The absurd “2-metre rule”

Recently a colleague spoke to me about the absurdity of the OHS regulations on falling from heights. Australia has a “default” position that, in reality, establishes a 2 metre benchmark for fall prevention initiatives. In practice, workers take it that any work on a ladder where the “grounded” foot is higher than 2 metres from the surrounding area as requiring a risk assessment and, most likely, some fall protection equipment.
My colleague argued that the benchmark should be where a worker’s head is over 2 metres above the floor when working in an elevated position. This is based on the logic, my colleague says fact, that when someone falls, serious injury and death usually result from the worker’s head hitting the floor.
The advocation of a 2 metre criterion operates contrary to the hierarchy of controls which sets the aim of eliminating the risks associated with working at any height. If Australia is moving to a regime of nationally uniform OHS legislation, these laws should be reviewed so that there is also national consistency in safety advice.
As in many other circumstances the UK’s HSE seems to have its act together on this workplace hazard by emphasising the work tasks rather than getting bogged down on a measurement – a measurement that seems to have little science or logic to support it.

Politicians, Stress and Bulimia

Overnight English MP John Prescott “came out” as a bulimia sufferer. Or so the story goes in the British press. But the real story for the occupational health and safety profession is that Prescott’s doctors suggest the contributory factor – stress.

The Telegraph is a little more precise and says that it is unclear why bulimia occurs, that there may be a genetic trait and it often exists “alongside other mental health problems, for example, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and anxiety”.

The Telegraph also lists potential risk factors as “social and cultural pressures regarding appearance, bullying, low self-esteem and family dysfunction”.

Our reactions to the supposed link between stress and bulimia needs to be carefully considered given there are considerable contrary, or complementary, factors. We should bear this in mind when dubious workplace well-being promoters come knocking on the office doors.

I would suggest that Prescott’s main control measure for bulimia, stress and a range of health issues, including diabetes, was that he left the front bench in 2007.

On the other factors of bulimia, the social and cultural pressures, outside of Britain, Prescott is still only known as that guy who punched someone in a crowd, and that had something to do with food as well – a far more telling manifestation of a stress response, I would have thought.

Is tripartite consultation still the way to go?

Australia's recently announced review into model OHS laws is firmly bound by the tripartite consultative structure formalised by Lord Robens in the early 1970s and comprising government, uniuons and employers. This is a sensbile structure as it involves all of the major influences in Australian workplaces. But just how relevant is it now, thirty years later?

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Australia’s recently announced review into model OHS laws is firmly bound by the tripartite consultative structure formalised by Lord Robens in the early 1970s and comprising government, uniuons and employers. This is a sensbile structure as it involves all of the major influences in Australian workplaces. But just how relevant is it now, thirty years later?

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Safety, Maintenance and Business Continuity

America and Europe have a huge advantage over Australia – they know how to respond to a broad range of disasters. Australia has had its share of bushfires and cyclones but because the country is so large and the geology so stable, the large metropolitan centres of Sydney and Melbourne have been spared. This stability has led to less emphasis on the fragility of infrastructure by business operators than there should be.

America and Europe have a huge advantage over Australia – they know how to respond to a broad range of disasters. Australia has had its share of bushfires and cyclones but because the country is so large and the geology so stable, the large metropolitan centres of Sydney and Melbourne have been spared. This stability has led to less emphasis on the fragility of infrastructure by business operators than there should be.

In the Herald-Sun newspaper on 12 April 2008, there was a cover story on the organizational neglect of the State’s electrical infrastructure. This was emphasised recently when it took 6 days for many homes to have power restored after a serious storm, a storm that was of the level that Sydney experiences regularly and that the tropical areas of Australia and designed to withstand.

A government inquiry will be held into the delay but this is unnecessary. Privatised corporations are notoriously neglectful of the need to maintain infrastructure services as there is little profit in holding resources in reserve for large-scale disasters. Numerous inquiries into the disasters on the privatised rail networks in England have shown the corporate values of privatised transport companies, some of whom have investments in Australia.

The poor and unsafe conditions of the infrastructure are not the fault of the companies if we take it that their raison d’etre is to make profit. But we cannot extend the same understanding to governments who forsake the public good for the sake of an improved bottom line.

Poor maintenance leads to unsafe conditions which lead to disasters. As safety professionals we need to stress that adequate levels of maintenance are a core part of any preventative strategy. Not only will it reduce the social impact of any disaster but it maintains a robust corporate economy, reduces employees’ exposure to trauma and establishes a company as an important community asset.

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