Roadside drug testing of commercial drivers

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On 1 June 2008, the South Australian Minister for Road Safety, Carmel Zollo, announced an increased enforcement campaign against drug-affected drivers

In her media statement, Ms Zollo says

“When people take drugs and drive, they are taking a deadly risk – and the worst possible outcome of such irresponsible behaviour is a tragic crash. Drug testing is relatively new and we need to do all we can to change attitudes – we need people to know they will pay a price, one way or the other – and we need to convince them the best thing to do is to stay off the roads.”

Given the large number of commercial vehicles and drivers on the road, I asked the Minister’s office how this enforcement process and increased fines would apply to drivers who are found to be drug-affected in a work vehicle or undertaking work tasks.  I haven’t had a response from the Minister but I put the same scenario to the SafeWork SA.

A spokesman for SafeWork SA told me that “the situation regarding the new drug driving laws in SA doesn’t change a whole lot as far as [SafeWork SA is] concerned. Such offences would fall under the Road Traffic Act in the first instance, and would be handled by SA Police.”

He emphasises that this issue 

“…is another compelling reason for employers who do have staff on the road to ensure a policy is in place regarding alcohol and other drugs in the workplace. This will ensure that all workers are clear about what expectations exist in relation to drugs and alcohol on the job, and what the consequences will be for any breaches.  Such a policy would assist employers in managing their legal obligation to identify hazards, assess risks and implement appropriate control measures for those risks.”

I agree and appreciate the fact that he did not say, as many employees and managers assert, that having a policy makes the workplace safer. Having a policy does not even imply compliance, only action and enforcement can achieve that.

What his comments do indicate though is that a workplace hazard that OHS professionals are expected to manage goes through several processes before it reaches, if at all, the relevant OHS authority and regulator.  Is it any reason that the drug driving of workplace vehicles gets little attention when a major motivator of change, legal OHS action from a government regulator or at least the threat of action, is not occurring in the OHS context.

The driver penalty structure only applies within the general driving conditions controlled by the Road Act even though a driver could be severely impaired in a mobile workplace. The workplace context applies in other safety legislation such as rail safety and mining safety, why is not the work context of a positive roadside drug test being applied?  On the issue of impairment, there is little difference between a white delivery van driver and 18-wheeler.  Both can kill others and themselves.

Perhaps the Australian National OHS Review can consider occupational issues in other traditionally public areas of safety – security staff in nightclubs? level crossings?

National uniformity in the Australian transport industry

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The argy-bargy about uniformity of OHS legislation continued this week and, again, stems from issues in New South Wales.

According to a report in the Australian Financial Review on May 19 2008 (sorry there is no hyperlink, Fairfax Media insists of payment for online AFR content), the CEO of the National Road Transport Operator’s Association , Bernard Belacic said

the reality is for an employer in the trucking industry, we’ve got a raft of regulations to comply with.  In NSW, we’ve got four different [driver] fatigue regimes.  As an employer, even as a driver…..which one do you comply with?
Let’s not get silly about duplicating efforts and creating further layers of regulation. If safety isn’t addressed properly through the OH&S framework, well, let’s fix that.

He was responding to the ACTU’s desire to have OHS incorporated into the NSW industrial awards for negotiation.

I agree that additional levels of legislation and regulation are probably not required however several trucking companies are continuing their swap to the national worker’s compensation system, permission for which was squeaked in before the Howard Government was voted out.  I cannot understand why the companies would want to continue with this action when further moves from the state to federal systems have been frozen, the OHS regulatory system is under government review, and such action would be inflammatory and very possibly short-term.

Many companies put a great store in worker’s compensation, probably because it is so expensive.  But I judge a company’s commitment to it’s workforce on the basis of injury prevention not compensation. 

Below are some publicly-available infoation on the latest companies moving to the Comcare system:

Taxi Driver Safety Causes Blockade

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One of Melbourne’s busiest intersections was blockaded again by angry taxi drivers. This follows the stabbing of a young cab driver on April 29,2008.
The calls were again for shields in cabs to isolate the drivers from, often, irate drunk and violent passengers.
In response to previous protests, cameras were installed in taxis as a deterrence and evidence-gathering device. This control measure is clearly not working as well as cheaper and simpler alternatives.
Cameras record the attacks, the maiming and the deaths. They help identify the attacker but they do not prevent the attacks. Drivers continue to work in an industry that is more hazardous than it needs to be.
In OHS terms, any worker can refuse to place themselves at risk and many drivers have retired over the years siting safety as an important consideration. However, this has lead to a driver shortage that is being filled by migrant workers and overseas students. (The most recent victim was reported to be a 23-year-old Indian student) The influx of migrant workers to perform jobs, that Australian residents choose not to undertake, has complicated occupational health and safety considerably, and unnecessarily.
Engineering solutions of shields and other driver separations could have been introduced years ago after similar security and personal safety protests. Many other Australian and overseas jurisdictions have driver-passenger separation as standard.
After 30 hours in the autumn cold the blockade has been lifted after the government agreed to install driver shields in taxis within 12 months. But this is cold comfort to the stabbed 23-year-old tax driver and those drivers who have been choked and attacked. This engineering control has been in existence for over a century and it is a stain on the decisions of previous governments who allowed taxis to be commissioned in, what has been proven to be, an unsafe state. Violence against taxi drivers and other transport drivers has been a known workplace hazard for a long time (bus drivers have had separation for years. How was driving a taxi different?) and again, it has taken a violent attack on a worker to achieve an acceptable level of safety – a level that a “reasonable man” would have agreed to or one that was always “reasonably practicable”.

