The advantages of integrated enforcement action

In the 1990s, WorkSafe Victoria (then the Occupational health and  Safety Authority) coordinated Hazardous Chemicals Audit Teams (HCAT).  I was one member of the administrative unit for HCAT.  This coordinated approach to inspection and enforcement had substantial merit and was very effective as the Auditor-General found in 1995.  I was reminded of this initiative by the simultaneous action taken by the Victorian Government against Mobil Australia, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil, on 3 June 2010.

The Environment Protection Authority (EPA) has

“…cancelled Mobil Refining Australia Pty Ltd’s accredited licence”.

The EPA media release quotes CEO John Merritt (formerly executive director of WorkSafe Victoria):

“In the absence of [an ongoing commitment to constantly improving their environmental performance], EPA has the power to cancel the accreditation…. EPA is less than impressed with Mobil’s track record in which there has been a number of incidents at the site all with the potential for environmental and community risk.

It is EPA’s belief that Mobil’s onsite practices have not demonstrated a high level of environmental performance to justify accreditation.” Continue reading “The advantages of integrated enforcement action”

The need to integrate worker safety in ‘green building’ design

The safety profession needs better integration with the environmental initiatives and requirements imposed on business.  In many industries compliance management across the quality, environment and safety disciplines has existed in an integrated fashion for years but many professionals in each discipline are unreceptive to change, some deny the need for change.

Australia, over the last few years, has seen an increase in attention to the safe design of workplaces and buildings.  This has paralleled the growth in sustainable and energy-efficient building designs.  In many circumstances,t the advocates and practitioners of these skills do not talk to one another.  One local example can be used to illustrate this inter-disciplinary blockage. Continue reading “The need to integrate worker safety in ‘green building’ design”

A personal insight into BP and the corporate approach to safety

Ross Macfarlane is a regular reader of SafetyAtWorkBlog and an active safety professional in Australia.  Below he provides his perspective on BP’s approach to safety as an ex-employee [links added]:

As an ex-BP employee I am again feeling a strong sense of dismay at what is occurring in the Gulf of Mexico.  The fact that BP appears to be deliberately distancing itself from Deepwater is a further shift from the radical openness policy that prevailed up until the Texas City disaster in 2005.

Prior to Texas City, BP was in the thrall of its charismatic CEO (then Sir John, now Lord Browne,) but since then, it seems to me, it struggles with its identity and its corporate culture.  In 2000, when I became a part of BP with Castrol, I was struck by what I saw as a “Cult of Lord Browne” – Continue reading “A personal insight into BP and the corporate approach to safety”

Can current fall protection systems save fat people?

Australian OHS research has raised some concerns about the “adequacy of  personal fall arrest energy absorbers in relation to heavy workers“.   In summary:

“The research demonstrates that most energy absorbers are not able to ensure that the two test criteria are not breached during the arrest of a heavy worker in the worst case scenario fall.”

There are many variables in this statement but it means that safety professionals may need to review their fall arrest devices to verify that the safety devices meet the needs of the (increasingly obese) workforce. Continue reading “Can current fall protection systems save fat people?”

Increasing demand on standards should cause the Australian Government to plan longterm

In August 2009, SafetyAtWorkBlog reported that Standards Australia had been hit hard by the global financial crisis.  To our knowledge, circumstances have not changed but a report in the Australian Financial Review (not available online) on 17 February talked positively about the future of the organisation that publishes the Australian Standards, SAI Global.  Australian Standards are widely used by business and safety professionals.

The report says the company, SAI-Global

“…posted a 33 per cent rise in first-half net profit to $13.7 million on the previous corresponding period, beating analysts’  forecasts by more than 10 per cent.” Continue reading “Increasing demand on standards should cause the Australian Government to plan longterm”

The relevance of the international Risk Management Standard

It is impossible to review the new international risk management standard as such a standard is a curious beast.

The ISO31000 Risk Management Standard sets down the principles that can apply in a range of industries including, from SafetyAtWorkBlog’s perspective, occupational health and safety.

