OHS criticism needs to aim “at the source”

The e-Editor for the Institute of Occupational Safety & Health, Shaun Gibbons, has commented on the recent speech by David Cameron, the Opposition Leader of England’s Conservative Party.

In this editorial Gibbons says

“Instead of cosying up to the newspapers which perpetuate the myths that somehow health and safety is to blame for much of society’s ills, Cameron should be rounding on the media for its part in falsely reporting on health and safety issues.”

If one takes “health and safety” outside the factory fence and consider it as a social attitude or as a collective term for a range of social perspectives, “health and safety” is crucial, or rather the personal fears generated by our concerns for our own health and safety and for those of our family members are a crucial consideration in how we live and work.

David Cameron is a politician and needs the media to distribute his policies and campaign strategies so he is in his natural element.

The print media, principally, does report health and safety issues in an alarming manner but as sensation, and particularly in England titillation, is what sells newspapers, it seems pointless to blame the media for what they have always done.

It will be impossible to get the media to change their attitudes to health and safety.  The struggles of Australian OHS regulators in doing so has been touched on elsewhere in SafetyAtWorkBlog.  It seems clear that if traditional media cannot be changed in this area, alternate media outlets and mechanisms need to be produced that provide information that is not adequately or appropriately covered elsewhere.  This blog is one example.  IOSH’s website is another.

Gibbons gets closer to the core issue elsewhere in his editorial:

“…seeing through the predictable soundbites which came from his speech last week, Cameron has actually highlighted an important cultural issue that IOSH does welcome: people’s growing confusion and damaged confidence when it comes to managing day-to-day risk. With the fear of litigation at the heart of this debate, the speech did give IOSH the opportunity to make its call for us all to move away from a culture of blame to one that’s based on better ‘risk intelligence’.”

He is right in saying that society has an (increasingly) skewed perception of “day-to-day risk” but he is more correct when identifying that

“the fear of litigation [is] at the heart of the debate.”

IOSH and other safety professional organisations need to get a better understanding of the insurance and legal industries so that they are able to temper some of the extremism from these sectors that is sacrificing long-term cultural and societal health for short-term gain.

SafetyAtWorkBlog’s editor, Kevin Jones, wrote in National Safety magazine about the pernicious growth in the expansion of directors’ and officers’ liabilities insurance policies to cover the legal expenses AND fines from OHS prosecutions.  Either safety organisations are unaware of the impact of these products, do not understand them or do not care, as the silence has been deafening.

Kevin Jones

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Recent WorkSafe Victoria prosecutions

Over the last two weeks, WorkSafe Victoria has released over a dozen reports and summaries about prosecutions over OHS breaches.  Some have been highlighted in SafetyAtWorkBlog posts but there are too many for us to cover in detail or to expand upon.

Below is a list of those prosecution summaries

A Bending Company Pty. Ltd. – 8/12/09
Summary: Crush injury

Compass Recruitment Australia Pty Ltd – 8/12/09
Summary: Unguarded Plant/Labour Hire

McCain Foods (Aust) Pty Ltd – 7/12/09
Summary: Lack of isolation procedures, instruction and training

Barro Group Pty. Limited – 7/12/09
Summary: Fatality (crush injury) and a failure to provide and maintain for its employees, a safe working environment that was without risks to health.

Alan Mance Motors (Melton) Pty Ltd – 1/12/09
Summary: Explosion

Victorian State Emergency Service Authority – 30/11/09
Summary: Fatality, Volunteers, Employer, Drowning

Dynamic Industries Pty Ltd – 25/11/09
Summary: Fall from height – Fatality

The Inflatable Event Company Pty Ltd – 25/11/09
Summary: Failure to inform, instruct, train and supervise

Transglobal Shipping & Storage (Vic) Pty Ltd – 25/11/09
Summary: Forklifts, Failure to comply with a Prohibition Notice

Andrew Irvine – 25/11/09
Summary: Fall from height – fatality

Canningvale Timber Sales Pty Ltd – 25/11/09
Summary: Unguarded Plant

John Mavros – 25/11/09
Summary: Unguarded Plant

Shane Grigg -v- The Precast Company Pty Ltd – 16/11/09
Summary: Fail to provide suitable employment

Self development course contributes to a workplace suicide

What would you do if a work colleague strips, screams, acts “like a child having a tantrum”, starts to sing and then jumps out of a window to her death?  That is the situation that was faced by staff at the Sydney office of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians in December 2005.

