The latest OHS advice on managing swine flu

Some time ago SafetyAtWorkBlog was critical of OHS regulators releasing swine flu information because the advice was not being easily translated in the workplace, and some of the advice was just silly. 

Workplace_Guide_to_Managing_an_Influenza_Pandemic_Page_1Much better advice is available from the New South Wales government however, curiously, the Workplace Guide to Managing Influenza Pandemic has been issued by the Department of Commerce.  The department’s Office of Industrial Relations has released the document which makes more sense however the release seems to be contrary to WorkCover New South Wales who defers to the NSW Health Department, surely the most logical central point for communication on this public health issue.

There are too many “experts” on the workplace impact of swine flu influenza and pandemics.  SafetyAtWorkBlog has kept out of this issue as we share the position of WorkCover NSW – defer to the State or National authorities.

However, some companies feel obliged to be seen to be doing something, anything, about swine flu and their half-cocked measures are discrediting their overall process of safety management.

One national company recently issued a new policy advice to all staff on swine flu.  The policy was little more than a cut and paste from an official fact sheet.  It added little to the employees’ knowledge of the hazard and in no way answered staff questions such as 

  • If my child’s school is closed due to a swine flu threat, what type of leave am I entitled to take?
  • The company has provided annual influenza vaccinations.  Will I need re-vaccinating in the event of swine flu and will the company cover this cost?
  • In what circumstances can my employer send me home?

Not only was it next to useless, the company had the cheek to include its own corporate logo on the policy.  Public health and OHS information is usually flexible in its reuse but somebody in the company looks like they are empire-building rather than managing their staff.

People want advice on how swine flu will disrupt their lives and working lives, not information on swine flu itself.  Employers should leave the health information to the health authorities and concentrate on the management of the disruption and potential health threats within their area of expertise, their own workplaces.  

If employers raise expectations by issuing policies in areas outside of their expertise, they begin a spiral of the demand for information that it may be impossible to satisfy.

Kevin Jones

Swine Flu – isolation – a personal view

Australia’s swine flu numbers are increasing and the government is introducing new measures regularly in response. I write this post from self-imposed isolation from the swine flu outbreak in my son’s high school.  There are some interesting decisions that have been made which provide me with optimism but also illustrate some useful personnel management actions.

I heard about a confirmed case of swine flu at the high school at my son’s soccer match last Sunday.  I was asked by a soccer mum whether my son knew a boy at his high school who was a confirmed swine flu case.  He did and we had not heard.

When I returned home there was no message from the school on my answering machine and nothing on my mobile.  I looked on the internet and the case was reported but more importantly the school was to be closed for a week.  I confirmed the media report by looking at the local health department website.  The case and control measure was mentioned.

However, what does it mean in the broader context when a school is closed?  Is my son in “isolation”? Are the other family members?  The websites could not help with this so I rang the helpline listed on the website.  Yes, my son should have no contact with people outside the house and we should monitor his health, and that of others in the household, for symptoms.

I knew my employer had issued an email from Human Resources in late April advising what to do in the case of an outbreak of swine flu.  However, this is not much help for the days prior to symptoms or confirmation of the infection.  As I am not in isolation I could be going to work as normal and potentially and innocently infecting work colleagues – not a good risk control.  (I have written elsewhere on the matter of presenteeism, here was a preventative opportunity)

I put some risk management questions to the employer even though my advice would be to have me work from home.  Within 12 hours, my employer had set me up to work from home for the rest of the week.  The IT adviser emailed me a procedure entitled “Flu Pandemic Remote Access”.  I commented that I was a little surprised that the company was this prepared.  The IT adviser said it was only new and I was the first user.

My wife’s employer is still assessing the situation but we are of the same opinion that if work can be done from home, we should be located at home for the remainder of the isolation period.  We are lucky that our occupations afford us this option.

On Monday morning the school rang me to answer any questions about swine flu.  I didn’t ask any as we had done our homework and arranged to go to school to collect some of my son’s schoolwork for his time in isolation.

It could be asked why the school waited 24 hours to notify me? How does any company or organisation contact up to 700 people on the weekend?  These are issues that are currently also being discussed in a Royal Commission into Victorian Bushfires in Melbourne.  The school had all of its staff and teachers on the phones after a meeting at 9.00am that morning.  The school’s website did not get an update until Monday morning but not everyone turns on their PC on a Sunday.   In the context of the slow encroachment of swine flu in Australia, I think this was reasonable.

It should be noted that although my son was friends with the infected boy only the immediate classmates were provided with Tamiflu and that this occurred on the Sunday – a fair response.

Anticipating the family being at home for a week, I purchased some supplies including a thermometer as a useful way of identifying  at least one of the swine flu symptoms.

Two days into isolation and there are no symptoms.

