Politicians’ workplaces

Free Access

Western Australian Premier, Alan Carpenter, is to be applauded for stating that the Parliament is a workplace.  This sounds like stating the bleeding obvious but Parliament has often turned a blind eye to this fact.

Certainly, the Premier is in election mode so there is an additional context in this period to everything he says. On 22 August 2008, he was talking about a working bar that exists in the State Parliament and how inappropriate it is. The media reported him saying:

“Parliament House is a work place, the members of parliament should not be able to drink freely during working hours,” Mr Carpenter said.  “Having a bar serving alcohol during working hours is completely out of step with community expectations. It is completely unacceptable that members of parliament are able to sit in a bar in their workplace and drink when they should be working on behalf of the community.”

There may be good reasons for having a bar in a workplace, but it may be inappropriate for workers to use the facility during business hours.  For years, many workplaces have introduced policies concerning drugs and alcohol to, in my opinion primarily, to cover themselves against legal action.  Thankfully such policies can also have a workplace safety role in the reduction of impairment.

Impairment relates to one’s fitness for work and is easiest to understand in the transport industries where one person is responsible for the safety of many members of the public.  But I have never understood why the logical extension of impairment to decision making in other workplaces has not be made.

In a workplace, such as a Parliament, or a goverment building, where decisions are made that will affect the safety and welfare of the public, decisions should be made with no impairment,  Policies should not be decided over a couple of bottles of scotch which was reported to be done by an education minister in Victoria several years ago.  Another politician was “under-the-weather” in Federal parliament some years ago, even though the current Federal Parliament has no bar onthe premises.

Considering that Parliaments are workplaces, the governments should review other hazards that are being addressed in other Australian workplaces.  The top of the list would be reasonable working hours, fatigue and stress.  In most Parliaments, the security issue is being dealt with but workplace bullying could be applicable.

Alan Carpenter’s comments were political statements in an election campaign so they have a dubious weight but let’s start thinking of Parliaments as workplaces and start seeing our politicians as exemplars in OHS.  If safety culture starts with leaders and safety champions, then can we blame workers and business operators who follow our leaders’ examples?

Australian CEOs and workplace safety

Free Access

One of the tasks I have in my consultancy is assisting the Safety Institute of Australia to promote their Safety In Action conferences.  As part of this I have been able to provide some videos from the May 2008 conference.  The videos are excerpts from the presentations of four of the chief executive officers and company directors who spoke of day one of the conference about their experiences with workplace safety issues at board level.

Dr Ziggy Switkowski
Dr Ziggy Switkowski

One speaker is Dr Ziggy Switkowski, current  chairman of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation and former CEO of Telstra Corporation.  Dr Switkowski’s video is the longest and possibly the most interesting.  His manner is relaxed and chatty as he builds on some of the comments of the former speaker, Jerry Ellis.

 

  

Peter McMorrow
Peter McMorrow

Peter McMorrow, managing director of Leighton Contractors, was perhaps the most instructional in terms of safety management. I have written briefly about his full presentation before. In this video, he talks about his early engineering days, how he went clay pigeon shooting with a shotgun and hard hats and how he was too close to an explosive charge.  These tales contrasted well with his presentation of contemporary safety standards.

Glenn Henson of ExxonMobil speaks about accountability and the human role in safety, and Colin Blair, deputy CEO of Standards Australia, discusses how experienced a near miss in his early days as a young engineer.

Each of these speakers were asked about what motivated their interest in workplace safety.  These casual introductions to their main presentations reminded us in the audience that early work experiences, intense or humourous, do provide a structure or shadow to how senior managers in major corporations approach safety.

Until the end of August 2008, the videos will only be accessible at www.siaconference.com.au to those who sign up for a regular conference newsletter.

Media reporting of workplace bullying

Free Access

As a publisher my mailbox is constantly bombarded by media releases.  Some are irrelevant but most relate to safety in some way.

Over the years the amount of attention given to workplace bullying has grown phenomenally.  In my opinion the attention it garners is way beyond the level it deserves.

That is not to say that those subjected to workplace bullying are not seriously harmed, they are, but the big-picture issue is disproportionate.

This is partly because many people who talk about workplace bullying do not apply the definition of the hazard, and as a result other non-bullying matters get included.  A media release I received today, 14 August 2008, illustrates this point.

Workpro has undertaken a survey of

“2,146 employees applying for work through recruitment agencies across Australia, to gain an understanding of the experiences and beliefs about bullying and discrimination among Australian employees today”.

