Nanotechnology hazards update

There has been a bit of media attention lately on the risks of nanotechnology to the workers who use the technology and to the people who wear socks that contain the technology.  NPR’s Day-To-Day program for May 21 provides a useful summary of the latest findings on the OHS issues of nanotechnology.  The podcast and transcript is available at NPR

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Safety – on the fringe again

The Australian government has established an Australian Social Inclusion Board.  This is what the government says is the purpose and challenges of the Board:

This social exclusion is a significant barrier to sustained prosperity and restricts Australia’s future economic growth.

Promoting social inclusion requires a new way of governing. Australia must rethink how policy and programs across portfolios and levels of government can work together to combat economic and social disadvantage.

The Australian Social Inclusion Board which brings together leaders from around the country, will be instrumental in meeting this challenge.

Tackling disadvantage involves generating effective, practical solutions at the level of government, local communities, of service providers, employers and of families and individuals themselves.

The Australian Social Inclusion Board will consult widely and provide views and advice to the Government.

I am glad that consultation will be broad.  Narrow consultation, even in a tripartite structure, is often found to be too narrow and anti-inclusion.  It is acknowledged that as good as broad consultation is, change and influence comes from having a seat at the table.  I find it disappointing that an independent voice for occupational safety and health is not at the table given the higher rate of death and injury in workplaces of young workers, workers from outside Australia and workers with a poor command of the English language.

It would have been good to see the Australian government look beyond an artificial demarcation of work and non-work.  The OHS profession and OHS legislation dumped this demarcation several years ago when we started to deal with psycho-social hazards in the workplace and the impact of workplace hazards on non-work activities.

If there is not a seat at the table, given that the Minister for Social Inclusion is also the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and that the board’s Chair, Ms Patricia Faulkner  had an OHS role in the early 1990’s, I would expect safety (both occupational and non-occupational) to be a fixture on the board’s agenda.

National uniformity in the Australian transport industry

The argy-bargy about uniformity of OHS legislation continued this week and, again, stems from issues in New South Wales.

According to a report in the Australian Financial Review on May 19 2008 (sorry there is no hyperlink, Fairfax Media insists of payment for online AFR content), the CEO of the National Road Transport Operator’s Association , Bernard Belacic said

the reality is for an employer in the trucking industry, we’ve got a raft of regulations to comply with.  In NSW, we’ve got four different [driver] fatigue regimes.  As an employer, even as a driver…..which one do you comply with?
Let’s not get silly about duplicating efforts and creating further layers of regulation. If safety isn’t addressed properly through the OH&S framework, well, let’s fix that.

He was responding to the ACTU’s desire to have OHS incorporated into the NSW industrial awards for negotiation.

I agree that additional levels of legislation and regulation are probably not required however several trucking companies are continuing their swap to the national worker’s compensation system, permission for which was squeaked in before the Howard Government was voted out.  I cannot understand why the companies would want to continue with this action when further moves from the state to federal systems have been frozen, the OHS regulatory system is under government review, and such action would be inflammatory and very possibly short-term.

Many companies put a great store in worker’s compensation, probably because it is so expensive.  But I judge a company’s commitment to it’s workforce on the basis of injury prevention not compensation. 

Below are some publicly-available infoation on the latest companies moving to the Comcare system:

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Remote housing audit action by Queensland government

The Queensland government has responded to the assessment reports on staff housing which includes the housing in remote locations.  The initiatives are good for the most part but it has to be noted that the motivation for action came from foreseeable, unjustified attacks on workers in isolated locations.  The safety status of the accommodation was…

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When safety footwear is not enough

Recently I purchased a pair of safety shoes.  My principal concern was comfort and with this in mind I purchased a pair of steel-toed Dunlop Volley tennis shoes.  These shoes have a cloth upper and a very successful non-slip tread.  Apparently, the Dunlop Volleys are the footwear of choice for roof-tilers but I don’t access roofs often. (I first saw plain Dunlop Volleys in prison workshops as the shoes were also the first choice for prisoners.)

The last worksite I wore my safety boots at was a milk factory in Victoria where the non-slip tread would have been very suitable but the canvas uppers, not.  The milk room, and elsewhere, was awash with water for swilling away spills. The Volley safety shoes would have been inappropriate at such a workplace but they have complied with the OHS policies in the workplace?

This question emphasises the need to establish broad OHS policies but to police specifically.  The safety of the wearer would be determined by the enforcement of a policy and not the policy itself. When preparing any safety document that stipulates specific requirements and preconditions, it is necessary to test the policies for suitability in your particular workplace.  What works in one workplace may be okay for yours but you need to establish its suitability and practicability by looking at how the policy will be enforced.

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Back to Basics

According to an Associated Press report (and appearing elsewhere) on 11 May 2007

Labour officials from the Group of Eight industrialised nations began a three-day meeting today to seek ways of reducing workplace emissions of “greenhouse” gases blamed for global warming, officials said………. Japan hopes to lead the discussions with its experience of so-called “Cool-Biz” – a no-tie, no-jacket summer campaign it launched in 2005 to curb greenhouse gas emissions by limiting the use of air conditioning, Kyodo News agency reported.

Isn’t it about time we learnt that windows can be opened?

