Happiness is a warm million

The Australian newspapers in late-February shared the “outrage” of politicians and then the community over training that was provided to public servants by the American “happiness guru” Professor Martin Seligman.

The cost to the taxpayer seems exorbitant but the psychologist was from the US and was training delegates for many days.  It is not unusual for US experts to charge over $US600 per hour plus travel and accomm0dation.

The Community & Public Sector Union‘s Assistant National Secretary Paul Gepp noted  in a media statement that news of the expensive conference, which paid an American psychologist’s team more than $440,000, came with news of more layoffs of  public servants, as 100 lost their jobs in the Crime Commission. 

“Public servants are working hard to keep essential services going, keep our communities safe and make the stimulus package work,” said Mr Gepp.  “Million-dollar, feel-good conferences don’t help get these jobs done. If the Government is looking to cut, we suggest it starts with junkets like this.” 

The OHS context of this furore comes from the reasons for the training and whether the same benefits could have been obtained at a reduced price.

Media reports say that in parliament on 26 February 2009

“[Deputy Prime Minister, Ms Julia] Gillard attacked Liberal frontbencher Andrew Southcott for attempting to “parody” Professor Seligman, who she described as a “noted educationalist”.
“He is the leader in the development of (a) resiliency program that has been shown to make a difference to mental health issues amongst young people, including issues like anorexia and depression.  That is actually serious and ought not to be cat-called about.”

SafetyAtWorkBlog has written previously about the workloads of the public sector under the Rudd government and how the government has chosen not to set reasonable production targets.  The Seligman seminars are an example of trying to treat the symptoms and not the cause.   Seligman’s programs are not the issue here as the results claimed may be absolutely justified.  

Part of the problem for the government is timing, and in this, it shares a lot with behavioural-based safety programs.  Whenever a company introduces a wellbeing program, or a happiness seminar, or resilience training, or a team-building extreme sports excursion, it indicates to me that either the company is one that has already tried the traditional approaches to controlling workplace hazards, hasn’t  the faintest ides what to do to improve the safety in their workplace , or has too much money in its human resources budget and needs to spend it by the end of the financial year.

Regrettably, the money spent on public service mental health has been poorly targeted and papers over the cracks whilst ignoring the structural instability of how it manages its people.

Kevin Jones

Comcare’s new role

The scuttlebutt in some Australian OHS circles is that Australia’s Comcare agency will be given a major upgrade through the National OHS Review recommendations that is nearing completion.

Although the Minister for Workplace Relations, Julia Gillard, did not name the new agency that she intends to introduce through the Coalition of Australian Governments process, SafetyAtWorkBlog believes that Comcare will be upgraded to a fully functional national OHS authority.

Coincidentally, Comcare has begun promoting a series of national seminars for the month of March 2009.  According to the promotional blurb:

“During the seminar, participants will engage in workshops and listen to presentations from speakers from across the Comcare scheme as well as Comcare’s OHS Compliance Assistance and Prevention & Injury Management Services teams.”

If Comcare’s new status is announced prior to the seminars, I would suggest the seminars will be sold-out quickly.

Kevin Jones

Gillard’s plans for new OHS agency – response

 It was predictable for the Opposition party to accuse Julia Gillard of arrogance for bypassing the Parliamentary process.   Senator Eric Abetz wrote to the letters page of AFR on 21 January 2009, the text of the letter is below (although there were slight changes in the published version)

“It is highly arrogant and misleading for Workplace Relations Minister Julia Gillard to blame the so-called “intransigent” Senate and the Opposition for the delay in implementing harmonised OH&S laws (‘Gillard defies Senate on work safety”, 20th January 2009).

As the Shadow Minister who dealt with the issue in the Senate, I know that the facts of the matter are that what you might regard as an unlikely alliance of the Coalition, Family First, the Greens, Senator Xenophon, the ACCI and the ACTU (yes, even the ACTU) all agreed that the amendments proposed and passed by the Senate were necessary.

Unfortunately, our offer to meet with Ms Gillard to negotiate a way forward on this matter was rejected by a Minister who apparently thinks “it’s my way or the highway”. It is indicative of the disregard that the Rudd Government shows for the Parliament and the Senate is that it is now seeking to circumvent it on this important matter.”

The risk from the Gillard strategy is that once the process is completed the regulatory agency will forever be accused of being illegitimate, or a political ideological construct, having not undergone due process through Parliament. The Labor government needs to look beyond political expediency to construct a national OHS regulatory body of which noone can object.

Comment continues to be sought from the labour movement and opposition political parties.

