OHS and Maryam Omari

Maryam Omari is an Associate Professor at Edith Cowan University and Dean of its School of Business and Law. She has worked in the Middle East, UK and USA and SafetyAtWorkBlog had a chance to ask her some workplace safety questions. Professor Omari has published several books with her latest being “Workplace Abuse, Incivility and Bullying: Methodological…

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SafetyAtWorkBlog’s Christmas reading list

wss-book-pix004The media is full of lists of Christmas reading, usually in order to sell books.  Below is a selection of the safety-related books that are in my Summer reading pile. (No, I am not going to list the Batman comics or Star Trek books.  That would be embarrassing.)

Social Sensemaking

I first met Robert Sams at a book launch of one of the Rob Long’s books.  Sams’ approach to risk has some similarity to Long’s, which is acknowledged in the Forewards, but those who develop or apply a theory are often more interesting than those who created the theory. The the format of the book is a “reflective journal” also makes this nook more intriguing.  It is part diary, part blog, part journal but above all it is a journey of learning with the occasional epiphany. Continue reading “SafetyAtWorkBlog’s Christmas reading list”

Firefighters’ mental health

More details are appearing of the findings of an independent inquiry into mental health and suicides in the Melbourne Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB), a report whose release has been stalled by the United Firefighters’ Union (UFU).

cover-bullying-health-sectorAccording to the inquiry’s chair, in an article in the ABC news website, Dr Peter Cotton,

“…the MFB has a mono-culture with few women or members from diverse backgrounds, making it difficult to assess the level of bullying and harassment.”

“… the MFB does not screen for alcohol or drug use, and has a lack of policies and procedures to address drug and alcohol issues.”

“Management’s handling of complaints were found to be ad hoc and inconsistent with a “lack of will to follow up” and “give them a wide berth” thought pattern.”

“the mental health of firefighters was comparable with Victoria Police and Ambulance Victoria,…”

The latter point is useful to remember as a similar report into the Victoria Police was released earlier this year. The most recent inquiry into Ambulance Victoria was undertaken by the Victorian Auditor-General in 2016. Continue reading “Firefighters’ mental health”

Cabbage Salad and Drugs

Episode 6 of the Cabbage Salad and Safety podcast is now available with the discussion centring on drugs and alcohol issues at work. For those looking for information on drug and alcohol testing, this episode is not for you.  We thought that the testing issue is dealt with in many workplaces through legislative and regulatory matters and you have to comply with what you have to comply. Continue reading “Cabbage Salad and Drugs”

Gender, violence, Batty, Hulls and business preparedness

Recently the Victorian Women Lawyers conducted a seminar into the outcomes of Victoria’s Royal Commission into Family Violence.  SafetyAtWorkBlog attended even though the topic seems, initially, to have a tenuous link to occupational health and safety (OHS).  Family violence is relevant to OHS through its influence on workplace mental ill-health, productivity and the need for cultural…

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Labour Hire Inquiry recommends a licencing scheme

Following, ostensibly, the Four Corners exposé of labour hire exploitation in Australia last year, the Victorian Government established an inquiry.  That Inquiry’s final report has been released with lots of recommendations, several pertaining to occupational health and safety (OHS).  The Government’s media release response is HERE. The main recommendations related to OHS are: I recommend…

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Wearable tech provides data, not decisions

People want information about their own health and fitness.  Many are turning to wearable technology and activity trackers for that information, but information requires decisions or actions to gain benefit. The limitations of activity tracking and decisions was reinforced recently with some US research in the area. The University of Pittsburgh School of Education’s Department…

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Asbestos presents political opportunities for vision and leadership

Asbestos is not something this blog writes about often, principally because the risk of asbestos-related diseases is well established and the control measures identified.  Ideally asbestos should be left in the ground as, no matter in what state it is used, it presents a serious hazard to someone wherever it has been mined or used.  But few countries are willing to make this commitment and even if they do asbestos-containing materials (ACM) continue to be imported regardless of any bans in place, as Australia is currently experiencing.

This fundamental occupational health and safety (OHS) and public health issue is not helped when prominent figures utter dangerous misrepresentations.  MotherJones has pointed out that in his co-authored 1997 book, The Art of the Comeback, now United States Presidential-hopeful Donald Trump described asbestos as

“the greatest fire-proofing material ever used.”

That asbestos is

“100 percent safe, once applied,” and  “got a bad rap.”

The quotes are 19 years old so Trump may have achieved a different perspective on asbestos and it would be good to have someone pose the question, perhaps in the next debate, although he may simply deny he ever said that. (He would be technically right, he never said it, he wrote it)

cover-of-asea_annual_operational_plan_2016-17_web_final_accAustralia does not have a Trump but it does have an Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency (ASEA) and only last week the Minister for Employment, Senator Michaelia Cash (great name for a politician giving out money), gave the agency an

“additional $3.4 million over two years in the 2016-17 Budget”.

