Working alone – a poorly understood work hazard

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Working alone is an established workplace hazard in many industries.  The control measure most applied is “don’t work alone” that is, undertake as many work tasks in isolated location with someone supervising or in close contact.

Modern technology has often been applied as a possible control measure – “deadman switch”, GPS tracking, mobile phone use.  Many of these control measures are second nature to workers in this century and are so commonplace that their safety role is ignored.

Regardless of the many zookeeper attacks that have gained media headlines over recent years, many workers are assaulted and killed while working alone.  Industries that do not have a strong history of safety management most often get caught out by having a staff member injured or killed.  Bosses or industry associations often express wonder at how such an incident could occur.  Safety professionals would have seen the hazard instantly.

The risk of violence from working alone has been a hot topic in Australia since a Victorian female real estate agent was murdered while showing a prospective “client” an isolated property.

HSS0075-Real      -3.477447e+266state-Property            51804944nspection                    afety[1]WorkSafe Victoria has just released a further publication concerning this matter.  The alert is okay in its context but is doing a disservice by being restricted to real estate agents.  Worksafe has more generic guidance but focus on real estate agents? Why not produce similarly detailed guidance guidance that is more broadly applicable to workers in isolation – pizza deliverers, night shift workers, street cleaners, office cleaners a whole raft of occupations that operate alone?

WorkSafe has said previously that real estate agents gain priority because such guidances are developed in conjunction with industry associations.  A legitimate question can be asked, why is a government authority producing guidance for a sector that already has an industry body who can do this?  Shouldn’t an OHS regulator be focusing on those areas that don’t have industry support?

Below are some of the recommended control measures in the latest publication.  SafetyAtWorkBlog’s more generic control measures are in red.

  • having a new client stop by the office and complete a personal identification form before viewing a property to verify details

Have a detailed list of staff work locations and a contact name and (after hours) number for a supervisor at each location

  • inspecting properties during the day. If night inspections are necessary, ensure the agent is accompanied. Identify exit points in case a quick escape is needed

Work with a colleague wherever possible

  • inspecting the property before showing clients,to assess any existing risks or hazards

Consider the security measures of each work area – lighting, access/egress, phone coverage, camera surveillance, etc

  • making an excuse and leaving the site immediately if the client becomes aggressive or makes the agent feel uncomfortable

Cancel the work task at the first sign of hazard

  • calling the office with a pre-assigned emergency code phrase if the agent senses a dangerous situation

The “safe word” control measure is well established in the escort business.  It can work but will only notify of a dangerous situation not eliminate it

  • regularly training staff on safety procedures, including instructions on dealing with potential offenders and incident reporting.

Develop safe work procedures in consultation with staff 

When considering control measures in these situations it may be very useful to understand that prosecutions are likely to consider that employers have undertaken control measures “as far is reasonably practicable” – a movable feast of judgements.  Ask yourself or your client the question, would they prefer to know that an employee is in danger, injured or killed, or would they prefer to have the employee safe and loose a potential client?  The court may consider camera or other technical surveillance to be reasonably practicable but what would your employee who has lost an eye, limb and quality of life think?

Consider other control measures ONLY AFTER elimination has been seriously considered.

Kevin Jones

Other OHS guides concerning working alone are available below

WorkSafe WA

WA Dept of Commerce

Trade Union site

WorkSafe Victoria

Workplace Health & Safety Queensland

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

The OHS recommendations the Australian Government rejected

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According to the Communiqué of the Workplace Relations Ministers’ Council on 18 May 2009, the following issues should be considered when drafting the new OHS legislation

“Application of the primary duty of care to any person conducting a business or undertaking

The panel recommends that the primary duty of care should be owed by any person conducting a business or undertaking.  The objective of this recommendation is to move away from the traditional emphasis on the employment relationship as the determiner of the primary duty, to provide greater health and safety protection for all persons involved in, or affected by, work activity.  Care needs to be taken during drafting to ensure that the scope of the duty is limited to matters of occupational health and safety and does not further extend into areas of public safety that are not related to the workplace activity. “

The first part of this is recognition of the variety of workplaces Australia now has, the number of people within worksites who are not employees and the previous issues of OHS and unpaid volunteers.  It seems to expand to matters of public liability but then, curiously, pulls back to emphasise occupational health and safety.  As Michael Tooma has noted, circumstances seem to have passed beyond the arbitrariness of the occupational categorisation. Continue reading “The OHS recommendations the Australian Government rejected”

Big fine for go-kart death

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The AAP and others are reporting a big fine over the death of Lydia Carter whilst driving a go-kart at a work function held in Port Melbourne in 2006.  The significance of the $A1.4 million fine is that the company, AAA Auscarts Imports Pty Ltd,  is not a large or multinational corporation.

Ms Carter was wearing a seat belt that did not fit properly and safety barriers on the track had been incorrectly installed.  

Judge Duncan Allen said 

“There is no doubt in my mind that (Auscarts) not only was fully aware of the risk, but was fully aware of the ways to reduce them” 

“The company showed a gross disregard concerning the safety of employees and the public.”

For OHS professionals this case, which ended today (12 May 2009) in the Victorian County Court, will generate a fair degree of attention because of the fine’s size.  However, from the information currently available, the case seems one of the go-kart company having a work environment that was unsafe for customers, the company being aware of this and not doing enough to fix it.

SafetyAtWorkBlog is also looking  into how Ms Carter’s death has changed her employer’s organisation, what effect it had on her colleagues, what policy changes have been made, amongst other matters.

The judgement will also be made available as soon as possible.

Kevin Jones

Varanus Island investigations continue

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International safety attention was focused on a tiny island of the northwest Australian cost in mid-June 2008 when a pipeline exploded.  Investigation reports have been presented to government and companies have regained operations after the major gas explosion that disrupted supplies across Western Australia.

In early May 2009, the WA Department of Mines & Petroleum announced a further investigation will be undertaken. WA Mines and Petroleum Minister Norman Moore has said that the department would carry out the final stage of investigations into the  explosion.

Kym Bills and David Agostini have been classified officially as inspectors and will undertake the investigation.

Moore said that the October 2008 report by NOPSA needed additional information which has recently become available.

 “…that investigation was limited by its reporting time frame and the absence of critical evidence, such as the results from destructive and non-destructive testing of the pipeline.”

A ministerial media release identifies the investigation’s scope:

  • the pertinent sequence of events on Varanus Island during the incident
  • the likely cause(s) of the incident
  • any actions and omissions by the operator of the Varanus Island facility, or its contractors, leading up to and during the incident that may have contributed to those events.

The final report will be presented to the department in June 2009.

Background on Varanus Island is available in SafetyAtWorkBlog by searching “Varanus” as a keyword.

Kevin Jones