The need for broad and open consultation on OHS law

Bill Calcutt makes some excellent points about the consultative strategy used by the Australian government in its recent 2020 summit.  The summit showed that this government had differentiated itself from the previous conservative one through “transparent evidence-based decision making” and a wide consultative base, even though the guests were selected. Sadly, I am not sure…

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The Crucial OHS Review Role of John Della Bosca

The New South Wales Industrial Relations Minister, John Della Bosca is a linchpin in the move for harmonisation of OHS law in Australia.

All attention is on New South Wales as it is said to have OHS laws that are the most onerous on employers.  Employer groups are calling for a greater preventative focus and more cooperation on improving workplace safety, specifically those areas of conflict that employer groups have in New South Wales.

Della Bosca supports the New South Wales OHS regime, at least lately he does, in reaction to the employer groups wanting, according to the Minister, a “version of harmonisation…aimed at reducing safety standards and eliminating the strong NSW laws.”

The NSW Minerals Council, reported in the Australian Financial Review on 13 June 2008 (page 19 sorry, there is no online reference), has concerns over the New South Wales operation of duty of care, double jeopardy, and appeal rights. 

The wobbly element in the NSW argy-bargy is the political future of John Della Bosca.  He has been stood down from his portfolio due to events relating to an alleged altercation in a restaurant that involves his wife, Belinda Neal, who is a member of the Federal Parliament. (Any internet search on “Della Bosca” is sure to turn up articles on this as the story has been running for almost two weeks).  Della Bosca is one of the strongest performers in New South Wales politics and has held the IR portfolio for a long time.  Political analysts are saying he will weather the storm but that his wife has little parliamentary future. 

In the mean time, Della Bosca’s strong position on OHS is absent in the political discussion and this will have ramifications in the harmonisation process.  The Treasurer, Michael Costa, the only other strong NSW performer, could take on the role but the longer Della Bosca’s absent, the more ground the government and its strong trade union support loses to the employers.

In a roundabout fashion, this also puts pressure on the recently-appointed Secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Jeff Lawrence.  Some unions are less than impressed with his political performance.  In Della Bosca’s absence, Lawrence needs to step up his lobbying and maybe continue it even when the Minister returns.

Business Continuity from Pipeline “near miss”

Australia’s Resources Minister, Martin Ferguson has emphasised that the National Offshore Petroleum Safety Authority (NOPSA) is a competent investigative organisation and that people should not speculate on the cause of the Varanus Island pipeline explosion before the report is completed.

At a joint press conference with the Minister on 14 June 2008, West Australian Premier, Alan Carpenter said it was too early to gauge the impact of the gas supply disruption. (Politically too early but the finance papers are full of the impact on Australian business.  Look at the disastrous share performance of Babcock & Brown Power for evidence.) Carpenter then estimated a cost to the economy of “hundreds of millions of dollars a day”.

NOPSA’s report should be fascinating reading on the operation of an isolated gas pipeline but more fascinating would be a book about how the West Australian energy infrastructure was allowed to become so fragile.  The book should also document the positives about the business continuity programs of the major WA industries.

The next impact will likely come from the insurance companies.

Another safety culture disaster in Australia

In August 2007 the Australian equestrian industry was struck by its first-ever outbreak of Equine Influenza (EI).  The Federal Government’s report on the incident has been released and has significant lessons for several reasons.

Australia has been proud of its biosecurity and customs service for decades.  As an island nation at the end of the world, there is a level of purity in its ecology that needs to be preserved (even though there were many earlier mistakes – foxes, rabbits, cane toads – to name a few).  The country’s pride was obviously out of touch with reality as Justice Callinan was highly critical of the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service.  Few government reports have included the clarity (or bluntness) of phrase as this report includes.

“The objective of biosecurity measures at a post-arrival quarantine station for animals, such as Eastern Creek, is to prevent the escape of disease that might be present in the station. It is therefore essential that people and equipment having contact with the animals are adequately decontaminated before leaving the station. That was not happening at Eastern Creek in August 2007. Had such biosecurity measures been in place, it is most unlikely that there could have been any escape of equine influenza from the Quarantine Station.
That such measures were not being implemented was a consequence of a number of acts and omissions on the part of various employees and officers of AQIS at different levels of that organisation and over a number of years.”

