“Suitably qualified” OHS professionals – who benefits?

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For many years OHS regulators have been concerned about the quality of advice that OHS experts have been providing to businesses in Australia.  Some States have a regulated profession, others do not. Certainly there is no regime in Australia that compares to the “closed-shop” of Singapore.

I have seen no evidence of bad OHS advice to business.  Looking through legal databases doesn’t help, as cases are too difficult to find and the regulators say they have evidence but they usually don’t share.

For over thirty years, OHS legislation has stated that OHS management in a workplace is, principally, the responsibility of the employer.  This also means that an employer is responsible for any OHS decisions made based on their own assessments, which may involve advice from an external adviser.

As an OHS consultant I provide the best advice I can.  If the client needs advice in an area that I am not knowledgeable in, I contract a suitably knowledgeable colleague as part of servicing my client.  Any advice I provide is clearly specified as coming from the information provided by the client and my observations on the day.  What decision the client makes is up to them. This point is made in the WorkSafe Victoria paper mentioned below.  The paper says

“It is important to note that employing or engaging a suitably qualified person to provide OHS advice does not discharge the employer from their legal responsibilities to ensure health and safety as required under Part 3 of the OHS Act. This duty cannot be delegated”

This week WorkSafe Victoria released a position paper to clarify a section of the OHS Act.  According to the website

“This document sets out WorkSafe’s position on the meaning of section 22(2)(b) in the context of duty holders meeting their obligations under Part 3 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act).

Part 3 (sections 21 to 23) of the OHS Act places duties on employers to ensure health and safety.

Section 22(2)(b) provides that employers must, so far as is reasonably practicable, employ or engage persons who are suitably qualified in relation to occupational health and safety to provide advice to the employer concerning the health and safety of employees of the employer.”

My belief is that OHS consultants should be called in, primarily, for a second opinion.  This opinion is provided after the employer and worker representatives have “had a go” at identifying hazards.  In my experience, businesses have a fair idea of the workplace hazards present but are not sure how to prioritise the controls of those hazards, and may be unaware of new control measures.  This is where the OHS consultant comes in.

Few OHS professional associations in Australia provide their members with information on how to do your job, or how to apply your knowledge in a commercial context.  Until recently few tertiary institutions provided this service and I would like to hear of those OHS courses that now do teach business practices to graduates.

(I remember attending a Ergonomics Society conference in Sydney almost ten years ago.  It was the first time anyone had spoken on the issue of professional ethics to the ergonomists.  I would be surprised if other Australian professional associations have progressed this far)

According to the position paper, these are the elements that they consider “may” make a suitable qualified person:

  • Knowledge
  • Industry experience
  • Professional activity
  • Reputation
  • Professional association
  • Communication skills
  • Technical expertise
  • OHS legislative understanding:
  • Risk management strategies

From that basis, below is my plain English checklist for businesses to assess their OHS advisers. Comments are in brackets:

  • Knowledge: Does the professional have an educational qualification that is relevant for your needs? (I have never been asked to show my education qualifications by a client. Also, having an educational qualification does not equate to competence, in itself, no matter what the education evangelists say)
  • Industry experience: Do they know what they are talking about? (This is impossible to verify unless they have worked in an industry for a long time in a prominent role. One could ask for references but the references are always friendly to the adviser)
  • Professional activity: Can the person demonstrate recent professional activity in the relevant OHS field? (Activity does not mean that the quality of that activity was any good. A snake-oil salesman could have been in business for a decade but they still sell snake oil. This is also relevant to the educational evangelists – academic papers in peer-reviewed journals do not indicate competence in advising companies on the best hazard control measures)
  • Reputation: Have they been any good in the past? (This can be indicated by googling their full name. I recently found an OHS adviser with a criminal record and jail time for “failing to act honestly as a director of various companies”. However, an internet campaign can be used to unfairly discredit someone. The best way of checking their reputation is the talk with the adviser’s professional association, should they be in one and should that association know what it’s on about.)
  • Professional association: Do they belong to a relevant professional association? (This is a good move but many associations allow advisers to buy membership without any verification of their competence? The flaw in this criterion is the validity of the association, its disciplinary procedures and its criteria for membership. Do not over-emphasise this criterion)
  • Communication skills: Can they read and write?
  • Technical expertise: Do they know how to use their tools properly?
  • OHS legislative understanding: Do they know there is an OHS law? Have they read it? Do they understand it?
  • Risk management strategies: Does their advice control the hazard or simply reduce its impact?

 But then, this could all be tosh.  Seek a second opinion.

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.

Return to work stories

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Workcover South Australia has released some online videos that include stories of people who have been injured at work and how important it has been to regain a quality of life.

The stories illustrate the importance of a supportive workplace and encouraging relatives.  These videos are part of a broader package of information but some may find the stories useful to show others as a motivator for safety improvements

The stories are available for viewing HERE

Times when work/life balance should be sacrificed

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Further to my post on public service workloads, the Finance Minister, Lindsay Tanner, author of the 2003 book on work/life balance, has stated on television (if you get through the fuel price discussion) that 

“There’s always going to be some disgruntled people in a large organisation,” he said. “Whether there’s truth in what they say, who knows. You just don’t know. But I believe that things will settle down to a degree. We’ve got a big agenda, we expect a lot of ourselves, we expect a lot of people working with us but it’s for the betterment of the nation, it’s for getting better outcomes for Australia.”

The challenge facing the government at the moment is that it is confusing productivity with hours of work. And I don’t accept that there is a difference between those who work in the civil service and those in private companies in terms of the health and safety risks associated with hours of work.

In today’s The Australian newspaper, John McDonnell, a public policy consultant, mentions the inconsistency in the government’s approach in passing.  He says

“leaving aside the inconsistency between the Government’s view of work-life balance for the public service as opposed to that for the rest of the community…”

Lindsay Tanner has written about work-life balance yet is not prepared to apply his knowledge to the industry he works in.  His comments above, and similar ones from his colleagues, are the first time that I have heard patriotism used in relation to workload. I wonder when the public service workers compensation claims begin to appear for stress-related disorders and depression, whether they will be rejected on the basis of “working for the betterment of the nation”.