OHS and Corporate Responsibility in Asia

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In 2000, Melody Kemp was interviewed for Safety At Work magazine about her experience monitoring Western corporations’ workplace safety in Asia. Below is an extract of that interview.

In 2000, Melody Kemp was interviewed for Safety At Work magazine about her experience monitoring Western corporations’ workplace safety in Asia.  Below is an extract of that interview.

The full interview is available by clicking the HERE.pages-from-2i5-melody-kemp-interview

Recently you were part of an international OHS inspection team in Indonesia. Can you tell us about that?

I guess the reason I became part of the team was that I was known to the social research group that we were working with.  First, Reebok, who we were working for, put the job out for tender, which was actually quite unusual.  Normally the other shoe companies tend to elect an international consulting accounting firm like Price Waterhouse or Ernst Young.  

The woman who took over the human rights job used to work for the Asian Foundation and she had a totally different set of beliefs.  She had a background in social activism and human rights, so she was interested in a different approach.  Being as independent as they could be they decided to take this opportunity. They subcontracted to a prominent social research group who have worked for World Bank and have a lot of status.

Also, they were all Indonesians while I was the only foreigner on the team but I also speak Indonesian.  A major factor was that we were all familiar with the language and culture.  They needed an OHS person, they preferred to work with a woman, and I was the only woman they could find in Indonesia with that mix of skills. 

Nanotechnology safety campaign (with Interview)

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On 18 March 2009, Steve Mullins the OHS Officer with the Australian Council of Trade Unions presented a paper on nanotechnology hazards to the “Science Meets Parliament” forum.  His concerns over worker safety are not shared by the nanotechnology industry as media reports show but, as Steve points out, nanotechnology hazards have some interesting parallels with asbestos.

Below are the concerns that Steve has over the nanotechnology manufacturing industry in Australia:  

  • No regulatory acceptance that nanomaterials are more hazardous
  • No nano specific risk assessment or controls mandated
  • No nano specific monitoring equipment 
  • No nano specific MSDS
  • No exposure levels
  • No labels
  • No requirement to inform
  • No health surveillance
  • No training
  • No nano specific PPE
  • Where nano specific risk management applied or promoted, end up trying to apply controls designed for larger material anyway
  • There is no coordinated approach

An exclusive interview with Steve is available by clicking HERE.

Amanda Barnard

In 2008 Australian theoretical physicist Amanda Barnard was awarded the L’Oréal Australia For Women in Science Fellowship.  Barnard is developing computational tools to predict the behaviour of nanoparticles in the environment.

An video report about Amanda Branard  is below.

Cancer fears in Tasmanian school

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Over recent years Australia has had its share of cancer cluster fears, most of which have not had a cause identified.  Cancer clusters are one of the most difficult workplace hazards to manage for several reasons:

  • Worker’s fear for their health;
  • Management fears for its staff;
  • Some management worry about the related business costs;
  • Clusters can generate considerable media coverage; and
  • Noone knows what’s really going on.

An August 2008 case appeared in Tasmania and, therefore, got almost no coverage in other States, even though it occurred in a media-friendly venue, a school.  The experts say that the incident is not technically a “cancer cluster” however semantics is the least of the worries for the participants and, in terms of safety management (and the management of any “outrage”), the differentiation is irrelevant.

In early March 2009, the investigation was completed and, sadly, no cause was identified.  In 3 March, the Director of Public Health,  Dr Roscoe Taylor, issued a media statement.

The investigation concerned the potential risks from electro-magnetic radiation from nearby power lines.

Dr Taylor found there was no statistical significance in the cancer rates of employees who had worked at the school

“Taking into account the lack of identifiable hazards, as well as the very small population we are dealing with, the most probable explanation for the numbers of cancers appears to be chance variation,” said Dr Taylor. 

“This was a rigorous and thorough investigation and while we probably can’t provide staff with the absolute assurances and certainty they would have been looking for, I think the results of the analysis mean we can be fairly confident that there has been no serious threat to public or occupational health at the school.

More details and Frequently Asked Questions are available.  A particularly useful factsheet on clusters is available HERE.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Health Report has an excellent podcast available in which cancer clusters in workplaces are discussed.

Kevin Jones

Is there a Mars safety and a Venus safety?

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A research paper released last month in Germany caught my attention even though it does not relate directly to research undertaken in a work environment.  

There seems to be an established train of thought that men and women choose to take risks based on some sort of gender criteria.

Alison L. Booth and  Patrick J. Nolen have published “Gender Differences in Risk Behaviour: Does Nurture Matter?”  They researched risk behaviour along gender lines in secondary education, a different sample choice to other researchers who mostly looked at their university students.  Booth and Nolen found

“…gender differences in preferences for risk-taking are sensitive to the gender mix of the experimental group, with girls being more likely to choose risky outcomes when assigned to all-girl groups.  This suggests that observed gender differences in behaviour under uncertainty found in previous studies might reflect social learning rather than inherent gender traits.”

Gender studies are fraught with ideological baggage and it is a brave person who chooses this line of study, as I learnt through studying sociology and Russian literature at university (but that’s another story).

The full report is heavy going for those with no sociology background but the research flags an issue that could be useful to pose to the growing band of workplace psychologists and culture gurus – what are the gender-based variations in unsafe behaviours in the workplace?

Could the available research mean different safety management approaches in workplaces with different gender mixes?  

When people talk about workplace culture, could there be a male culture and a female culture?  (We certainly refer to a macho culture in some industries)  In other words, is there a Mars safety and a Venus safety?

