Using workers compensation claims as exit strategies

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There have been two instances in Australia in the last week where workers compensation claims have made the news. The first was in relation to the suicide attempt by Tasmanian politician, Paula Wriedt.  She has revealed that after the break-up of her marriage she had an affair with one of the government chauffeurs, Ben Chaffey.

According to one media report, Chaffey has argued

“that his employment became untenable as a result of the relationship and his employer’s response to it.  He is seeking a severance payment thought to be about $A140,000 to compensate for this, and for stress and harm suffered.”

It is also reported that he has been on “stress leave” for several months.

The other case involves unfair dismissal action being taken by public transport ticket inspector, Glenn Hoyne in the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) against his dismissal by Connex.  Hoyne made accusations on a Melbourne talkback radio show about Connex setting quotas for issuing ticket infringement notices and that inspecting was a revenue-raising exercise only.

Connex investigated the claims and described the allegations as “bribery, blackmail or extortion”.

Hoyne took leave in December 2007 and submitted a workers compensation claim due to work-related stress.  The situation was clearly tense.

The AIRC Deputy President, Brian Lacy, described Hoyne’s actions as not a threat to Connex but

“some sort of industrial claim, albeit misguided, for a severance payment.”

These two cases illustrate how murky human relations, and human resources, can be.  Both parties are seeking recompense for actions that are work-related and both actions will result in a resolution.  But neither will generate any real preventive action.  One claim has been described as a pitch for a severance payout and the other is stress from a broken work-related relationship and the employer’s response to a sexual relationship.

When did people begin to expect a monetary payout above their entitlements for leaving a job that they didn’t like or for when a relationship with a work colleague ended?

A law firm newsletter from 2005 reported on a case of a stress claim, which may provide a counterpoint to the situations above:

“The employee claimed, and was successful in establishing that his stress was directly caused by his employer’s failure to keep him informed of changes in the workplace. In essence, the prospect of redundancy was seen as a sufficient causative factor in the employee’s work related injury.”

The newsletter goes on to advise

“employers must assess the circumstances and sensitivities of individual workers when making management decisions in order to avoid stress claims being made or where claims are made, to avoid liability for such claims.”

Maybe this is the only safety management lesson we can learn from the unhappy ticket inspector and the stressed-out chauffeur, manage your people well.

Irrational decision-making

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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

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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!)

Inquiry into health impacts of maintaining jet-fighter fuel tanks

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Earlier this century the Australian Defence Force established the F-111 Deseal-Reseal Health Care Scheme to compensate workers who may have been affected through exposure to chemicals while cleaning F111 fighter aircraft between 1977 and the late 1990s.

A parliamentary inquiry has been established to further investigate the issue of compensation. In the 29 July 2008 edition of The Australian newspaper details of the work exposures have been restated.

“More than 800 RAAF personnel were forced to do the work on the fuel tanks, removing old sealant using chemicals.

The work was done because of a basic flaw in the design of the aircraft — their fuel tanks did not include a bladder, and the sealant used on rivets to stop leaking had to be replaced at regular intervals.”

Details of the impact of this work on workers and their families have also been restated. Ian Fraser, Queensland president of the F-111 Deseal-Reseal support group has said that

“former workers now suffer temper swings, drug abuse and broken marriages — and some had committed suicide.

A significant number have died from cancer, which Mr Fraser’s organisation says is directly attributable to them being made to work with the chemicals — particularly one known as SR51.”

Those OHS professionals who have read Professor Andrew Hopkins’ book “Safety, Risk and Culture” should be familiar with the case as Hopkins investigated the issue and devoted a chapter to his book on the F111 Deseal/Reseal process.  A review of the Hopkins book is available online as is a useful article by Hopkins on safety culture.

It is worth remembering that exposure to chemicals and inadequate protection is not something from the developing nations or from Western industrial history.  These workers faced unacceptable risks within the last twenty years.

Hole in Qantas aircraft

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Qantas Airways has a reputation for safety.  It’s aircraft have not fallen from the sky for over 50 years.  This fact was brought to wide public attention in the movie RainMan and is a fact that most Australians take pride in.

Airlines do not promote themselves on the basis of their safety record principally because it is a high-risk strategy that can be ruined by just one crash.

In late-July 2008 Qantas Airways had a very lucky escape when, according to current reports, an oxygen cylinder exploded and tore a hole in the fuselage of a plan flying over South East Asia.  Ben Sandilands in the Sunday Age rightly points out that lives were saved because the pilot was able to undertake an emergency landing at the nearby Manila airport.

In The Sunday Age 27 July 2008 (not available online), Sandilands pointed out that Qantas often flies on long routes over the sea such as Melbourne to Los Angeles, or over Antarctica on its Argentinean route.  Had the fuselage damage occurred on one of these routes:

“The pilots would have been forced to choose between risking a potentially catastrophic mid-air break-up versus a crash landing or ditching.”

Qantas does not advertise on its safety record but its continuing success is partly attributed to that record.  The avoidance of disaster from this recent episode is a combination of luck and good management.  Qantas executives can do little about luck but it does need to maintain its good management and be seen to do so.

Relocating maintenance tasks to Malaysia may make sound economic sense, perhaps moreso in times of extremely high fuel prices, but national pride in a national airline should not be underestimated.

UPDATE 

An exploding oxygen bottle is firming as the cause of the hole in the fuselage.  However other issues are being raised as another Qantas plane had problems overnight. An undercarriage door would not close complete and Qantas flight needed to return to Adelaide.  Passengers were understandable a little more concerned than usual.

Several of the articles referenced in this blog include complaints by passengers that oxygen masks failed to work or could not be fitted.  Qantas has said that inspections of masks are included in maintenance schedules and it may be a significant factor that it seems to be an oxygen bottle that exploded however the Australian Transport Safety Bureau has asked for passengers to contact it if they had such problems.

Editorials are appearing in which the importance of safety to the longevity of an airline (as well as the passengers) is being emphasised.  The Age newspaper on 29 July 2008 said that 

An airline’s future is its good name. Qantas has for decades thrived on its reputation. Alan Joyce has the challenge before him to continue that tradition.

(Alan Joyce is the incoming chief executive officer.)