New Guidance on Preventing Fatigue

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Australian OHS authorities have been struggling for many years to address issues of fatigue in the workplace.  Partly this has been because the issue of stress and bullying came to dominate the psycho-social agenda.

The transport industry has pushed fatigue into the unavoidable hazard basket.  New South Wales’ experience with this issue has been particularly interesting and continues to do so. France’s experiment with a maximum set of working hours, partly on the grounds of occupational health and safety, has proven to be a brave experiment.  The Australian Trade Unions’ campaign on “reasonable hours” had safety echoes.

But, as with so many long-term OHS initiatives, Australia waited until England’s Health & Safety Executive (HSE) did all the leg work before tailoring fatigue guidelines to its own circumstances. At least this guideline acknowledges the HSE’s work.

On 4 August 2008, WorkSafe Victoria and WorkCover New South Wales published their guidelines on “Fatigue – Prevention in the Workplace”.  As far as it goes, it is a good addition to OHS information and, if its existence is publicised sufficiently, should place fatigue on the radar of OHS professionals.  Prior to this guide, the only fatigue information that WorkSafe produced was concerning fatigue in the forestry industry in March 2004! – hardly something that any other industry would see as relevant to themselves.

It is worth comparing some of the basic concepts that the OHS regulators have put forward.

The differing definitions reflect the perceptions of the OHS regulators, the state of knowledge at the time, the approach taken by the organisation consulted in the development of the guidances, they anticipate the level of resources allocated to the promotion and enforcement of fatigue management.  The contrast between the Victorian “definitions” of 2004 and 2008 are particularly marked.

Guidelines only go so far and then it is up to business to consider the advice and decide what to do.  The success of the new fatigue guideline won’t be in evidence for several years and, of course, that relies on the very dim chance of anyone undertaking an assessment of the guideline at all.

There are several issues that I think should be considered when reading the new guidance:

The role of the second job.

Second jobs, often undertaken by shift workers are assessed, if at all, for potential conflicts of interest.  The impediment in being “fit for work” in the principal employment is never assessed.  This guideline, in a roundabout manner, identifies this risk. 

The need for nightshift.

Often nightshift, or specific shift rosters, are traditional structures.  “This is the way it has always been done”.  The existence of nightshift in every workplace should be reassessed on a regular basis as economic factors change and as knowledge of the extent of harm presented by nightshift accumulates.

Overlap of Human Resources and OHS

I have bleated on for years about the silo mentality of the OHS and HR disciplines.  The demarcations have been eroding for ages in the real world of business and this trend has been increases as more and more psychosocial hazards are placed within the OHS context.  But the HR professional and the OHS professional continue to speak different languages and with competing agenda.

Fatigue cannot be successfully managed without a common understanding between HR and OHS.

Impairment

Impairment has been a concept floating around the trade unions for some time and they have never found the right approach to getting this on the OHS agenda.  Much of the content in the new fatigue guideline is broader than fatigue and deals with interaction with our employees and colleagues.  The guideline clearly identifies issues from outside work that may exacerbate fatigue in the workplace. (That other demarcation between work and non-work hazards does not apply to fatigue)

Fatigue impairs judgement as well as actions.  Mental fatigue is applicable to a broader range of occupations than physical fatigue and reaches into occupations that are not familiar with OHS, such as judges and politicians, whose important decisions must not be impaired.

 

Fatigue should not be one of the workplace hazards that are increasing shuffled off into the miasma that is work/life balance and wellness.  It relates directly to the traditional areas of OHS but can only be controlled by non-traditional approaches.  There lies the challenge.

Professor Michael Quinlan, Beaconsfield and Safety Cases

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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.

Inquiry into health impacts of maintaining jet-fighter fuel tanks

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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.

Hole in Qantas aircraft

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Qantas Airways has a reputation for safety.  It’s aircraft have not fallen from the sky for over 50 years.  This fact was brought to wide public attention in the movie RainMan and is a fact that most Australians take pride in.

Airlines do not promote themselves on the basis of their safety record principally because it is a high-risk strategy that can be ruined by just one crash.

In late-July 2008 Qantas Airways had a very lucky escape when, according to current reports, an oxygen cylinder exploded and tore a hole in the fuselage of a plan flying over South East Asia.  Ben Sandilands in the Sunday Age rightly points out that lives were saved because the pilot was able to undertake an emergency landing at the nearby Manila airport.

In The Sunday Age 27 July 2008 (not available online), Sandilands pointed out that Qantas often flies on long routes over the sea such as Melbourne to Los Angeles, or over Antarctica on its Argentinean route.  Had the fuselage damage occurred on one of these routes:

“The pilots would have been forced to choose between risking a potentially catastrophic mid-air break-up versus a crash landing or ditching.”

Qantas does not advertise on its safety record but its continuing success is partly attributed to that record.  The avoidance of disaster from this recent episode is a combination of luck and good management.  Qantas executives can do little about luck but it does need to maintain its good management and be seen to do so.

Relocating maintenance tasks to Malaysia may make sound economic sense, perhaps moreso in times of extremely high fuel prices, but national pride in a national airline should not be underestimated.

UPDATE 

An exploding oxygen bottle is firming as the cause of the hole in the fuselage.  However other issues are being raised as another Qantas plane had problems overnight. An undercarriage door would not close complete and Qantas flight needed to return to Adelaide.  Passengers were understandable a little more concerned than usual.

Several of the articles referenced in this blog include complaints by passengers that oxygen masks failed to work or could not be fitted.  Qantas has said that inspections of masks are included in maintenance schedules and it may be a significant factor that it seems to be an oxygen bottle that exploded however the Australian Transport Safety Bureau has asked for passengers to contact it if they had such problems.

Editorials are appearing in which the importance of safety to the longevity of an airline (as well as the passengers) is being emphasised.  The Age newspaper on 29 July 2008 said that 

An airline’s future is its good name. Qantas has for decades thrived on its reputation. Alan Joyce has the challenge before him to continue that tradition.

(Alan Joyce is the incoming chief executive officer.)

Presenteeism in the US

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Presenteeism is when a worker attends work when they should not due to illness.  Frequently ill workers attend the office or the factory because they feel that they are indispensable.  This may be the case but they can then present health risks to others by communicating their flu or other disease to their colleagues.  However, the worker is also impaired and may undertake work tasks or make decisions that put themselves at risk, a clear breach of their OHS obligations.

Presenteeism is an obvious overlap between OHS and Human Resources.  Sick leave has an important role to play in managing a safe and healthy work environment.

A 28 July 2008 article on NPR reports on a poll about presenteeism.  The US context is slightly different from Europe and Australia because paid sick leave is not a workplace entitlement although many workplaces provide health insurance.

I don’t agree with Marc Burgat, vice president of government relations for the California Chamber of Commerce who argues against the imposition of sick leave entitlements on employers.

Good managers have structured their workforces or production deadlines to accommodate levels of absence due to illness.  Health absences should be an element considered in a risk management plan.  Good employers can cope with sick workers and foster good relationship (a good workplace culture) by accommodating unavoidable human foibles.