Office design hype risks

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On 11 January 2009, John Read posted an article on office design.  The first paragraph is below:

“Paying attention to office design and building maintenance are imperative parts to doing business that many company owners ignore. The layout of office interiors can have a deep consequence on the disposition and productivity of staff members and upper management. Providing a well-maintained office is crucial in reference to health and safety issues. Through the use of proper design and upkeep, offices are able to experience some amount of control over the contentment, welfare, and effectiveness of not only their staff members, but themselves also.”

My comment was posted this morning

“The refurbishment and redesign of offices can have a positive effect on the morale of workers if the environment becomes cheery, colourful and refreshing. However, companies often use refurbishment as a cover for more important cultural and organisational issues.

Successful businesses and happy staff come from active personnel management more than from the physical environment in which this occurs.

Companies should not be distracted from organisational issues by window dressing and office redesign is, usually, a low-priority matter that is more often than not, coordinated through an image consultant or brand marketing.

Another risk with office redesign is when the ergonomic, operational and communication needs are not considered at the design stage. In many instances, offices quickly become shabby because workers need to accommodate design deficiencies in order to achieve comfort and peak productivity – additional heating, more lighting, different seating, additional technologies…..

Plants have been advocated as a positive, and functional, presence in offices for decades however, windows that open to allow ventilation, have been around much longer. The environmental design of an office building should be considered before taking on a tenancy.

The definitive government guidance on office safety and design is OfficeWise by WorkSafe Victoria, which is available online.”

Australian electronic media today, and probably the newspapers tomorrow, have been reporting on a new literature study into office design undertaken by Dr Vinesh Oommen from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) concerning open-plan office design.

A typical example of journalistic hyperbole with a “comical” photo can be found in The Queensland Times from an AAP story.

Dr Oommen is quoted as saying:

“In 90 per cent of the research, the outcome of working in an open-plan office was seen as negative, with open-plan offices causing high levels of stress, conflict, high blood pressure, and a high staff turnover.

The high level of noise causes employees to lose concentration, leading to low productivity, there are privacy issues because everyone can see what you are doing on the computer or hear what you are saying on the phone, and there is a feeling of insecurity.”

Dr Oommen has previously gained media attention with his research in children and junk food.

The media is going to run with this story, particularly now it has appearedon the AAP wires services.  Yet we can’t access Dr Oommen’s study in the Asia-Pacific Journal of Health Management as the publication is only for members of the Australian College of Health Service Executives . Until then it is wise to consider the media’s interpretation of an unseen research article before making the decision to redesign your open-office into ripple glass and swinging doors.

To investigate whether your offices are an occupational hazard, you are recommended to remind yourself of the safe design guidelines or, as mentioned above, reread the latest version of OfficeWise, or its sister publication, StressWise.

Let others go off half-cocked while the safety practitioners deal with reality.

 Kevin Jones

Eliminating hazards

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In the aims of most of the Australian OHS legislation is 

“to eliminate, at the source, risks to the health, safety and welfare of employees and other persons at work…”

I have written elsewhere on how this conflicts with the push for “reasonably practicable” but the need to remember this important aim was emphasised by a study undertaken by the Graduate School of Public Health and the School of Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh and published in the January 2009 issue of “Neuropsychology”, which is published by the American Psychological Association.

The researchers followed up on the 1982 Lead Occupational Study, which assessed the cognitive abilities of 288 lead-exposed and 181 non-exposed male workers in eastern Pennsylvania.  It measured “five primary cognitive domains: psychomotor speed, spatial function, executive function, general intelligence, and learning and memory.”

According to the media statement, in the 2004 follow up study,

“Among the lead-exposed workers, men with higher cumulative lead had significantly lower cognitive scores. The clearest inverse relationships – when one went up, the other went down – emerged between cumulative lead and spatial ability, learning and memory, and overall cognitive score.

This linkage was more significant in the older lead-exposed men, of at least age 55. Their cognitive scores were significantly different from those of younger lead-exposed men even when the researchers controlled for current blood levels of lead. In other words, even when men no longer worked at the battery plants, their earlier prolonged exposure was enough to matter…”

“The men who built lead batteries were exposed to it in the air and through their skin. Other occupations, including semiconductor fabrication, ceramics, welding and soldering, and some construction work, also may expose workers. The authors wrote that, “Increased prevention measures in work environments will be necessary to reduce [lead exposure] to zero and decrease risk of cognitive decline.””

Lead has been identified as a major occupational hazard for a very long time and is a good example of how “reasonably practicable” is not always a reasonable solution.  Lead paint products have been banned in many countries.  Asbestos similarly so.  The attitude that there are “safe” levels of exposure to some industrial products is not worth pursuing in most circumstances.

Safety is similar to medicine in that both aim to “do no harm”.  If Hippocrates, or Galen, were alive today they would not say

“do no harm, as far as is reasonable practicable”.

That is not a belief that will establish a centuries-old profession and it should not be blindly accepted by the safety profession in the 21st century.

Kevin Jones

Political argy-bargy on level crossing safety

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Earlier this week Queensland MP Tim Nicholls, of the Liberal-National coalition gave the Queensland Transport Minister, John Mickel, a serve over the $10 million program on level crossing safety by calling the response “window dressing”. 

