“Negligence” and salvation

SafeWork SA recently released details about the successful prosecution of MCK Pacific P/L (trading as Plexicor) over two injuries in a carpet manufacturing plant in South Australia that occurred in January 2006 and July 2007.

The company was fined a total of over $40,000.  The new management has been congratulated on its new OHS management program (to such an extent that it won a Safe Work Award in 2006) and for achieving a positive safety culture.

It’s a shame that the prosecution didn’t focus on the lack of a safety culture that had lead up to two injuries on the same machine at the same MCK Pacific plant both involving the trapping of a worker’s foot in exactly the same nip point.

Risk Assessment

According to the report from the SA Industrial Relations Tribunal a risk assessment had been undertaken after the first incident but the control measures were not undertaken:

“The recommendations involved re-wiring the machine and ensuring safe work practices were put in place. …… The defendant failed to act on the identified risk. Further there was no hazard identification or risk assessment done with respect to the particular issue of cleaning and maintaining the foaming press being the function Wilson was performing at the time he was injured.”

There are several issues raised in this prosecution that need discussing.  The first is that the company was able to save over $10,000 by “early guilty pleas, cooperation and contrition” assumably by the new management.  In other words, once you are caught, get an easy 25% deduction on the penalty by realising you’ve been caught and saying sorry.

What has happened to the previous management who allowed for a second injury from an unguarded machine 18 month’s after a serious incident?  Are those directors and executives excluded from managing a company unless they have had safety training?  Have they acknowledged that they were negligent?

Regardless of the argy-bargy over an executive’s personal accountability and what is a company’s “controlling mind”, this case seems to be a good example of business owners not being held accountable for their (in)action.  Once may be a mistake but twice is negligent.

It is also clear from the Tribunal findings that basic safety procedures were not followed and that workers were unaware of interlock devices.

“There was an isolation key but this was not common knowledge to all employees. Wilson and the other employees working on the machine at the time of the incident indicated that they were not aware of any lockout procedure. There was no documented lock out procedure with respect to the cleaning and maintenance of the machine.”

Following the second incident the company made substantial improvement:

Following the [second] incident … a lockout and isolation procedure was developed together with training for employees in relation to that procedure. Safe work practices were developed for all of the processes involved with respect to the foaming press. A space entry permit was required to be completed and signed prior to the entry of personnel into the press. Audible alarms were fitted. Hoses on the tool die were relocated to the front of the die which eliminated anyone standing behind the die and potentially out of sight of employees at the control panel.

Supplier Obligations

There is also a movement in OHS for contractors to meet the OHS standards of the commissioning company.  Plexicor lists the following companies as its clients – Chep Australia, Ford Australia, Holden, JC Decaux, Mitsubishi, Pacific Center Cyber Works, and Telstra.

In 2004, before the injuries mentioned above, Holden made this statement in its 2004 Community and Workplace Report:

“Supplier Management
GM’s Worldwide Purchasing Policy includes a number of practices that guide its suppliers in purchasing activities throughout the world. Suppliers and any goods or services supplied must comply with all applicable regulations or standards of the country of destination, including those relating to environmental matters, wages, hours, conditions of employment, subcontractor selection, discrimination, occupational health and safety and motor vehicle safety.” (my emphasis)

Holden doesn’t seem to have pushed this obligation with Plexicor.

Holden sets out its current expectations for its suppliers on its website.  One of the criteria, which seems a little contrary to well-resourced OHS management systems, is “Lean Manufacturing” – “the production of durable goods with a minimum consumption of capital investment, floor space, labour, materials, time and distance”.  Holden states that

“For Holden to be successful a a low cost producer of quality vehicles, Holden suppliers also must be committed to the lean ethic.”

Similar obligations are imposed by Ford Motor Company through its joint venture with Futuris Automotive (the new owners of Plexicor and the defendant in the SA IR Tribunal case).

The Magistrate was certainly optimistic about the safety future of Plexicor under the tutelage of Futuris.  If only Futuris had bought Plexicor earlier.

Workplace depression approaches are too narrow

Further to other SafetyAtWorkBlog posts concerning Ms Paula Wriedt’s sacking, Ms Wriedt has issued a statement expressing her disappointment at Premier David Bartlett’s decision.