Workplace safety tries hard to be generic but has variations based on industry types.  Perhaps we should be looking more closely at the demographics of these types and varying our safety management approaches?

Kevin Jones

Two different approaches to risk management and safety in Australia

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Australian Standards can have a major role to play in the management of safety in workplaces.  They apply to equipment, documents, decisions and can have legislative credibility if required by specific regulations.  Australian Standards are regularly referred to in guidances issued by OHS regulators adding further credibility.  The highest selling standard for many years has been Risk Management.

Unreasonable safety costs

One of SafetyAtWorkBlog’s long-held peeves needs to be stated here.  The standards are produced by a private company, Standards Australia.  The standards are only available for sale.  Small business, in particular, often baulks at OHS improvements because they see OHS management as a large cost for a small return, in a risk management context.  But the standards they need to satisfy regulatory compliance can only to be purchased.

If the Australian government is serious about easing the cost of regulatory compliance, make any Australian Standard that is mentioned in legislation available for free.

But government’s are only interested in reducing indirect OHS costs through paperwork and “red tape”, and OHS compliance requires some level of documentation.

Risk Management

Two important OHS documents that discuss risk management were released within weeks of each other.  First the Australian government released the second and final report of the Review into National Model OHS Laws (OHS Report).  The other report was the findings of the Tasmanian Coroner into the death of Larry Knight.  

The Coroner’s report was highly critical of the Beaconsfield mine’s (BGM) risk management process.

“BGM submits that there has been adequate documentation of its risk management…… I do not accept BGM’s submission” (pages 68-69)

The Coroner goes on to say

“…., the evidence is unclear upon the steps taken by BGM, prior to this decision, in its evaluation of those risks identified by its own risk analysis process. To illustrate:

  • There is no evidence to explain the decision to resume mining in contradiction of Mr Gill’s memorandum which had stipulated that forward modelling be completed beforehand.
  • Mr Gill had, in his memorandum posed the questions, “Are our current ground support standards sufficient for the seismicity being experienced?, and if they aren’t, “What is required?” However, there is not any evidence of BGM having undertaking an assessment of the sufficiency of its ground support standards so that these questions could be answered nor is there any record evidencing why the decision was taken to resume mining without these questions being addressed.
  • Dr Sharrock had identified an important depth of failure issue which Mr Gill acknowledged was raised by him at his close-out meeting yet there is no evidence to explain the evaluation of this concern by BGM and the basis for its rejection.
  • There does not appear to be any evidence of BMG having considered the reevaluation of its ground support after Mr Basson’s modelling results became available although this had been advised by Mr Turner.”  (pages 66-67, my emphasis)

The coroner’s report is full of this type of comment of an inadequate risk management and assessment process.

Reading the report in full generates a big question of how can a company be so deficient in its safety management system and still not be held responsible for the consequences of its actions?

The company remains belligerent  in its defence of the very risk assessment process that the Coroner slammed.  In a media statement, CEO Bill Colvin states

“…the company is disappointed at the lack of acknowledgement of the extensive risk assessment process undertaken by the Beaconsfield Gold mine following the October 2005 rock fall.

“Contrary to comments made by the Coroner, there was rigorous risk assessment, the mine did vary its ground support system and it changed its mining method. Nevertheless, the Coroner did find that no person contributed to the death of Larry Knight.”

Which report was he reading?

Outside of the coronial process, there seems to be sufficient evidence in the coroner’s report for Workplace Standards Tasmania to have another look at prosecuting BGM for failing to ensure that Larry Knight had a healthy and safe work environment.

Review Panel – Risk Management

The Review Panel decided not to include risk management as an enforceable element of national OHS legislation, even though it is a legislative requirement in Queensland.  The panel has reduced the emphasis on risk management by including it only “as part of an object of the model Act.” (page xviii) 

Placing it as an object of the Act puts risk management out of the public’s eye.  If risk management is not part of the obligations of an employer in law, we should not expect business operators to embrace them.  The BGM risk management process was found to be deficient by the Coroner and may have contributed to the death of Larry Knight but the Review Panel sets risk management as an aim and not an enforceable part of model OHS legislation.  It advocated the concept but would not committed

The panel heard, in a submission by Johnstone, Bluff and Quinlan, that

“The Model OHS Act should explicitly require duty holders to undertake systematic OHS management in order to comply with their general duty obligations, and the Act should outline the approach to be taken in a way that integrates the concept of ‘reasonably practicable’ into the process, and also shows how duty holders should use the provisions in regulations and codes of relevance to the issue being addressed in order to comply with the general duty.”

The Review Panel followed the recommendation of the Law Council of Australia that risk management be included in Regulations and not the Act itself.

But then, the review was not a review of occupational health and safety but of occupational health and safety law.  The management of safety was never its focus.

If it had been such a review, or if the government decides that a “safety management review” is warranted in the next few years, there would have been the opportunity to analyse the cost of managing safety and to show how the legal fraternity and the standards setting processes unnecessarily contribute to high compliance costs and red tape.

Risk management was clearly an important business process at Beaconsfield Gold even if the application of the process was poor.  The Coroner said

“one obvious line of defence is to have in place a systematic, comprehensive, rigorous and properly documented risk assessment process.  It is my opinion that BGM did not abide by such a process in the period between the October ’05 rockfalls and Anzac Day 2006.” (page 71)

Larry Knight died on Anzac day 2006.

The Review Panel believes risk management can sit in Regulations and in legislative aims.  Standards Australia continues to charge for its OHS and risk management standards.  The Australian government remains silent on providing free business management information that has the real possibility of saving lives.  Bring on the safety management review!

Kevin Jones