Australia recently released a draft of a model OHS Act that the government wants to use as a template for uniform OHS laws.  That draft Act included a clause on risk management.  It said under “The principle of risk management”

“A duty imposed on a person to ensure health or safety requires the person:

(a) to eliminate hazards, and risks to health and safety, so far as is reasonably practicable; and

(b) if it is not reasonably practicable to eliminate hazards and risks to health and safety, to minimise those hazards and risks so far as is reasonably practicable.”

It is likely that those business owners who read the legislation (very few) or the OHS professionals who do (slightly more) will interpret this as having to fix the workplace or, at least, try to make sure no one gets hurt at work.  They may continue the risk management line and look to the Risk Management Standard which will clarify the principles of risk management, as below in slightly edited form,

“Risk management:

  • Creates and protects value
  • Is an integral part of all organisations processes
  • Is part of decision-making
  • Explicitly addresses uncertainty
  • Is systematic, structured and timely
  • Is based on the best available information
  • Is tailored
  • Takes human and cultural factors into account
  • Is transparent and inclusive
  • Is dynamic, iterative and responsive to change
  • Facilitates continual improvement of the organisation”

This is slightly more helpful but still requires translation.  (Even the previous risk management standard needed translation with SAI Global going all-out with at least eight handbooks and a CD explaining the standard.) Below is SafetyAtWorkBlog’s plain English attempt:

  • Get rid of all the safety risks in your workplace or make them safer.
  • Have a documented plan for this and do not take too long.
  • Research the hazards so that you are making the best decision on the best information.
  • Do not cut and paste from somewhere else.
  • Make sure ALL your work colleagues know what you are doing.
  • Make sure that you revisit your plan to see if it is working

These points are based only on the principles. The Standard goes into more detail on each of these elements or principles but it is important to remember that this standard only shows one way of making decisions.  This standard is also only a guideline, even though some of the text talks about “complying”.

A couple of comments on an OHS discussion forum about the risk management standard described it as being irrelevant to workplace safety, boring and “causing eyes to glaze over”.  One suggested that the focus needs to be on establishing a suitable organisational culture.  There is a lot to learn from the Standard but perhaps for the OHS professional more so than the client. Perhaps it is best to limit this standard to establishing the decision-making process itself and to leave the application of the decisions to others.

When the Australian risk management standard was first introduced, the narrow application was useful and appropriate but then the commercial possibilities became apparent and SAI Global capitalised on the Standard and tried to make it all things to all people.

The idea of keeping decision-making simple is always relevant but it seems to operate in a cycle from simple to increasingly complex to deconstruction back to simple.  Maybe we are at the start of the next cycle.

Kevin Jones

The “suitably qualified” challenge on OHS

A quick survey of some of the public submissions on the development of Australia’s model OHS Act illustrates the challenges facing the government after it decided not to include a requirement for only people who are “suitably qualified” in OHS to provide advice to business on workplace safety.

Organisations across the political spectrum have spoken in favour of including “suitably qualified” but “suitably qualified” is in the eye of the beholder.  Several labour and trade union organisations believe that health and safety representatives (HSRs) are “suitably qualified” or “suitable qualified” people should assist HSRs in their work.

The Queensland Council of Unions says

“The WRMC [Workplace Relations Ministers Council] committed itself to a Model Act of the highest possible standards. In order to achieve this, the appointment of suitably qualified persons based on the Queensland model should be reconsidered and the recommendations of the Review implemented.”

Queensland’s OHS legislation had a system of Workplace Health and Safety Officers who were required by every company that had over 30 employees.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions said a PCBU [person conducting a business or undertaking] should

“…employ or engage persons who are suitably qualified in relation to occupational health and safety to provide advice to the PCBU concerning the health and safety of workers of the PCBU.”

The Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union says there should be an “employer obligation to engage a suitably qualified person to assist in H&S”.

Others see “suitably qualified” as a criterion that limits who would qualify for an OHS Entry Permit and what their powers can be.  Wesfarmers Industrial Safety wrote:

“We contend that OHS Permit Holders must be competent to provide OHS advice and must provide a valid reason to justify entry, the only valid entry criteria being to assist the resolution of a reasonably suspected, specified contravention of the Health and Safety Act.   To be effective they must comply with and support site/organisational procedures to enhance site health and safety outcomes and must not intentionally and unreasonably hinder or obstruct any business/undertaking or intentionally intimidate or threaten any business/undertaking or employee.