This was a timely increase, at least politically, to counter the continued importation of a banned substance as mentioned above. However, the allocation of this money to the ASEA misses the target.  ASEA does not control the importation of building products; that is the job of the Australian Border Force.

ASEA released its Annual Operations Plan 2016-17 at the end of September in which it addresses the asbestos importation issue:

“ASEA works with all levels of government to assist in responding to the strategic risks of asbestos in Australia. The agency coordinated the development of a Rapid Response Protocol through the Heads of Workplace Safety Authorities (HWSA) Imported Materials with Asbestos Working Group. The protocol is the first of its kind, enabling government agencies to work cooperatively and efficiently across jurisdiction and portfolio lines when products have been identified as containing asbestos. This allows agencies to work through the practicalities of concerns that such products may cross, or have crossed, state lines.”

This national and cross-agency cooperation is good and required but “the practicalities of concern” is the major barrier to change.  Government never seems to have sufficient funds to make a ban as effective as possible or it needs to be.  Allowing ACM into Australia, even though the building material contains a government-banned substance, creates costs on public and occupational health but as these costs are further down the supply chain and may not appear for decades, Government considers them to be acceptable.  It is highly unlikely that the cost of preventing ACMs at the border would be more expensive than the long-term health costs that the Government will need to pay through public health and hospitals and that employers may need to pay through lost productivity, business disruption and workers’ compensation. (This is another example of why OHS need economists and financial estimators.)

cover-of-asbestos-importation-reviewIn February 2016, Minister for Border Protection, Peter Dutton, announced an inquiry into the importation of ACMs, to be conducted by KGH Border Services, a company with which the Minister’s Department has been in a partnership since early 2015.  The final report seems to imply that the issue is too difficult to police and that the current process is the best the Government can do, particularly as a large part of the asbestos problem originates in China, Australia’s most lucrative trading partner.

“For most businesses involved in international trade, a rational cost/benefit analysis of investment in compliance is not justified by the incentives that government offer to promote voluntary compliance. Despite the critical effect of asbestos exposure to public health and safety, it remains a cheap and effective material for use in a wide range of goods. Asbestos continues to be widely used internationally, and is incorporated in goods manufactured by Australia’s largest trading partners, such as China.”

This paragraph from the KGH report illustrates the tone of the report.  Asbestos is cheap and effective and used widely, however it is also deadly.  As mentioned above, asbestos and ACM is only cheap to purchase but can have decades long costs that would/should render the cheap purchase a nonsense.  That asbestos is effective echoes Trump’s position.

The report also states:

“Due to the differing standards applied to asbestos regulation internationally, it may be inefficient for suppliers that sell to a range of markets, to ensure compliance with the Australia’s strict import prohibition. The Australian prohibition relates to all forms of asbestos, but chrysotile is not internationally recognised as a dangerous form of asbestos. Countries that mine chrysotile maintain that it is safe, and continue to export it to a number of other countries, where it is still widely used in products that supply a range of industries.”

Regardless of what other countries do, Australia’s Department of Health identified the hazard of chrysotile asbestos as early as 1999 and has stated for some time that:

“There may be no safe exposure level for chrysotile, so all exposure should be avoided” and

“If a safer product or process can be substituted for one involving chrysotile, this should be done.”

According to KGH Border Services chrysotile is not internationally recognised as a dangerous form of asbestos.  So what?  The government that commissioned the KGH report has stated it is dangerous!!??

The KGH report also outlines what is already known and the reason for the existence of the ASEA:

“There is also confusion about policy and regulatory responsibilities across Government in Australia and some ambiguity in the overarching legal framework that establishes Australia’s strict prohibition. The Department of Employment (DoE) has policy responsibility for the legal framework that establishes the border control. The DIBP administers the import and export prohibitions at the border. The Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency (ASEA) is responsible for administering the import and export permission regime on behalf of the Minister for Employment. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) and state and territory work, health and safety (WHS) regulators have a role in enforcement of the asbestos prohibition domestically. This cross-over between various Commonwealth and state and territory authorities can confuse the public’s perception of the DIBP’s role in asbestos regulation, and its ability to affect changes to the legal and policy frameworks that establish the prohibition. Clarification of the responsibilities and coordination efforts across Government would reduce this confusion and increase the effectiveness of the Government’s response to asbestos issues.”

If asbestos was not killing Australian workers and their families, it would be funny that overlapping and conflicting responsibilities (a responsibility managed by the Government) “can confuse the public’s perception of the DIBP’s role in asbestos regulation”.  The public may not understand the role of the DIBP but it certainly understands the fatal risks associated with asbestos.  The calls from the public and the unions for stronger policing of banned substances is less a criticism of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) that it is a criticism of the Government for inaction.

The report also suggests that other levels of Government should be pulling their weight on asbestos management.  They should, and they are, but how much easier, cheaper and more productivity their jobs would be if the Federal agencies prevented ACMs entering the country.  It just may be possible to eliminate the established asbestos hazards if new asbestos was stopped being imported.

