Audit report says “could do better”

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Cover of 20090603_workcover_full_reportOn 3 June 2009, the Victorian Auditor-General released the audit report, CLAIMS MANAGEMENT BY THE VICTORIAN WORKCOVER AUTHORITY.  The objective of the audit was to assess the effectiveness and efficiency of VWA’s claims management.

The report found that the current claims management model 

“has not substantially improved RTW [return-to-work] outcomes, or the effectiveness of agents’ case management practices”

Although the report notes that the system has not deteriorated.

The report also says

“Agents’ case management practices, on average, were considered generally adequate, however, there is substantial scope for improving agents’ performance.”

“Adequate” is not a ringing endorsement of the system and the workers’ compensation agents should pay particular attention to criticism of their performance.

Safety managers and professionals have been trying to incorporate psychosocial hazards into their safety management processes but it seems that agents are having similar problems:

“Agents did not systematically consider psychosocial barriers to RTW such as attitudes toward recovery, stress, anxiety, workplace issues, substance abuse, and family matters, when assessing the injured worker’s status, needs and risks to recovery. In most cases assessments were narrowly focused on the physical injury and its impact.”

The report notes that many issues raised are already being addressed by the Victorian WorkCover Authority.

Almost the only statements made on the workers’ compensation scheme by the State Ministers over the last decade have related to premium fluctuations, how the business costs of the system are being controlled or unavoidable.  However it seems now that the system has only been cruising, but not improving, or keeping up with the contemporary workplace hazards and employee needs.

The white collar public service, in particular, has a high incidence of stress-related claims.  The reality of the hazard has been acknowledged through preventative guidance notes from the OHS regulators and the general growth in the work/life balance movement.  Yet in 2009, the workers’ compensation agents  are criticised for giving this hazard insufficient attention.

Even when an audit report is politely critical, it remains critical and demands attention.

Kevin Jones

Being competent is more than just passing the competencies

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The SafetyAtWorkBlog article on OHS professional competence has generated some lively debate on a discussion forum of the American Society of Safety Engineers.  Jim Leemann makes a fundamental point

“Determining if someone is competent to do a job is totally different from determining if someone has mastered the competencies to do the job”.

This is an important element in the discussion on qualifications versus experience. Often it is the case of the technical qualifications gaining one an audience but experience that keeps the audience listening.  Jim expresses it this way

“My empirical research on competencies that distinguish superior performance has revealed that performance is driven more by behavioral competencies than technical competencies. In fact, mastering technical competencies only earns an OHS pro a seat at the decision-maker’s table; it has nothing to do with distinguished superior performance. In fact, technical competencies do not do anything to distinguish superior performance because decision-makers expect OHS pros to have mastered their technical competencies before engaging them in any decision-making processes; hence the reason they have been invited to the decision-making table.”

One engineer expressed views that often come up in discussions in this area – the feeling that experience is less valued than technical qualifications or, in some cases, one’s sphere of influence.

“…I have been in the EH&S field in some form or another for 25 plus years. I believe there is much to be said of the school of hard knocks or on the job learning. Bottom line I would find it very hard at least in North America to have a new regulator show up at my door with text books in hand and try and explian(sic) some of the regulation that I have worked with for years and determine I don’t know my job.“

Jim’s points may be the issues that have underpinned  concerns about the Australian processes for establishing a safety profession.

There is nothing uniquely OHS about this dichotomy but because health and safety in Australia has not matured to the extent it has in other countries the conflict is continuing.  Australia needs, and deserves, someone to cut through the political and personal agendas to implement much needed reform.  A good opportunity could have occurred with the establishment of Safe Work Australia but the heavy reform agenda of the Rudd government means that no department is going to taken on more than they have to.

Kevin Jones

Insights into crisis decision-making and communications – Victorian Bushfire Royal Commission

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There’s an opportunity to follow the hearings of the Victorian Royal Commission on last summer’s horrendous bushfires via a live web stream. Here is the link to the Commission’s home page: http://www.royalcommission.vic.gov.au/ The “live stream” link on that page takes you to a live broadcast of the hearings underway at the time.

Fortunately, the catastrophe of the summer’s bushfires don’t happen often (unfortunately, the enormity of some people lighting fires does happen too often). What is even more rare is for us to be able to listen to first-hand witness experiences of decision-making in extreme conditions and to gain insights from listening to those experiences.

I often have the Royal Commission’s live stream running in the background while doing other work. I do that because I’d prefer to hear the witnesses reports directly. Of course, there will be a final report, but hearing the tone and context of the questions and answers are the sort of things that can be very difficult to recreate in a written report.

Monitoring the live stream is highly recommended for all safety professionals; doubly so for those people who work in larger businesses or organizations. A rare chance to observe and compare decision-making processes and lines of communication in complex situations to see what did and didn’t work.

