Prevention of depression is better than treatment

Depression as an occupational illness is one of the most difficult hazards faced by managers and safety professionals.  Depression is hard to understand and it is often difficult to recognise an employee who suffers from the condition, let alone, figuring out how the workplace may contribute to the illness.

[Mental health issues are going to receive increased attention in Australia following the naming of the Australian of the Year, Professor Patrick McGorry.]

A recent article in Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine reports on a study that looked at “the relationship between antidepressant treatment and productivity costs”. Continue reading “Prevention of depression is better than treatment”

Unintended consequences of inadequate preparation

The Australian Government instigated a rebate scheme f0r ceiling insulation for domestic homes in order to the climatic impacts of heating one’s home.  The rebates effectively make insulation free and, as a result, there is a boom in  insulation installation.

As with any boom in any industry, there is an influx of new workers.  The Australian newspaper reports the death of an installer in Brisbane in mid-October 2009 and the shortcomings this death illustrates.

The article says that the rebate scheme has been so popular that fibreglass batts are not available so installers are using foil-based reflective insulation.

Master Electricians Association president Malcolm Richards said the foil-based products should be banned in established homes because untrained installers were stapling foil on to live electricity wires.  He said the practice was the cause of last week’s tragedy in Brisbane and electricians were being increasingly called on to repair dodgy work.”

Firstly, electricians are always being called on to repair the botched electrical work of others.  Secondly, it’s not the fault of the foil suppliers so it seems unfair to ban a legitimate insulation product.

The Master Electricians Association is facing the problem that others face every day, unqualified workers doing the work normally undertaken by qualified workers.

The political opportunism by some in this article is regrettable.

The Australian Government should have learnt from its computers-in-schools initiative/debacle that there are ancillary costs with any government program and that these costs should be considered in the policy development and/or have relevant organisations consulted so that the necessary support services are prepared for the plan’s launch and operation.

The computers-in-schools program did not consider the software costs to use on the free computer for ever secondary school student.  The LPG conversion rebate did not consider the scale of demand.  The solar panel rebate scheme was cancelled even though the demand was great.  The home insulation scheme has drawn inexperienced installers into the industry.  All good intentions harmed through poor planning and some of that harm can be the death of workers.

Kevin Jones

Where is the human right to safe work?

Australia is in the middle of a debate about the possible introduction of a charter or bill of human rights.  The debate has been invigorated by the presentation to the Federal Government of a consultation report on human rights.

Occupational safety is often said to be an issue of human rights but this seems to be a secondary action inferred from labor rights rather than a specific statement.  Below are a selection of the articles in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights that may relate to safe workplaces:

Article 1 – All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 3 – Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 7 – All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

Article 23 –  1. Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

Article 24 – Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

The closest one would get to a specific right to “safety at work” would be Article 23 – 1 where there is a right to “favourable conditions of work”.  Favourable is a term that is not seen in OHS legislation or discussions but may tie in with the Australian Government’s concepts of Fair Work.

Article 25 – 1 refers to “the health and well-being” but the following examples place this clearly in the social, non-workplace context.

Article 25 – 1. Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

One could argue that the right to a “standard of living” may include the qualitative elements of a safe working environment but a standard of living –  usually income, education and, sometimes, access and quality of health care – is not the “quality of life” which includes safety.

The report referred to above again does not have an overt statement that people have a right to a safe workplace but it does say, in its summary, that introducing a Human Rights Act

“…. could generate economic benefits, reducing the economic costs associated with policies that do not protect the lives and safety of Australians.”

This language may get a sympathetic ear from the Government in its context of a review of OHS legislation.

But no-one is making the case for a right for a safe workplace.

The argument that a specific right is not required as the state and national OHS legislation places clear obligations on employers and employees does not hold water as similar obligations are in other legislation and some of those sectors are advocating for human rights.

It should be clear from this article that SafetyAtWorkBlog is not a lawyer or a human rights specialist. But what the Government is looking for is discussion on the potential impacts of a Human Rights Act and it is clear from much of the contemporary discussion on occupational health and safety that the overlap between OHS and social safety is increasing very quickly, in the opinion of SafetyAtWorkBlog, quicker than the legislations and laws can cope.