From a professional OHS perspective, communication has been acceptable. Available online information was okay and company support reassuring.  At this early stage of the outbreak in Australia, we are optimistic and not worrying ourselves over issues over which we have no control.

Kevin Jones

Working alone – a poorly understood work hazard

Working alone is an established workplace hazard in many industries.  The control measure most applied is “don’t work alone” that is, undertake as many work tasks in isolated location with someone supervising or in close contact.

Modern technology has often been applied as a possible control measure – “deadman switch”, GPS tracking, mobile phone use.  Many of these control measures are second nature to workers in this century and are so commonplace that their safety role is ignored.

Regardless of the many zookeeper attacks that have gained media headlines over recent years, many workers are assaulted and killed while working alone.  Industries that do not have a strong history of safety management most often get caught out by having a staff member injured or killed.  Bosses or industry associations often express wonder at how such an incident could occur.  Safety professionals would have seen the hazard instantly.

The risk of violence from working alone has been a hot topic in Australia since a Victorian female real estate agent was murdered while showing a prospective “client” an isolated property.

HSS0075-Real      -3.477447e+266state-Property            51804944nspection                    afety[1]WorkSafe Victoria has just released a further publication concerning this matter.  The alert is okay in its context but is doing a disservice by being restricted to real estate agents.  Worksafe has more generic guidance but focus on real estate agents? Why not produce similarly detailed guidance guidance that is more broadly applicable to workers in isolation – pizza deliverers, night shift workers, street cleaners, office cleaners a whole raft of occupations that operate alone?

WorkSafe has said previously that real estate agents gain priority because such guidances are developed in conjunction with industry associations.  A legitimate question can be asked, why is a government authority producing guidance for a sector that already has an industry body who can do this?  Shouldn’t an OHS regulator be focusing on those areas that don’t have industry support?

Below are some of the recommended control measures in the latest publication.  SafetyAtWorkBlog’s more generic control measures are in red.

  • having a new client stop by the office and complete a personal identification form before viewing a property to verify details

Have a detailed list of staff work locations and a contact name and (after hours) number for a supervisor at each location

  • inspecting properties during the day. If night inspections are necessary, ensure the agent is accompanied. Identify exit points in case a quick escape is needed

Work with a colleague wherever possible

  • inspecting the property before showing clients,to assess any existing risks or hazards

Consider the security measures of each work area – lighting, access/egress, phone coverage, camera surveillance, etc

  • making an excuse and leaving the site immediately if the client becomes aggressive or makes the agent feel uncomfortable

Cancel the work task at the first sign of hazard

  • calling the office with a pre-assigned emergency code phrase if the agent senses a dangerous situation

The “safe word” control measure is well established in the escort business.  It can work but will only notify of a dangerous situation not eliminate it

  • regularly training staff on safety procedures, including instructions on dealing with potential offenders and incident reporting.

Develop safe work procedures in consultation with staff 

When considering control measures in these situations it may be very useful to understand that prosecutions are likely to consider that employers have undertaken control measures “as far is reasonably practicable” – a movable feast of judgements.  Ask yourself or your client the question, would they prefer to know that an employee is in danger, injured or killed, or would they prefer to have the employee safe and loose a potential client?  The court may consider camera or other technical surveillance to be reasonably practicable but what would your employee who has lost an eye, limb and quality of life think?

Consider other control measures ONLY AFTER elimination has been seriously considered.

Kevin Jones

Other OHS guides concerning working alone are available below

WorkSafe WA

WA Dept of Commerce

Trade Union site

WorkSafe Victoria

Workplace Health & Safety Queensland

H1N1 and facemasks

Swine flu cases have begun appearing in Australia and not just in people who have travelled to infected zones overseas.  Talkback radio has begun discussing the wisdom of basic infection control issues such as isolation, hygiene and the use of facemasks.

Many large companies have started to provide antibacterial soaps and lotions in the office bathrooms and toilets but few have begun to issue guidelines on staff leave.  However as the flu season grows in Australia, it is expected that the tolerance to sniffles by workmates will diminish.  SafetyAtWorkBlog has already written about how swine flu will change the culture of workplaces.

The media has plenty of photos of people in infected zones wearing surgical masks or P2 and N95 masks. This indicates that non-health workers do not appreciate the role of facemasks.  According to authorities in Japan, where the the wearing of masks during infection peaks and outbreaks is a very common practice, masks are best worn by those who are infected to minimise droplets and spray rather than for healthy people to stop the chance of inhalation.

The government is recommending people use masks as a way of reducing the spread of infection via droplets from coughs and sneezes, but puts the onus on those who are already infected.

 “If you start to cough or sneeze, please use a mask,” reads an advice section on the Health Ministry’s website. “If someone in your family or at your workplace is coughing without a mask on, please urge them to wear one.” 