Safety, Maintenance and Business Continuity

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America and Europe have a huge advantage over Australia – they know how to respond to a broad range of disasters. Australia has had its share of bushfires and cyclones but because the country is so large and the geology so stable, the large metropolitan centres of Sydney and Melbourne have been spared. This stability has led to less emphasis on the fragility of infrastructure by business operators than there should be.

America and Europe have a huge advantage over Australia – they know how to respond to a broad range of disasters. Australia has had its share of bushfires and cyclones but because the country is so large and the geology so stable, the large metropolitan centres of Sydney and Melbourne have been spared. This stability has led to less emphasis on the fragility of infrastructure by business operators than there should be.

In the Herald-Sun newspaper on 12 April 2008, there was a cover story on the organizational neglect of the State’s electrical infrastructure. This was emphasised recently when it took 6 days for many homes to have power restored after a serious storm, a storm that was of the level that Sydney experiences regularly and that the tropical areas of Australia and designed to withstand.

A government inquiry will be held into the delay but this is unnecessary. Privatised corporations are notoriously neglectful of the need to maintain infrastructure services as there is little profit in holding resources in reserve for large-scale disasters. Numerous inquiries into the disasters on the privatised rail networks in England have shown the corporate values of privatised transport companies, some of whom have investments in Australia.

The poor and unsafe conditions of the infrastructure are not the fault of the companies if we take it that their raison d’etre is to make profit. But we cannot extend the same understanding to governments who forsake the public good for the sake of an improved bottom line.

Poor maintenance leads to unsafe conditions which lead to disasters. As safety professionals we need to stress that adequate levels of maintenance are a core part of any preventative strategy. Not only will it reduce the social impact of any disaster but it maintains a robust corporate economy, reduces employees’ exposure to trauma and establishes a company as an important community asset.

The Blind at Work and in the Street

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At the moment I am reviewing a draft OHS compliance code for amenities at the workplace. I am also working a morning shift for a communications company from 3am each morning. I have a blind father. My office faces a truck route.

These elements of my life combined when I received a wire story this morning about an initiative to increase the level of pedestrian safety. I found the National Federation for the Blind media release that the article was based on and decided that the request for “a two-year study to determine the best means to provide the blind and other pedestrians with information about the location, motion, speed, and direction of vehicles” fairly reasonable and I look forward to the findings in 2010.

At the moment I am reviewing a draft OHS compliance code for amenities at the workplace. I am also working a morning shift for a communications company from 3am each morning. I have a blind father. My office faces a truck route.

These elements of my life combined when I received a wire story this morning about an initiative to increase the level of pedestrian safety. I found the National Federation for the Blind media release that the article was based on and decided that the request for “a two-year study to determine the best means to provide the blind and other pedestrians with information about the location, motion, speed, and direction of vehicles” fairly reasonable and I look forward to the findings in 2010.

It will be interesting to watch the response that this US Bill will generate from those who see our world changing to accommodate minorities, those driving enthusiasts that give pedestrians and bikes little attention anyway, those advocates who say that pedestrian lights don’t remain on long enough and the right-wing critics of political correctness who are usually fully-sighted ( in the vision sense at least) and able-bodied.

Some of the issues the Secretary of Transportation should consider are:

  • How did blind people in China cope when that country depended almost 100% on bicycle transport? Bikes aren’t silent.
  • Aren’t cars being designed now specifically to minimise the damage to a pedestrian from a front-on collision? Let’s not go near the issue of bull-bars and car protection bars.
  • I know that the blind want to be independent but if I am elderly or disabled, I would not reject assistance in crossing a road. Don’t pedestrians offer assistance any more?
  • All age groups should be considered in the study as able-bodied pedestrians may be distracted or otherwise inattentive.

Basic ergonomic theory is that we don’t try to fit the person to the work environment. Perhaps urban planners and car manufacturers should consider how they can change what they do to ensure that the vehicles are compatible with pedestrian zones and interaction. I for one would ride my bicycle more if the streets were more friendly and drivers more aware.

How do workplace amenities and morning shift affect my perspective? I am not sure that the draft compliance code accommodates disabled workers so I will need to review the document through my father’s eyes, ineffective as they are.

Toilets in many office buildings have Braille labels below the male and female toilet signs. I often wonder how a blind person locates a 6cm Braille label on a 18 square metre wall when they are bursting for a pee and are new to that area. And from experience most people develop blindness after middle age and have little chance of learning Braille so just how many blind people are we serving by Braille toilet signs?