Politician who attempted suicide is “sacked”

In early August 2008, Paula Wriedt, Tasmanian MP, tried to commit suicide.  Six weeks later the Tasmanian Premier has sacked her from Cabinet, according to an ABC report.

Premier David Bartlett denies this is a sacking, more a “withdrawal of commission”.  He says it is for the good of the government and for the good of Ms Wriedt.

Ms Wriedt was asked to resign her Cabinet position but the Premier says she was “not in a position to make such a decision”.

An audio interview with the Premier put to him that his decision was “despicable” and “reflects the way the state deals with people with mental health problems”.

Ms Wriedt’s suicide attempt had already raised discussion on the workplace issues of stress, compensation, workloads and mental health.  The listener’s question in the audio interview will reflect the majority of the community’s response to the Premier’s decision and Premier Bartlett will have a difficult time explaining how his decision was for Ms Wriedt’s benefit.

Ms Wriedt’s current situation and future career decisions will provide an interesting illustration on how the public service and Tasmanian politics manages an employee with mental health issues, particularly when, on OHS matters, the public service should be exemplars.

“National cuisine” threatens work health promotion

For many years, workplaces in Australia have been promoting healthy diets as a way of improving the general health of the workforce and hopefully reduce illness.  This strategy was easier to develop when there was large manufacturers who had in-house canteens but it was always a struggle.

In 2008, the Victorian Government launched WorkHealth, a program that it claimed was a world-first, and will focus on improving general health by targeting the workplace.  It is understood that the pilot program of worker health assessments begins on Monday, 1 September 2008.

The Herald-Sun newspaper on 26 August 2008 illustrates a major cultural barrier that the workplace health initiative faces.  In an article entitled “Aussie blokes bite back with humble pie”, the marketing manager of Patties (Australia’s biggest pie manufacturer), Mark Connolly said 

“Blokes are sick of being told what they can and can’t eat. They’ve had a gutful of it and are going back to living by their own rules. If they feel like having a pie and a few beers, they’ll have a pie and a few beers.” 

In 2008, Patties has seen a 10% increase in pie sales and an 8.6% increase in profit. Patties has made available a nutritional comparison of their products.  Perhaps, WorkHealth can seek additional sponsorship support from a pie maker.

Media reporting of workplace bullying

As a publisher my mailbox is constantly bombarded by media releases.  Some are irrelevant but most relate to safety in some way.

Over the years the amount of attention given to workplace bullying has grown phenomenally.  In my opinion the attention it garners is way beyond the level it deserves.

That is not to say that those subjected to workplace bullying are not seriously harmed, they are, but the big-picture issue is disproportionate.

This is partly because many people who talk about workplace bullying do not apply the definition of the hazard, and as a result other non-bullying matters get included.  A media release I received today, 14 August 2008, illustrates this point.

Workpro has undertaken a survey of

“2,146 employees applying for work through recruitment agencies across Australia, to gain an understanding of the experiences and beliefs about bullying and discrimination among Australian employees today”.

The survey found

“almost one in three (30%) employees claiming they have been bullied at work; one in four (24%) claiming they have been discriminated against, and 44 per cent stating they have witnessed their colleagues experience either of these”.

That data is pretty clear and you can expect the Australian media to run articles on the survey results tomorrow.  These surveys usually get a good hit rate.

The media release provides the impression that 30% of employees have been bullied at work.  This is not the case.  Thirty per cent of employees who are looking to change jobs say they have been bullied at work.  This does not represent 30% of the workforce but that is the impression we are given.

Another part of the release is annoying.

“27 per cent of respondents say they feel bullying or discrimination has happened to them within the past two years.”

Bullying and discrimination are very different interactions.  Discrimination can be a one-off event, bullying must be a repeated action.  To ask about these two disparate items within the one question is inappropriate or, if the results of two questions are combined, it provides a false impression.  Did 10% nominate bullying and 17% say discrimination or was it vice versa?

The media release says

“When asked about their peers, almost half (46%) of respondents say they have seen their colleagues bullied or discriminated against within the past two years; 31 per cent of this group say multiple times.”