Only days earlier, 34-year-old Rebekah Lawrence, had participated in a self-development course called “The Turning Point” conducted by Zoeros P/L trading as People KnowHow.  The course, according to one media report, the course included a session called “The Inner Child”

“in which those taking part were encouraged to develop a dialogue between their child and adult selves.”

Lawrence’s actions just before her death mirrored some of the course teaching.

PeopleKnowHow’s website has closed down with an announcement that all of its courses are under review.  Other organisations that provide similar courses are running for cover.  Transformational Learning Australia has said it

“…no longer has a professional relationship, affiliation or any other connection with People Knowhow.” [emphasis added]

TLA also says any relationship ended in 2005.  That the company has felt it necessary to make a media statement about the end of the relationship shows the extent of the effect of Rebekah Lawrence’s death on this industry sector.

TLA goes on to say that

Our organisation does not accept participants who have a recent history of chronic mental illness, participants under the care of a treating professional who have not obtained that professional’s consent to participate, or people who demonstrate a propensity towards psychological fragility or a significant lack of cohesion during the introductory sessions of the program.”

The New South Wales Coroner found that in the absence of any history of psychosis in Rebekah Lawrence that,

The evidence is overwhelming that the act of stepping out of a window to her death was the tragic culmination of a developing psychosis that had its origins in a self-development course known as ‘The Turning Point’ conducted by Zoeros Pty. Ltd, trading under the name of ‘People Know-How” on the 14, 16, 17 and 18 December 2005.

The full coronial findings are difficult to read due to the personal details of Lawrence’s life, her relationship with her husband David and the general picture of her personality that comes through.   An upsetting and enlightening interview with David Booth is available online from earlier in the investigation process.

The findings also provide considerable detail to the components of the course that Lawrence undertook.  There is a greater level of detail than would be expected to be known by someone signing up for such a course and this is where the lessons can be learnt for the OHS professional and safety manager.

It has become common in many corporations who are trying to improve or introduce a positive workplace culture, to supplement their own efforts with “self-help” or “self-awareness” courses.  Lawrence’s death has highlighted the lack of regulation or accountability in some sectors of this industry.  This also highlights the need for people managers to thoroughly investigate such courses to ensure that good intentions are not likely to increase the risk of harm or damage to the employees who participate.

An audio report on the Coroner’s findings is available online.

Counselling Services

Many workplaces often provide access to counselling services through schemes such as Employment Assistance Programs.  The Coroner’s recommendations have some direct bearing on the issue of “counsellors”.

“The Executive Director of the Australian Psychological Society, Professor Lynne Littlefield pointed out that there are no legal restrictions in Australia for practising under the title ‘psychotherapist’ or under the title ‘counsellor’ and therefore no public safeguards against untrained or incompetent practitioners in this field.

Professor Littlefield pointed out that although there were many skilled counsellors and psychotherapists, there were also many whose competence is questionable and without any regulating mechanisms to stipulate the required training and levels of competence, there was no way of protecting the public from these poorly trained practitioners.”

Rebekah Lawrence’s death is receiving considerable media coverage in Australia at the moment and the New South Wales Government is carefully considering the Coroner’s recommendations concerning the regulation of some areas of the self-development industry.  Employers and safety professionals are going to have a very different set of criteria shortly from which such workplace-related courses need to be evaluated.

One media report has indicated the start of the ramifications of this unfortunate death:

“The NSW Health Minister, Carmel Tebbutt, said she had asked her department for ”urgent advice” on the case and would consider the coroner’s recommendations. A code of conduct for counsellors and psychologists had already been implemented and the Health Care Complaints Commission now monitored practitioners.

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists called for closer monitoring and accountability of self-help and psychotherapeutic courses.”

Kevin Jones

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A good book of safety solutions case studies

Australia has many safety awards programs.  SafetyAtWorkBlog has reported on some of the practical solutions from the awards and lamented how the prominence of such solutions fades quickly as the mainstream media ignores them.  The blog has also shown examples of a hard copy solutions database that existed in Victoria and Australia for a couple of decades.

The European Union’s Agency for Safety and Health at Work has recently released, online, a publication in support of its risk assessment campaign that shows how safety solutions can be presented and shared without worrying about commercial-in-confidence or intellectual property.

Jukka Takala, Director of EU-OSHA, says in his foreword

“This report supports the campaign by providing information on successful interventions in the workplace illustrating how the hazards identified after a risk assessment can be eliminated or controlled. The report is aimed at those who are responsible for carrying out risk assessments in the workplace and for preparing decisions on risk elimination or control measures.”

