BHP, swine flu and leave entitlements

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Many OHS professionals and business gurus state that safety leadership must come from the top of the corporate tree.  BHP Billiton received some rare positive press on 16 June 2009 concerning its OHS policies.

According to Mark Hawthorne, BHP CEO Marius Kloppers has revealed he is battling “pig flu”, in his words.  This seems to have generated a flurry of OHS activity.  Sadly the best OHS practice was not mentioned, which would be to send the infected CEO home.

Hawthorne’s article identifies several BHP swine flu actions:

  • non-essential trips have been cancelled;
  • executives who must fly are being provided with Tamiflu;
  • cleaning shifts have been increased;
  • telephones, keyboards, rest rooms and public areas are being disinfected more regularly; and
  • bottles of alcohol-based hand sanitisers have appeared.

SafetyAtWorkBlog is seeking clarification from BHP Billiton on a number of points.

It is hoped that these measures were not generated only by the CEO comments but were already in place, particularly, following previous incidents with SARS and even avian influenza.

Any measures should be supported by staff consultation that involves more than a notice on the board or an email in the intranet.  Many of these measures generate as many questions as they hope to answer and there should be information sessions for those who wish more detail.

Indeed one of the basic employment issues that always comes up in discussions about pandemics is leave entitlements.  The importance of brainstorming pandemic planning can be illustrated by an article in The Australian, also on 16 June 2009.  The ACTU believes that unpaid leave should not be applied if a worker needs to be absent from work due to influenza, even if the worker themselves are not ill.

The ACTU has told SafetyAtWorkBlog that the following motion was passed at last week’s ACTU Congress

that Federal and State governments should bring together peak union and employer groups to establish guidelines for handling the pandemic. These would:

  • ensure workers and their families are not financially disadvantaged by the outbreak;
  • provide employers with useful information and procedures to deal with any suspected cases of swine flu in the workplace;
  • ensure persons who are in isolation as a consequence of swine flu are not discriminated against or disadvantaged in their employment; and,
  • educate the community about the disease to stop misinformation, panic and help in the overall strategy to slow down the spread of the disease during the winter months.

One of the criticisms that SafetyAtWorkBlog has expressed about many influenza advice sites is that control of the hazard at work is not being seen in the context of occupational health and safety.  This was the case with

Sadly, influenza information from OHS regulators is of dubious value and application, in many instances, and the regulators have not been promoting their advice.  Very little OHS traction has been gained on the pandemic, even when the unions make the point to the media, as the ACTU did with The Australian newspaper.  The Australian’s article did not mention the following, and sensible, ACTU advice:

“Employers owe a duty of care to workers to provide healthy and safe workplaces as far as reasonably forseeable(sic) [and] the swine flu outbreak has been highly publicised and is reasonably forseeable.”

Let’s hope that the BHP Billiton control measures are part of an integrated OHS/pandemic plan and not a reflex action to please the boss.

Kevin Jones

Corporate health adviser’s recommendations on swine flu

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Recently SafetyAtWorkBlog wondered why the ACT OHS Commissioner referenced a commercial website instead of a government authority.  The commercial website was operated by HSA Group which since early April 2009 is part of Medibank Private. provides information on its Flu At Work page that is very flimsy and seems to be  intended to generate further enquiries to its commercial advisory service.  We’re not comfortable with that or the lack of badging from the parent company but…….

SafetyAtWorkBlog put some questions to HSA Group/Medibank and received the following responses from their media advisor over a week later.  We could be picky but we have decided to let the responses speak for themselves.

The questions were based on the bulletpoints listed on the Flu At Work page in order to flesh out the advice to a more practical level.

What does HSA Group recommend for basic personal respiratory hygiene methods?

HSA’s fluthreat website covers basic respiratory hygiene considerations.  Personal habits that we all should adopt include covering mouths when coughing and sneezing, using tissues and disposing of them properly, and regularly washing of hands.

In this time of swine flu, is the old way of throwing tissues in a waste basket no longer the right option?

Using a waste basket is fine.  The important thing is the waste is disposed of appropriately, and the waste basket does not require excessive handling in the disposal process.

Handwipes and gel have issues of their own – should they be applied after handwashing or instead of, should they be used after each sneeze or cough? What does HSA recommend?