It may also be useful to note that Minister Dutton seems to see the call for controlling asbestos imports as a trade union conspiracy.  One could just as well claim that safe asbestos is a Trump conspiracy.

The Australian Government is mismanaging the latest controversies around the importation of asbestos-containing material but to manage it appropriately requires hard questions that this government chooses not face.  The deaths associated with asbestos exposures are increasing and are likely to for some decades yet.  How many decades, is the choice of this Government.  Act now and seriously and fewer people will die, businesses will be more sustainable, health and compensation costs will be less.  In fact there may even be more jobs and growth.

Politicians are regularly called on to provide vision.  Asbestos seems to be one of those issues where the vision can be readily understood and easily explained.  Addressing the issue in a serious way could also be seen as an example of leadership and the basis for a political legacy.  And it is not as if asbestos is irreplaceable.  Trump may see it as a miracle building material but the combination of new products with safety in design principles should be able to achieve a comparable fire protection level.

Vision and leadership.  Where have we heard those words  before?  Oh yes, EVERYWHERE.

Kevin Jones

Wellness programs need to fit business management

Recently Corporate Bodies International circulated an annual membership offer (no costs listed in this link) to its Australian market.  It said:

“Employees and their families have access over to over 300 live webinars and exercise classes, monthly health videos, posters, online GP, Dietitian and Exercise Physiologist appointments – from anywhere in the world, just to name a few of the inclusions. All of this for little more than the cost of a cup of coffee.”

It is the last line that requires a bit more consideration as no program only costs just what marketers claim.

Business cartoon about lowering insurance costs by having fit, exercising employees.

The CBI offer included a link to a flyer about its Healthy Bodies Subscription which involves $A1,800 per annum for companies with less than 100 staff to about ten times that for a much larger number of staff. The services extend from webinars, posters for toilet walls and newsletters to “GP2U Online GP Access” which involves:

“Diagnosis, immediate prescriptions, specialist referrals and medical certificates, all from the convenience of the office. Designed for critical workers or the executive team, minimising work disruption”.

For an organisation that has no occupational health and safety (OHS), Human Resources or well-being resources, purchasing a package like this may be financially attractive but it can also lock one into a pool of medical advisors that could generate conflicts later on with, for instance, insurers, legal representatives, project partners and others. The provision of “immediate prescriptions” may also be a benefit that needs some further investigation – prescriptions by who? For any medication?

A company needs to decide whether it wants to be in total control of the medical services it may offer, or may need to offer, to its employees and whether subscriptions are sufficiently responsive to meet the fluctuations that occur with any workforce and with the business’ profitability.

It is also worth considering whether employees can choose to opt-out and continue being diagnosed or treated by their own physician.  How would such a corporate subscription allow for this worker right?  If the worker opts out, would this be seen as being disloyal? Would this reduce the number of workers covered by the subscription and affect the overall cost to the company?

Owning the welfare program for one’s own employees allows a company to shop for the best deal and to tailor the program to match the fluctuations of the company’s needs. Would this cost more than the subscription fees in the table above? Almost certainly, IF the subscription cost was the only cost involved.  It is important to look beyond cost to operating costs like management control, good governance and due diligence – to the broader context to which occupational health and safety law is pushing Australian companies.  These factors are rarely costed and are frequently overlooked, probably as a consequence of not being measured.  It is a shame that such “intangibles” are accepted as part of economic assessments but are dismissed in relation to OHS.

Kevin Jones

Japanese depression contrasts the Western understanding of workplace mental health

frustrated young asian businessman

Australian workplace mental health advocates often seem to shy away from discussions of suicide, perhaps because suicides are not a regular occurrence at work or because work-related suicide remains stigmatised.  To better understand this overlap between suicide and mental health, and the working environment, it may be useful to look at the Japanese experience where work-related suicides, specifically karoshi, seems to have occurred before the appearance or recognition of mental ill-health and depression.

Recently the BBC released a series of broadcasts and podcasts looking at mental health issues.  The first episode discussed “Depression in Japan”.  The whole series Borders of Sanity will be of interest to mental health students and professionals but the Japanese episode reinforces that the recognition and treatment of depression is not the same around the world.  The appearance of depression in Japan is a very recent occurrence and shows the links between mental health and culture, particularly as it relates to the role of work, our place in work and our relationships with our bosses.

Japan has a unique approach to work and the relationships within work.  Some of the practices have been exported to other countries as we have seen in companies like Toyota but the perception of workload, diligence, commitment and loyalty has some echoes in Western workplaces.

Karoshi has been reported on in the West many times before, often as a peculiar quirk of the Orient but the recent BBC podcast is less about suicide and more about depression and mental health.  The West has a long tradition of psychoanalysis where stress, anxiety and depression have been defined, refined and integrated into our cultures.  This is still in its early stages in Japan and the full podcast is a fascinating counterpoint to the Western perception of workplace mental health.

Kevin Jones