The point about definition made above applies here but why ask about other people anyway?  The multiple times quote muddies the water because it is impossible to be bullied once, a single attack is just that an attack or in OHS parlance, “occupational violence”.

A spokesperson for WorkPro, Tania Evans, says

“It’s quite shocking to hear from employees that this sort of behaviour continues to happen in modern times, but organisations need to realise that bullying and unfair treatment of staff is occurring and could be impacting their own workplace culture or worse still, exposing them to the risk of liability, possible fines and even brand damage.”

Now we have something called “unfair treatment” in the mix.  (And I hate “impact” as a verb) The penalties could be liability, fines or brand damage, what about workers compensation claims for stress and bullying?  Not only is this a substantial business cost, the cause of the claim may result in the employee never being able to work again or lead a functional life?  I place these risks higher than brand damage.

Media releases are not the be-all and end-all of a survey.  Press statements are intended to generate contact in order to provide further information and hopefully generate business opportunities.  Alarmism is an effective tool and this media release is unhelpful.

You can imagine the articles in tomorrow’s papers where the journalists, if they can be bothered, will have asked the OHS regulators or unions for their response to the statistics, even though it may only be those statistics in the media release that they have seen.

I would have liked this survey to be reported in two parts, bullying and discrimination, to reflect their difference but also to report on the different control mechanisms for the harm that each of these hazards can generate.

But, I forgot, that’s my job.

Kevin Jones

Is there anything worn under your PPE?

Associated Press has reported on an initiative by a US postal worker to have a kilt as an option for his work uniform.  According to media reports, Dean Peterson has lobbied his union colleagues to push for the clothing option because

“Unbifurcated Garments are far more comfortable and suitable to male anatomy than trousers or shorts because they don’t confine the legs or cramp the male genitals the way that trousers or shorts do.”

This is not the first time that kilts have been seriously proposed as workwear. Workplace kilts are already on sale and I remember an Australian building worker wearing one some years ago. Utilikilts is probably the best known supplier of this garb.

Whether I would wear one after over 40 years of long trousers I am not sure but with increasing hazards of working outdoors in summer, I think the kilt should be seriously considered. However I would be interested in hearing of any reasons to not permit this option on the workplace safety grounds.

New Guidance on Preventing Fatigue

Australian OHS authorities have been struggling for many years to address issues of fatigue in the workplace.  Partly this has been because the issue of stress and bullying came to dominate the psycho-social agenda.

The transport industry has pushed fatigue into the unavoidable hazard basket.  New South Wales’ experience with this issue has been particularly interesting and continues to do so. France’s experiment with a maximum set of working hours, partly on the grounds of occupational health and safety, has proven to be a brave experiment.  The Australian Trade Unions’ campaign on “reasonable hours” had safety echoes.

But, as with so many long-term OHS initiatives, Australia waited until England’s Health & Safety Executive (HSE) did all the leg work before tailoring fatigue guidelines to its own circumstances. At least this guideline acknowledges the HSE’s work.

On 4 August 2008, WorkSafe Victoria and WorkCover New South Wales published their guidelines on “Fatigue – Prevention in the Workplace”.  As far as it goes, it is a good addition to OHS information and, if its existence is publicised sufficiently, should place fatigue on the radar of OHS professionals.  Prior to this guide, the only fatigue information that WorkSafe produced was concerning fatigue in the forestry industry in March 2004! – hardly something that any other industry would see as relevant to themselves.

It is worth comparing some of the basic concepts that the OHS regulators have put forward.

The differing definitions reflect the perceptions of the OHS regulators, the state of knowledge at the time, the approach taken by the organisation consulted in the development of the guidances, they anticipate the level of resources allocated to the promotion and enforcement of fatigue management.  The contrast between the Victorian “definitions” of 2004 and 2008 are particularly marked.

Guidelines only go so far and then it is up to business to consider the advice and decide what to do.  The success of the new fatigue guideline won’t be in evidence for several years and, of course, that relies on the very dim chance of anyone undertaking an assessment of the guideline at all.

There are several issues that I think should be considered when reading the new guidance:

The role of the second job.

Second jobs, often undertaken by shift workers are assessed, if at all, for potential conflicts of interest.  The impediment in being “fit for work” in the principal employment is never assessed.  This guideline, in a roundabout manner, identifies this risk. 