One comment from a newspaper columnist struck me as odd but worthy of note.  The columnist said that Paula Wriedt’s public statements have followed the line pushed by beyondblue, a depression support and lobby group.  I have had no dealings with beyondblue but note that newspaper articles often end with “For further information on depression contact…..” similarly television news reports.

beyondblue has been a spectacular success in self-promotion and, hopefully, increasing awareness of depression.  In the context of the Premier’s decision on Paula Wriedt, David Bartlett contacted the chair of beyondblue (and former Victorian Premier) Jeff Kennett, prior to his decision.  The Weekend Australian newspaper reported

“I have not taken this decision lightly; in fact, decisions don’t come any tougher than this,” Mr Bartlett said. He received support from former Victorian Liberal premier Jeff Kennett, the chairman of depression support group Beyondblue.

After speaking to Mr Bartlett, Mr Kennett told The Weekend Australian he believed the decision was a very tough call for the Premier, but added: “When you balance up all his responsibilities, the correct one. It might just be what Paula needs to start rebuilding her health.  That is, she doesn’t have other ministerial responsibilities now and she can now focus more directly on her recovery.”

beyondblue does admirable work and has acheived much but it is dominating the discussions on psychosocial issues in the workplace.  It is difficult for other groups to raise matters that are just as relevant to the workplace, if not more so, such as occupational violence, stress, dignity at work, and so on.

We are not yet clear on all the circumstances of Paula Wriedt’s suicide attempt, and we may never know.  We do not know if work stresses or private stresses caused her self-harm but that is not necessarily the point.  Occupational health and safety long ago left the confines of the workplace and controlling workplace hazards, particularly psychosocial issues, needs a bigger canvas.  There must be an approach that assists the individual in work and non-work contexts. 

Some countries and States are trying this through work/life balance initiatives but the approaches are usually skewed to focus on interventions on the individual rather than looking at the social structures.  In OHS we look at the “system of work” to determine the most effective interventions.  To affect true and lasting change, we must apply the “system of living”.  We must be careful not to over-emphasise the individual and be distracted from the cultural initiatives.

Politician who attempted suicide is “sacked”

In early August 2008, Paula Wriedt, Tasmanian MP, tried to commit suicide.  Six weeks later the Tasmanian Premier has sacked her from Cabinet, according to an ABC report.

Premier David Bartlett denies this is a sacking, more a “withdrawal of commission”.  He says it is for the good of the government and for the good of Ms Wriedt.

Ms Wriedt was asked to resign her Cabinet position but the Premier says she was “not in a position to make such a decision”.

An audio interview with the Premier put to him that his decision was “despicable” and “reflects the way the state deals with people with mental health problems”.

Ms Wriedt’s suicide attempt had already raised discussion on the workplace issues of stress, compensation, workloads and mental health.  The listener’s question in the audio interview will reflect the majority of the community’s response to the Premier’s decision and Premier Bartlett will have a difficult time explaining how his decision was for Ms Wriedt’s benefit.

Ms Wriedt’s current situation and future career decisions will provide an interesting illustration on how the public service and Tasmanian politics manages an employee with mental health issues, particularly when, on OHS matters, the public service should be exemplars.

The Importance of Independent Safety Groups

I am a Life Member of an industrial safety group and have been for many years.  Safety groups have existed in Victoria for over 40 years and provide practical and independent safety advice to local communities and businesses in their area.

There has rarely been any coordination between them because sometimes it is hard to accept offers of resources without relinquishing autonomy.  Some groups have administrative support from organisations, others rely on OHS regulators for speakers, some are incorporated, some are trade-based, several are within capital cities but just as many fill information gaps in rural and regional areas.

The major advantage I see in safety groups is that there is no set agenda.  By and large, these groups do not have grandiose ambitions but are content to achieve a functional and sustainable level of membership in order to support the aims of improving safety in their particular areas or industry sectors.

They all struggle with maintaining their effectiveness, promoting their existence and ensuring continuity.

There have been several vague approaches over the years to unify or provide more formal support to, what I see as, an essential mechanism for educating and informing the community and business without hype or political agendas.

It is with this sort of goodwill and effective groups that true altruistic support can provide great benefits.  Sometimes to be more than what you should be generates strife, politics, baggage and interference that can distract an organisation from its valuable and simple aim of improving safety of the community.

