Varanus Island investigations continue

Free Access

International safety attention was focused on a tiny island of the northwest Australian cost in mid-June 2008 when a pipeline exploded.  Investigation reports have been presented to government and companies have regained operations after the major gas explosion that disrupted supplies across Western Australia.

In early May 2009, the WA Department of Mines & Petroleum announced a further investigation will be undertaken. WA Mines and Petroleum Minister Norman Moore has said that the department would carry out the final stage of investigations into the  explosion.

Kym Bills and David Agostini have been classified officially as inspectors and will undertake the investigation.

Moore said that the October 2008 report by NOPSA needed additional information which has recently become available.

 “…that investigation was limited by its reporting time frame and the absence of critical evidence, such as the results from destructive and non-destructive testing of the pipeline.”

A ministerial media release identifies the investigation’s scope:

  • the pertinent sequence of events on Varanus Island during the incident
  • the likely cause(s) of the incident
  • any actions and omissions by the operator of the Varanus Island facility, or its contractors, leading up to and during the incident that may have contributed to those events.

The final report will be presented to the department in June 2009.

Background on Varanus Island is available in SafetyAtWorkBlog by searching “Varanus” as a keyword.

Kevin Jones

Australia’s OHS harmonisation likely to fall

Free Access

Media reports on 11 May 2009 do not provide optimism for the introduction of harmonised OHS laws in Australia.  The Australian reports that the ACTU is lobbying Federal ministers over the reports into the model OHS law that are scheduled to be discussed at the Workplace Relations Ministers’ Council on 18 May.

The unions believe that following the recommendations of the review panel will provide workers with lesser standard of safety protection than they currently have.

The government has been slow is responding to the recommendations of the review panel, an odd action given the tight reform timeline they set.  However, the government has shown that timelines are flexible even when the future of humanity is threatened by climate change.

The ACTU will be campaigning in the media this week against the weakening of OHS laws, particularly the extremist laws of New South Wales.  Whether this is an ambit claim or not will be found out next week but whatever it is it shows regrettable shortsightedness on the part of the ACTU.

The Australian Financial Review (page 5, 11 May 2009, article not available online) seems to take some glee in the fact that the safety laws are “shaky”.  The paper may be caught between watching the Government’s agenda failing again or advocating legislative change to reduce the operational costs of its readers.  The AFR reports that three States are digging in against the possible OHS law reforms.  New South Wales (largely seen as dominated by the trade unions), Queensland (new IR Minster Cameron Dick wants the State’s reverse onus of proof to be applied) and Western Australia have indicated a hesitance to accept.

The Federal Government needs a two-thirds majority for the national OHS legislation to occur and, with a week to go, SafetyAtWorkBlog expects the government to apply some horsetrading  for the new laws to pass. 

Having said that noone yet knows what the new laws are that will be proposed.  The Government has received the review panel reports but has yet to respond to the recommendations.

Any law reform focused on national harmonisation is unlikely to succeed unless there is unanimous support for the reforms.  The fear all along with the OHS laws is that agreement will be short-term until state governments decide that their industries or industrial relations situation have special needs and responds parochially and weakens the national strategy.

The challenge for the Federal Minister for Workplace Relations, Julia Gillard, is to achieve unanimity AND lock in State support for several years so that harmony and stability can be achieved.  OHS law reform on this scale occurs rarely and all parties should be looking at the long term on this issue rather than their own state-based petty power struggles.  We have to wait till early next week to see which States have the mature politicians.

Kevin Jones

Passive smoking and casino workers

Free Access

Smoke-free workplaces have gained considerable attention over the last few years but many countries allow exemptions for casinos.  This makes no health sense but considerable political and revenue sense.   The  American Lung Association has released a video story about one non-smoking casino worker who has suffered lung cancer, Vinnie Rennich.  (The 16meg flash video is available for download)

Safety Innovation – doing the hard yards

Free Access

Kevin’s stuff on the latest Safe Work Australia Awards got me thinking about an issue I have had a bee in me bonnet about for a while now.  It’s safety innovation, and the glaring hole in Australia for support for the hardest innovation of the lot – safety product development.  By “safety product” I’m specifically referring to development of equipment or systems intended for sale.

As far as I can discover, Australian OH&S awards tend to focus on the entirely worthy thing of endorsing solutions that are readily adopted and are ideas that have a record of successful implementation.  There is no doubt that the safety award system finds excellent ideas used all over the place.  But the key issue here is that these innovations, relatively speaking, sell themselves.  They have been implemented and are proven “winners” in the sense of being a successful safety idea.