An official at the ministry emphasised the government was only recommending those with symptoms wear masks.

 “Unless you are in a very crowded place, masks are not going to help much with prevention,” he said. “We are not saying that people should always wear a mask when you go out, although it might help to wear one on a rush-hour train.”

 “We are certainly not saying that you’ll be safe if you just put on a mask.”

If the situation worsens to the extent that Australians need to wear PPE as a barrier to infection, the government needs to begin a campaign of not only educating the community on influenza risks but on basic matters like how to wear a mask and how to safely dispose of them.

Although Japanese authorities are quoted above, you are urged to seek local advice for your specific circumstances.

Kevin Jones

Welding explosion burn survivor talks about the experience

The 19 May 2009 edition of The 7.30 Report included a fresh perspective on rehabilitation from workplace injuries.  According to the website

“Sydney man Frank Spiteri was not expected to live after suffering third-degree burns to 70 per cent of his body in a major workplace explosion in 2007.

Not only did Mr Spiteri survive, but he has transformed from an overweight businessman into a fitness fanatic who is determined to help other burns victims.”

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation has provided an extended interview with Frank online. It is a story of extraordinary personal will, a story rarely seen on national television.

Kevin Jones

Radio interview on harmonisation of OHS law

Last week, I had the pleasure of being interviewed byElanor McInerney of the 3CR radio program, Stick Together.  The interview concerned the harmonisation law in Australia and my thoughts on the risks and impacts it would have on Australian business and workers.

The radio program is now available as a podcast  (My part is around the 19 minute mark.) 

Please let me know if I am totally off the beam with my applications of the OHS laws and the political issues.

I thank Elanor and the producers of Stick Together for making this available so soon after the broadcast on 17 May 2009.

Kevin Jones

New Youth@Work website

The South Australian government has launched a website focusing on young people at work, not surprisingly called Youth@Work.  

South Australia has a habit of marching to a slightly different beat to the dominant Australian States on OHS.  They did not follow WorkSafe Victoria’s “Homecomings” ads and they have been well ahead of anyone in researching and explaining the relevance of wellness as an OHS issue.

Kevin JonesposterA3v6 (2)

“Homecomings” safety ads reach the US

As mentioned last month in SafetyAtWorkBlog, the Victoria-designed “Homecomings” advertisements are to be launched on United States television.  The Department of Labor & Industries for Washington State announced the ads on 19 May 2009.  According to the DL&I media release

“These ads are particularly effective at bringing home the importance of safety in the workplace and the effects it can have on so many people,” said Don Brunell, president of the Association of Washington Business. “When an accident happens at work, it affects everyone – family, friends and co-workers.”

One ad is available for viewing at http://www.lni.wa.gov/main/worksafe/ 

[It looks like parts needed to be re-filmed to show left-hand drive vehicles and obviously the music rights for Dido’s song couldn’t apply in the US]

Kevin Jones

Decency at work

In 2001 the House of Lords was presented with a Dignity At Work Bill.  This seemed a great idea for unifying different elements of the workplace that can contribute to psychosocial hazards.  This would be a similar approach to using “impairment” to cover drugs, alcohol, fatigue and distraction.  However, it never progressed.

Regular readers of SafetyAtWorkBlog would note an undercurrent of humanism in many of the articles but it is heartening to see this in other articles and blogs.  Maud Purcell of Greenwich Times provides an article from early May 2009 on dignity in the workplace in a time of economic turmoil that you may find of interest and use.

Kevin Jones

WorkHealth concerns increase

Victoria’s WorkHealth program is due to roll-out its next stage of worker health assessments.  However, the program has been seriously curtailed by the failure of its funding model.  According to The Age  newspaper on 18 may 2009, employer associations have begun to withdraw their support compounding the embarrassment to the Premier, John Brumby, who lauded the program in March 2008.

The Master Builders Association will not be supporting the program due to WorkHealth’s connection with WorkSafe.  The Victorian Automobile Chamber of Commerce (VACC) thinks likewise.  There are concerns over the privacy of worker health records and that data from health checks may affect worker’s compensation arrangements or future claims.

The VACC is also concerned that employers will be blamed for issues over which they have little control – the health of their workers.

Many of these concerns could have been addressed by locating WorkHealth in the Department of Health, where health promotion already has a strong role and presence.  It is understood that the funding of WorkHealth from workers compensation premium returns on investment caused the program to reside within the Victorian WorkCover Authority.  There has also been the suggestion that WorkHealth was a pet program of the WorkCover board.

The program aims of free health checks for all Victorian workers was admirable and still achievable but the program was poorly introduced, poorly explained, based on a flawed funding model and now seems to be, if not dead, coughing up blood.

Kevin Jones