Beaconsfield inquiry seems quiet but there’s conspiracy fodder

Several readers have asked for information about what is happening at the Tasmanian coronial inquest into the death of Larry Knight at Beaconsfield Mine in 2006.  Since the return of Beaconsfield’s legal team, media reporting has been fairly quiet as expert opinions and risk consultant reports are argued over.  There is considerable effort being expended to determine what the mining company knew and when.

Conspiracy theorists could benefit from reading about the late appearance of, apparently, important documents.  The underground mine manager, Pat Ball, had taken notes at mine meetings where seismicity issues were discussed in 2005 and 2006.  The notes were only presented to the inquest last week as Mr Ball had only just relocated them.  As these notes were missing, the previous investigations, such as that by Greg Mellick, could not draw on the information.

This has lead the legal team for Larry Knight’s family and the Australian Workers’ Union to issue

“a request for all such documents, later defined to include all notes, memoranda, minutes and diary entries relating to daily head of department and weekly planning meetings between October 9, 2005 and April 25, 2006.  This includes any such documents generated by Mr Ball, mine manager Matthew Gill and chief geologist Peter Hills.”

Conspiracy or stuff-up?  Always go for the stuff-up first.

Is OHS a profession?

There are some in the safety profession who question whether OHS practitioners have the right to describe ourselves as professionals.   Comparisons have been made to the medical profession where one is either a doctor or not, a nurse or not, a medical practitioner or not.  This is an unfair comparison as the medical profession has a history going back centuries.  As a regulated profession, the history is shorter but that it is a profession is unarguable.

A profession focusing on safety is a recent development, only a couple of decades old.  I would mark the new approach to safety from Lord Robens but others may take it from Australian OHS legislation in the mid-1980s. (An argument could be made for the beginning to be from the increase in safety engineering in the 1960’s and maybe even Ralph Nader’s safety activism).  The safety profession is still embryonic.

The added challenge is that additional hazards and social safety issues seem to be appearing much faster than happened decades ago, as manufacturing processes change much quicker and society applies more psychosocial hazards in a work context.

Maybe it is not yet a profession but it is becoming one and perhaps we need to focus on the journey more than on the result.  Business and legal concerns have evolved just as rapidly as our approaches to OHS and becoming a profession is more complex than it was previously.  The level of business regulation, government oversight and reporting has never seemed higher. 

Previously business and employers could be trusted in some business areas.  In the early 21st century trust has evaporated.

One element of the comparison between the OHS profession and medicine is particularly useful to consider.  It is now an accepted practice that if a serious health matter is diagnosed we seek a second opinion.  We don’t seek a second opinion from safety advisers even though that “profession” is far less regulated than medicine.  That seems an absurd business practice to me.

For a primer on what is meant by a profession, Wikipedia is a good place to start.  It’s not authoritative but it is free and always a good place to start.

Unacceptable levels of death at Australian mines

In The Australian on 28 August 2008 was an article about the Australian Workers Union wanting to strengthen its industrial presence in the mining communities of the Pilbara region.  Nothing surprising in that but the spur for this latest move was the death on 25 August of a 29-year-old worker in the Yandi mine workshop owned by BHP Billiton. The company acknowledged the fatality a media release.

The company has had several recent deaths in its facilities.  According to a report on 30 July 2008:

“A 52-year-old Port Hedland man was conducting maintenance work on a scissor lift at Port Hedland when it fell on him at 1300 AEST on Tuesday, a police spokeswoman said.”

CEO Marius Klopper admitted on 20 August 2008 that BHP Billiton has had 11 fatalities so far in 2008. He is quoted as saying:

“The fatalities are difficult to talk about without getting emotional. The event that really shook us was that we had a helicopter crash where basically a pilot flew a helicopter into terrain and we had five fatalities. That was a truly tragic event and would be the single biggest event that we’ve had.”

“I think historically, we probably have reduced our fatality rates over time. It varies certainly from year to year but unfortunately we still have multiple fatalities every year in this business, which is something that we’ve got to continue to work on.”

Klopper’s comments received minimal media coverage outside of Western Australia.  Perhaps that was because the CEO made those comments at the same time as announcing his company’s record profit of almost $A18 billion.

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