Safety Professionals and Social Safety

Many OHS professionals however come from academic, or office or technical backgrounds, who have mostly experienced industrial relations as barriers to the sensible safety control measures they recommend. Frequently union and employee stances don’t make OHS sense but they make perfectly sound IR sense. It is this dichotomy that is behind those safety professionals and employers who accuse unions of “using” OHS to further industrial relations ends.

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Many OHS professionals however come from academic, or office or technical backgrounds, who have mostly experienced industrial relations as barriers to the sensible safety control measures they recommend. Frequently union and employee stances don’t make OHS sense but they make perfectly sound IR sense. It is this dichotomy that is behind those safety professionals and employers who accuse unions of “using” OHS to further industrial relations ends.

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The Blind at Work and in the Street

At the moment I am reviewing a draft OHS compliance code for amenities at the workplace. I am also working a morning shift for a communications company from 3am each morning. I have a blind father. My office faces a truck route.

These elements of my life combined when I received a wire story this morning about an initiative to increase the level of pedestrian safety. I found the National Federation for the Blind media release that the article was based on and decided that the request for “a two-year study to determine the best means to provide the blind and other pedestrians with information about the location, motion, speed, and direction of vehicles” fairly reasonable and I look forward to the findings in 2010.

At the moment I am reviewing a draft OHS compliance code for amenities at the workplace. I am also working a morning shift for a communications company from 3am each morning. I have a blind father. My office faces a truck route.

These elements of my life combined when I received a wire story this morning about an initiative to increase the level of pedestrian safety. I found the National Federation for the Blind media release that the article was based on and decided that the request for “a two-year study to determine the best means to provide the blind and other pedestrians with information about the location, motion, speed, and direction of vehicles” fairly reasonable and I look forward to the findings in 2010.

It will be interesting to watch the response that this US Bill will generate from those who see our world changing to accommodate minorities, those driving enthusiasts that give pedestrians and bikes little attention anyway, those advocates who say that pedestrian lights don’t remain on long enough and the right-wing critics of political correctness who are usually fully-sighted ( in the vision sense at least) and able-bodied.

Some of the issues the Secretary of Transportation should consider are:

  • How did blind people in China cope when that country depended almost 100% on bicycle transport? Bikes aren’t silent.
  • Aren’t cars being designed now specifically to minimise the damage to a pedestrian from a front-on collision? Let’s not go near the issue of bull-bars and car protection bars.
  • I know that the blind want to be independent but if I am elderly or disabled, I would not reject assistance in crossing a road. Don’t pedestrians offer assistance any more?
  • All age groups should be considered in the study as able-bodied pedestrians may be distracted or otherwise inattentive.

Basic ergonomic theory is that we don’t try to fit the person to the work environment. Perhaps urban planners and car manufacturers should consider how they can change what they do to ensure that the vehicles are compatible with pedestrian zones and interaction. I for one would ride my bicycle more if the streets were more friendly and drivers more aware.

How do workplace amenities and morning shift affect my perspective? I am not sure that the draft compliance code accommodates disabled workers so I will need to review the document through my father’s eyes, ineffective as they are.

Toilets in many office buildings have Braille labels below the male and female toilet signs. I often wonder how a blind person locates a 6cm Braille label on a 18 square metre wall when they are bursting for a pee and are new to that area. And from experience most people develop blindness after middle age and have little chance of learning Braille so just how many blind people are we serving by Braille toilet signs?

Accountability for industrial accidents in Malaysia

This last week, the New Strait Times reported on an initiative by the Malaysian government to increase companies’ responsibility for workplace safety by making “professionals” “responsible for accidents in the workplace”.

It may be a terminological argument about whether safety professionals or risk managers or company directors are to be held personally responsible for safety infringements and incidents

This last week, the New Strait Times reported on an initiative by the Malaysian government to increase companies’ responsibility for workplace safety by making “professionals” “responsible for accidents in the workplace”.

It may be a terminological argument about whether safety professionals or risk managers or company directors are to be held personally responsible for safety infringements and incidents – a discussion that is echoed in many jurisdictions around the world. It is likely to result in some reassessment of management responsibility in Malaysian companies. I would also speculate that the applications for OHS manager jobs may decline in Malaysia.

The article quotes the Human Resources Minister Datuk Dr S. Subramaniam as saying “If a crane accident occurs at a construction site, we want the engineers involved in ensuring the crane’s safety to be answerable.”