What seems to be missing is support for a small-scale product developer who has an excellent product prototype that hasn’t the convenience of a proven safety track record.  I’ve had the privilege (and sometimes the terrible angst) of trying to help out safety product developers, solo- or micro-businesses that are plugging away at getting a marketable product up and running.

Any product development is expensive, and in the absence of a larger company budget to “take the hits”, the small operator has to wear lots of pain to get a product to the point that it can be put on the market.

General support for all sorts of product development is often made available by various government agencies.  In Victoria, Innovic is the government organization that does good work in helping promote good ideas.  They have a specific award program for very new ideas called “The Next Big Thing”.  

It’s a great system, that invites applications from around the world but it’s still limited, by virtue of it (like the current OH&S regulator safety awards) being mostly an endorsement.  And, sure, a developer can benefit from endorsement. But from my experience, the small operator is mostly in need of advice and funding to keep a product idea alive.  This is where I think the OH&S regulatory agencies could really have a positive impact on safety product innovation in Australia.

I’m suggesting that contributions from each of the Australian OH&S agencies to a fund to support safety product developers with a specialised new product award could be managed by Safe Work Australia.  That fund would have to be fair dinkum.  It would need to have the resources to draw on expertise from product development specialists.  It would have to have prizes that matter.  Options could include funding to have winners attend the very excellent programs much like the New Enterprise Incentive Scheme (NEIS) provided around Australia.) The award system could include in the prize a fully funded 12-month part time course that does a similar thing to NEISS. 

But that is all very well, but a good idea is a worthless idea if it can’t be funded.  Cash is the thing a product developer needs.  Ten thousand dollar prizes is about the sort of cash I think would start to come close to being useful.  Keep in mind that taking out second mortgages on homes and other severe financial burdens are par for the course for a product developer.  Ten grand is not going to keep a developer afloat, but it may well be the difference between an idea withering vs it being made available to everyone.

And I recognise this sort of support for people trying to get a product on the market is high risk.  If a product development program got up there’s bound to be some failures and that has to be accepted as the cost of taking risks.  But maybe it’s time for the OH&S regulators to stick their neck out in this area?  Australians have had a pretty good history of coming up with new ideas, and there is lots of rhetoric about backing product innovation. It would be excellent to see more examples of regulators being prepared to do the hard yards on safety product development.

Col Finnie

Fearing the invisible – selling nanotechnology hazards

Free Access

The community is not getting as concerned about nanotechnology as expected (or perhaps as needed).  There is the occasional scare and the Australian unions have relaunched their campaign on the hazards of nanotechnology manufacturing.  There have been several articles about the potential ecosystem damage of nanotechnology in our waterways.  Frequently, it can be heard that nanotechnology is the new asbestos.

Nanotechnology is a new technology and all new things should be used with caution.  It is odd that none of the nanotechnology protests seem to be gaining much traction.

Part of the problem is that nanotechnology is invisible and how do people become concerned about the invisible?  This is a point of difference from the asbestos comparison.  Asbestos was turned into asbestos products – from dust to roofing.  But nanotechnology goes from invisible to items such as socks.  The public see new improved versions of common items, nanotechnology is used in familiar items, but the public does not see the nanotechnology and therefore does not comprehend nanotechnology as a potential hazard.

It may be useful to jump back before asbestos to look for new communication techniques for warning consumers about the invisible.

In 1998 Nancy Tome published “The Gospel of Germs“.  Tome looks at the slow realisation in the first half of last century by the public that germs and microbes exist and can cause harm.  She is not interested in the germs themselves but how society accepted their existence and how they reacted.  This reaction – improved hygiene, infection control, disinfectant, etc – can provide us with some clues as to how society embraces the invisible, particularly if the invisible can make us sick.

Nancy Tomes wrote the book in the time when AIDS was new.  But since then SARS is new, Swine Flu is new and other pandemics will become new to a generation who have only known good health and good hygiene.  Now we are creating invisible things that we know can have positive benefits but we don’t know the cost of the benefit.

It is perhaps time for the OHS lobbyists to take a page or two from the public health promotion manual (and Tome’s book) and begin to explain rather than warn.  Nanotechnology is not asbestos and the comparison is unhelpful.  The application of nanotechnology will be in far more products than was asbestos and the nanotechnology is smaller.

If the lobbyists can make the invisible visible then progress will be much quicker.

Kevin Jones