Suitably qualified in this context must also contemplate that they must not disclose information obtained in accordance with the OHS permit for any purpose other than to assist the resolution of the suspected contravention and must not take copies of documents: if serious concerns exist the Regulator can be requested to attend the site, they will request copies of relevant documents if required.

Additionally, the OHS permit holder and any organisation they represent must be held accountable for the actions taken by the OHS Permit holder.”

There are several challenges for the Australian Government on this issue of “suitably qualified”.  Firstly, it needs to decide whether it can reverse its decision not to include a “suitably qualified” element into the legislation.  To do this it would need to acknowledge that the reasons for exclusion do not match the sensitivities of the community.  This could be embarrassing but also indicate a flexibility and capacity to respond to community concerns.

The government also needs to determine where “suitably qualified” fits.  Should and HSR be suitably qualified or should this only reflect the OHS professionals?  In both cases it puts the governmental up against the commercial training organisations and the university educators (the OHS professional associations have far less clout).

Some academics see the lack of the inclusion of “suitably qualified” as providing a lower level of workplace safety.  Many of these submissions see “suitably qualified” as existing well above the level of HSRs to the professional level.

Professor Mike Capra of the University of Queensland, and other tertiary educators made the following plea:

“We the undersigned Professors of Occupational Health and Safety strongly recommend that the words “suitably qualified”* be inserted as appropriate in the model legislation in relation to the acquisition of advice regarding the health and safety of workers.

Our recommendation is based on the continuing high cost to the community in dollar terms and human suffering in relation to both work place (sic) injury and workplace induced illness which often has long latency and serious medical consequences.

Addressing such serious issues requires properly qualified professionals. The professional practice of OHS management requires skilled professionals with a sound foundation in the physical and health sciences as well as a strong knowledge base in the core OHS areas of health, safety, ergonomics, law, hygiene and toxicology and OHS management systems.

The universities across the country are offering professional entry programs at undergraduate and post graduate levels that are developing the OHS workforce. To sustain this workforce and ensure continued reduction in the societal cost of workplace injury, illness and death there must be recognition of the professional basis of OHS practice and it is imperative that this recognition is reflected in the harmonised legislation.

* Suitably qualified to be determined, as in other professions, by the relevant professional association and industry standards.”

Mike is very committed to improving health and safety of the Australian workforce and it is clear that the moral imperative is king.  But it must also be noted that education thrives on the recognition of qualifications and a legislative requirement for suitably qualified OHS professionals would strengthen the case for the viability of tertiary OHS courses which, according to some sources, are in a perilous state.

One submission questioned the sense or practicality of having an HSR trained in safety beyond the skills of the PCBU.  Shaw Idea wrote

“….the Model Act should require PCBUs to obtain advice from suitably qualified advisers. It is inconsistent to require HSRs to be trained, but not require PCBUs to either be trained or be advised by those with competence in relevant areas. The OHS consequences of incompetent or ill-informed actions by employers are far greater than the consequences of HSR actions.”

The OHS training industry has done themselves a disservice for decades by not having a formal OHS management course for safety or business managers.  There is a big difference between training an HSR to manage upward to the employer and training a manager to manage the safety of a workforce.  Leaving executive training to the tertiary sector has exposed a large vocational hole in business management of workplace safety.

It must also be stated that the editor of SafetyAtWorkBlog also made a submission to the Australian Government in which “suitably qualified” was discussed.  Below is the relevant section:

“Many safety professionals are concerned that “suitably qualified” has been omitted for the proposed legislation.  I think the reason given for its omission is poor but I do not support those who advocate the inclusion of the concept.  The push has been particularly strong from Victoria and through a couple of OHS professional associations.  No evidence has been made publicly available for the need for such a concept.  It is something Victoria has had and it is loathe (sic) to relinquish. Good OHS advice is available from good OHS advisers and caveat emptor should apply on OHS advice as with any other.

The “suitably qualified” advocates like to compare themselves to other professions like medicine yet it is recommended even from within the medical profession that second opinions be sought.  The safety profession does not advocate this very sensible suggestion.”