The initiative is clearly one that is directly related to the limited resources available to a safety regulator when every business is a workplace. Again this is a problem shared by regulators worldwide.

What is interesting is that this position has not (yet) evolved into one of corporate killing or industrial manslaughter legislation or corporate accountability, as it has elsewhere. Always the case by employer groups is that such a level of accountability would deter businesses from entering activities which would present an unacceptable level of risk, thereby harming economic growth. I suspect that the level of economic growth in Malaysia and the Asian region is likely to keep the debate going for quite some time without any resolution.

Note: a short video of  Datuk Dr S. Subramaniam speaking at the April 2008 conference is available HERE at the 2.43 minute mark

Level Crossings, Driver Behaviour and Politicians

Victoria has experienced several more level crossing incidents in late-March 2008. The significance of one of the recent incidents is that a vehicle driver survived, as happened with the Kerang incident which resulted in multiple fatalities. Curiously, the most recent survival also involved a vehicle colliding with the side of a train already on the railway crossing.

In this case there were no fatalities as the train was freight. But the driver’s comments are interesting. 59-year-old Laurie Heffernan was reported by AAP as admitting using the crossing, 1.5 kilometres from his residence, over 30,000 times and has recommended that freight trains have reflective strips on the sides and that engines should have flashing lights. The incident occurred on a misty morning at 7am.

On radio interviews, Heffernan has also blamed the layout of the road and rail crossing and the proximity of sheds that obscure part of the view of the crossing. This seems a peculiar excuse for someone who must use the crossing on a daily basis.

Yes, Heffernan was travelling slower than the speed limit. Yes, the collision was a glancing blow, but the collision still bounced him “back a bit and it spun me”. He says “If I’d have been travelling faster I probably would’ve gone under it… I would’ve done a lot worse, I mightn’t be talking with you right now.”

His responses, sadly, support the Victorian government’s push for increased driver awareness of level crossings.

The crossing, at Terang, has no flashing lights or boom gates but has recently had rumble strips installed. There was no indication whether Mr Heffernan noticed the rumble strips but he stated they are “useless”.

I have great respect for Victoria’s Transport Minister, Lynne Kosky, having met her before she became a parliamentarian, but her comments after this most recent incident are alarming and ill-advised

Her government established a parliamentary inquiry into level crossings as a result of an increase in incidents and fatalities. That inquiry has received many submissions and has had its timeline expanded to October 2008. The inquiry is not a court case so is not sub-judice but the Minister has knee-capped the inquiry by stating that various safety control measures are not needed or cannot be afforded for rural crossings. Her comments could make some of the legitimate findings of the inquiry look stupid. The inquiry cannot now recommend boom gates on every rail crossing. It is highly unlikely that grade separations could ever be seriously recommended.

How such an intelligent parliamentarian could place such limitations on the inquiry, or her advisers let her say such things, is very surprising. In this circumstance politician-speak of “let’s wait and hear what the rail safety experts in the parliamentary inquiry will say when they report to Parliament in October” would have been appropriate.

Kosky is forever going to have to explain to the families of victims of rail incidents why one particular rail crossing had less control measures than another crossing down the track. If she had applied the political nous that I know she has, she would have increased the validity of the parliamentary inquiry that her own Labor Government established.

As it is she has shown that it is not only America that has politicians who resemble Tonya Harding.

Is health promotion a workplace safety matter?

......OHS professionals focus on the hazards to workers that are generated by the workplace or the work undertaken. Getting fat is not necessarily a workplace hazard although recent evidence in the United Kingdom shows that a sedentary occupation, for instance sitting in front of VDU, can lead to obesity. (Any parent with a teenage boy and a games console would already know the link). OHS tends to focus on the controllable hazards that are generated by the workplace, such as amputations, dust, noise, manual handling, forklifts, falling, etc......

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……OHS professionals focus on the hazards to workers that are generated by the workplace or the work undertaken. Getting fat is not necessarily a workplace hazard although recent evidence in the United Kingdom shows that a sedentary occupation, for instance sitting in front of VDU, can lead to obesity. (Any parent with a teenage boy and a games console would already know the link). OHS tends to focus on the controllable hazards that are generated by the workplace, such as amputations, dust, noise, manual handling, forklifts, falling, etc……

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OHS Frustrations and Lobbying

There is a minor professional debate developing amongst Australian safety practitioners on whether occupational health and safety should sit under a government’s industrial relations portfolio or health. In Australia it is in industrial relations, the US has it under the Centre for Disease Control and NIOSH, the UK has OHS more under IR than elsewhere but it has at least expanded OHS to include biological hazards.

