The need for broad and open consultation on OHS law

Bill Calcutt makes some excellent points about the consultative strategy used by the Australian government in its recent 2020 summit.  The summit showed that this government had differentiated itself from the previous conservative one through “transparent evidence-based decision making” and a wide consultative base, even though the guests were selected. Sadly, I am not sure…

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Another safety culture disaster in Australia

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In August 2007 the Australian equestrian industry was struck by its first-ever outbreak of Equine Influenza (EI).  The Federal Government’s report on the incident has been released and has significant lessons for several reasons.

Australia has been proud of its biosecurity and customs service for decades.  As an island nation at the end of the world, there is a level of purity in its ecology that needs to be preserved (even though there were many earlier mistakes – foxes, rabbits, cane toads – to name a few).  The country’s pride was obviously out of touch with reality as Justice Callinan was highly critical of the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service.  Few government reports have included the clarity (or bluntness) of phrase as this report includes.

“The objective of biosecurity measures at a post-arrival quarantine station for animals, such as Eastern Creek, is to prevent the escape of disease that might be present in the station. It is therefore essential that people and equipment having contact with the animals are adequately decontaminated before leaving the station. That was not happening at Eastern Creek in August 2007. Had such biosecurity measures been in place, it is most unlikely that there could have been any escape of equine influenza from the Quarantine Station.
That such measures were not being implemented was a consequence of a number of acts and omissions on the part of various employees and officers of AQIS at different levels of that organisation and over a number of years.”

As the media reports appeared and the Agriculture Minister, Tony Burke, spoke passionately about the need to review the entire biosecurity process, farmers and other were thanking their luck that the outbreak was EI and not Foot & Mouth or other equally nasty infection.

Indonesia, a consistent sufferer of Avian Influenza, is only a few hundred kilometres away.  If Australia had a poultry industry on its northern shores, would the Government’s approach to quarantine inspecton be different?

Callinan goes on to depict an organisation of mismanagement and is not afraid to point the finger of blame and responsibility.  He summarises:

“What I describe bespeaks an organisation that lacked clear lines of communication between those responsible for formulating procedures and work instructions and those responsible for implementing them; one in which there was insufficient training and education in relation to the procedures and instructions to be followed; one in which there was no checking to ensure that those procedures and instructions were being implemented; and one in which any business plan or other reporting system did not alert senior management to these failures.”

For OHS professionals and risk managers, these systemic failures would fit with too many other risk management failures.  It is too easy a criticism to say that the organisation was devoid of a safety culture.  In the case of quarantining possible infectious animals, the organisation and process was inept.

A few years ago, Chris Maxwell undertook a review of Victoria’s OHS regime and stated that he thought citizens should be able to expect government departments to be exemplars of workplace safety.  It is an expectation that may be unfair in many areas but when an organisation has been urging the public to be super-diligent over the importation of items that could potentially decimate agricultural industries, and then fails disastrously itself, maybe the public campaign funds could have been better spent inside the organisation.

ABC Radio report – http://mpegmedia.abc.net.au/news/audio/pm/200806/20080612-pm01-horseflu.mp3
Government response http://www.daff.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/690704/ei-response.pdf

Risk and empire building

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A British coroner has reflected a common perception on occupational health and safety and how OHS is “taking all the fun out of life”.

According to an article in This Is The West Country on 11 June 2008, West Somerset Coroner Michael Rose said

“All too often, there isn’t enough challenge for people in this country – everything is under health and safety. I don’t think we’d have been the country we were if we’d have had health and safety one or two centuries ago.”

Without taking MIchael Rose to task about his knowledge of health and safety in 1808, his comments can be heard in many everyday circumstances where OHS is a bit of a wet blanket.

It is fun to have the wind through your hair while tearing down a hillside with no bike helmet on.  It is fun to spin on a shopping trolley in the aisles of a supermarket. And it is exhilarating to stand on the top of a building, looking down with no safety harness. All of these things I have done and I suspect my children will do them too. 

There is nothing to stop you doing these acts if you choose to.  But if you are injured as a result, it would be unfair to exepct soemone else to pay for your stupidity.  And yet that is what is becoming the expectations of modern western society – we do not take repsonsibility for our actions.

But then there is a time and place for everything and maybe OHS simply restricts those two elements.

Occupational Noise and Motorcycle Cops

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Phil Matier spoke on KCBS radio on 9 June 2008 about the changes that Oakland Police Department is making to its motorcycles to make them louder.  There is an argument that in some way this makes the vehicles safer.

It’s a bizarre report and should be listened to while bearing in mind a new Australian report on the increase in tinnitus in young people.  Perhaps American kids need to increase the volume of their iPod earphones whenever a Oakland motorcycle cop rides by.

Public Servant Workload – Part 2

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In today’s Age newspaper Dr Mirko Bagaric takes the Australian Prime Minister to task on the matter of hypocrisy and how his actions now are beginning to reveal his character.  However Bagaric, makes some comments about public servant workloads that are relevant.

“Rudd has an important project. It is to run the country in a manner that best provides an opportunity for each of us to flourish. And he is passionate about his project. Last week he boasted that frankly, he does believe in “burning the midnight oil”. And good on him. That’s his choice.

But it is not his choice to expect others to share his fanaticism. Stung by leaks relating to the FuelWatch scheme and responding to complaints of overwork by public servants, he said: “I’ve got news for the public service — there’ll be more. The work ethic of this Government will not decrease, it will increase.”

Almost universally regarded as being overpaid, lazy and inefficient, public servants evoke no public sympathy.

Yet, they too have interests. They are public servants, not public slaves. Many of them have families. Many of them have other priorities.

Rudd has spectacularly failed the exploitation test.”

Cultural change is most effective when it is introduced from the top level of management.  The Prime Minister is displaying his own work ethic but, as Bagaric, states it is unfair to impose this on others.