, 1.5 kilometres from his residence, over 30,000 times and has recommended that freight trains have reflective strips on the sides and that engines should have flashing lights. The incident occurred on a misty morning at 7am.

On radio interviews, Heffernan has also blamed the layout of the road and rail crossing and the proximity of sheds that obscure part of the view of the crossing. This seems a peculiar excuse for someone who must use the crossing on a daily basis.

Yes, Heffernan was travelling slower than the speed limit. Yes, the collision was a glancing blow, but the collision still bounced him “back a bit and it spun me”. He says “If I’d have been travelling faster I probably would’ve gone under it… I would’ve done a lot worse, I mightn’t be talking with you right now.”

His responses, sadly, support the Victorian government’s push for increased driver awareness of level crossings.

The crossing, at Terang, has no flashing lights or boom gates but has recently had rumble strips installed. There was no indication whether Mr Heffernan noticed the rumble strips but he stated they are “useless”.

I have great respect for Victoria’s Transport Minister, Lynne Kosky, having met her before she became a parliamentarian, but her comments after this most recent incident are alarming and ill-advised

Her government established a parliamentary inquiry into level crossings as a result of an increase in incidents and fatalities. That inquiry has received many submissions and has had its timeline expanded to October 2008. The inquiry is not a court case so is not sub-judice but the Minister has knee-capped the inquiry by stating that various safety control measures are not needed or cannot be afforded for rural crossings. Her comments could make some of the legitimate findings of the inquiry look stupid. The inquiry cannot now recommend boom gates on every rail crossing. It is highly unlikely that grade separations could ever be seriously recommended.

How such an intelligent parliamentarian could place such limitations on the inquiry, or her advisers let her say such things, is very surprising. In this circumstance politician-speak of “let’s wait and hear what the rail safety experts in the parliamentary inquiry will say when they report to Parliament in October” would have been appropriate.

Kosky is forever going to have to explain to the families of victims of rail incidents why one particular rail crossing had less control measures than another crossing down the track. If she had applied the political nous that I know she has, she would have increased the validity of the parliamentary inquiry that her own Labor Government established.

As it is she has shown that it is not only America that has politicians who resemble Tonya Harding.

Is health promotion a workplace safety matter?

......OHS professionals focus on the hazards to workers that are generated by the workplace or the work undertaken. Getting fat is not necessarily a workplace hazard although recent evidence in the United Kingdom shows that a sedentary occupation, for instance sitting in front of VDU, can lead to obesity. (Any parent with a teenage boy and a games console would already know the link). OHS tends to focus on the controllable hazards that are generated by the workplace, such as amputations, dust, noise, manual handling, forklifts, falling, etc......

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……OHS professionals focus on the hazards to workers that are generated by the workplace or the work undertaken. Getting fat is not necessarily a workplace hazard although recent evidence in the United Kingdom shows that a sedentary occupation, for instance sitting in front of VDU, can lead to obesity. (Any parent with a teenage boy and a games console would already know the link). OHS tends to focus on the controllable hazards that are generated by the workplace, such as amputations, dust, noise, manual handling, forklifts, falling, etc……

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