Kevin Jones

Australian Standards and OHS harmonisation

This morning in Melbourne, WorkSafe Victoria conducted a three-hour seminar on the harmonisation of Australia’s OHS laws.  The speakers and panelists were John Merritt of WorkSafe, Tracey Browne of the Australian Industry Group and Cathy Butcher of the Victorian Trades Hall.  Tripartism at its best.

The large auditorium was filled with hundreds of attendees, very few were the familiar faces of the OHS professionals who can often dominate such events.

A question was asked to the panel about the application of the Australian Standard for Plant.  The question was, basically, will the Australian Standards be referred to within the upcoming OHS regulations?  The panel unanimously said no.

This was the clearest indication yet that the rumour about Australian Standards not being given legislative legitimacy through legislation is correct.  Tracey Browne however provided the rationale.  She said

“The important thing is that as soon as we incorporate an Australian Standard in a regulation, we create a whole different legislative status of something that was never designed to be a safety regulation….

This doesn’t change the fact, though, that it is the “state of knowledge” and when you look at what you are doing in relation to what is reasonably practicable, you need to take into account all the things you know or ought to know.  So if you are [for instance] bringing plant into Australia, and that is your business, then you need to know what the Australian Standards are and make sure that’s part of your consideration.”

Standards Australia is undergoing a considerable rethink due to a big loss of funds and in response to the changing regulatory structure in all sorts of industry and financial sectors.  The challenge is acknowledged by the CEO of Standards Australia, John Tucker ,when he discusses a “new way of operating“.

Kevin Jones

Where is the human right to safe work?

Australia is in the middle of a debate about the possible introduction of a charter or bill of human rights.  The debate has been invigorated by the presentation to the Federal Government of a consultation report on human rights.

Occupational safety is often said to be an issue of human rights but this seems to be a secondary action inferred from labor rights rather than a specific statement.  Below are a selection of the articles in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights that may relate to safe workplaces:

Article 1 – All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 3 – Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 7 – All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

Article 23 –  1. Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

Article 24 – Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

The closest one would get to a specific right to “safety at work” would be Article 23 – 1 where there is a right to “favourable conditions of work”.  Favourable is a term that is not seen in OHS legislation or discussions but may tie in with the Australian Government’s concepts of Fair Work.

Article 25 – 1 refers to “the health and well-being” but the following examples place this clearly in the social, non-workplace context.

Article 25 – 1. Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

One could argue that the right to a “standard of living” may include the qualitative elements of a safe working environment but a standard of living –  usually income, education and, sometimes, access and quality of health care – is not the “quality of life” which includes safety.

The report referred to above again does not have an overt statement that people have a right to a safe workplace but it does say, in its summary, that introducing a Human Rights Act

“…. could generate economic benefits, reducing the economic costs associated with policies that do not protect the lives and safety of Australians.”

This language may get a sympathetic ear from the Government in its context of a review of OHS legislation.

But no-one is making the case for a right for a safe workplace.

The argument that a specific right is not required as the state and national OHS legislation places clear obligations on employers and employees does not hold water as similar obligations are in other legislation and some of those sectors are advocating for human rights.

It should be clear from this article that SafetyAtWorkBlog is not a lawyer or a human rights specialist. But what the Government is looking for is discussion on the potential impacts of a Human Rights Act and it is clear from much of the contemporary discussion on occupational health and safety that the overlap between OHS and social safety is increasing very quickly, in the opinion of SafetyAtWorkBlog, quicker than the legislations and laws can cope.

In the past the trade union movement would take the running on human rights as part of their social charter but, as has been said in other SafetyAtWorkBlog articles, the trade unions still remain focused on the material interests of work, primarily, and are currently lobbying on OHS in Australia, primarily, from an industrial base.

The labour lawyers are debating the intricacies of the proposed OHS laws rather than the big picture, the context of the OHS laws in the broader legal and social fabric.  Perhaps this is considered a dead area of examination and discussion.  Once a law is introduced or a precedent set, lawyers tend to adjust their analytical thinking to fit.  Safety professionals and commentators have the luxury to think more broadly.

The safety professional associations are remarkably quiet on the whole idea, preferring to bow to their legal advisers while at the same wondering how they can find relevance in the evolving social context of OHS.

If readers of SafetyAtWorkBlog can shed any light on the human right for safe work, please submit comments below.

Kevin Jones