Independent Aussie politician forecasts “near riots” on OHS

Free Access

Rob Oakenshott is an independent politician in the New South Wales parliament,  He was formerly a representative of the National Party.  Oakenshott is one of the first Australian politicians who are not directly involved in the program of OHS law  harmonisation to raise any concerns.

What spurred him to speak was a recent case in the High Court of Australia centring around NSW’s absolute OHS duty of care.  Comments from the Allens Arthur Robinson newsletter say:

“The matter will present an opportunity for the court to determine whether the interpretation of the duties under the OHS Act is so restrictive that it makes it impossible for an employer to comply with them and practically removes the benefit of the statutory defences.  The issue of the difficulty of complying with the legislation is something that the defendants have submitted runs counter to the rule of law and the Constitution.”

Oakenshott stated in a media release (not yet available on his website):

“I am also concerned that aspects of NSW state legislation such as the absolute liability elements are being considered by the Federal Government,” he said. “Having been involved in state politics for fifteen years, I can assure the government they will have near riots on the streets from the small business community of Australia if they mirror NSW legislation in the quest for harmonious national laws.”

This would be the first time that OHS would ever have raised the passion of Australian small businesses to this extent.   A survey produced for the ACTU (considered to be representative of the general population by the research company) quoted the following statistics:

67% believe that workplace safety is important, but only 40% see it as “very important”.

Kevin Jones

Panic in disaster planning

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Three years ago I had the privilege of arranging for Dr Lee Clarke of Rutgers University to attend the Safety in Action Conference in Australia.  Lee had a book out at the time, Worst Cases, and spoke about the reality of panic.  Lee’s studies have continued and are, sadly, becoming more relevant.

Recently, Rutgers University posted a video interview with Lee on Youtube.

Shortly after the World Trade Center collapse in 2001, I asked Lee to write something about the event from his experience and perspective.  He wrote a piece for a special edition of Safety At Work magazine.  The article has been available through his website for some time and is now available through here by clicking on the image below.

I strongly recommend Lee’s books.  As he says in the video, they’re quite fun, in a sad sort of way.

Kevin Jones

Sept11

Level crossings and safety management

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Regular readers will know that SafetyAWorkBlog believes that there is little justification for road/rail crossings, particularly in metropolitan areas, and that grade separation should be the aim of any crossing upgrades.  Too often governments dismiss grade separation without serious consideration because it is usually the most expensive control option.  Regardless of expense, elimination of hazards must be considered in public safety policy and OHS.  It is only after the elimination of a hazard is seriously considered that lower order control measures are seen to be valid.

At the moment in Victoria, there is community outrage because the truck driver involved in the deaths of 11 train passengers at a level crossing at Kerang has been cleared of any legal responsibility for the deaths.  Several relatives of victims are pursuing civil action against the driver, Mr Christiaan Scholl.

The wisdom of civil action against the driver is debatable as any potential financial “win” will come from the insurance pockets of the Transport Accident Commission and not Mr Scholl.  Compensation may be gained but any hope that the action could be seen as a “penalty” is false.

The Kerang rail crossing illustrates some basic OHS issues:

Worker responsibility

The Kerang level crossing had design deficiencies that had repeatedly identified by a number of government authorities, local companies and the public.  The court case heard that the crossing was known to be dangerous.

In OHS, known hazards are controlled in a number of ways.  Clearly the rail and road traffic was not separated and engineering controls were not introduced at the time of the incident.  The owners of the crossing (and this is debated also) determined that signage was appropriate (or even perhaps “as far as is reasonably practicable”?).

Clearly signage was not adequate but there is also the issue of driver (worker) responsibility.  It was mentioned in court and repeatedly in the media that the level crossing was known to be dangerous.  Why then, would drivers continue to treat the crossing as if it was not?  The legal speed limits remained at 100kph, at the time of the incident.  The road laws clearly state that road traffic must give way to rail traffic and yet drivers have admitted to complacency.

This is perhaps the source of a lot of the community outrage in relation to the Kerang incident.  The findings in favour of the driver place all the responsibility for the incident on the inadequate design of the crossing.

Working environment

As employers have responsibility to ensure a safe and health work environment, so government has a social and legal obligation to make public areas safe.  Victorian governments for decades have neglected the hazards presented by inadequately designed or controlled level crossings.  Governments must take responsibility for inaction just as much as taking credit for action and infrastructure improvements.

Infrastructure spending had started to increase prior to the incident but the need was sharply illustrated through the unnecessary deaths of 11 rail passengers.  Many Australian governments are spending millions of dollars on rail/road crossing upgrades as a result of the Kerang incident.

Road Safety and OHS

Many OHS professionals illustrate OHS by drawing on road safety.  The correlation is very poor but the attempt is understandable – most people drive, they drive within strict laws that were learnt in training (induction), and the road laws are enforced by an external body (police = WorkSafe.  However, this relationship has no corresponding role for employers, who have a workplace responsibility.  The road user has a direct relationship with the regulator. In OHS the role of the employer is crucial.

Perhaps the Kerang incident and other level crossing incidents could be used in brainstorming to illustrate personal accountability, employer accountability and government responsibility.  It would be a worthwhile exercise to discuss whether road safety and workplace safety could share as many educative elements as some of the advocates suggest.

As with most posts on SafetyAtWorkBlog, these thoughts are a work-in-progress and debate and commentary are welcome.

Kevin Jones

Note: SafetyAtWorkBlog is not privy to any of the court evidence and must rely on media reports.  More information will be presented when available.

Worst Case Scenarios and Pandemics – 2005 interview

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In 2005 I had the great opportunity to spend some time with Peter Sandman, a world renowned risk communicator.  We spoke about worst case scenarios and risk communication in those times of avian influenza and smallpox threats.  The interview has gained additional poignancy in this time of swine flu.  

Although the audio is “noisy” as Collins St in Melbourne had more traffic on a Sunday morning than I expected, I think some readers may find this excerpt very useful at the moment.

Click on the magazine’s cover image below to download the interview transcript.

[For Peter Sandman’s current commentary on swine flu, see http://www.psandman.com/index-infec.htm#swineflu1 and especially http://www.psandman.com/col/swinecomm.htm]

or Peter Sandman’s current commentary on swine flu, see
http://www.psandman.com/index-infec.htm#swineflu1 and especially
http://www.psandman.com/col/swinecomm.htm. 

 

Kevin Jones

6i11 cover