Early worker health statistics from WorkHealth

WorkHealth has released some data on the results of its first wave of free health checks (not yet available online)

“Recent results from tests of 3500 workers conducted as part of the ….WorkHealth program found more than half were overweight and/or had high blood pressure while a quarter had high levels of blood cholesterol.”

These figures are not as “surprising” as WorkHealth makes out as the health check program is free to all workers in the State of Victoria and is likely to be the first time that many of the workers would have undergone such checks.  Indeed, WorkHealth acknowledges this fact for its blue-collar male workers.

The data is summarised by WorkHealth below:

  • Male workers were more likely to have high blood pressure;
  • Female workers were more likely to have higher levels of cholesterol in their blood;
  • The majority tested eat less than the recommended five serves of vegetables each day; and
  • The majority of people tested eat at least two pieces of fruit each day.

A health profile of the general Australian population from 2008 found the following statistics, amongst others:

Coronary heart disease is the largest single contributor to the burden of disease
in Australia, followed by anxiety and depression.

Coronary heart disease is the largest single contributor to the burden of disease in Australia, followed by anxiety and depression.

Cardiovascular diseases, cancers and respiratory diseases remain the leading causes of death overall.  However, injury is by far the most common cause of death in the first half of life.

Many Australians live with long-term health conditions. Most of these conditions are not major causes of death, but they are common causes of disability and reduced quality of life.

WorkHealth may be a turning point in the health management for some of the participants, and even if this is a tiny minority, the WorkHealth program could be claimed as a success.

Now if we could only do more about the smoking, dust, fumes, forklifts, sedentary work, fatigues, shiftwork, depression, stress, alcoholism and anxiety…..

Kevin Jones

Return-To-Work and OHS

Many OHS professionals do not understand the return-to-work (RTW) process.  Many OHS professionals choose to avoid RTW like the swine flu.  In Australia, rehabilitation and compensation come under different legislation to OHS so it is easy to delude one’s self that they are different beasts.

On September 15 2009 at the WorkCover SA Conference, it was possible to argue the same ideological isolation as above but from the RTW stance.  RTW can be as isolationist as OHS.  Admittedly, the conference was about workers’ rehabilitation and injury management but it was surprising how many speakers talked about integrated management without mentioning OHS.

Is this demarcation widening?  Was it formalised by the different Acts of Parliament? By different training backgrounds and criteria?  By the different work-related government departments (they often inhabit the same office, share the same board members, but report to government separately?!)?   Is the demarcation between the human resource specialists and the safety engineers?

In most workplaces such a demarcation would be unmanageable.  Most workplaces, certainly the smaller ones, have the official RTW Coordinator role as part of the duties of an existing staff member, whoever is already juggling the personnel duties and often payroll as well.  It is often a luxury to have a full-time RTW Coordinator.

It is noted that the Australian conferences of the OHS professionals rarely include RTW, and vice versa.  Isn’t is just possible that some bright spark may offer a safety management conference that unites the complementary disciplines, professionals and government departments so that business managers can receive a combination of information that matches the reality?

Kevin Jones

Kevin Jones attended the conference with the support of www.rtwmatters.org an (increasing prominent) online RTW website, and WorkCoverSA.

Lawyers identify contentious OHS law elements

The Safety Conference scheduled for Sydney at the end of October 2009 has finally got an OHS issue that is contentious and is also a work in progress.  The unions are starting to make noise on the OHS laws.  The employer groups are manoeuvring cautiously.  The safety professionals are largely silent (again) but the lawyers – the group with perhaps the most to gain from the new harmonised OHS laws – are set to analyse and debate.

A media statement from the conference promoters was distributed on September 8 2009 and, very differently from most media releases, is informative without being pushy.  Below is the body of that statement:

Three issues are set to dominate discussion: the burden of proof, the personal liability of company officers, and the impact on prosecutions. Neil Foster, senior law lecturer from the University of Newcastle, believes personal liability is at the heart of the changes.

“The harmonisation process seems to have been driven by directors’ fears of personal liability and the hope that there would be some watering down of the laws,” he says.  “In my view, the Model Act inappropriately waters down the personal responsibility of company officers, although I do support some of the proposed changes in this area, including the acknowledgement that the officer has obligations to exercise due diligence to protect the workers. But with the change to the current onus of proof provisions, it is quite possible that guilty people will now escape justice.”