In the past the trade union movement would take the running on human rights as part of their social charter but, as has been said in other SafetyAtWorkBlog articles, the trade unions still remain focused on the material interests of work, primarily, and are currently lobbying on OHS in Australia, primarily, from an industrial base.

The labour lawyers are debating the intricacies of the proposed OHS laws rather than the big picture, the context of the OHS laws in the broader legal and social fabric.  Perhaps this is considered a dead area of examination and discussion.  Once a law is introduced or a precedent set, lawyers tend to adjust their analytical thinking to fit.  Safety professionals and commentators have the luxury to think more broadly.

The safety professional associations are remarkably quiet on the whole idea, preferring to bow to their legal advisers while at the same wondering how they can find relevance in the evolving social context of OHS.

If readers of SafetyAtWorkBlog can shed any light on the human right for safe work, please submit comments below.

Kevin Jones

Increasing risk of silicosis in the majority world

Australian safety expert and activist Melody Kemp reported from the annual meeting of the Asian Network for the Rights of Occupational Accident Victims (ANROAV) that was held in late September 2009 in Phnom Penh.

The meeting featured many stories about the increasing risk of silicosis in Asia.  Melody writes in the 27 September edition of the blog “In These Times”:

“Silicosis afflicts workers working with gems, ceramics, rock blasting, drilling and crushing, and mining. It haunts unprotected workers in glassworks, mines and foundries, as well as those who live within reach of the dust. It’s usually fatal by the time it is diagnosed.

Largely eradicated in the economic North, silicosis is now the scourge of the Global South. Millions die from the illness each year.”

The size of the growing occupational and community threat is frightening.

“China alone reports over 100,000 new cases of industrial lung disease per year, and has more than 4 million existing cases. And those are just the official figures. Even industrially advanced South Korea sees over 1,000 new cases of occupational chest disease each year, reported Dr. Domyung Paek, a pulmonary specialist from Seoul National University.”

Melody has contacted SafetyAtWorkBlog asking for assistance in attracting occupational medical experts to Cambodia and other countries undergoing rapid industrialisation.  She can be contacted by clicking HERE.

Kevin Jones

Fatigue, impairment and industrial relations

Many of the employees in the health sector in Australia have recently been negotiating new employment conditions.  It is rare for the workplace hazards of fatigue and impairment to be given such prominence in industrial relations negotiations.

A major cause of fatigue is the lack of adequate resources for relieving staff.  This issue has been identified for doctors, ambulance officers and firefighters over the last 12 months.

Many important OHS issues are identified in a recent ABC Radio interview with Dr David Fraenkel, the Treasurer of Salaried Doctors Queensland (SDQ).  Dr Fraenkel mentions the following issues, amongst others:

  • Queensland Health‘s duty of care to the public
  • Queensland Health’s duty of care to its employees
  • “wrong site surgery” due to judgement impaired by fatigue

Dr Fraenkel also shows the institutional pressures on individual doctors to not discuss the implications of fatigue.  He mentions that there is a code of conduct that impedes the discussion of issues by health care professionals.

He admits that should a young doctor leave their station to relieve their fatigue they would most likely be “called to account” for their action and their career may be jeopardised for what OHS professionals would admit is an individual taking responsibility for looking after their own safety and health.

Salaried Doctors Queensland has established a website in support of its campaign which includes some factsheets.    The print media also picked up on the SDQ media statements.

Kevin Jones

OHS and workload – follow-up

SafetyAtWorkBlog has had a tremendous response to the article concerning Working Hours and Political Scandal.  Below are some of the issues raised in some of the correspondence I have received from readers and OHS colleagues.

The Trade Union Congress Risk e-bulletin has a similar public service/mental health case which has been resolved through the Courts.   The site includes links through to other media statements and reports.

Australia’s Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations has launched its work/life balance awards for 2009.  The information available on the awards is strongly slanted to a work/family balance which is very different from work/life and excludes employees making decisions for the benefit of their own mental health – a proper work/life balance which is the philosophical basis underpinning OHS legislation.  SafetyAtWorkBlog is investigating these awards with DEEWR.