Considerations of personal  hygiene should be a regular occurrence – not just simply after each sneeze or  cough.  Handwipes and gels are for occasions when you can’t wash your hands – it is not necessary to use both.  Handwipes and gels should be alcohol based, which has been shown to be effective in killing influenza type viruses.

Regarding adequate cleaning of surfaces and equipment, should this be undertaken by the users of the equipment or should cleaning contractors be contacted in order to upgrade their processes?

Unfortunately there is no one simple answer to this question.  Every business operates differently, and therefore will require a different response to a pandemic.  We encourage all businesses to have a pandemic plan, which will guide the business wide response.

Certainly cleaning of surfaces and equipment should be considered in the context of an organisation’s pandemic plan, and may include having staff take additional care for hygiene and cleaning, or having cleaning contractors upgrade their processes.  The appropriateness of such considerations are linked to the pandemic phase & an organisation’s response strategy in the context of their pandemic plan.

Regarding telephones, which are the closest item most office workers have to their mouths, years ago there were phone cleaners who  physically came to the office to clean and disinfect  handsets. Would HSA recommend this service be reinstated?

These services are still available for businesses who want them.  Alternatively staff can be trained to do it themselves with alcohol based wipes.  Again the specific needs of businesses will vary, and cleaning of telephone handsets should be set out in the pandemic plan.

In a closed environment, such as an office, where possible, should ventilation be increased by opening a window?  Some office buildings turn off they ventilation overnight even when nightshift workers are in the building.  Does HSA believe that nightshift workers could be at increased risk of contracting influenza?

Ventilation is important in workplaces, and not just due to swine flu. Where windows can be opened without affecting the air-conditioning flow this will help with ventilation. Air conditioning should remain on if people are present in the building.  However there is no evidence that nightshift workers are at an increased risk of contracting influenza – it is the behaviour of workers and their levels of personal hygiene that are the strongest influence on this.

Regarding encouraging sick persons to stay at home, why only “encourage”, when  employers have the legislative obligation to not place their employees at risk? What if the employee has shown no symptoms of influenza but may be infectious due to contact with a family member who is sick?

Employers should have policies in place that articulate how staff should  behave in such circumstances, and ideally a plan that covers pandemics specifically.  There is only a very small risk of people being infectious prior to symptoms appearing.

Sending workers home after the illness has appeared is an acknowledgement that illness is already present in the workplace.  In this instance, what would HSA advise the employer to do?

Employers should continue to activate their pandemic plan, which will trigger workplace specific staff communications and contingency plans.

Does HSA recommend the wearing of facemasks as a suitable control measure for anyone who may come to work sneezing (for whatever reason)?

Facemasks can be very helpful in controlling the spread of respiratory diseases.  However it should be noted that a sneeze does not necessarily equate to H1N1 or seasonal influenza.  A diagnosis of suspected H1N1 or seasonal influenza requires consideration of a number of other factors.

Regardless of the further information from HSA Group/Medibank, SafetyAtWorkBlog still recommends that the best advice is available from the relevant health authorities in your State or country.

Kevin Jones

Level crossings and safety management

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Regular readers will know that SafetyAWorkBlog believes that there is little justification for road/rail crossings, particularly in metropolitan areas, and that grade separation should be the aim of any crossing upgrades.  Too often governments dismiss grade separation without serious consideration because it is usually the most expensive control option.  Regardless of expense, elimination of hazards must be considered in public safety policy and OHS.  It is only after the elimination of a hazard is seriously considered that lower order control measures are seen to be valid.

At the moment in Victoria, there is community outrage because the truck driver involved in the deaths of 11 train passengers at a level crossing at Kerang has been cleared of any legal responsibility for the deaths.  Several relatives of victims are pursuing civil action against the driver, Mr Christiaan Scholl.

The wisdom of civil action against the driver is debatable as any potential financial “win” will come from the insurance pockets of the Transport Accident Commission and not Mr Scholl.  Compensation may be gained but any hope that the action could be seen as a “penalty” is false.

The Kerang rail crossing illustrates some basic OHS issues:

Worker responsibility

The Kerang level crossing had design deficiencies that had repeatedly identified by a number of government authorities, local companies and the public.  The court case heard that the crossing was known to be dangerous.

