Chronic disease report

Free Access

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has released a report on the labour force effects of chronic illnesses.  The report, Chronic disease and participation in work,

shows that chronic diseases are associated with more days off work and/or being out of the workforce, and some of the biggest culprits are depression, arthritis and asthma.

The report focuses on chronic illnesses rather the workplace impacts of the illnesses themselves but there is information that is relevant to how we manage our employees and psychosocial hazards.  For instance the report says

Arthritis, asthma and depression were associated with 76% of the total loss due to days away from work (29% associated with depression, 24% with arthritis and 23% with asthma).

For people participating full-time in the labour force, there was a loss of approximately 367,000 person-years associated with chronic disease, approximately 57,000 person-years in absenteeism associated with chronic disease and 113,000 person-years were lost due to death from chronic disease.

The report acknowledges that any estimates of loss are underestimated and also provides very useful data on chronic diseases and absenteeism

Loss due to absenteeism from full-time and part-time employment was calculated as the difference between the number of days off work for people with chronic disease, and the number expected if age and sex-specific rates of absenteeism among people without chronic disease applied.

The loss from absenteeism associated with chronic disease was approximately 500,000 days per fortnight. This was equivalent to approximately 13.2 million days per year or 57,000 person-years of full-time participation (assuming 48 working weeks of 5 days duration with 10 public holidays per year).

About two-thirds of this cost was carried by males, and people aged 35-44 and 45-54 years accounted for the majority (75%) of lost days.

Analysis of absenteeism by specific chronic disease showed that depression, arthritis and asthma were associated with around 76% of days away from work.

Upcoming OHS Videos

Free Access

At the end of March 2009, the Safety Institute of Australia (Victoria Division) is conducting its annual Safety In Action conference.  In order to help promote the conference the SIA organised for several conference speakers to be filmed.

The filming occurred in early-February 2009 and the short 10-minutesia-filming-2009-01videos will be available at the Safety In Action website in a couple of week’s time.  The subjects of the videos are:

Jill MCabe of WorkSafe Victoria who talks about the research WorkSafe has undertaken in order to establish a better profile of their clients so as to improve assistance and advice.  Jill has long experience in industrial relations and now focuses on health and safety.

Helen Marshall was appointed Australia’s Federal Safety Commissioner in August 2008.  Helen discusses her experiences in dealing with a national system for safety on building and construction sites and reveals her first ever “real” job.

Dr Martyn Newman explains what he means by describing some leaders as “emotional capitalists”.  He sees that as a good thing to be but isn’t ego an emotion and greed an emotion?  And aren’t those the emotions that that have generated a lot of our social and financial heartbreak?  Is there is such a thing as an “emotional socialist”?  Dr Newman’s  presentation at the conference will be popular but it’s application may be obscure or challenging.

John Merritt, the CEO of WorkSafe, is genuinely passionate about improving society and seems to feel that OHS is a valuable way to improve the quality of people’s lives. [I first spoke with John in the early 1990s while he was in the ACTU.  The only thing I knew about him was that he had written a book about shearers.  I spoke next with him while he was CEO of the  National Safety Council and now (twice) while he is at WorkSafe.  If our paths continue to cross, he owes me a beer and two hours of unrecorded conversation in a comfortable bar.]

Barry Sherriff, a lawyer with Freehills, has just come off nine months of serving on the National OHS Review panel and is hamstrung in what he can say as the government is yet to release the final report.  His presentation was measured and cautious.

The videos provide an interesting cross-section of OHS approaches in Australia, several overlap and some are “out there” but the best that can be said is that one learns.  This makes for a terrific Safety In Action conference.

Kevin Jones

Union influence on OHS – interview with Professor Michael Quinlan

Free Access

Professor Michael Quinlan of the University of New South Wales believes that the influence of Australian trade unions in improving OHS conditions should not be underestimated or past achievements, forgotten.  

In talking with Kevin Jones in a recent podcast, Quinlan said that the persistent accusation of unions using OHS as an industrial relations tool is “largely an ideological beat-up”.  Although he does believe that Australian trade unions have not pursued workplace hazards to the extent they should have, even with the impeding launch of a campaign on cancers. 

Professor Quinlan mentioned that

“most health and safety management systems are, in fact, largely management safety systems.  They not deal a lot with health….. Their KPIs [Key Performance Indicators] are always expressed in terms of zero-injuries or zero-harm.”

 He also emphasised that that more Australian workers are killed as a result of occupational disease than injury.

He also addresses the growing demand for occupational health and safety regulation to move from industrial relations to the area of health.  Quinlan believes this will never happen because matters to do with employment, organisational restructuring and others have an OHS impact.  He says that running OHS as “an entirely separate agenda…is intellectually and factually flawed.”

Quinlan acknowledges the argument that Robens-style legislation was relevant for the time and where union-presence persists but he said

“where you don’t have effective or worker input, you will have serious problems with health and safety”.

He reminded us that Roben’s also advocated self-regulation, a concept of which there is now great suspicion in a range of business areas.

Quinlan spoke highly of some of the initiatives of OHS regulation, for instance, the adaptation of the inspectorate to duty-of-care matters and a broader operational brief. He also said that the current OHS legislation in Australia “is the best we’ve ever had” and believes some of the recent criticism needs to be supported by evidence.  Also none of the critics have proposed a viable alternative.

Professor Quinlan is a keynote speaker on Day 3 of the Safety In Action conference.

Kevin Jones

Note: the author assists the Safety Institute in the promotion of the Safety in Action conferences.

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

Free Access

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.

New research on behavioral safety

Free Access

The New York Times (and other newspapers) reported on an article in the latest edition of the NSC Journal of Safety Research.  It is worth considering when the behavioural-based safety advocates come a-knocking.

According the media reports the article reports on “knowledge gaps” in research into behavioural safety.  It summarises the discipline, or alchemy depending on your experience with the advocates, very well.

“Behavioral safety” is becoming more popular as safety practitioners seek to better understand and develop strategies to prevent workplace injuries. Behavioral safety is the science of observing workers’ behaviors to determine where a different behavior or set of behaviors may have prevented or lessened the severity of injury. The study defines behavioral safety as an approach to improve safety performance through peer observations, goal setting, feedback, and celebrations or incentives for reaching safety goals.”

Thankfully it sensibly recommends that behavioural safety be applied as part of a broader safety management system.  In fact broader than many others suggest.  The study says that “psychological, social, engineering and organizational factors” should be considered and it acknowledges that how these factors affect behavioural safety is still poorly understood.  It suggests these areas for further research attention:

  • “Impact of behavioral safety interventions on rates of injury, illness and fatalities.
  • Appropriateness of the basic elements of behavioral safety across different industry sectors.
  • Relationship between behavioral safety and a greater safety culture.
  • Role of performance feedback in creating behavioral change.
  • Effectiveness of tangible and non tangible rewards on behavioral change.”

Some of these factors would best apply through research by the OHS regulators – a rare commodity – but they indicate some of the areas which OHS professionals should consider more carefully.

Clearly behavioural safety is still a developing area of study and application. It reinforces the position that behavioural safety is still not a panacea, regardless of the claims of spruikers.  Behavioural safety is one of the tools available to OHS professional and perhaps one that should not distract us from more effective and practical safety initiatives.

Kevin Jones