Environmental tobacco smoke, workplace stress – podcast 2006

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In 2006, one of the earliest editions of the SafetyAtWork podcast featured several speakers on issues that remain topical.  The podcast is available for download

Anne Mainsbridge, currently a Solicitor with the Public Interest Advocacy Centre talks about her report on environmental tobacco smoke.

This is followed by Associate Professor Tony LaMontagne of the University of Melbourne talking about a systematic approach to managing workplace stress.  This was a report that was published by the Victorian Health Department and, as such, slipped by many OHS professionals.  The report is now available for download

The audio production is rough for such an early podcast, and I apologise, but I think you will find the content of interest.

Kevin Jones

Does union presence improve OHS?

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The trade union movement is an important element in the management of safety in workplaces but over the last twenty years, with the exception of a couple of industry sectors, the membership numbers have waned.  Until recently in Australia, the union movement was able to maintain a level of influence in the government decision-making process that was contrary to its declining membership.

Last week the Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, told the ACTU to stop lobbying the government and instead generate innovation, enthusiasm and members by reintroducing itself to the community.  Union membership spiked in response to its anti-Howard government advertising over three years ago but any membership based on fear is unsustainable.

Paul Kelly in today’s Australian is more forthright about the trade union position in society and politics but it is clear that the union movement needs to refocus.

Health and safety representatives (HSRs) have been a major element of the enforcement of safety standards in workplaces.  Some OHS legislation in the last decade has had to emphasise non-union consultation on safety issues to balance the declining presence of HSRs.  New research from Europe has found the following

three researchers reviewed
the studies done on the matter in Europe. They
conclude that having trade union representation
leads to better observance of the rules,
lower accident rates and fewer work-related
health problems.

“having trade union representation leads to better observance of the rules, lower accident rates and fewer work-related health problems.”

Transposing these findings into a non-European context is unwise but the research could provide a model for independent research and a comparative study.

Regrettably the report is not available for free but can be purchased through the European Trade Union Institute.

Kevin Jones

Sitting (not so) pretty

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New Australian research shows hours of sedentary activity, like typing emails or sitting at a quality control station, are associated with higher cardio-metabolic health risks that are independent of time spent in moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity.

DrGenevieveHealyAccording to a media statement from University of Queensland and Baker IDI research fellow, Genevieve Healy, (pictured right) 

“Although many Australians have adopted the recommendation of getting at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity on at least five days of the week, we’ve been getting more overweight.

“The most plausible explanation is that 30 minutes constitutes a very small proportion of waking hours.  It’s equally important to look at what the person is doing for the remaining 15 and-a-half hours of the day.  A person who follows the guidelines of 30 minutes of brisk walking and spends the other 97 per cent of waking hours sitting is ‘physically active’ according to public health guidelines.  However, the term ‘active couch potato’ is probably more appropriate,” Dr Healy says.

Dr Healy will be speaking more on her reseach at the Queensland Safety Conference in Brisbane, Australia on  18 June 2009.

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