In developing harm reduction and prevention strategies, the occupational health and safety (OHS) profession likes to look at worst case scenarios on the understanding that dealing with an extreme event introduces mechanisms that deal with lesser events. Partly this is a legacy of Bird’s Pyramid. During this current month of attention on workplace mental health, the issue of work-related suicide is unavoidable as a worst case scenario for depression and mental ill-health. There are several new pieces of data on work-related suicides that OHS professionals need to consider as part of their own professional development and to increase their organisational and operational relevance.
Mates In Construction
In October 2014, the Mates In Construction (MIC) program released a report on “The economic cost of suicide and suicide behaviour in the NSW construction industry and the impact of MATES in Construction suicide“. Below is a summary of some of its findings, in Australian Dollars:
“The average age of each suicide fatality among construction industry workers was 36.8 years and 37.7 years in QLD [Queensland] and NSW [New South Wales], respectively.”
“The average cost of a self-harm attempt resulting in a short-term absence from work is estimated at $925 in 2010 dollars.”
“Each self-harm attempt resulting in full incapacity is estimated at $2.78 million; and, each suicide attempt resulting in a fatality is estimated at $2.14 million”
“The key cost driver for full incapacity and a fatality is lost income, equivalent to 27.3 years productive years”
“Across all categories, the burden of cost associated with self-harm and suicide is borne largely by the government: 97% or $4.80 million of the total combined cost of $4.92 million.” (all in page 3)
As part of Safe Work Australia month, or perhaps coincidentally, the Australian Council of Trade Unions held its annual occupational health and safety (OHS) conference in Melbourne, Australia. On the morning of day 2, the conference heard from the Shadow Minister for Employment Relations, Brendan O’Connor. The Minister is from the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and had a sympathetic audience but he made several interesting points, particularly when he diverged from the scripted speech (which will be available online shortly) and when he took questions.
Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program
O’Connor supports the ALP position that the Home Insulation Program (HIP) Royal Commission was a purely political affair to target previous ALP government ministers. He emphasised that the Royal Commission was the last in a long line of inquiries into worker deaths and OHS prosecutions related to the HIP program and that this inquiry has achieved very little change. O’Connor said (ad libbed)
“…. that Royal Commission has not recommended any changes to the regulations or obligations on employers to do the right thing at the workplace. It’s almost worse than doing nothing, than to use the health and safety of the workers as a political weapon against your political opponent. That’s how dismissive this government is with respect to health and safety.
Let’s set up a Royal Commission. Let’s summons a former Labor Prime Minister and other Ministers but, of course, all of which we could accept and we supported the establishment of the Royal Commission if that’s what they chose to do, with one caveat – that was, go ahead with the eleventh inquiry into these tragic deaths but make sure that when there are findings about the deficiencies in the law that protects the interests of working people, particularly young workers, do something about it.
Well we’ve seen nothing. We’ll see nothing in terms of changing the law by this government because that was purely a political exercise. To me this underlines how cynical this government is when it comes to health and safety. It only saw it as a political exercise and, I’m afraid to say, you won’t see too many good policy changes as a result of that Commission.”
One of the most ignored, but important, elements of occupational health and safety (OHS) management is the business case. Work on this issue is being completed in Australia by Safe Work Australia but the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) has beaten it to the punch by releasing “The business case for safety and health at work: Cost-benefit analyses of interventions in small and medium-sized enterprises“. This document includes new case studies that provide detailed analysis of cost and return on investment from interventions as varied as a vacuum lifter for pavers to warm-up exercises and task assessments of domestic builders by qualified physiotherapists.
The report found that:
- “Wide-ranging interventions appear to be more profitable than interventions targeting a particular
issue related to the sector of the enterprise.
- Interventions that mainly concern training and organisational change appear to be more profitable than interventions based on technical changes (such as introducing new equipment).
- Interventions that include direct worker (participatory) involvement appear to be more profitable, regardless of whether or not increased productivity benefits are taken into account in the
- In most cases, the enterprises managed to estimate benefits related to increased productivity. It
should be emphasised that increased productivity does not always come as a result of improved
safety and health, but it is taken into account in the context of a business case.” (page 10)
Twelve months ago, some Australia media, including this blog, began reporting on safety concerns raised by the Working At Heights Association (WAHA) about the reliability and suitability of anchor points. Australia is currently in the middle of Safe Work Australia Month and there seems to have been little progress on the issue. A reader of SafetyAtWorkBlog provided the following summary and update of the situation:
Who checks the true safety of equipment designed to save the lives of Australian workers? Nobody in particular, it seems.
Last September, the Working At Heights Association, an industry body staffed by volunteers, revealed many of the most commonly-used roof anchors failed to meet basic safety standards. Almost a year later, the association is still battling to see rooftops made safe, despite repeated appeals for action from the OHS regulators and the absence of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).
An estimated 800,000 Australians work at height and routinely clip their harnesses onto safety anchors. A worker falls to his or her death every 12 days and WAHA chairman Michael Biddle said authorities should be concerned. Biddle told Industry Update magazine
“It’s the third highest cause of death in the workplace after motor vehicle accidents and being hit by moving objects. In most cases, regulators are more concerned in taking a reactive approach after an accident has happened. There is a great need for an enhanced level of enforcement. If we had an increase in penalties and stronger enforcement of standards I’m sure we would see a higher level of compliance by industry.”
Later this month, the Victorian WorkCover Authority (VWA) will be releasing a document entitled “Integrated approaches to worker health, safety and well-being” (pictured right, but not yet available online). It is intended to generate discussion on how to improve workplace safety performance by breaking down the walls of various disciplines, production processes, consultative silos and institutional or organisational biases. This document builds on the overseas experience of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH – Total Worker Health program), the World Health Organisation (WHO – Healthy Workplace Framework) and others to provide an Australian context.
Those who are experienced in risk management principles may see little new in this approach and the publication’s success is likely to depend on how VWA explains the initiative and how its stakeholders, Victorian businesses of all sizes, accept the concept and believe it can work in their own workplaces.
The release of a publication advocating Integration implies that an unintegrated approach to safety management has been an impediment to change. This may be a surprise to risk managers and those who have been consulting broadly on OHS in their workplaces and those companies who have integrated systems managers with responsibility for Quality, OHS and Environment.