Professor Michael Quinlan, Beaconsfield and Safety Cases

I have spoken elsewhere of the non-release of Professor Michael Quinlan’s OHS report into the Beaconsfield mine.  On 4 August 2008, he spoke at the coronial inquest into the death of Larry Knight.  According to media reports, Professor Quinlan said about the rockfall that killed Larry Knight:

“I can’t say the event wouldn’t have occurred – I can say that the chances of it occurring would have been reduced… They are steps that should have been taken, in my view.”

He has also been very hot on the validity of risk assessment processes at workplace. As part of Melick report into the disaster, Melick used Quinlan’s report when writing

 “As far as can be determined, the risk ranking of ground control was not reassessed or revised in the light of these (earlier rockfall) events…. The evidence indicates that the possibility of further significant seismic events in the mine in 915 and 925 metre levels was foreseeable.” 

In December 2007, I interviewed Professor Quinlan about a range of OHS issues including major hazards.  In the SafetyAtWork podcast, he said that some mines in Western Australia have begun to apply a safety case regime to safety because of the high-hazard nature of the workplace.  At that time he supported such a move.

Quinlan pointed out, though, that safety case regulation is very resource-intensive and, therefore, only relative to large organisations and well-resourced regulators. 

It is unlikely that such a combination could have been applied to the mine in Beaconsfield as Quinlan is reported as saying at the inquest that 

“Workplace Standards Tasmania was under-resourced and [he] recommended the development of mine-specific safety laws and trade-union mine inspectors.”

Many submissions to the National OHS Law Review have mentioned the relevance of a safety case approach to OHS but only one of the currently available submissions mentions that the safety case approach could be applied to mines.

Stress and job mobility

In The Age newspaper for 31 July 2008, James Adonis wrote the article “Eight signs your workplace is crook”.  One of those signs was stressed workers.  He quoted a report by Watson Wyatt where employees listed stress  as a major reason for leaving a job.  Stress did not rank in the employers’ top five reasons for people leaving.

This disconnect illustrates a major misunderstanding about workplace stress by employers and, maybe, employees.  The ultimate control measure for workplace stress is to leave a job and I recommend this to colleagues who do not see it as a viable hazard control option.

The challenge is to make sure that the next job is not, or does not become, a similarly stressful job.

The executive summary of the report says

“Forty-eight percent of organizations say that job-related stress — created by long hours and doing more with less — affects business performance. Although only 5 percent are taking strong action to address it…”

The focus on business performance may reflect the perspective of the report writers but as it is only available for purchase for $US49, I would ask for the report (2007/2008 Staying@Work Report: Building an Effective Health & Productivity Framework) at a library.

Inquiry into health impacts of maintaining jet-fighter fuel tanks

Earlier this century the Australian Defence Force established the F-111 Deseal-Reseal Health Care Scheme to compensate workers who may have been affected through exposure to chemicals while cleaning F111 fighter aircraft between 1977 and the late 1990s.

A parliamentary inquiry has been established to further investigate the issue of compensation. In the 29 July 2008 edition of The Australian newspaper details of the work exposures have been restated.

“More than 800 RAAF personnel were forced to do the work on the fuel tanks, removing old sealant using chemicals.

The work was done because of a basic flaw in the design of the aircraft — their fuel tanks did not include a bladder, and the sealant used on rivets to stop leaking had to be replaced at regular intervals.”

Details of the impact of this work on workers and their families have also been restated. Ian Fraser, Queensland president of the F-111 Deseal-Reseal support group has said that

“former workers now suffer temper swings, drug abuse and broken marriages — and some had committed suicide.

A significant number have died from cancer, which Mr Fraser’s organisation says is directly attributable to them being made to work with the chemicals — particularly one known as SR51.”

Those OHS professionals who have read Professor Andrew Hopkins’ book “Safety, Risk and Culture” should be familiar with the case as Hopkins investigated the issue and devoted a chapter to his book on the F111 Deseal/Reseal process.  A review of the Hopkins book is available online as is a useful article by Hopkins on safety culture.

It is worth remembering that exposure to chemicals and inadequate protection is not something from the developing nations or from Western industrial history.  These workers faced unacceptable risks within the last twenty years.

Medical research into stress indicators


Dr Rita Effros spoke to All Things Considered this last weekend about her research into telomeres and cortisol.  In the OHS field this is gibberish until you consider the implications of the research outside of the lab.  According to the UCLA website “cells of persons under chronic stress have shorter telomeres.”  Dr Effros said

“When the body is under stress, it boosts production of cortisol to support a ‘fight or flight’ response. If the hormone remains elevated in the bloodstream for long periods of time, though, it wears down the immune system. We are testing therapeutic ways of enhancing telomerase levels to help the immune system ward off cortisol’s effect. If we’re successful, one day a pill may exist to strengthen the immune system’s ability to weather chronic emotional stress.”

Dr Effros findings could one day reduce the long-term stress experienced by carers of chronically ill family members, soldiers, air traffic controllers, astronauts and people who drive long distances.

Chromosomes (stained blue) end in protective caps called telomeres (stained yellow), which are shorter in persons suffering chronic stress. A new UCLA study suggests cortisol is the culprit behind the telomeres' premature shortening. Copyright: UCLA

Beaconsfield Coronial Inquest Walkout

On 22 July 2008 the Tasmanian Coroner continued with his inquest into the death of Larry Knight at the Beaconsfield mine on 25 April 2006. Shortly after the start the legal team representing the mine walked out. Newspaper, radio and TV have covered this extraordinary development. Other reports in SafetyAtWorkBlog told of the lawyers’ attempts…

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Australian Level Crossings – Part 2

The Victorian Government’s investigation into level crossing safety is continuing. Yesterday the Parliamentary Committee on Road Safety ran a seminar on technological issues related to level crossings. Today (22 July 2008 ) I attended the morning session of a seminar on Fail-Safe technologies. The meat of today’s seminar was to be an open and frank…

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Australian Workplace Injury Statistics

On 15 July 2008, the Australian government released the 2005-2006 Compendium of Workers’ Compensation Statistics Australia. I am pleasantly surprised that although the number of fatalities is never at an acceptable level the trend data is very positive in terms of safety management.

Some key findings and trends reported in the Compendium include:

  • Preliminary data for 2005-06 shows there were 231 compensated fatalities, 93 per cent of which were men.
  • Preliminary data for 2005-06 reports the transport and storage industry accounted for the largest number of fatalities (41), followed by construction (33) and manufacturing (28).
  • Trend data results showed all industries experienced a fall in incidence rates of injury and disease between 1997-98 and 2004-05, with the greatest falls being in the priority industries of mining (45 per cent decrease), construction (27 per cent decrease), transport and storage (20 per cent decrease), agriculture, forestry and fishing (19 per cent decrease) and manufacturing (18 per cent decrease).
  • Reflecting Australia’s ageing labour force, the proportion of claims for employees aged 45 years or more increased from 33 per cent in 1997-98 to 39 per cent in 2004-05.

Such decreases in these major industries should be applauded. Certainly the background to the statistics should be analysed for a proper consideration but the mining results are terrific given that the sector is booming in Australia with new mines opening frequently and is suffering a shortage of skilled labour. Colleagues of mine in that sector have been crowing about the improvements for some time and they seem to be supported by this compendium.

The data can be downloaded HERE

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