Col Finnie
col@finiohs.com
www.finiohs.com

A vision for the OHS profession

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WorkSafe Victoria is very involved with moves to improve the professionalism of OHS practitioners in Australia.  There is no doubt that improvements are required but the role of a state-based regulator in a non-regulatory system is curious. Surely such changes should be run from a national perspective

Safety professionals often look at the prominence, influence and market share of professional organisations for the doctors or the accountants.  In Australia, at the moment, the health care profession’s accreditation/registration process is having a new structure introduced.  After a long review process the Australian Health Workforce Ministerial Council identified these areas for change

  • Accreditation standards will be developed by the independent accrediting body or the accreditation committee of the board where an external body has not been assigned the function.
  • The accrediting body or committee will recommend to the board, in a transparent manner, the courses and training programs it has accredited and that it considers to have met the requirements for registration.
  • Ministers today agreed there will be both general and specialist registers available for the professions, including medicine and dentistry, where ministers agree that there is to be specialist registration. Practitioners can be on one or both of these registers, depending on whether their specialist qualification has been recognised under the national scheme.

This third point is an excellent one and so easily applied to the safety profession and the practitioners. “Specialist” and “generalist” seems to reflect the composition of the safety industry in Australia.  There are those on the shopfloor or offices who deal with hazards on a daily basis.  There are those who research and write about safety.  And there are those who are a bit of both.  The two category system of accreditation seems simple and practical and readily understood by those outside of the profession.

  • Both categories will attract experts in various fields but the categories themselves don’t relate to specific areas of expertise. The Ministerial Council has agreed that there will be a requirement that, for annual renewal of registration, a registrant must demonstrate that they have participated in a continuing professional development program as approved by their national board.
  • Assistance will be provided to members of the public who need help to make a complaint.
  • The Ministerial Council agreed that national boards will be required to register students in the health profession
  • …boards will be appointed by the Ministerial Council with vacancies to be advertised. At least half, but not more than two thirds, of the members must be practitioners and at least two must be persons appointed as community members.
  • There will be a new “Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency”

 These points deal with matters sorely lacking from many areas of the safety profession – independence, transparency, skills maintenance, a clear and independent complaints procedure, diverse representation and a formal regulatory agency.

To this SafetyAtWorkBlog would add the concept of a Safety Industry Ombudsman for it is always necessary to have someone watching the “watchmen”.

Currently the Australian safety profession is part way through a mish-mash of a process of professionalisation.  Surely it would be better to follow the most contemporary of processes being implemented by health care and others.  Such a process would take some time and require support from the various disciplines of safety and the government.  More importantly, it may require “vision” but during this time of substantial change in OHS legislation and regulatory structure, it is surely the right time to bring in long-term structural change to a profession that would benefit business and the public very well indeed.

Kevin Jones

How many Australians work from home?

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SafetyAtWorkBlog is mostly produced from a home office.  This is principally because the type of work undertaken can be done in a domestic setting.  There are thousands of small – and micro-businesses in a similar situation.   Thousands of people choose to run their businesses from home.

 This has often been overlooked in the teleworking movement over the last decade or so. “Working from home” has more often than not been considered an addition to working in an office.  The home workplace is seen as a back-up to a principal place of work.

In early may 2009, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released statistics on working from home, both as a main and second job.  The media statement emphasises those who take work home and does have one paragraph on home-based businesses.

“People who were owner managers in their main job were much more likely to use their own home for their main location of work (27% of the 1.9 million owner managers) than employees(1.4% of the 8.2 million employees*). Women who were owner managers in their main job were more likely to use their own home for their main location of work than male owner managers (45% compared with 18%)”

The media statement went on :

“Around one in every 12 employed persons (764,700 persons or 8%) worked more hours at home than any other single location in their main or second job.  Of these people:

  • The majority (83%) were aged 35 years or older
  • 55% were women
  • 39% were in families that had children aged under 15 years old
  • The main reason for working from home was ‘wanting an office at home/no overheads/no rent’ (37%), followed by ‘operating a farm’ (21%) and ‘flexible working arrangements’ (15%)
  • 31% worked 35 hours or more at home in all jobs”

The OHS profession has never really been able to cope with a workplace that is also a domestic residence.  To help, OHS professionals advise to have a dedicated home office so that the workplace has a defined area.  This allows OHS obligations to fit the concept.

Working from a kitchen table with a dog, a hungry child and three baskets of washing to hang out, is not what the legislation anticipated but it can be the reality.

Another reality is that many media and professional people can work out of their car or local cafes almost 100% of their time.  How does the advice from an OHS professional match those scenarios?  Legislation based on the assumption of a fixed work location or site might not meet these particular working environments.

Another thing that is always annoying is the assumption that it is office workers who work from home, so the tasks are necessarily technologically based.  Any OHS advice should apply to the issue of working from home in a broad sense and not just to specific work tasks.

As many professions become portable, OHS laws and legislation need to accommodate the flexibility.  If not more so, so do company policies, job descriptions, claims assessments, workplace safety assessments and others.

Kevin Jones