Michael Tooma of Deacons law firm, who will moderate The Safety Conference’s harmonisation panel discussion, says that while current state laws differ in their approach to the approach to personal liability of officers, all will be reshaped by the proposed Model Act.

“Despite the range of liabilities, all have one thing in common: the officer will be personally liable only if their company commits an offence,” Mr Tooma says. “The new regime does not require this.”

“Under the approved recommendations for the new OHS laws, officers will be liable if they fail to exercise due diligence. That is, the duty has been recast as a positive obligation on officers to proactively ensure compliance with OHS laws rather than an attributed liability in the event of a breach by the company. This is a landmark shift in approach which will have a significant impact on OHS enforcement and compliance.”

The definition of “due diligence” may also be contentious.

“The Workplace Relations Ministers’ Council (WRMC) did not approve the recommendation for a definition of due diligence,” Mr Tooma says. “The Committee had recommended that due diligence be defined in line with existing case law on its meaning, drawn largely from NSW where the term has been in use for almost 30 years.”

“Instead, WRMC preferred to rely on the Courts to interpret due diligence. Practically, that means that the true harmonisation of the scope of the personal liability of officers may have some way to go as each State Court and Territory Court attempts to interpret due diligence in the context of the case before it until a case is brought to the High Court so that an authoritative determination of that term is made which is binding on all state and territory Courts.”

Michael Selinger of Holding Redlich Lawyers points out that company officers found guilty will face increased penalties, rising from the from the current maximum in NSW of two years in prison or fines of $55,000 to fines of up to $600,000 for an individual and five years in prison.

New South Wales employers, however, may enjoy some relief as the burden of proof shifts to prosecutors.

“The new Model Act will have a more significant impact on New South Wales employers than those in any other states because the Model Act is largely based on the Victorian and Queensland Acts,” says Mr Selinger.

“For New South Wales, the onus of proof will move away from the employer as a result of the inclusion of the qualifier of ‘reasonably practicable’ in the general duty to ensure safety under the Act. When it comes to proving liability, the prosecutor will now need to show the employer has not taken all reasonable steps to prevent injury.

“In 95 per cent of cases, shifting the burden of proof to the prosecutor won’t affect the outcome. This is because when an injury occurs, employers examine the workplace to see what actions need to be taken to prevent a recurrence – by doing that, they show that there were reasonable steps that could have been taken, which makes it easier for the prosecution to prove liability. To some extent, there’s always been this tension between trying to improve the safety system and protecting your legal position.”

“The legislation in NSW has historically been enforced more vigorously than in other jurisdictions but most OH&S regulators only initiate a prosecution if it is in the public interest and they have a good prospect of success. Under the new Act, there’s likely to be more of an emphasis on education and cooperation between the regulator and business. We won’t really know the answer to whether there’s likely to be fewer prosecutions until the new Act is implemented – at the end of the day, how it is enforced will be the key factor. The regulator will still have plenty of enforcement tools and there is likely to be a uniform enforcement policy applied across the country.”

On the other hand, Neil Foster believes the onus of proof belongs with employers.

“The Model Act has been legitimately described as ‘a race to the bottom’,” Mr Foster says. “The onus of proof should be placed on employers because they have the greatest control over safety: how hard people work; safety procedures; how money is spent; and safety policies. There is still a lot of carelessness in workplaces and WorkCover sensibly doesn’t launch prosecutions unless there’s a good chance the employer is guilty and hasn’t taken reasonable precautions. I think the NSW safety system has been working well.”

Scarlet Reid, special counsel for Henry Davis York says the impact of reversing the onus of proof is uncertain.

“From a practical perspective, this could make convictions more difficult to obtain in New South Wales,” she says.  “In the absence of any changes that stipulate which courts hear prosecutions at first instance, it remains to be seen if this is in fact the case. It is questionable as to whether real uniformity can be achieved without examining this important issue.”

Ms Reid says employers were likely to benefit from other changes under the proposed Model Act.