As the media reports appeared and the Agriculture Minister, Tony Burke, spoke passionately about the need to review the entire biosecurity process, farmers and other were thanking their luck that the outbreak was EI and not Foot & Mouth or other equally nasty infection.

Indonesia, a consistent sufferer of Avian Influenza, is only a few hundred kilometres away.  If Australia had a poultry industry on its northern shores, would the Government’s approach to quarantine inspecton be different?

Callinan goes on to depict an organisation of mismanagement and is not afraid to point the finger of blame and responsibility.  He summarises:

“What I describe bespeaks an organisation that lacked clear lines of communication between those responsible for formulating procedures and work instructions and those responsible for implementing them; one in which there was insufficient training and education in relation to the procedures and instructions to be followed; one in which there was no checking to ensure that those procedures and instructions were being implemented; and one in which any business plan or other reporting system did not alert senior management to these failures.”

For OHS professionals and risk managers, these systemic failures would fit with too many other risk management failures.  It is too easy a criticism to say that the organisation was devoid of a safety culture.  In the case of quarantining possible infectious animals, the organisation and process was inept.

A few years ago, Chris Maxwell undertook a review of Victoria’s OHS regime and stated that he thought citizens should be able to expect government departments to be exemplars of workplace safety.  It is an expectation that may be unfair in many areas but when an organisation has been urging the public to be super-diligent over the importation of items that could potentially decimate agricultural industries, and then fails disastrously itself, maybe the public campaign funds could have been better spent inside the organisation.

ABC Radio report – http://mpegmedia.abc.net.au/news/audio/pm/200806/20080612-pm01-horseflu.mp3
Government response http://www.daff.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/690704/ei-response.pdf

Risk and empire building

A British coroner has reflected a common perception on occupational health and safety and how OHS is “taking all the fun out of life”.

According to an article in This Is The West Country on 11 June 2008, West Somerset Coroner Michael Rose said

“All too often, there isn’t enough challenge for people in this country – everything is under health and safety. I don’t think we’d have been the country we were if we’d have had health and safety one or two centuries ago.”

Without taking MIchael Rose to task about his knowledge of health and safety in 1808, his comments can be heard in many everyday circumstances where OHS is a bit of a wet blanket.

It is fun to have the wind through your hair while tearing down a hillside with no bike helmet on.  It is fun to spin on a shopping trolley in the aisles of a supermarket. And it is exhilarating to stand on the top of a building, looking down with no safety harness. All of these things I have done and I suspect my children will do them too. 

There is nothing to stop you doing these acts if you choose to.  But if you are injured as a result, it would be unfair to exepct soemone else to pay for your stupidity.  And yet that is what is becoming the expectations of modern western society – we do not take repsonsibility for our actions.

But then there is a time and place for everything and maybe OHS simply restricts those two elements.

Australian employer group at the ILO

On 9 June 2008, Peter Anderson, CEO of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI), addressed the 2008 International Labour Conference. The ACCI is an employer association that under the previous CEO, Peter Hendy, was seen by some as a business and economic mouthpiece for the then conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard. Whether this was true or not, it is interesting that Peter Hendy is now a political adviser to the Opposition Leader, Brendan Nelson.

Anderson spoke at the ILO conference about how the ACCI needs modernising whilst maintaining its core values. The only major change in Australia over the last 12 months has been the replacement of a conservative government with a labor government representing a substantial cultural and political switch. The ACCI has realised that it was too closely linked to the conservative political parties and, although business is strongly capitalist, to better represent its constituents, it needed to reflect the values of a broader range of its constituents.

These values, Anderson reiterates, are commitments to

  • an open market;
  • private sector entrepreneurship; and
  • employment as a social motivator.

Anderson states that

“we must do things differently, and not fall back to old prejudices or failed economic prescriptions when things go tight.”

He urges the ILO to provide social policy with a higher profile and advises the government to use public funds to enable a private investment framework. He emphasise that the ACCI can work well with unions and specifically addresses contemporary OHS matters.

“We can now show leadership to industry in this regard [working with trade unions], as there is common work to be undertaken – health and safety, work and family and workforce skills but a few examples.”

