Changing political support of workplace safety in the US

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Occupational health and safety used to be above political argy-bargy.  It was accepted that the safety of workers was a core importance to the management of any business.  Often it operated as a subset of industrial relations and popped its head up occasionally, usually when new of revised legislation was due.  Rarely has workplace safety been a catalyst for political controversy.

In the United States, the last political fight was over the ergonomics  rule under a Republican Bush presidency in 2001.  According to one media report:

“The president has directed Labor Secretary Elaine Chao to find a less expensive way to protect worker health.” Continue reading “Changing political support of workplace safety in the US”

Public Comments vs Petition – modern lobbying required

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Recently SafetyAtWorkBlog noted that almost one quarter of the submission to the government on its proposed national model OHS law were from individuals and confidential.  There was a suspicion of bulk proforma submissions.

One example that is available through the publicly accessible submissions is a letter to the Minister, Julia Gillard, from the Dr Sharann Johnson, President of the Australian lnstitute of Occupational Hygienists.  The letter raises concerns over the omission of “suitably qualified” from the legislation.  It concludes

“I strongly implore you to reconsider your decision not to include a requirement for the providers of Occupational Health and Safety advice and services to be “suitably qualified” in the national new model OHS legislation.  lt would be disappointing to see this amalgamation of legislation miss the opportunity to make a significant impact on the standard of OHS advice provided to Australian industry and ultimately improve our health and safety performance at a national level.”

Similar concerns to Dr Johnson’s have been discussed elsewhere in  SafetyAtWorkBlog but on the issue of proforma submissions it is noted that three other submissions, Kevin Hedges, Gavin Irving and a personal submission by Dr Johnson, contain almost exactly the same text.

What these and other proforma submitters are producing is not a response to a draft document or a submission but a petition.  Petitions have existed for centuries and carry considerable political clout but putting in a cut-and-paste submission is unhelpful.  It signifies a united position but is not constructive.  A petition to the Government or specific ministers on a single issue, such as “suitably qualified”, may have had more influence if it included an influential number of signatories and was lodged at the appropriate time, in response to outrage over the particular matter.

There is no criticism of the content of the AIOH letters only of the method of delivery and strategy.  There are many more confidential submissions that have also applied a similar strategy.

SafetyAtWorkBlog contacted Safe Work Australia over the issue  and asked “How many proformas were used and who were they by?”  A spokesperson responded

“Of the 480 submissions received, just over 200 standard form submissions were received from union members, in five different proformas.  Each of the five forms contained similar comments.  In addition, we identified a small number of standard form submissions from one professional association.”

In developing better legislation, the influence on the process from “weight of numbers” is likely to be far less in this circumstance than would be gained through constructive and innovative suggestions.

As Australia is likely to go through similar public comment phases on a raft of OHS regulations and documents over the next 12 months, assuming the Government does not shelve the project.  It is important for the proforma submitters to review their strategies and, perhaps, establish more direct contact through lobbying the relevant Ministers in each State and Federally, on behalf of their large (?) membership. In this way the Government would be familiar with the various organisations, would understand the background to those organisations’ arguments, and would then anticipate the innovative solutions that OHS organisations, professionals and experts, would put forward.

This strategy has worked for the unions and business groups for decades.  It may be time for a new strategy for some groups that combines reliable techniques like petitions with personal contact to be followed up by a knock-out submission at the right time, perhaps supported by a broadly distributed media statement.

Kevin Jones

A consistent approach to developing public policy is required

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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

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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?

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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