“Defendants in NSW and Queensland should benefit from the proposed expanded appeal rights,” she says. “Defendants in NSW may also find comfort in the proposal to abolish the prosecutor’s right to appeal against an acquittal.”

If employers are winners under the changes, unions, who will lose the right to launch prosecutions, protest vigorously against the proposed Model Act, claiming it would be detrimental to safety. Neil Foster agrees.

“The changes to be brought in under the harmonisation process send a message from government to employers: safety’s been too tough and that we’re not so worried about it anymore. It’s very sad.”

Kevin Jones

John Merritt and ‘reasonably practicable’

On 4 August 2009, John Merritt, Executive Director of WorkSafe Victoria, spoke at an OHS function hosted by the Australian Human Resources Institute in Melbourne.  John is a lively speaker whose passion for workplace safety is obvious. I had the opportunity to ask the following question

“How is reasonably practicable NOT a ‘get-out-jail-free card’?”

Many readers will know that I am skeptical about “reasonably practicable” as is evident from the question.  However John’s response was the first from a non-lawyer that saw some positives in the concept.  John said

“I do think [the concept] is a real strength in the law.  In trying to move people to embrace this issue, for those who are in that denial phase, they often think we are asking them to do the impossible, and I find it really useful to say “no we’re not.  We’re asking you to do that which is reasonably practicable.

Our job, if  we say what you’re doing is not reasonably practicable, all we have to do is go and find someone who is just like you who is doing it.  We’re not asking you to do anything that somebody else, and usually in some critical mass of numbers, isn’t already doing, so why can’t you do it?” And I think that’s a reasonably sophisticated law.

You’ve got to have really good teams of investigators and lawyers and inspectors and all that sort of stuff to make that sort of law work.  But that’s good, that’s doable …. but I do think, in our field, its a reasonable proposition.

The alternative, which is an absolute duty – you must have a safe workplace and if someone is hurt, prima facie, you’ve failed and you need to prove to us that you’re innocent – can be made to work as well and most of the research is …. but in trying to move that hearts and minds of, particularly, our target audience, I think it’s the right way to go.”

It was refreshing to hear that “reasonably practicable” can be used as a tool for good instead of evil through illustrating an example of a control measure that has already been found to be reasonably practicable.  Tangible examples have been missing from OHS in Australia for a long time, ever since the OHS Solutions databases fell over in the 1990s.

If WorkSafe finds such examples useful for businesses, it would be good to see such databases resurrected. The images below show some pages from “Share Solutions” a hard copy database produced by WorkSafe’s predecessor, the Occupational Health and Safety Authority, in the late 1980’s.  It would be a good idea if someone like Safe Work Australia investigated the feasability of resurrecting this initiative.

Kevin Jones

Share Solutions 001 002

Share Solutions 003

Aspirational targets are next to useless put politically expedient

Further to the recent blog article on New South Wales WorkCover statistics,  SafetyAtWorkBlog has been provided with a copy of the official Comparative Performance Monitoring (CPM) report that was released in August 2008.  These figures are used to measure performance against the National OHS Strategy 2002-2012.

SafeWorkAustralia has told SafetyAtWorkBlog that the next edition is due in October 2009 (just in time for Safe Work Australia Week – what a coincidence!) after it has been discussed at the next scheduled Workplace Relations Ministers Council amongst other meetings.

Most organisations, including political ones, have key performance indicators for managers and the companies themselves, to measure the likelihood of meeting the target.  This may involve additional remuneration, awards or any other type of recognition.  If the target is not reached, there are repercussions – loss of potential bonus, loss of job….

The National OHS Strategy has no reward for achievement other than a warm, fuzzy feeling.  Nor does it have any penalty except the same warm, fuzzy feeling with perhaps a few less degrees of warmth or duration.

According to the media release from the then-National OHS Council in May 2002, the “indicators of success” are

  • “Workplace parties recognise and incorporate OHS as an integral part of their normal business operations
  • Increased OHS knowledge and skills in workplaces and the community
  • Governments develop and implement more effective OHS interventions
  • Research, data and evaluations provide better, timelier information for effective prevention”

The release also said

“There are five initial national priority areas for action to achieve short-term and longer-term improvements…. The priorities are:

  • reduce high incidence/severity risks;
  • improve the capacity of business operators and workers to manage OHS effectively;
  • prevent occupational disease more effectively;
  • eliminate hazards at the design stage;
  • strengthen the capacity of government to influence OHS outcomes”

These are classic “aspirational targets” that have no penalties for failure.  The targets themselves were discussed in the previous blog article.

