Unacceptable levels of death at Australian mines

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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.

“National cuisine” threatens work health promotion

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For many years, workplaces in Australia have been promoting healthy diets as a way of improving the general health of the workforce and hopefully reduce illness.  This strategy was easier to develop when there was large manufacturers who had in-house canteens but it was always a struggle.

In 2008, the Victorian Government launched WorkHealth, a program that it claimed was a world-first, and will focus on improving general health by targeting the workplace.  It is understood that the pilot program of worker health assessments begins on Monday, 1 September 2008.

The Herald-Sun newspaper on 26 August 2008 illustrates a major cultural barrier that the workplace health initiative faces.  In an article entitled “Aussie blokes bite back with humble pie”, the marketing manager of Patties (Australia’s biggest pie manufacturer), Mark Connolly said 

“Blokes are sick of being told what they can and can’t eat. They’ve had a gutful of it and are going back to living by their own rules. If they feel like having a pie and a few beers, they’ll have a pie and a few beers.” 

In 2008, Patties has seen a 10% increase in pie sales and an 8.6% increase in profit. Patties has made available a nutritional comparison of their products.  Perhaps, WorkHealth can seek additional sponsorship support from a pie maker.

Latest Australian OHS statistics

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On 22 August 2008, the Deputy Prime Minister and Industrial Relations Minister, Julia Gillard, released the Comparative Performance Monitoring Report (CPM) on Australia’s OHS and workers’ compensation outcomes for 2006-07.  The principal points, according to the report, are:

There were 236 compensated fatalities recorded in Australia for 2006-07, of which 177 were from injury and musculoskeletal disorders and 59 were from other diseases.

Body stressing continues to be the mechanism of injury/disease that accounts for the greatest proportion of claims (42 per cent).

The manufacturing industry recorded the highest incidence/claim rates per 1000 employees (27.5), followed by transport and storage (25.9), agriculture, forestry and fishing (25.3), and construction (22.1), however all these rates are down from 2005-06.

Over three quarters (77 per cent) of injured workers successfully returned to work within eight to ten months of sustaining their injury.

The CPM report is available for download at www.workplace.gov.au/cpm

Countering Customer Aggression

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Other than drunken pub patrons, customer anger seems to be common in social security offices.  In Australia, until recently, there were few screens or barriers between staff and customers, perhaps an indication of Australia’s egalitarian culture, or perhaps, naiveté of current reality.  

Centrelink, Australia’s social security agency, responded to the workplace hazard by banning those customers from face-to-face contact.  Several people complained about this restriction and the complaints were investigated by the Commonwealth Ombudsman, whose report was released today, 25 August 2008.  The Ombudsman found

“that in most instances the decisions to withdraw face-to-face contact were not unreasonable, but highlighted the need for national procedural guidelines to be developed to assist staff when managing customers who exhibit abusive or threatening behaviour.”

This justifies the removal of face-to-face contact, or in OHS terms, the risk has been eliminated.

However, the safety of staff may have been guaranteed but the anger of the client might still remain.  It is in this context that the Ombudsman has recommended further changes to processes for the benefit of staff and clients.

Centrelink should be 

reviewing letter templates to ensure customers are properly notified of their review rights and the review process

implementing strategies to ensure relevant staff are aware of the review processes required by the guidelines, and providing further training where appropriate

introducing an appropriate internal monitoring/review mechanism to ensure quality and consistency in the application of alternative service arrangements

encouraging decision makers to explore the most appropriate alternative servicing arrangement for future contact before deciding to withdraw face-to-face contact

amending the guidelines to ensure staff record an appropriate level of detail to justify their actions and decisions following an instance of aggressive behaviour.

The Ombudsman’s report is available for download HERE

Guest workers and rural accommodation

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There is a debate in Australia at the moment about easing the labour shortage by allowing “guest workers” into the country on temporary visas.  Australia has a bit of history in migrant labour but not as much as those nations who share land boundaries and have not been saddled with the White Australia Policy that Australia held onto for decades.

It is time for Australia to accept its geographical and political position in South East Asia and the Pacific, but how does this relate to workplace safety?

The current debate is about easing the labour shortage in agriculture and, specifically, fruitpicking.  For the guest worker scheme to work, Australia needs to show that guest workers are trteated with respect and are not being used as cheap labour, an accusation that is being bandied about.  Respect means good working conditions as well as a proper salary and part of those conditions with be accommodation.

Greens Senator, Sarah Hanson-Young, emphasised this on 18 August 2008:

Greens Senator, Sarah Hanson-Young
Greens Senator, Sarah Hanson-Young

“While it is pleasing to see the Government provide much needed assistance and training for our Pacific neighbours, especially with the injection of money back into their respective communities, we must ensure that the guest workers are not exploited,” said Senator Hanson-Young.  “Poor housing and contentious pay deductions are two issues that the Greens will be keeping a close eye on.”

The State of Victoria has a strong and large fruitgrowing area which. like most, relies on seasonal workers who reside on the property.  The accommodation needs of farm workers is neatly summed up in the Victorian guidelines for shearing.  Part of the guidelines state

In workplaces where accommodation and amenities are provided by the employer for employees, as is the case with shearers’ quarters on a property and amenities at the shearing shed, the amenities provided are regarded under the OH&S Act as part of the workplace. In this situation the general duty of care of the employer to provide and maintain for employees a working environment that is safe and without risks to health extends to the accommodation and amenities provided and to travel between the quarters and the shearing shed. (WorkSafe’s emphasis)

As has been proven in the past, migrant labour is frequently exploited, which is part of the trade unions’ concern with the scheme.  OHS regulators, farmers and rural employers need to be assessing these facilities now (if it is not too late in the season) so that new employees can begin work confident that they will be well looked after and amply rewarded for their work.  Even if there is no specific amenities compliance code or guidelines for this agricultural sector at the moment, there is plenty of information that indicates the decent way to treat guest workers.