SafeWork in South Australia is working on a code of practice on working hours and has been providing OHS advice on this matter since 2000.

The WA government has had a draft code on working hours for some time.

A legal reader has pointed out that  “the 38 hour week issue is not set in stone …[and]  is not a maximum for non-award employees.”  So expect more industrial relations discussion on that issue over the next two years.

One reader generalised from the Grech case about decision-making at senior levels, a concern echoed by many others.

“The Grech case illustrates the gradual disintegration of effectiveness, and the employee’s own inability to recognise that it is not a personal failing of efficiency, rather an unrecognised systemic risk.

When the employee is at senior level, there is more likelihood there will be poor attention to the warning signs. Any ‘underperformance’ would be seen as a personal failing. For those of us in the safety business, it is obvious that the system itself is in need of urgent risk management.”

There were congratulations from many readers for raising a significant and hidden OHS issue.

“Many people in industry work more than 70 hour a week. This affects their health and personal relationships.”

“Overwork and under-resourcing lead to poor decision making, adverse business outcomes, and in the long term psychological and physical ill health. Both the government and corporate sectors are paying little attention to this issue.”

The workplace hazards resulting from fatigue are being addressed in several industries such as transport, mining and forestry, where attentiveness is hugely important because of the catastrophic consequences of poor judgement.

One of the issues from the Grech case is that the quality of judgement in non-critical, or administrative, occupations can be severely affected by fatigue, mental health and other psychosocial issues.  These may not affect the health and well-being of others but can have a significant effect on the individual.  OHS does not only deal with systemic or workplace cultural elements but is equally relevant to the individual worker.

Kevin Jones

[Thanks to all those who have written to me and continue to do so. KJ]

Does a new mobile telephone equal productivity increases?

The largest Australian telecommunications company, Telstra, announced the release today of  a new service for mobile telephones aimed at the business sector.  Below are some excerpts from the media release:

Telstra-HTC-Snap-Front-hires“Telstra launches new smartphone to power workforce productivity

August 3, 2009 – Business professionals have a powerful new productivity tool at their disposal with the launch of the new HTC Snap on the Telstra Next G™ network.

Available from 11 August, the Snap is a Windows Mobile®-powered smartphone that helps users get the most out of every hour by connecting them with email, their office calendar and the mobile internet in real-time….

Telstra Business Executive Director, Cathy Aston, said the HTC snap was the ideal productivity device for busy business people who need to respond to clients and manage their email on the go.”

The email-ready HTC Snap lets users steal back otherwise lost work time by keeping them
connected to email on the commute to work, on the way to the airport or when waiting to attend a
meeting.

“The email-ready HTC Snap lets users steal back otherwise lost work time by keeping them connected to email on the commute to work, on the way to the airport or when waiting to attend a meeting.”

“Telstra Product Management Executive Director, Ross Fielding, said this remarkably slim smartphone set a new benchmark for productivity device affordability and would appeal to business people who demand always-on email, as well as consumers who are increasingly interested in messaging capabilities on the go.”

The words emphasised above indicate a dominant thought that business people are obliged to be contactable at all times of the week.  Research is beginning to show that this is becoming an unsafe practice, if it is not already (see below).  The “steal back otherwise lost work time” is of concern.  What time is being referred to going to the toilet, spending time with one’s family, countering fatigue and stress through sleep?

In December 2008, Telstra undertook a survey of small business operators.  The survey showed that many would be working over the Christmas break.  Telstra Business Group Managing Director, Deena Shiff said

“In 2008, Australian SMEs have been world leaders in the take up of mobile technology based on the Telstra Next G™ network – in fact businesses are now using mobile technology more than fixed line phones and data….

The key is to use technology not to intrude on personal time, but to manage the ongoing needs of the business in a more efficient way that doesn’t keep people away from family.” [my emphasis]

In 2006, the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Developmetn (CIPD) undertook research that said

“The phenomenon of “teleworking” has been overexaggerated, is unlikely ever to be a prospect for the majority of workers, and may be overshadowing far more effective means of improving work-life balance…”

The most important feature of modern mobile phones is the OFF button.

Kevin Jones