Peter Anderson emphasises, perhaps too much, Australia’s position in the Asia-Pacific region. He describes the region as “the powerhouse of globalisation”. This is riding on the coat-tails of China and India and applies Asia-Pacific in a very broad sense.

The ACCI speech at the ILO conference was carefully balanced to maintain its position as an employer delegate and to flag to its members that its approach will change. It outlines a changed approach which should be interesting in the upcoming hard negotiations necessary on industrial relations and workplace safety.

Pipeline explosion may lead to invocation of emergency powers

This post is receiving a lot of attention from around the world so, although, at the moment, the workplace safety issues have diminished, it is interesting to note that The Australian newspaper for 12 June 2008 reports that the Premier, Alan Carpenter, has acknowledged that he may need to invoke emergency powers to seize control of electricity and gas supplies.

This is an extraordinary development that indicates the infrastructure fragility of Western Australia.

The supply disruption is now also receiving federal government attention as it begins to affect Australia’s ability to supply China’s insatiable appetite for Australian minerals and energy.

Alcoa Australia is the latest company to announce a “force majeure” as a result of the Apache Energy pipeline explosion.

It is phenomenal to see how an event that in OHS terms is a “near miss” has the potential to weaken a country’s economic growth.

Occupational Noise and Motorcycle Cops

Phil Matier spoke on KCBS radio on 9 June 2008 about the changes that Oakland Police Department is making to its motorcycles to make them louder.  There is an argument that in some way this makes the vehicles safer.

It’s a bizarre report and should be listened to while bearing in mind a new Australian report on the increase in tinnitus in young people.  Perhaps American kids need to increase the volume of their iPod earphones whenever a Oakland motorcycle cop rides by.

Aircraft Cabins and Infections

According to a report released on 10 June 2008 by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, 

“passengers’ health is not greatly at risk through air travel and widespread infections are unlikely.”

On the cases that have been reported of infection, the ATSB says

“such transmission was primarily due to the crowding together of a large variety of people in a confined space, not specifically due to aircraft cabin conditions.”

It goes on to say

“Perhaps of greater concern is the opportunity for infection to spread in airport terminals, where passengers who are travelling to or from many destinations are gathered together.”

At the moment Qantas Airways has a reputation of being a safe airline, principally because its planes do not fall out of the sky.  But there is a further definition of a safe airline and that is one whose management actively minimises the risk of infections and pandemics both in the aircraft and the terminal.

Important lessons were learnt from the “dry-run” on modern pandemic from SARS but this focussed on the air traveller and the aircraft and did not include the airport terminal.  Perhaps as well as the safety airline, Australia needs to establish the safety airport.

Boy, web-conferencing is becoming more attractive.

60 Minutes, Dust and Responsibility for Workplace Safety

On 8 June 2008, a US 60 Minutes report on combustible dust joined the conga-line of critics of the Occupational Safety And Health Administration.  The tone of the report is set by the reporter, Scott Pelley’s introduction stating that it is OSHA’s responsibility to avoid the explosions.  For OHS practitioners and professionals this is a peculiar statement as it is usually the employer’s responsibility for workplace safety.

The 60 Minutes report illustrates the difficulty that OHS inspectors face when visiting workplaces. Can an inspector be expected to identify ALL the hazards present in a workplace?  This is a constant problem for OHS regulators, employers and sadly, the Courts.

The accusation in the 60 Minutes report is that inspectors had no information or training on the explosive hazards of dust.  Training is not the solution for everything and an inspector’s state of knowledge should have identified dust as a potential hazard.  Even if the hazard was identified in terms of an inhalation risk, or housekeeping, the explosive risk would be reduced if housekeeping was applied properly.

OSHA clearly stated the responsibility of workplace safety being on the employers.  The missing element of the entire 60 Minutes report is that the site operators and employers who have experienced dust explosions were not interviewed.

 

More information on the February 2008 explosion at the Imperial Sugar plant mentioned in the report is available by clicking HERE

For those of you who find dust explosions exciting a video of a dust explosion in a silo is available HERE

For those employers or inspectors who did not do high school science, a schoolroom example of the combustible hazards of dust can be found HERE

 
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