The report, “Assessment, elimination and substantial reduction of occupational risks“, also provides a list of some very useful elements for preventative safety

“The employer shall implement the measures (necessary for the safety and health protection of workers) on the basis of the following general principles of prevention:

(a) avoiding risks;
(b) evaluating the risks which cannot be avoided;
(c) combating the risks at source;
(d) adapting the work to the individual;
(e) adapting to technical progress;
(f) replacing the dangerous by the non-dangerous or the less dangerous;
(g) developing a coherent overall prevention policy;
(h) giving collective protective measures priority over individual protective measures;
(i) giving appropriate instructions to the workers”

The report is very useful in its clarification of the role and potential benefits of risk assessment.  Each solution is described, in detail, as a case study and the report includes guarding issues, manual handling and psychosocial hazards.  On the latter category, here is the summary for psychosocial hazards in hospitals

“Stress in hospitals – assessment of psychosocial and physical risks

Hospital work is known to be physically and psychologically demanding.  A pilot project was therefore set up in a hospital with 470 employees to assess workplace risks and organisational aspects.  The workers were exposed to physical strain, risks from chemical and biological agents and psychosocial strain.  They were also stressed by administrative tasks. After the assessment the results were analysed, action plans drawn up and measures implemented.  Risk assessment became a standard part of quality and health management systems, including training.”

One of the particularly interesting element in this program was that one of the first sources of information it used was quality management documentation.  Quality management is one of the most under-utilised sources of OHS and strategic planning data.  As long as quality managers do not perceive quality as a business element above that of safety, environment or any other, as long as they accept that each element is of equal importance in integration of management system, the quality data will be indispensable.

The quality data is followed up by interviews with middle- or line managers, questionnaires and observations.

Of all of the control measures, this organisational change was very clever:

“The administrative tasks, in particular, were perceived by the nurses to be distracting and onerous.  They felt that paperwork kept them away from important care work.  Consequently, administrative tasks were delegated to the night shifts, where there was more time to devote to them as the amount of care work fell at night.”

This looked at workload in a peak/off-peak context that fits with the natural rhythm of the clients.  The paperwork night-shift may be a suitable solution for other workplaces and the night-shift workers may have increased productivity due to the lack of distractions.

EU-OSHA keeps producing reports and publications that call out for a broader readership than Europe and this is a great example.

Kevin Jones

OHS for volunteers is still not working

Most Australian States’s OHS laws have encompassed workplace risks fro those who enter the enter the workplace and for volunteers.  The issue came up again with the recent review process on model OHS laws.  However a recent national survey by Volunteering Australia found that

“30% of [over 1400 volunteer] organisations surveyed have not been able to access adequate information about the protection of volunteers under occupational health and safety legislation.

Although individual volunteers overwhelmingly see OHS resources as having been positive.

“467 (26%) volunteers reported that OHS had a positive impact on them in the past 12 months, while only 130 (7%) reported that it had a negative impact.”

The positive position was slightly lower than the 2008 survey results (30%)

Volunteering Australia should be applauded for considering OHS in its survey.  Many organisations, particularly community organisations, are not so upfront on the issue.

Volunteering Australia is aware of the national OHS model review and are preparing for the additional overt relevance of volunteers in OHS law, but Volunteering Australia tells SafetyAtWorkBlog that they chose not to make a submission on the OHS model laws.

Kevin Jones

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Contradictions on endosulfan in fish hatchery

Earlier in 2009, SafetyAtWorkBlog reported on concerns over a possible cancer cluster near a fish hatchery in Queensland.

The final report of the Queensland Government’s inquiry, Noosa Fish Health Investigation Taskforce, is not due until February 2010 but the Federal Government’s Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority has released a statement entitled “Endosulfan Ruled out as a Potential Cause of Noosa Fish Health Issues”.  In that article APVMA states

“The Noosa Fish Health Investigation Taskforce has at this point eliminated endosulfan as a potential cause of deaths and deformities at a commercial fish hatchery at Noosa in the six events being investigated.  Endosulfan was not used by the neighbouring macadamia property during the period under investigation.  There was also some suggestion that because the commercial hatchery uses river water and fish from the river in its operations, pesticides in the Noosa River may have been involved in the incidents reported.  However, environmental monitoring of water from the Noosa River and its feeder lakes has not indicated that endosulfan is present at concentrations that would be harmful to aquatic life.”

