Does union presence improve OHS?

The trade union movement is an important element in the management of safety in workplaces but over the last twenty years, with the exception of a couple of industry sectors, the membership numbers have waned.  Until recently in Australia, the union movement was able to maintain a level of influence in the government decision-making process that was contrary to its declining membership.

Last week the Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, told the ACTU to stop lobbying the government and instead generate innovation, enthusiasm and members by reintroducing itself to the community.  Union membership spiked in response to its anti-Howard government advertising over three years ago but any membership based on fear is unsustainable.

Paul Kelly in today’s Australian is more forthright about the trade union position in society and politics but it is clear that the union movement needs to refocus.

Health and safety representatives (HSRs) have been a major element of the enforcement of safety standards in workplaces.  Some OHS legislation in the last decade has had to emphasise non-union consultation on safety issues to balance the declining presence of HSRs.  New research from Europe has found the following

three researchers reviewed
the studies done on the matter in Europe. They
conclude that having trade union representation
leads to better observance of the rules,
lower accident rates and fewer work-related
health problems.

“having trade union representation leads to better observance of the rules, lower accident rates and fewer work-related health problems.”

Transposing these findings into a non-European context is unwise but the research could provide a model for independent research and a comparative study.

Regrettably the report is not available for free but can be purchased through the European Trade Union Institute.

Kevin Jones

Charges laid on swing stage collapse

SafetyAtWorkBlog reported on a scaffolding incident in Queensland in mid-2008.  Charges have now been laid but not manslaughter charges as were called for at the time by the unions.

The workers were fatally injured on 21 June 2008 when the swing stage scaffold they were using to carry out concrete patchwork on the Pegasus high-rise, then under construction at Broadbeach, failed and fell 26 levels to the ground.

According to Workplace Health and Safety Queensland

Allscaff Systems Pty Ltd, which erected the swing stage, is charged with failing to ensure the plant was erected in a way that ensured it was safe when used properly.

Ralph Michael Smith, director of Allscaff Systems Pty Ltd, is charged with failing to ensure the company complied with its obligations under the Act.

Karimbla Construction Services Pty Limited, which built the high-rise, is charged with breaching obligations as a person in control of a workplace and as project manager.

Pryme Constructions Pty Ltd, which undertook the concrete patching, is charged with breaching its obligations to ensure workplace health and safety.

SsfetyAtWorkBlog will be following this case over the next few months.

Not another Australian swine flu website!?

Recently in 2009, the Health Services Australia company launched a new swine flu website.  

The HSA site is run by a private health services company and came to the attention of SafetyAtWorkBlog through a news item by the OHS Commissioner of the Australian Capital Territory.   The ACT OHS Commissioner may not be endorsing the site but the HSA website is described positively.  The Commissioner’s site says

“The site provides information on the risk of flu – pandemic, swine, avian and seasonal varieties – expanding upon information previously published on their avian influenza site.

It also includes the latest health alerts, FAQs, useful links and information on travel health services relating to flu which people may find of benefit.”

For further information on www.fluthreat.com.au SafetyAtWorkBlog followed the trail from fluthreat to HSA which then lead to the site of one of Australia’s largest private health insurers, Medibank Private.  The two companies merged only recentlyon 1 April 2009.

Health Services Australia is listed on the fluthreat site  as the copyright holder but Medibank Private is not mentioned.

The HSA site which includes a prominent link to www.fluthreat.com.au does mention Medibank Private, in a mediarelease link on the home page but more succinctly, but almost in passing, under Governance and Structure:

“Health Services Australia Limited (HSA) and its subsidiaries are owned by Medibank Private Limited (Medibank).”

It seems very odd that the ACT OHS Commissioner should be directing Internet visitors to a privately run influenza information website instead of to the influenza information from authoritative websites such as the Australian Department of Health and Ageing, the ACT Dept of Health, the Federal Government’s dedicated swine flu site – healthemergency, or even the the World Health Organisation.

[SafetyAtWorkBlog has repeatedly tried to contact the ACT OHS Commissioner’s office but gets an answering service each time.  The media spokesperson for HSA Group and Medibank Private has not yet returned calls]

Kevin Jones

Swine Flu and business continuity – video

On the evening of 2 June 2009, the ABC TV show “Lateline Business” ran a short item on the business continuity issues associated with Australia’s swine flu outbreak.  Not much that was said was new but it proposed an interesting scenario for those people who manage aged care facilities where a potentially virulent illness could harm residents who it may be difficult to isolate or quarantine.

Michael Tooma of Australian law firm, Deacons, spoke briefly to remind viewers that health and safety were important legislative obligations that relate to illnesses, such as swine flu.  Interestingly he provided a rule-of-thumb scenario on business continuity.  He asked whether a business could continue to operate with 20% less staff, a 20% reduction in logistics services and 20% less customers, if the swine flu realises its potential.