There is a minor professional debate developing amongst Australian safety practitioners on whether occupational health and safety should sit under a government’s industrial relations portfolio or health. In Australia it is in industrial relations, the US has it under the Centre for Disease Control and NIOSH, the UK has OHS more under IR than elsewhere but it has at least expanded OHS to include biological hazards.

It is refreshing to have a debate occurring over an arrangement or concept that has existed for over 40 years. Traditional ways of doing everything regularly need to be challenged or questioned in order to achieve improvement. But I am not sure about one OHS academic’s call to swap government departments, particularly as a State health department is being investigated over the deaths of five residents in an aged care facility from food poisoning. I don’t see what could be gained by the switch except that real injury data could be collected and that a scientific rigour be applied to OHS research. I am not convinced that this is enough reason to swap.

The state of health research funding and resources is better than under industrial relations but only just, and OHS would then be competing in a more cluttered field of researchers. Much of the suggestion in the press and in talking with colleagues hints at a strategic retreat. Sometimes I perceive a professional fatigue with the slow pace of change. Part of the reason is that until late in 2007 Australia had the same Prime Minister, John Howard, and political philosophy for over 12 years, far too long for any political reign in my opinion. And the government has not been interested in occupational health and safety one bit. No initiatives of the Howard government have improved workplace safety and, indeed, I would say that the industrial relations initiatives (revolution) have severely weakened the OHS consultative frameworks in companies, and the prominence of OHS (such as it was) that existed in the community.

The government argues that injury rates are decreasing and they are, but the way of measuring such statistics has been flawed for decades. It was the unwillingness to do anything about this point that generated some of the calls to switch OHS jurisdictions. The switch suggestion is, I think, an acknowledgement that the safety professionals and practitioners are not prepared to use political means to achieve the aim of an accurate picture of the state of OHS in Australia and of establishing a mechanism for improvement. There are no OHS lobbyists. The difficult industrial relations fights of the unions have removed any OHS context from their agenda. Safety professionals are afraid of making political statements, regardless how sound they may be.

Yes there is very little funding of research in Australia on OHS matters but that does not mean you move to a different arena. Generate research funding independently. Shame the government into action through comparisons with other countries. Campaign on how government neglect is exposing Australians to unnecessary injuries and deaths. Lobby the ministers, meet them for coffee, bump into them on the golf course. Show the government how investment in OHS can increase the productivity of the workers in the same way we advise our clients. If we tell our customers that investing in safety will reduce insurance costs, can’t we make the same case in relation to social security costs and workplace safety?

The worst thing that can be done is to attempt to start again somewhere else and although not a lot has happened in the past, it is in industrial relations where OHS has its strongest presence, its strongest links and its strongest moral heritage. OHS professionals and practitioners need to think outside the square not move outside it.

Originally posted on 8 January 2008

Rape of Nurse Working Alone North of Australia

On February 5 2008, a nurse was raped in her residence on Mabuiag Island in the Torres Straits islands group north of Australia. She was the only health officer on the island and had been posted there only a few moths earlier. A 22-year-old man has been arrested and charged with burglary and rape.

The Queensland Nurses Union has called for an urgent increase in the safety and security of remote area nurses.

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On February 5 2008, a nurse was raped in her residence on Mabuiag Island in the Torres Straits islands group north of Australia. She was the only health officer on the island and had been posted there only a few moths earlier. A 22-year-old man has been arrested and charged with burglary and rape.

The Queensland Nurses Union has called for an urgent increase in the safety and security of remote area nurses.

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Australian Level Crossings

The State Government has instigated a Parliamentary Inquiry into level crossing incidents. Submissions have been received and the final report is expected at the end of 2008. For the next couple of SafetyAtWork blogs I am going to look at some of the submissions from an OHS perspective and in terms of grade separations, the most effective control measure for level crossings.

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The State Government has instigated a Parliamentary Inquiry into level crossing incidents. Submissions have been received and the final report is expected at the end of 2008. For the next couple of SafetyAtWork blogs I am going to look at some of the submissions from an OHS perspective and in terms of grade separations, the most effective control measure for level crossings.

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OHS and Climate Change

Many of my OHS colleagues have responsibility for environmental safety, some to the extent of being rebadged HSE or OHSE. I have been an ardent advocate of managing business safety and risk issues in a coordinated and integrated manner. Historically, I would have applied the risk management standard as the umbrella framework, others do not.