The ABC reports on 7 December 2009 that

“…aquaculture veterinarian Associate Professor Matt Landos says there is new evidence that endosulphan may be a factor.

“The early reports from the task force did not identify endosulphan in any residue testing and as such it was considered a less likely potential cause,” he said.  “However, recent testing has identified the break-down product of endosulphan in the middle of Lake Cootharaba – in the middle of the Noosa system.”

Matt Landos is a member of the Queensland Government’s taskforce.

Kevin Jones

Nightclub fires and evacuations

Mainstream press around the world reported on the fire in a Russian nightclub over the weekend in which 100 people were killed.  One report says the nightclub owner has been arrested quotes the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev as saying

“All that has happened can only be described as a crime….I think this is absolutely clear….You have noted that a criminal investigation has been launched.  This is not a premeditated crime, but that does not reduce the gravity of the consequences. A huge number of people were killed.”

The fire reportedly started when stage pyrotechnics set fire to the ceiling.

Some readers, particularly in the United States would see distinct similarities with the  February 20 2003 in which 100 people were killed and over 200 injured.  A fire, also started by stage pyrotechnics, occurred in the Station nightclub on Rhode Island.  That whole event was captured on video.  The band’s tour manager who started the pyrotechnics, Daniel Biechele, was charged with 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter, pleaded guilty and served 4 years of a 15 year jail sentence.

The nightclub owners did not contest their charges and received similar sentences to Biechele.  Civil penalties added up to around $US175 million.

Given that the Station fire was six years ago, it is hard to understand why any nightclub would even consider using such stage pyrotechnics.

Other nightclub fires should not be forgotten although they received less coverage in the Western media.  Those with which SafetyAtWorkBlog is familiar include the 2002 fires in the Caracas nightclub, La Guajira where 47 people died, mainly from smoke inhalation.  Rumours had it that the nightclub had exceeded its allowable client limit.  Investigations showed that fire exits were not clear and the fire extinguishers were inoperative.

Although there are several incidents going back to the 1970s one that received a huge amount of attention was the December  30 2004 fire in the Republica Cromagnon nightclub in Buenos Aires. (The Wikipedia entry for this incident has a very good list of similar incidents)

The Republica Cromagnon nightclub had several of its doors shut with wire or padlocks.  The nightclub had 4,000 patrons in a premises licensed for 1,100.  Initial reports said that 715 people were injured and over 190 died from a fire that was started by a flare.

The incident generate three days of rioting and street protests of thousands of people, many were relatives of the dead.

In this case, not only were the club’s owners jailed on murder charges but city building inspectors and police officers were charged with manslaughter and corruption.  The inspectors allowed the nightclub to operate with inadequate safety standards.  The police accepted bribes from the owners and did not report the overcrowding or use of flares.

In November 2005, the mayor Buenos Aires, Anibal Ibarra, was suspended from office after the legislature voted to impeach him over issues related to the Republica Cromagnon fire.

Managing safety in nightclubs is a complex business as the industry overlaps many jurisdictional areas from workplace safety to building design to security to emergency response.  As the world moves towards the main season of celebrations with Christmas, New Year and others it is worth considering some of the more useful OHS guidelines for nightclub operation, even though such measures should have been considered well before now.

Going from the violations related to the Rhode Island fire by OSHA it would be expected for a nightclub owner to

  • Remove any highly flammable materials from the interior of the structure
  • Make sure that exit doors are visible at all times
  • have a written emergency action plan
  • have a written fire prevention plan
  • nominate and train staff to assist in a safe and orderly evacuation of other employees
  • review fire hazards with employees.

Seattle has a nightclub patron safety handout.

One guide from Virginia specifically references the Station nightclub fire.

The Health and Safety Executive has a guide to assessing risks in nightclubs as well as general OHS advice for the hospitality and leisure industries.

WorkSafe Victoria has a guide on crowd control which may also be useful

Many local jurisdictions have guidelines, or the industry itself has developed guidelines, to assist in the management of nightclub crowds.  SafetyAtWorkBlog urges owners and staff to undertake reviews prior to peak times.

Kevin Jones

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Workplace skin cancer risk remains high

The July 2004 edition of SafetyATWORK magazine contained an interview with Sam Holt the CEO of Australian company Skin Patrol.  The fascinating service of Skin Patrol was that they travelled the outback of Australia with a mobile skin cancer testing unit.  That is a big area to cover but with the increasing incidence of skin cancer and the acceptance of ultraviolet exposure as an OHS problem, the service seemed timely.

