National recognition of Workers’ Memorial Day – US & UK

The United States President, Barack Obama, has officially proclaimed 28 April 2010 as Workers Memorial Day.

It may be a politically appropriate announcement given the multiple fatalities that have happened recently in the United States, which the President mentions, but this should not overlook the fact that the leader of one of the most influential countries in the world has acknowledged the International Day of Mourning. Continue reading “National recognition of Workers’ Memorial Day – US & UK”

Work/life balance needs to grow into sustainability

Just as government is reigning in the excesses of the financial sector over the last decade or so, there is a strong movement to pull back on the workload excesses. Some of this is through the work/life balance movement.

In terms of occupational health and safety, this movement has a strong base that is reflected in a lot of OHS legislation where individual employees have a responsibility to ensure they are working safely and not putting themselves at risk. This can be a very difficult obligation when one is working in an organisation that does not grant safety or mental health or its social obligations much weight.

Just as government is reigning in the excesses of the financial sector over the last decade or so, there is a strong movement to pull back on the workload excesses.  Some of this is through the work/life balance movement.

In terms of occupational health and safety, this movement has a strong base that is reflected in a lot of OHS legislation where individual employees have a responsibility to ensure they are working safely and not putting themselves at risk.  This can be a very difficult obligation when one is working in an organisation that does not grant safety or mental health or its social obligations much weight. Continue reading “Work/life balance needs to grow into sustainability”

A consistent approach to developing public policy is required

Australia is a Federation of States.  This does not just mean that each State is a different colour of the schoolroom map.  Each State has its own duties to its citizens from within the overall scheme of running a country.

There has always been a tension between the two levels of government and currently the management of health care facilities is the cause of friction, as reported, for instance, in The Age newspaper on 23 October 2009.   The current tension in this sector illustrates a trend that extends beyond health and into workplace safety legislation, human resources and social policy.

The Victorian Health Minister, Daniel Andrews,  is reported to have said that Canberra’s “health bureaucrats [are] remote and incapable of understanding the day-to-day needs of patients.”

“”You can never take it as a given that decision makers and policy makers at the bureaucratic level in Canberra understand how you deliver care in a bed, in a ward or in a country town, because they don’t do that: it’s not their world.”

This argument echoes some of the concerns being raised over the national harmonisation of OHS laws. In such a large country as Australia there are going to be cultural, demographic and geographical variations that a centralised system cannot service.  The Federal Government is hoping to harmonise workplace safety but it has already taken over industrial relations and is strongly threatening a takeover of health.  Why the inconsistency?

On 22 October 2009 at the HR Leadership Awards ceremony in Melbourne, the CEO of Carnival, Ann Sherry, said that centralised policy makers in Canberra are making important decisions from within a rarified world.  Sherry is a member of a review panel into the Australian Public Service (APS) and she identified several features of the APS, and shortcomings, as the service aims to become “world’s best practice in public administration”.  Amongst them:

  • 42% of public servants are younger than 45 years;
  • a highly educated workforce;
  • senior public service positions are centered in Canberra.

The last characteristic Sherry said has led to a disconnection between service design and delivery, echoing, to some extent, the concerns of Daniel Andrews on health policy.

It seems that there are many reviews and investigations occurring into how various industries and sectors in Australian business and government should be structured for the future, a future that is likely to be very different, climatically, economically and demographically.  But there is not a consistency in approaches, or at least one that is readily understood, even though the Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, talks repeatedly about “nation building“.

The Australian Government has the best chance in a long time to set the country on a path of sustainable growth.  The United States, under President Barack Obama, has a similar opportunity.  Governments have an obligation to plan for the long-term benefit of their countries ands citizens, not the short-term gains of their political donors, political parties and lobbyists.  This obligation  is as relevant in occupational health and safety as it is anywhere.

Kevin Jones

Challenges for US labor unions and lessons for all businesses

Doug Henwood releases regular podcasts of his radio broadcasting and occasionally there is content that provides an interesting perspective on occupational health and safety, as does the 3CR program, Stick Together.  On August 1 2009 Henwood interviewed journalist, Steve Early, author of “Embedded With Organized Labor”. The podcast is available online. The Early interview clicks in at the 38 minute mark.