The need for nightshift.

Often nightshift, or specific shift rosters, are traditional structures.  “This is the way it has always been done”.  The existence of nightshift in every workplace should be reassessed on a regular basis as economic factors change and as knowledge of the extent of harm presented by nightshift accumulates.

Overlap of Human Resources and OHS

I have bleated on for years about the silo mentality of the OHS and HR disciplines.  The demarcations have been eroding for ages in the real world of business and this trend has been increases as more and more psychosocial hazards are placed within the OHS context.  But the HR professional and the OHS professional continue to speak different languages and with competing agenda.

Fatigue cannot be successfully managed without a common understanding between HR and OHS.

Impairment

Impairment has been a concept floating around the trade unions for some time and they have never found the right approach to getting this on the OHS agenda.  Much of the content in the new fatigue guideline is broader than fatigue and deals with interaction with our employees and colleagues.  The guideline clearly identifies issues from outside work that may exacerbate fatigue in the workplace. (That other demarcation between work and non-work hazards does not apply to fatigue)

Fatigue impairs judgement as well as actions.  Mental fatigue is applicable to a broader range of occupations than physical fatigue and reaches into occupations that are not familiar with OHS, such as judges and politicians, whose important decisions must not be impaired.

 

Fatigue should not be one of the workplace hazards that are increasing shuffled off into the miasma that is work/life balance and wellness.  It relates directly to the traditional areas of OHS but can only be controlled by non-traditional approaches.  There lies the challenge.

Domestic violence and workplace stress

Today, prominent New Zealand sports broadcaster Tony Veitch has admitted striking a previous girlfriend whose back broke in the incident.  The issue of domestic violence is outside the approach of SafetyAtWorkBlog but Tony Veitch has identified some contributory factors to his actions – workload, stress and medications.

Media coverage of Tony Veitch’s admissions will be dominated by the issues of domestic violence and the money that he paid his girlfriend to keep the matter out of the media.  In this blog’s context, questions should be asked about his employer’s, TVNZ’s, appoach to stress management and excessive working hours, and Tony Veitch’s own decision to accept working conditions that he says contributed to his violent acts.

As with the many politicians who resign due to workload and stress and who develop a sudden desire to “spend more time with the family”, and those CEO’s who take a year off to reestablish a work-life balance after amassing a personal fortune, and the television broadcasters who strike out at girlfriends, the contributions to domestc violence by work environments should be assessed so that other workers do not have to suffer and partners are not assaulted.

A balanced ABC news report on the Tony Veitch’s apology is available HERE.  A New Zealand talkback radio session on the issue is available HERE

Additional information on the issue can be found HERE

Shiftwork risks

For fixed periods over the last two years I have been working morning or night shift for a multi-national business information company.  I know shiftwork fairly well although I have never worked rotating shifts and the longest shift worked is around nine hours.  That may well categorise me as a wimp to those oil-rig workers, firefighters, bakers and miners out there, but…..

being an OHS professional I have been very watchful of my own health when working shiftwork.  On full night shift it took my digestion weeks to break the routine of over forty years.  My weight has increased but no chronic illnesses yet.  My biggest risk comes from fatigue in the drive to and from work though I have to admit that at 2.30 in the morning in Melbourne, I could use my cruise control on the suburban streets as the traffic is so light.

I have also been more keenly aware of the studies and reports on shiftwork and the health risks associated with it.  Often these reports garner considerable media coverage and, as is the way with media, some contrary articles never get a run.  Below is a selection of links to articles that highlight increased risk or the reduction of risk in relation to shiftwork:

Epidemiological Diagnosis of Occupational Fatigue in a Fly-In–Fly-Out Operation of the Mineral Industry

Simple Schedule Changes Could Improve Shift Worker Health

U of T research finds shift work linked to organ disease

This is a selection of the most recent and show the difficulties posed to OHS professionals and managers in handling this emerging risk.

For the moment, I am taking the issue of shiftwork out of my personal concerns.  I will focus instead on the health, fitness and fatigue issues applying the logic that the hazard variable over which I have the most control is myself.

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