(The interview is available HERE)

SafetyAtWorkBlog was contacted by Skin Patrol in early December 2009 as it was releasing the findings of a survey of 1,000 outdoor workers.  Its survey has these key findings:

  • 2.5 times the national reported incidence of malignant melanoma
  • One in 10 patients had a lesion highly suspicious of skin cancer
  • 26% of patients were diagnosed with moderate to severe sun damage
  • 70% of patients diagnosed with a lesion suspicious of skin cancer were aged 40 years or greater
  • Over 90% of workers who attended the Skin Patrol clinic because they were worried about a particular spot or the condition of their skin had not had their skin checked in the past 12 months prior to the onsite clinic.

The company’s media release also states:

“The incidence of melanoma for all Australians currently sits at 46 in 100,000, however for those that work outdoors that figure jumps to 100 in 100,000.”

The risks from exposure to ultraviolet are well established and our understanding of the risks have changed considerably within one generation.  The Australian culture has changed to one of sun-worshipping to one where the wearing of hats is enforced at school, hard hats have wide brim attachments, and outdoor work is undertaken in long pants and long-sleeved shirts.  Occupational control measures have been introduced.

Of course, particularly in the construction industry, principle contractors still struggle in a getting compliance with the UV-protection policies but that’s the case for many OHS policies.

Skin cancer risks through high UV exposure are well-established OHS Issues but the reality still does not mean that controlling the hazard is easy to manage.  Culturally we still want to have a tanned complexion even if it is sprayed on.  Tanned skin is still synonymous with good health even though the medical evidence differs.

Skin cancer risks in the workplace are simply another of those workplace hazards that are ahead of the non-workplace culture and that safety professionals need to manage.  The attraction with this hazard is that there is no disputing the evidence.

Kevin Jones

Potential risks of investigating workers compensation cases

According to a several media reports in the United States, a private investigator, Matthew Brady, who was investigating a workers compensation case whilst hiding in the woods was mistaken for a turkey and shot by the man he was investigating.  Brady was operated on in the local hospital.

As the Workers Comp Insider Blog states:

“Investigator Brady was hit in the side, back and legs.  He underwent surgery and presumably filed his own workers comp claim for what is surely a work-related – if highly unusual – disability.”

Kevin Jones

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Australian OHS statistics just released

Safe Work Australia has released a couple more of its annual statistical reports about workplace injuries and fatalities.

The report that covers 2006/07 ( Work-Related Traumatic Injury Fatalities, Australia 2006-07) included this information in the Summary of Findings

“[In 2006–07]…a total of 453 work-related traumatic injury fatalities in Australia during 2006–07.   In 2006–07, just over half (237) of all work-related injury fatalities resulted from road crashes.

Of the 453 people who died of work-related injuries, 295 (65%) died of injuries sustained while working, …a 9% increase over the previous financial year.

In addition to the Working fatalities; 93 workers died from an injury sustained while travelling to or from work … and 65 people died of injuries received as a result of someone else’s work activity.”

There was also a report on notifiable incidents which covers 2008/09.  There are disparities in these statistics so it is important to read the reports and the research limitations, by the summary includes the following:

“In 2008–09 there were 177 notified work related fatalities — 151 workers and 26 bystanders.

  • Most fatalities were of men — 158 in total. There were 17 fatalities of women (including 11 bystanders) and sex was unknown for 2 other fatalities.
  • Four industries accounted for seven out of every ten notified work-related fatalities — 26% of fatalities occurred at a workplace primarily engaged in Agriculture, forestry & fishing; 18% in Construction; 15% in Transport & storage; and 9% in Mining.
  • The most common causes of the fatalities were Vehicle accidents (54 fatalities); Being hit by moving objects (34 fatalities); Falls from a height (20 fatalities); Being hit by falling objects (16 fatalities); and Drowning/immersion (14 fatalities).”

This report also includes details of “bystander fatalities” which are defined as “deaths of members of the public, such as passers-by or visitors to workplaces — including children — who die as a consequence of another person’s work activity.”  The report provides a good amount of details on these, and other, fatalities:

There were 26 bystander fatalities notified in 2008–09. These included:

  • 9 bystander fatalities caused by vehicle accidents, of these 6 occurred when cars and trucks collided.
  • 6 bystander deaths due to drowning. Of these, 3 occurred while white-water rafting and 2 occurred while snorkelling or diving.
  • 4 bystander deaths that occurred when the person was hit by a vehicle, of these, 2 deaths occurred while the vehicle was reversing.

Kevin Jones