(A video interview with Steve Early is also available)

Early talks about how difficult the United States union movement has found it to maintain the enthusiastic momentum from 15 years ago.  He says that several industrial relations programs have slowed due to a lack of support from the grass roots or perhaps the exclusion of this sector in the initial planning of the programs.

As with many policy issues in the early period of the Obama government, a lot of interest is being placed on labour relations.  The government has begun discussions with labour leaders but these leaders face the challenge of gaining the government’s attention during the miasma of policy changes and President Obama has clearly stated to labour leaders, according to Early, that health care is his primary policy area at the moment.  The last month has shown the level of the challenge on health care policy.

Steve Early echoes the thoughts of Tom Bramble, an Australian academic analyst of unions, when he advocates an increased role for the rank-and-file union members.  It is in this sector that the passionate values of industrial relations and trade unionism are felt the strongest, often because it has avoided the political baggage that comes with the upper levels of the union movement.

Early reiterates that the best asset for change is an organisation’s membership.  He agrees that there is often a class-divide between the rank-and-file members and union management.  In many large organisations, senior executives are being encouraged to gain a better understanding of their organisations by jumping across the structure to (re)experience the lot of the membership.

Early says that the union movement in the 1930s resolved this by a major reconstruction of unions.  Corporations and conservative organizations are loathe to deconstruct in order to rebuild because, primarily, the executives get too comfortable.  Executives who genuinely understand their organisation, particularly those organisations that are member-based, can rebuild and remain true.

Kevin Jones

Do health professionals make the best OHS leaders?

David Michaels has been nominated by President Obama as the new Assistant Secretary for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the Department of Labor.  (A brief profile of Michaels is available HERE.)  A posting at a US Workers’ Compensation website links through to a discussion on the potential impacts of the Michaels’ appointment.

There are several telling quotes in the podcast.  Sidney Shapiro, a law professor at Wake Forest University, says that OHS achieves more when run by someone with a health professional background.

“…I think it’s important that we know that David Michaels is a health professional.  And I think OSHA’s done best when it’s had administrators from the public health community.  It is, after all, a public health agency.  More times than many of us would wish, it’s been headed by someone who’s been an adamant critic of OSHA and has come from industry or been an industry lawyer.”

Whether this position can be applied to regulators in other jurisdictions is an interesting question.

The Chair of the UK HSE Board, Judith Hackett,  has a background in petrochemicals.  The CEO of the HSE, Geoffrey Podger, has a background in the civil service, health and food safety.   The chair of the Safe Work Australia Council, Tom Phillips was the former CEO of car manufacturer, Mitsubishi, and has served on a range of industrial company boards in South Australia.  The Chair of WorkSafe BC board, Roslyn Kunin, harks from human resources and the labour market.   Greg Tweedly CEO of WorkSafe Victoria has a background in insurance and compensation.  Nina Lyhne of WorkSafe WA comes from road safety and compensation.

This unrepresentative sample shows a mix of experience and not all from health promotion.  If the list was comprehensive, it would be interesting to see if Shapiro’s comments stack up and to see how many trade union officials have moved to “the top” or will simply remain “on the board”.

The Living on Earth podcast includes the following quote from Michaels from some time ago:

“What polluters have seen is that the strategy that the tobacco industry came up with, which essentially is questioning the science, find the controversy and magnify that controversy, is very successful in slowing down public health protections.  And so the scientists who used to work for the tobacco industry are now working for most major chemical companies.  They don’t have to show a chemical exposure is safe.  All they have to do is show that the other studies are in question somehow.  And by raising that level of uncertainty, they throw essentially a monkey wrench into the system.”

This statement could generate optimism for OSHA’s future but there are many examples of the views of environmentalists changing once they move into the corporate world.  Politicians like Australia’s Minister for the Environment, Peter Garrett, is an obvious recent Australian example.  Harry Butler in the 1970s was roundly criticised for “selling out” to the petrochemical industry.