In OHS, known hazards are controlled in a number of ways.  Clearly the rail and road traffic was not separated and engineering controls were not introduced at the time of the incident.  The owners of the crossing (and this is debated also) determined that signage was appropriate (or even perhaps “as far as is reasonably practicable”?).

Clearly signage was not adequate but there is also the issue of driver (worker) responsibility.  It was mentioned in court and repeatedly in the media that the level crossing was known to be dangerous.  Why then, would drivers continue to treat the crossing as if it was not?  The legal speed limits remained at 100kph, at the time of the incident.  The road laws clearly state that road traffic must give way to rail traffic and yet drivers have admitted to complacency.

This is perhaps the source of a lot of the community outrage in relation to the Kerang incident.  The findings in favour of the driver place all the responsibility for the incident on the inadequate design of the crossing.

Working environment

As employers have responsibility to ensure a safe and health work environment, so government has a social and legal obligation to make public areas safe.  Victorian governments for decades have neglected the hazards presented by inadequately designed or controlled level crossings.  Governments must take responsibility for inaction just as much as taking credit for action and infrastructure improvements.

Infrastructure spending had started to increase prior to the incident but the need was sharply illustrated through the unnecessary deaths of 11 rail passengers.  Many Australian governments are spending millions of dollars on rail/road crossing upgrades as a result of the Kerang incident.

Road Safety and OHS

Many OHS professionals illustrate OHS by drawing on road safety.  The correlation is very poor but the attempt is understandable – most people drive, they drive within strict laws that were learnt in training (induction), and the road laws are enforced by an external body (police = WorkSafe.  However, this relationship has no corresponding role for employers, who have a workplace responsibility.  The road user has a direct relationship with the regulator. In OHS the role of the employer is crucial.

Perhaps the Kerang incident and other level crossing incidents could be used in brainstorming to illustrate personal accountability, employer accountability and government responsibility.  It would be a worthwhile exercise to discuss whether road safety and workplace safety could share as many educative elements as some of the advocates suggest.

As with most posts on SafetyAtWorkBlog, these thoughts are a work-in-progress and debate and commentary are welcome.

Kevin Jones

Note: SafetyAtWorkBlog is not privy to any of the court evidence and must rely on media reports.  More information will be presented when available.

Environmental tobacco smoke, workplace stress – podcast 2006

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In 2006, one of the earliest editions of the SafetyAtWork podcast featured several speakers on issues that remain topical.  The podcast is available for download

Anne Mainsbridge, currently a Solicitor with the Public Interest Advocacy Centre talks about her report on environmental tobacco smoke.

This is followed by Associate Professor Tony LaMontagne of the University of Melbourne talking about a systematic approach to managing workplace stress.  This was a report that was published by the Victorian Health Department and, as such, slipped by many OHS professionals.  The report is now available for download

The audio production is rough for such an early podcast, and I apologise, but I think you will find the content of interest.

Kevin Jones

Does union presence improve OHS?

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The trade union movement is an important element in the management of safety in workplaces but over the last twenty years, with the exception of a couple of industry sectors, the membership numbers have waned.  Until recently in Australia, the union movement was able to maintain a level of influence in the government decision-making process that was contrary to its declining membership.

Last week the Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, told the ACTU to stop lobbying the government and instead generate innovation, enthusiasm and members by reintroducing itself to the community.  Union membership spiked in response to its anti-Howard government advertising over three years ago but any membership based on fear is unsustainable.

Paul Kelly in today’s Australian is more forthright about the trade union position in society and politics but it is clear that the union movement needs to refocus.

Health and safety representatives (HSRs) have been a major element of the enforcement of safety standards in workplaces.  Some OHS legislation in the last decade has had to emphasise non-union consultation on safety issues to balance the declining presence of HSRs.  New research from Europe has found the following

three researchers reviewed
the studies done on the matter in Europe. They
conclude that having trade union representation
leads to better observance of the rules,
lower accident rates and fewer work-related
health problems.

“having trade union representation leads to better observance of the rules, lower accident rates and fewer work-related health problems.”

Transposing these findings into a non-European context is unwise but the research could provide a model for independent research and a comparative study.

Regrettably the report is not available for free but can be purchased through the European Trade Union Institute.

Kevin Jones