Most of the speakers spoke from the current position that Australia is suffering from a “mild” case of this virus.  The story would be considerably different if Australia suffered its first swine-flu fatality, as have other nations.  One death and the terminology will change.

A video of the segment is available to view online.

Kevin Jones

Union movement misdirects on OHS

According to an AAP report on 3 June 2009, the ACTU is forecasting action on the matter of workplace deaths.  Although the issues is heartfelt and important, the Australian union movement mostly discusses OHS in relation to its opposition to the Australian Building and Construction Commission.  The AAP report is a good reflection of this.

ACTU secretary Jeff Lawrence states that the rate of workplace fatality is unacceptable but is then quoted as saying

“The high level of deaths and injuries in the construction industry is a national disgrace and yet safety standards have got worse in the period the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) has operated.”

It has never been the role of the ABCC to regulate workplace safety obligations.  That obligation sits with the State OHS authorities and maybe the Australian Safety & Compensation Council (now Safe Work Australia).The union movement has been instrumental in improving safety on worksites throughout Australia but Jeff Lawrence’s misdirection to the ABCC does a disservice to the efforts of OHS professional and health & safety representatives.

Kevin Jones

Legal opinion on Australia’s model OHS laws

The comments on the Australian Government’s response to the report into Australia’s model OHS laws have been pretty muted.  There were the obligatory compliments from those in favour and the obligatory criticisms from those against but both types of response were in the immediate aftermath of the Workplace Relations Ministers’ Council meeting in mid-May 2009.

Going from the institutional and media quiet, there must be few changes that are expected to have any great impact.  Law firm Blake Dawson released their take on the government’s response.  Here is their advice to employers – pretty much “wait and see”: 

Lessons for employers

  • The decisions made by the WRMC on the proposed national model OHS Act will bring changes to virtually all areas of OHS in all Australian jurisdictions.
  • All employers and other duty holders should carefully review the model OHS Act upon its release and consider whether changes need to be made in advance of the laws being enacted.
  • Particular areas of focus are likely to be:
    • ensuring all duty holders have a clear understanding of the nature and scope oftheir duties and obligations;
    • ensuring that officers of corporations are taking proactive steps to promote health and safety;
    • in respect of some Australian jurisdictions (eg NSW) preparation for the introduction of health and safety representatives and the role that HSRs may play in an organisation;
    • thorough preparation for regulator investigations.

It is strongly recommended that their full “alert” be read for interest.

Kevin Jones

Presenteeism and swine flu

Craig Donaldson interviewed Joydeep Hor, managing partner of Australian law firm Harmers on employment issues related to the swine flu outbreak.  Joydeep rightly points out that HR and OHS processes should not differentiate between swine flu and other workplace illnesses.  Hor briefly discusses the employers duty of care and how to question one’s traditional approaches to the “sniffles” at work.

Of course there is also the much under-enforced obligation of the employee not to put their work colleagues at risk – the major argument against presenteeism.

Kevin Jones

Guarding – last line of defence

Guards around power tools or over moving parts of equipment (e.g. covers over compressor pulleys) are there for seriously good reasons. Injuries and deaths from people getting cut or caught in machinery keep happening all the time.

It’s a common misunderstanding that bits of clothes caught in moving machinery can’t be that dangerous, after all cloth rips doesn’t it? Wrong.

A loose bit of overall sleeve caught in between a pulley and pulley belt is unlikely to rip. It will have an arm or hand mangled in a micro second. Nip points on equipment can catch skin.  A de-gloved hand, where a pinch of skin is caught in machinery and the skin is ripped off the hand is as ugly as it sounds.

Do regular checks of things like angle grinders and moving parts of equipment to make sure the guards originally fitted are still in place and doing the job they have to.  People will remove guards.

Have a policy that when guards are removed to do repair or maintenance work on equipment the guards are refitted as soon as those sort of jobs are done.

Monitor use of power tools in the workshop.  Stop any work being done with power tools when the guard has been removed.

Don’t consider that a guard isn’t necessary if an operator is using some other sort of personal protective gear (e.g. using protective eye gear with a bench grinder that has no fitted shield in front of the grinder wheel).  Treat safety as a thing that works best in layers. Murphy’s Law never rests.  One level of safety protection will always fail at the wrong time.

Do regular checks on all guards on tools and equipment.  Make it a specific check. Include an evaluation of whether equipment that can catch clothes or part of a body is properly guarded.  Modern equipment designers are generally pretty good at making sure guards are fitted where they need to be, older gear is not so well designed.  If it seems entirely possible for a person to get caught by a moving bit of equipment look at having a guard made and fitted: use a specialist to do that.

Readers are at liberty to use this stuff as they see fit, but acknowledgement of the author and the source (i.e. SafetyatWorkBlog) is expected. Contact Kevin Jones first if ya wanna use it. Cheers.

Col Finnie
col@finiohs.com
www.finiohs.com

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