Beaconsfield inquiry seems quiet but there’s conspiracy fodder

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Several readers have asked for information about what is happening at the Tasmanian coronial inquest into the death of Larry Knight at Beaconsfield Mine in 2006.  Since the return of Beaconsfield’s legal team, media reporting has been fairly quiet as expert opinions and risk consultant reports are argued over.  There is considerable effort being expended to determine what the mining company knew and when.

Conspiracy theorists could benefit from reading about the late appearance of, apparently, important documents.  The underground mine manager, Pat Ball, had taken notes at mine meetings where seismicity issues were discussed in 2005 and 2006.  The notes were only presented to the inquest last week as Mr Ball had only just relocated them.  As these notes were missing, the previous investigations, such as that by Greg Mellick, could not draw on the information.

This has lead the legal team for Larry Knight’s family and the Australian Workers’ Union to issue

“a request for all such documents, later defined to include all notes, memoranda, minutes and diary entries relating to daily head of department and weekly planning meetings between October 9, 2005 and April 25, 2006.  This includes any such documents generated by Mr Ball, mine manager Matthew Gill and chief geologist Peter Hills.”

Conspiracy or stuff-up?  Always go for the stuff-up first.

Is OHS a profession?

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There are some in the safety profession who question whether OHS practitioners have the right to describe ourselves as professionals.   Comparisons have been made to the medical profession where one is either a doctor or not, a nurse or not, a medical practitioner or not.  This is an unfair comparison as the medical profession has a history going back centuries.  As a regulated profession, the history is shorter but that it is a profession is unarguable.

A profession focusing on safety is a recent development, only a couple of decades old.  I would mark the new approach to safety from Lord Robens but others may take it from Australian OHS legislation in the mid-1980s. (An argument could be made for the beginning to be from the increase in safety engineering in the 1960’s and maybe even Ralph Nader’s safety activism).  The safety profession is still embryonic.

The added challenge is that additional hazards and social safety issues seem to be appearing much faster than happened decades ago, as manufacturing processes change much quicker and society applies more psychosocial hazards in a work context.

Maybe it is not yet a profession but it is becoming one and perhaps we need to focus on the journey more than on the result.  Business and legal concerns have evolved just as rapidly as our approaches to OHS and becoming a profession is more complex than it was previously.  The level of business regulation, government oversight and reporting has never seemed higher. 

Previously business and employers could be trusted in some business areas.  In the early 21st century trust has evaporated.

One element of the comparison between the OHS profession and medicine is particularly useful to consider.  It is now an accepted practice that if a serious health matter is diagnosed we seek a second opinion.  We don’t seek a second opinion from safety advisers even though that “profession” is far less regulated than medicine.  That seems an absurd business practice to me.

For a primer on what is meant by a profession, Wikipedia is a good place to start.  It’s not authoritative but it is free and always a good place to start.

Construction industry bullies

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Workplace bullying is a possibility in all workplaces but more so in the blue collar construction industry than elsewhere, it seems. 

The front page report in The Australian confirms the blue-collar bully stereotype that the former conservative government tried to gain political mileage from, most noticeably in political advertising, but also in political rhetoric over the years.

The article reports threatening language and physical imposition towards inspectors from the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).  There was verbal abuse and insults to both the male and female inspectors.  John Lloyd, head of the ABCC, is quoted as writing in a letter to the building company Brookfield Multiplex, that his inspectors:

“”feared for their safety and believed they would be assaulted if they had left the vehicle”.

The article also says that John Lloyd believes the incident, being investigated by the police, to be

“the worst abuse encountered by his inspectors in 1400 building site visits.”

The ABCC has draconian powers and there is, obviously, tension between the ABCC and construction workers however there is no excuse for workers breaching their OHS obligations to visitors to their worksite, regardless of the organisation the visitors represent.

The industry and unions have tried to eradicate it for safety and political reasons but on some sites it persists.  The Construction, Forestry, Mining & Energy Union says that no CFMEU employee or officer was involved in the incident.  That is good news but it was very likely that many of the participants were CFMEU members.  The union should remind its members that the ABCC inspectors have the right to carry on their work tasks in a safe and healthy manner even if their presence is objectionable.

The construction workers involved in this incident are doing their case against the ABCC no good at all by their threatening behaviour.  Indeed it allows the Labor government the chance to use similar rhetoric to that used by the Liberal Party – construction industry bullies and union thugs.  Let’s hear the CFMEU discipline their members on their OHS obligations to others.

Legal games at the Beaconsfield inquest

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The legal team representing the Beaconsfield mine at the inquest into the death of Larry Knight have returned early – much to the annoyance of the Coroner, Rod Chandler.  The team headed up by David Neal SC returned to the Launceston inquest on 28 August 2008 according to The Australian newspaper. 

It’s an extraordinary development due to the circumstances of their withdrawal after their opening submission.  Rod Chandler is quoted as saying

“In my view, to withdraw in this manner showed disrespect to this court. More critically, it showed gross disrespect to Mr Knight’s family. Such insensitive conduct does not, in my opinion, have any place in this jurisdiction.”

The newspaper went on to report that

“Mr Chandler said Dr Neal had failed to explain what had changed since the mine claimed on July 22 that it could not assist the inquest any further than its opening submission.”

To those who have said in comments to this blog that the lawyers are astute poker players, I would ask what benefit the legal team derived from getting the Coroner off-side?

To those who said that sitting through an inquest unnecessarily is too expensive, I would ask, is it now less expensive?

Lawyers usually have some sense of public feeling, media appearance or image.  If this team had such skills, they forgot to apply them in this case.  Let’s hope that their decisions do not lead to a legal cock-up.

“National cuisine” threatens work health promotion

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For many years, workplaces in Australia have been promoting healthy diets as a way of improving the general health of the workforce and hopefully reduce illness.  This strategy was easier to develop when there was large manufacturers who had in-house canteens but it was always a struggle.

In 2008, the Victorian Government launched WorkHealth, a program that it claimed was a world-first, and will focus on improving general health by targeting the workplace.  It is understood that the pilot program of worker health assessments begins on Monday, 1 September 2008.

The Herald-Sun newspaper on 26 August 2008 illustrates a major cultural barrier that the workplace health initiative faces.  In an article entitled “Aussie blokes bite back with humble pie”, the marketing manager of Patties (Australia’s biggest pie manufacturer), Mark Connolly said 

“Blokes are sick of being told what they can and can’t eat. They’ve had a gutful of it and are going back to living by their own rules. If they feel like having a pie and a few beers, they’ll have a pie and a few beers.” 

In 2008, Patties has seen a 10% increase in pie sales and an 8.6% increase in profit. Patties has made available a nutritional comparison of their products.  Perhaps, WorkHealth can seek additional sponsorship support from a pie maker.