Safety as an “old boy’s club”

One of the biggest handicaps modern professional organisations have is that many of them are “old boys’ clubs”.  Often this is not the fault of the executive committees or boards as this is the way in which professional organisations and associations, in particular, have evolved.

However, it is difficult to understand why committees allow the clique, the elites, the dinosaurs, to persist.  Some are in denial or are blind to the fact that all the members are of a similar age, background and attitude.  Others recognise the handicap but don’t know what to do.  The worst are those who impose racial or gender quotas without considering the broader impact on the association of this approach.

Organisations need to undertake a staged restructure of all elements of administration, promotion and operation to ensure that there is a future for, what in most cases are, worthy institutions.

What is very surprising is that, often, these organisations have the skills to achieve a positive outcome as the membership provides this sort of advice to clients.  The skills are there when providing a service but are absent when within their own organisation.

The inability to change is a trait we see in the most Luddite of professional associations.  The un-willingness to change is a trait that it is hard to forgive.
The reality is occupational health and safety is changing radically around the world with new hazards, new control measures, new political demands, new agenda and new health initiatives.  Few professional associations are managing to keep up; some are looking in the opposite direction.

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WorkSafe and (maybe) WorkHealth

Earlier this year, the Victorian Premier, John Brumby, announced a workplace program called WorkHealth.  This illness prevention program is to be funded from WorkCover premium income and will focus on combatting health issues such as diabetes, cholesterol and obesity.

The rationale for the program is that poor health is contributing to workplace injuries and impeding rehabilitation.

There are several odd elements about the program.  Firstly, its introduction was announced without WorkSafe Victoria’s knowledge, even the program is to be administered through that agency.

Secondly, the trade union movement was not involved in the program development.  I am often critical of trade union influence being beyond its real level of support (look at New South Wales politics to see the complexities of this) but in any OHS program it is necessary to prepare the ground.  The Victorian government did not do this, for whatever reason, so now should not be surprised if the program comes under suspicion and the unions are hesitant to support.

WorkHealth is an odd mix of public health promotion and workplace health reaction.  There is support for such an approach from European initiatives and some Australian States are broadening OHS.  But in both these circumstances, the programs are developed through traditional structures ensuring participation and “ownership”.

What is most interesting is that at a recent WorkSafe-sponsored OHS conference in Melbourne, John Merritt,  Executive Director of WorkSafe made no mention of this three-month-old $600 million government program even though he was talking about future WorkSafe initiatives.  He showed a new TV ad.  He spoke about increased toughness on enforcement.  But he did not mention WorkHealth.

Kevin Jones

Gaining Political Mileage Out of “handcuff(ed) psychiatric patients”

The New South Wales Liberal Party has released an email from the Pialla Mental Health Nursing Staff to WorkCover detailing their “security” concerns. The original email is available HERE.
The Liberals are making as much political mileage out of this issue as they can. 

Many media reports in Australia have said that some patients have been handcuffed to beds. Below is a typical media report:

Psych patients ‘handcuffed’ to beds
Staff at a Sydney hospital have been forced to handcuff psychiatric patients to beds in the emergency department for up to 36 hours because of a lack of space in the mental health ward, the NSW opposition claims. (The full article is available from http://au.news.yahoo.com/080507/2/p/16rjd.html)

The original email from staff makes no mention of handcuffs.  Indeed there is no mention of restraints of any kind.

The NSW Liberal’s media release (available HERE) states

The NSW Opposition has revealed staff at Nepean Hospital have been forced to handcuff and sedate psychiatric patients in the emergency department for up to 36 hours because of a chronic shortage of mental health beds, NSW Opposition Leader Barry O’Farrell and Shadow Minister for Health Jillian Skinner said today………..

“When patients are being handcuffed in busy emergency departments and staff express no confidence in the Iemma Government’s ability to respond to their concerns, you know the Minister is asleep at the wheel,” Mr Aplin said.

The disheartening thing about these sorts of statements that receive considerable media attention is that the original, perhaps, legitimate claims by overworked and under-resourced staff get forgotten.  I encourage you to read the original email and ignore the political hyperbole.
It is reported elsewhere that

“A spokesman for WorkCover said inspectors had visited staff at Pialla twice since the letter was sent and they would have continuing involvement with the ward.
Health Minister Reba Meagher said she had been informed WorkCover were satisfied with safety measures at the hospital.”

This is not to say that everything is now allright but it does show that issues raised are being addressed.

Importantly, most of these emails address the frustration at lack of communication and consultation, or that management is not taking staff safety concerns seriously.  This desperate letter from Pialla’s Mental Health Nursing Staff is a classic example.

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Workplace Safety Ads

Twenty years ago WorkCover Victoria won awards for graphic ads depicting workplace incidents.  Canada is now debating the value and worth of such an approach to safety awareness.  (The WSIB ads are widely available on YouTube)  But in the 21st century, Australia is using a gentle approach that is having considerable success.

The latest ad will go to air early in May 2008 and a sneek preview can be viewed HERE

The ad that started WorkSafe’s campaign can be viewed HERE

 

The WorkSafe ads have had a huge impact by focussing on non-workplace motivations for workplace change.  However, the community message needs to be supported by community action from the regulators.  There is extensive branding and sponsorhip happening but WorkSafe, or rather the Victorian Government in coordination, needs to step up the role of advocating safety values at all stages of work and life for long term change to be affected.