The survey found

“almost one in three (30%) employees claiming they have been bullied at work; one in four (24%) claiming they have been discriminated against, and 44 per cent stating they have witnessed their colleagues experience either of these”.

That data is pretty clear and you can expect the Australian media to run articles on the survey results tomorrow.  These surveys usually get a good hit rate.

The media release provides the impression that 30% of employees have been bullied at work.  This is not the case.  Thirty per cent of employees who are looking to change jobs say they have been bullied at work.  This does not represent 30% of the workforce but that is the impression we are given.

Another part of the release is annoying.

“27 per cent of respondents say they feel bullying or discrimination has happened to them within the past two years.”

Bullying and discrimination are very different interactions.  Discrimination can be a one-off event, bullying must be a repeated action.  To ask about these two disparate items within the one question is inappropriate or, if the results of two questions are combined, it provides a false impression.  Did 10% nominate bullying and 17% say discrimination or was it vice versa?

The media release says

“When asked about their peers, almost half (46%) of respondents say they have seen their colleagues bullied or discriminated against within the past two years; 31 per cent of this group say multiple times.”

The point about definition made above applies here but why ask about other people anyway?  The multiple times quote muddies the water because it is impossible to be bullied once, a single attack is just that an attack or in OHS parlance, “occupational violence”.

A spokesperson for WorkPro, Tania Evans, says

“It’s quite shocking to hear from employees that this sort of behaviour continues to happen in modern times, but organisations need to realise that bullying and unfair treatment of staff is occurring and could be impacting their own workplace culture or worse still, exposing them to the risk of liability, possible fines and even brand damage.”

Now we have something called “unfair treatment” in the mix.  (And I hate “impact” as a verb) The penalties could be liability, fines or brand damage, what about workers compensation claims for stress and bullying?  Not only is this a substantial business cost, the cause of the claim may result in the employee never being able to work again or lead a functional life?  I place these risks higher than brand damage.

Media releases are not the be-all and end-all of a survey.  Press statements are intended to generate contact in order to provide further information and hopefully generate business opportunities.  Alarmism is an effective tool and this media release is unhelpful.

You can imagine the articles in tomorrow’s papers where the journalists, if they can be bothered, will have asked the OHS regulators or unions for their response to the statistics, even though it may only be those statistics in the media release that they have seen.

I would have liked this survey to be reported in two parts, bullying and discrimination, to reflect their difference but also to report on the different control mechanisms for the harm that each of these hazards can generate.

But, I forgot, that’s my job.

Kevin Jones

Irrational decision-making

Free Access

Occupational health and safety often gets sidetracked from the main issue of preventing injury and illness at work.   I often hear employers, particularly in small business, complaining that their workers continue to do the wrong thing even though the employers have done everything they can think of.  

Sometimes an approach is offered that seems like a quick-fix to all the safety problems.  The one that always annoys me is behavioural-based safety.  BBS is like the Hydra and reappears regularly in different guises and with different jargon.

A podcast crossed my desktop this morning that provides a different perspective on “why rational people make irrational decisions”.  

The podcast illustrates the conflicts in trying to make the right decision by discussing the decision of a pilot in the Canary Islands who caused a major crash.  The pilot was also the head of safety at KLM Airlines.

The podcast does not focus on workplace safety but the discussion is probably the better for it.

Don’t rely on alarms

Free Access

The Australian media has been following the investigation into the crash of a light aircraft that was travelling to Benalla on July 28, 2004.  There was a report on 5 August about a family who will be suing Queensland Rail over the serious bashing of a relative.  Different stories, different states, different modes of transport, but both stories of sadness.

Both stories illustrate an important reminder for the management of safety in workplaces and in public – alarms are there for a reason.

According to media, Barbara Lillicrap, the widow of bashing victim, Scott Lillicrap, said witnesses had pushed the emergency button at the station at least three times, but rail officers believed it to be a prank and ignored it.

A newspaper report says that air traffic controller Stuart Hodge said that an alert was sounded when the plane veered off course before approaching Benalla Airport.  Mr Hodge said false alarms were common and there was a culture among air traffic controllers to ignore them.

These two reports also need to remind safety professionals that alarms are simply audible signs to which people need to respond, or at least acknowledge.  An ignored sign is a useless control measure and if this is likely to occur, then a higher order of control measure needs to be implemented to control the hazard.

(Don’t get me started on signs at level crossings!)