According to the 2008 CPM report summary

“The reduction in the incidence rate of injury and musculoskeletal claims between the base period (2000–01 to 2002–03) and 2006–07 was 16%, which means the interim target of a 20% reduction by 2006–07 has not been met.  It is also below the rate of improvement needed to meet the long term target of a 40% improvement by 2012.  The rate of decline in the incidence of claims will need to accelerate in future years if the target is to be achieved.  Four jurisdictions however, met the interim target of improvement: NSW with 29% improvement, the Australian Government with 27% improvement and South Australia and Seacare each recorded 24% improvement.  Although these four jurisdictions recorded improvements higher than the 20% required, considerable efforts will be required by all jurisdictions if the national target is to be met.

The number of fatalities recorded for 2006–07 is lower than in previous years, increasing the percentage improvement from the base period.  The incidence of compensated fatalities from injury and musculoskeletal disorders decreased by 16% from the base period to 2006–07, thus the interim target of a 10% reduction by 2006–07 has been surpassed.  The national incidence rate is still ‘on target’ to meet the 20% reduction required by 2011–12, however there is a considerable amount of volatility in this measure and consistent improvement is required.

The National OHS Strategy also includes an aspirational target for Australia to have the lowest work-related traumatic fatality rate in the world by 2009.  Analysis of international data indicates that in 2006–07, Australia recorded the sixth lowest injury fatality rate, with this rate decreasing more quickly than many of the best performing countries in the world.  However, despite this improvement, it is unlikely that Australia will meet the aspirational goal unless substantial improvements are recorded in the next few years.”

The federal government can react in several ways if the signatories to the strategy fail to meet the target in 2012:

  • Blame the previous government who was in power at the time of the strategy;
  • the large number of parties to the strategy made it impossible to coordinate;
  • The political climate has changed so much  that the targets reflected unreasonable expectations; or
  • The economic climate has changed so much that the targets reflected unreasonable expectations.

Unless all the parties renew their efforts (and their budgets) in order to reach the targets in 2012, from 2009, which is highly unlikely, 2012 is going to have an OHS “elephant in the room” and it will have been white.

Kevin Jones

Statistics traps and a soft “warning”

In the Sydney Morning Herald on 17 July 2009, Kirsty Needham reported

“Total injuries rose by 2339 (2 per cent) to 142,542”

The media release from the Minister, Joe Tripodi  on 15 July pointed out that the injury rate actually fell by 2%.  An important point for the article and an error that has already been pointed out to Kirsty by others in New South Wales.  Sadly, the error is understandable to those of us who dip into the statistical reports. (SafetyAtWorkBlog reported on the NSW stats previously)

However, this should not be case.  Statistics should be supported by clear analyses that allow the layperson to understand, particularly, whether their government agencies’ efforts are providing  positive results.

Business “warning”

The alert to New South Wales businesses Kirsty refers to is the regular WorkCover News sent out to businesses in hard copy but also available for download.

Below is an excerpt from the article “Safety matters in hard times

“Many businesses in NSW and across the country are feeling the effect of the global financial crisis. Some employers are cutting costs and workers want to know what that means for them. For the good of your pocket as well as your people, it’s important you uphold safety at work.

Hard times can hit in a number of ways, and nowhere is this more evident than in the workplace. Some businesses might cut their stationery budget; some might put projects or recruitment plans on hold; others might consider a complete restructure. These decisions can affect more than the bottom line.

One thing to consider is the health and safety of your workers. Pressure and change can cause stress and anxiety. If your workers are distracted they may make mistakes or put themselves at risk. If your workers feel insecure, they may not tell you about new hazards. If you take on jobs you don’t have the capacity to deliver, your equipment and people may not cope. Any of these factors could take a human toll.”

As the newsletter is one of the few that Australian OHS regulators publish in hard copy nowadays it is worth registering for.  For non-Australian readers, the site is worth bookmarking if overseas.

Kevin Jones