Kevin Jones

Those at risk of exposure to asbestos

Over this last weekend, asbestos-safety advocates, ADSVIC, took advantage of the topicality of the navy’s poor management of asbestos by including half-page ads in major Australian newspapers.  The ads focused on the risks associated with DIY home renovators but law firm, Slater & Gordon, related their asbestos information sheet directly to the media attention about the Australian Navy.

Slater & Gordon, a former employer of Australia’s industrial relations and education minister, Julia Gillard, have always been active in seeking new clients and have participated in many class actions based on workplace safety issues, particularly the James Hardie Industries legal action of earlier this century which was important for many reasons, including the furthering of political careers.

Slater & Gordon’s information sheet includes a list of those people who it believes are at risk of asbestos-related diseases.  It doesn’t much leave room for anyone to feel safe from this risk.

  • Miners
  • Asbestos plant workers
  • Handlers and waterside workers
  • Asbestos factory workers
  • Carpenters, plumbers, electricians and builders
  • Wives and children of workers
  • Office workers
  • Mechanics/brake workers
  • Power plant workers/refinery workers
  • Teachers and students
  • Hospital workers
  • Telstra workers
  • People at home

Kevin Jones

Safe Work Bill and Parliament

It has always seemed an odd timetable for the Australian Government to introduce a Bill for replacing the Australian Safety & Compensation Council with Safe Work Australia when there is also an active  national review into the laws that the authority may end up managing.  

This week the Minister for Workplace Relations, Julia Gillard, set aside the Safe Work Bill because she would not accept amendments by the Opposition or she had to verify changes through the Workplace Relations Ministerial Council, depending on your political leanings.

Parliament has ended for 2008 so the reintroduction of the Bill will wait till 2009.  This allows the government to make another pitch by including the recommendations of the National Review.  The Review has consulted broadly across the political spectrum and should present legalistic sweeteners to all.  This also allows  the government to say that they didn’t get cross and arrogant but have been able to be more inclusive and consultative.

The amendments proposed by the Opposition don’t have a great deal to do with safe workplaces but a lot to do with limiting union influence in the decision-making of the new OHS body.  Some amendments are just unnecessarily provocative by trying to limit ministerial interference.  The alternative jargon to this is the exercising of ministerial discretion.  It’s the same thing except to those on the receiving end or who feel excluded from the process.

Of course, the government is not obliged to accept all the recommendations of the review panel and over the next few months it will be closely watching the reception of its industrial relations legislative platform to perhaps indicate a more successful pathway for its Safe Work Bill.  

A sticking point, and overlap of the two legislations, is the right of entry.  Currently there is a political stink about how much access unions are entitled to in workplaces, some of which does seem unnecessarily intrusive, but frequently workplace safety is the impetus for entry requests, as per the recent intrusion to the desalination plant in New South Wales.  Right of entry will not go away as a political issue over the Christmas break while there are large infrastructure projects in New South Wales and Western Australia, in particular.

Fair Work and OHS

Last week the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Workplace Relations, Julia Gillard, delivered on some of the government’s promises by presenting the Fair Work Australia Bill into the Australian Parliament.  This does not present a revolution but is a solid rollback of some of the excesses of the previous (conservative) government.  The responses from employer groups and trade unions were in the tones and on the topics that were expected.

The National Review into Model OHS Laws rolls on towards its January 2009 deadline.  The OHS law review was not something urgent for the government, even though it was an election pledge, and it does not indicate a commitment by the government to improving the level of safety in Australia.  The aim is to provide an easier way of managing safety across state borders in Australia with the hope that this will flow to benefit the safety of workers.

It is important to remember that this review came after years of concern about the perception(?) that OHS was part of the red tape of managing businesses, and therefore an unacceptable cost burden.  The danger in this review is that the recommendations will reduce the business costs with no discernible improvement in safety.

There are many OHS professionals and organisations who are hoping for some grand review of workplace safety.  It is a review of law and business bureaucracy, not safety.  Those who will most benefit will be large companies that operate in multiple States.  It will provide no change to small business.  It will not increase safety in the vast majority of workplaces.  It may improve the bottom line company results in 2009 when profit growth is declining but that just means that managerial bonuses are less than normal.  It does not mean that the cost savings will be used to improve safety.

The Fair Work Australia Bill and the National OHS Law Review may change some of the ways in which corporates approach OHS but they will have little, if any, benefit to individual workers.

It is important to remember that any legal changes always benefit legal practitioners, as well.  And OHS lawyers are almost always there after the incident in order to minimise company damage.  Policies and procedures are largely determined without legal involvement.  Machine guarding is not installed by lawyers.  Abusive supervisors are not tempered by legal threats.  Safety is the manager’s job in partnership with the employees, and it will always be so.