However, the appointment of David Michaels pans out, it will be an interesting one to watch, particularly if the US Democrats can stay in power for more than Obama’s two terms.

Kevin Jones

Cass Sunstein, Risk, Cost-Benefit and OHS – Part 2

Part 2 of Risk & Reason book review from SafetyAtWork magazine 2003


Sunstein closes the chapter “Thinking About Risks” with a short reference to September 11 2001 with which he says that “acts of terrorism show an acute appreciation of the psychological phenomena..”

Throughout the book, there are snippets that can be related to safety management.  For instance, he writes of “dreaded deaths” with 3 points:

  1. People can adapt to suffering much better than they think they can.
  2. Some pain and suffering may well be an inevitable part of a desirable period in which people…can plan and adapt themselves to the fact of death…(p.66)
  3. The period of pain and suffering that precedes death ought… to be far less important… than the fact of death itself.”

These points relate to HIV and cancer principally, but can’t we obtain some constructive advantage from having our employees dread workplace or traumatic deaths?   First aid training often raises safety awareness because the First Aiders dread having to apply their skills.  We drive cautiously because we dread traumatic injuries to our family and ourselves.  Dread can lead to caution which leads to safe work.

Sunstein chooses not to deal with the relationship between risk and culture and directs us to “Risk & Culture” by Douglas and Wildavsky (1992).  It is fair to acknowledge intellectual limitations but the whole book operates through, predominantly, the concerns of the United States culture and values.  The cultural values of the US are not universal and some admission of this variation would have been useful, particularly given that the Douglas and Wildavsky book was published well over 10 years ago.

The illustration of eight propositions for cost-benefit analysis and government decision-making is very useful.   They support the integration of qualitative measurements and a broad application of “costs”.   One proposition is that “agencies should be required to show that the benefits justify the costs.  If they do not, they should be required to show that the action is nonetheless reasonable…” Accountability is now an essential element of all business areas.

Risk and Reason may prove to be invaluable to United States readers but information for others was difficult to extract.  (The testimonials on the dust jacket are glowing but are all academic, although one is from outside the US).   There is no obligation for writers to include readers outside of their own marketplace but on an issue like risk and in a context of environmental management, it is disappointing that the book does not acknowledge the global readership.   As mentioned above even very well known risk experts are not even referenced.   The book is parochial and does not acknowledge that international standards do affect the US legal system even if it is less than in other jurisdictions.  Environmental issues cross territorial boundaries and are becoming more involved with global legal structures and obligations.

Cass Sunstein has a good writing style and it is not difficult to read.  We can only hope that the publishers encourage Mr Sunstein to write a complementary book focussing on risk and reason outside the United States.

The best pathway to Cass Sunstein information and writings is through his listing at Wikipedia.  However, I did enjoy reading this article.

Cass Sunstein, Risk, Cost-Benefit and OHS

On 26 January 2009, the Los Angeles Times reported on the appointment of Cass Sunstein as the “regulatory czar” under Barack Obama’s presidency.  He is to be appointed the head of The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

In 2003 in the precursor to the SafetyAtWorkBlog, SafetyAtWork magazine, I reviewed Sunstein’s book – Risk & Reason, Safety, Law and the Environment.  Below is the first part of that review

SafetyAtWork magazine Vol 4 Issue 11 - 2003
SafetyAtWork magazine Vol 4 Issue 11 - 2003

So many safety professionals also have responsibility for the environment that Risk & Reason – Safety, Law, and the Environment seemed an attractive read.  This book is unashamedly North American and to some extent that is a discouragement but given that many innovations originated there, the book was worth a look.