Nicholls seems more interested in political point-scoring than safety but he asks

“What has happened to all their much vaunted safety studies over the last decade.  It’s about time this Government came clean and explained whether it would actually commit new funding, what ongoing rail safety programs, if any, it has and whether today’s announcement will mean money is redirected from other maintenance and safety programs.”

He points out that

“Railway level safety was included in the National Road Safety Action Plan in 2003 and the Australian Transport Council has previously described railway level crossing crashes as ‘one of the most serious safety issues faced by the rail system in Australia'”

Today, Shadow Transport Minister Fiona Simpson got the focus back to safety for political procrastination and funding arguments describing the Queensland Government’s staunch defence of its “risk model” for determining upgrades was “dangerous“.

The Transport Minister has responded with political bluster but within John Mickel’s bluster is some points worth noting.

“For example, she [Fiona Simpson] might want to familiarise herself with the research which shows that the overwhelming number of level crossing accidents are caused by road driver behaviour, and how more than half of the accidents happen at crossings where there are boom gates or flashing lights.”

Mickel goes on to say

“Under this [uniform national assessment] process a review of level crossing characteristics such as topography and visibility takes place, which is then combined with the volume of road and rail traffic. The assessed level of risk is then used to prioritise any work that needs to be done.

The approach developed by Queensland forms the basis of what is known as ALCAM – the Australian Level Crossing Assessment Model – which has now been accepted by all state Transport Ministers as the method to be used to evaluate railway level crossings across Australia.”

ALCAM is receiving a great deal of attention through the Victorian Parliamentary investigation into level crossing safety. 

The need for uniform assessment processes is worthy but decisions on upgrading government infrastructure always considers the political imperatives, some would just, just as strongly as independent scientific advice.

Over decades workplace safety has developed assessment processes based on a range of techniques from plain observation to QRA, FEMA and many others.  Only recently has OHS got to the point of realising that greater and longer-lasting safety can be achieved through designing workplaces safely from the beginning rather than trying to achieve safety through retrofitting.  Recently in Australia, there is a growing movement to apply safety case techniques to workplaces that are not high-risk organisations.

Level crossing incidents, as do workplace fatalities, indicate that there was something not right with the initial design or that necessary safety improvements were permitted to lag behind the status and technology of the users of the facilities.  The fact remains that there are too many unsafe level crossings in Australia and each fatality is generating a reactionary government response rather than instigating true leadership.

Australian 2008 workplace statistics

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Every year newspapers and organisations undertake a “year in review”.  OHS regulators are no different.  As more statistics become available of the next few weeks, SafetyAtWorkBlog will provide the latest OHS statistics for 2008.  The most recent are below.

Western Australia

According to a media release by WorkSafe WA:

“In 2005/06, WA recorded 12 traumatic work-related deaths and 25 in 2006/07. There were 27 fatalities in 2007/08. In addition, every year around 19,000 Western Australians suffer an injury or illness serious enough to have to take time off work.”

Eleven of these fatalities have occurred since 1 July 2008


According to information provided to SafetyAtWorkBlog by WorkSafe Victoria:
  • There were 21 work-related deaths in calendar 2008 compared with 22 in 2007 and 29 in 2006.
  • Deaths in 2008 occurred in building construction (four), transport and agriculture (three each), timber, electrical linesmen (two each). There were also fatalities involving forklifts, the meat industry, retail, firefighting, roadworks, warehousing and manufacturing (one each).
  • The 10 year average is 28.4 deaths/calendar year.  There were 39 fatalities in 1999, the highest in that period.  Lowest was 2004 with 18.
  • The 5 year average is 24 with a high of 30 in 2004, the highest in that period.
  • 29,087 [WorkCover] claims last financial year compared with 28,550 in the previous. There were 77 life threatening injuries in the last financial year compared with 66 in 06/07.

Kevin Jones

UPDATE – 7 January 2009

A spokesperson for WorkSafe WA has told SafetyAtWorkBlog that WorkSafe’s statistical experience varies from that in Victoria in the context of workplace injuries over the Summer break.  January is historically a month with a low rate of workplace injuries.  This may be due to the number and type of West Australian industries that close down for January or that workers are on leave for around two weeks in January.

Statistics on workplace injuries are notoriously difficult to compare from one Australian State to another and SafetyAtWorkBlog would argue OHS would be seen as more directly relevant by the community if statistics accurately reflected the level of work-related injuries and illnesses rather than being based on workers compensation claims and fatalities.   It certainly would change the strategic targets and enforcement processes if illness was accurately assessed.

Various Federal governments have promised to attend to statistical incompatibility over decades and it is hoped that the potential national consistency of OHS laws may also resolve the need for accurate and relevant workplace statistics.





Drug abuse at work – podcast interview with Professor Steve Allsop

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The editors of SafetyAtWorkBlog produced SafetyAtWork podcasts several years ago.  These interviews deserve some longevity even though some of the references have dated.  In this context, SafetyAtWorkBlog is re-releasing a podcast from September 2006 on the management of drugs in the workplace. (The podcast is available at SafetyAtWork Podcast – September 2006 )

Professor Steven Allsop is a leading researching on the use of drugs at work and socially.  Steven is also the Director of the National Drug Research Institute.  In this interview he discusses amphetamine use, how to broach the issue of drug use with a worker and drug policies in industrial sectors.

Please let SafetyAtWorkBlog know of your thoughts on this podcast.

Kevin Jones