Many of my OHS colleagues have responsibility for environmental safety, some to the extent of being rebadged HSE or OHSE. I have been an ardent advocate of managing business safety and risk issues in a coordinated and integrated manner. Historically, I would have applied the risk management standard as the umbrella framework, others do not.

The balancing act for health, safety & environment managers is to consider a vast array of matters without losing the focus of the core task, in my case workplace safety, for others this may be public liability, or triple-bottom-lines etc. Depending on the industry you work in, environment can have a greater or smaller role in your business.

I remember working on safety management for a transport company where I reported to the quality manager. I can report to lots of different titles but in this case the quality manager allocated an uneven priority to safety compared to other business elements. He saw quality as by-far the most important element, perhaps it was because he was uncomfortable in other areas outside of his expertise, I don’t really know. But his attitude did not allow for integration only sublimation. I remember his attitude when I have to consider elements beyond my expertise and have them fit into the business strategy in which I have responsibility for safety or maybe risk.

Time management and the prioritizing of tasks is never far away from occupational safety and business operations. It is important that environmental impacts of your business, and those on your business, are discussed in a serious manner at all levels of your company. If it is not on the agenda, it is not in people’s minds. Indeed some have said that the environment is the new OHS. I am not so sure as environmental issues have a global impact where OHS is limited to a smaller community.
In the context of community, an important consideration is whether the implementation of environmental strategies will re-organise business structures to the extent that there are staff losses. In a relatively small nation like Australia, if the environmental management trend continues to grow at the same time, the social impact from unemployment could be significant. However similar concerns have been voiced in recent memory over the level of automation in workplaces and the impact of automatic teller machines on the banking sector. In a fairly short amount of time, the workforce is redistributed to areas of need but for the unemployed and their families this short period can be very painful.

I was taught that risk management can be a major force for good by tying important business elements under the one, fairly broad, set of criteria. When I entered the real world of risk management I encountered as much narrow-mindedness in the risk management profession as I had seen elsewhere. I hope that as the environmental business issues gain prominence that the other disciplines listen, consider and, maybe, embrace the environmental so that all the important elements in our lives and our businesses are weighed, balanced and integrated. Work/life balance is far more than just hours of work and time with the kids.

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Is OHS a Joke?

Recently, occupational health and safety (OHS) has been given a “bad press” in the electronic media in Australia with many examples of how an activity or behaviour has been stopped or excluded on the “unreasonable” grounds of OHS.

Recently, occupational health and safety (OHS) has been given a “bad press” in the electronic media in Australia with many examples of how an activity or behaviour has been stopped or excluded on the “unreasonable” grounds of OHS.

Recently in my local supermarket I asked a worker in the vegetable section whether the store had loose-leafed baby spinach. He responded that they only have packaged spinach. On asking why I was told that it was because of OHS requirements. I contacted an OHS representative within the supermarket’s head office who told me this was not the case. He told me that the packaged option was more likely to be on the grounds of food safety and hygiene.

This example highlights a major challenge to OHS managers and organisations. WorkSafe and unions have been very successful over the last decade in raising the community awareness to issues of workplace safety, to the extent that OHS has a higher profile than the issues that the supermarket and others are applying.

Food safety and hygiene has been revolutionised with the introduction of HACCP, the legislative requirements for food preparation. Public liability has increased for school excursions, council garden maintenance, small business, retail outlets and everywhere else it seems. These two issues are being misunderstood as workplace safety matters because OHS has a higher general prominence. HACCP requirements are only relevant to the food industry and impinge on the public, usually, only when we ask for a doggy bag. Public liability is a cost to business and councils but doesn’t affect the public unless someone suggests that you take action after tripping on a cracked footpath.

In Victoria in 2007 there were four workplace fatalities in ten days. According to WorkSafe:

  • On April 19, a truck driver died when his tip truck hits power lines on a farm near Nhill while making a delivery.
  • On April 20, a man died after being crushed between the hydraulically operated door of a machine and a rail earlier on 13 April.
  • On April 22, a man died after suffering an electric shock while changing light bulbs at Coburg North car yard on 18 April.
  • On April 23, a man died on a property near Wodonga when a tree he was cutting down with a chain saw fell and hit him.

The whole aim of OHS management and legislative obligations is to avoid death and injury. As we move to the international day of mourning for those who die at work, in late April, we need to remember that safety should always be seen in the context of its relation to people. People should not be sacrificed for profit or corporate peace of mind.

Kevin Jones