From outside North America the issues of most relevance were those concerning risk perception and the role of experts.  Cass Sunstein states that

Before government acts, it should, if feasible, attempt to produce a cost benefit analysis, understood as a detailed accounting of the consequences of the alternative courses of action.  The cost benefit analysis should allow people to see if the problem at issue is small or large.  It should explore the expense of reducing the problem and explain who will bear that expense.  (p. ix)

He says that,

Some people think of cost benefit analysis as a form of cold, barely human calculation, treating health and life as mere commodities and envisioning government as some kind of huge maximizing machine.  On the contrary, I urge that cost-benefit analysis should be seen as a simple pragmatic tool, designed to promote a better appreciation of the consequences of regulation.  (p.ix)

I wondered whether what he considers cost -benefit analysis in the broadest sense.  His concepts fit with risk management and, of course, risk management is supported by various standards such as AS4360.

The trap with cost-benefit analysis is that decisions made are cold and barely human, which he acknowledges.  He uses the fuel economy standard as an example.

If, for example, proposed fuel economy standards will significantly reduce greenhouse gases but also lead to smaller and less safe cars -and thus produce over a thousand extra deaths each year – officials and citizens should be aware of that fact.  (P. ix)

Here is a crucial question for the book – what is the more important, the needs of the many, or the needs of the few.  In his introduction, he surprisingly uses an example of the Hatfield rail crash in the United Kingdom.  Sunstein discusses how people now perceive rail transport as unsafe and began driving to work, a far more statistically dangerous activity.  This example is proceeding well until he stumbles.  He says that

After the crash, people undoubtedly spoke with one another about their fears, creating a kind of cascade of concern about train safety. We shall also see that cascade effects can lead people to large-scale errors about risks. But government regulation, my principal topic here, was not involved. (p 2)

It is clear that Sunstein is not as well informed on Hatfield as is necessary to use the example. Government regulation, or deregulation, of rail transport has never sat well with the English rail traveller.  Hatfield confirmed fears encouraging people to alternative transport methods, ones over which they have direct control.  With train travel, you place your trust in the driver and the system. In automobiles, you feel in more control.

Sunstein makes three recommendations to government on assessing regulation through cost-benefit analysis:

  • “…attempt to assess the magnitude of any problem that it is attempting to solve, through quantitative assessments to the extent possible.”
  • “…attempt to assess tradeoffs, by exploring the costs of regulation, also in quantitative terms if possible.”
  • ”   attempt to use tools that are effective and inexpensive.” (p.5)

This process would be familiar to all safety professionals. We recommend the same process to improve safety:

  • Identify
  • Assess
  • Control

This book shows that there are many parallels between environmental regulation and OHS regulation. Sunstein says

“Properly understood, a cost-benefit state attempts to make people’s lives better. The effort to quantify and to balance is designed not to assess everything in terms of money but to promote close attention to the actual consequences of what government does.” (p.8 )

Chapter 2 is very much about risk perception but suffers from not drawing more on the large amount of safety risk perception analysis and terminology. Sunstein reaches the issue of risk perception from a different point of origin. He asks,

‘What are ordinary people thinking? Can we discern some structure to their judgments? Three beliefs seem to be playing a large role. First, many people believe that risk is an “all or nothing” matter. Something is either safe or dangerous, and there is no middle ground. Second, many people are committed to a belief in the benevolence of nature. They think that the products of human beings, and human activities, are more likely to be dangerous than the products of natural processes. Third, many people subscribe to the “zero risk” mentality, at least in some domains. Such people believe that it is both possible and appropriate to abolish risk entirely, a belief that appears closely connected with the notion that risk is a matter of “all or nothing.”‘ (p.36)

Sunstein discusses Outrage without naming it and by missing this concept narrows the relevance of the book and the authority of his voice. If he had looked at any of Peter Sandman’s work on Outrage, had looked to other scholarly fields, his work would have been more authoritative. Given that Sandman’s works originated from environmental and planning issues it is very surprising that there is no reference to them, particularly given that Sandman is also a United States academic.

Sunstein says that “a possible conclusion is that, with respect to risks, vivid images and concrete pictures of disaster can ‘crowd out’ other kinds of thoughts, including the crucial thought that the probability of disaster is very small.” (p.46) How much more interesting would it have been if he had incorporated Sandman’s Outrage principle and expanded upon it?

The next part of this review will be posted tomorrow.