Happiness is a warm million

Free Access

The Australian newspapers in late-February shared the “outrage” of politicians and then the community over training that was provided to public servants by the American “happiness guru” Professor Martin Seligman.

The cost to the taxpayer seems exorbitant but the psychologist was from the US and was training delegates for many days.  It is not unusual for US experts to charge over $US600 per hour plus travel and accomm0dation.

The Community & Public Sector Union‘s Assistant National Secretary Paul Gepp noted  in a media statement that news of the expensive conference, which paid an American psychologist’s team more than $440,000, came with news of more layoffs of  public servants, as 100 lost their jobs in the Crime Commission. 

“Public servants are working hard to keep essential services going, keep our communities safe and make the stimulus package work,” said Mr Gepp.  “Million-dollar, feel-good conferences don’t help get these jobs done. If the Government is looking to cut, we suggest it starts with junkets like this.” 

The OHS context of this furore comes from the reasons for the training and whether the same benefits could have been obtained at a reduced price.

Media reports say that in parliament on 26 February 2009

“[Deputy Prime Minister, Ms Julia] Gillard attacked Liberal frontbencher Andrew Southcott for attempting to “parody” Professor Seligman, who she described as a “noted educationalist”.
“He is the leader in the development of (a) resiliency program that has been shown to make a difference to mental health issues amongst young people, including issues like anorexia and depression.  That is actually serious and ought not to be cat-called about.”

SafetyAtWorkBlog has written previously about the workloads of the public sector under the Rudd government and how the government has chosen not to set reasonable production targets.  The Seligman seminars are an example of trying to treat the symptoms and not the cause.   Seligman’s programs are not the issue here as the results claimed may be absolutely justified.  

Part of the problem for the government is timing, and in this, it shares a lot with behavioural-based safety programs.  Whenever a company introduces a wellbeing program, or a happiness seminar, or resilience training, or a team-building extreme sports excursion, it indicates to me that either the company is one that has already tried the traditional approaches to controlling workplace hazards, hasn’t  the faintest ides what to do to improve the safety in their workplace , or has too much money in its human resources budget and needs to spend it by the end of the financial year.

Regrettably, the money spent on public service mental health has been poorly targeted and papers over the cracks whilst ignoring the structural instability of how it manages its people.

Kevin Jones

Company directors and OHS obligations

Free Access

Since the final report of Australia’s Review into Model OHS Law, discussion has been remarkably quiet.  The ACTU was scheduled to meet for discussions on the report last Monday and no public statements have been made.  Most of the labour law firms have been quiet also.  It is fair to say that most are trying to digest the 480 page report.

But one employer group has provided an opinion piece in the business pages of The Age newspaper on March 2 2009.  The article says little that is new but it is mischievous in some of its comments. 

John  Colvin, CEO of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, writes of his concerns about increased exposure for the Institute’s members.  Colvin is concerned that upcoming OHS laws may be unprincipled and counterproductive.

The Model OHS Law report has said that it supports the statement of OHS principles as are already in place in the Victorian OHS legislation.  According to WorkSafe Victoria

“The Act sets out the key principles, duties and rights in relation to occupational health and safety. The general nature of the duties imposed by the Act means that they cover a very wide variety of circumstances, do not readily date and provide considerable flexibility for a duty holder to determine what needs to be done to comply.”

These principles are

4. The principles of health and safety protection

(1)    The importance of health and safety requires that employees, other persons at work and members of the public be given the highest level of protection against risks to their health and safety that is reasonably practicable in the circumstances.

(2)    Persons who control or manage matters that give rise or may give rise to risks to health or safety are responsible for eliminating or reducing those risks so far as is reasonably practicable.

(3)    Employers and self-employed persons should be proactive, and take all reasonably practicable measures, to ensure health and safety at workplaces and in the conduct of undertakings.

(4)    Employers and employees should exchange information and ideas about risks to health and safety and measures that can be taken to eliminate or reduce those risks.

(5)    Employees are entitled, and should be encouraged, to be represented in relation to health and safety issues.

The article is mischievous in a number of areas.  Colvin mentions how the current laws vary from state to state.  He mentions that

Some carry personal criminal liability for directors, even where they may not have had any personal involvement in a breach. In some states, they reverse the onus of proof, removing the presumption of innocence, and offer narrow legal defences and limited appeal rights.” (my emphasis)

Colvin is talking primarily about New South Wales, the State that everyone agrees has the OHS law that is most onerous for employers.  However, the New South Wales union movement has been remarkably quiet and flexible on the issue of its OHS laws.  There has been some rhetoric for the benefit of its members and to retain some ideological “face” but the union movement across Australia is coming to accept the reality of better OHS outcomes from nationally harmonised legislation.  

Repeatedly the National OHS Law Review panel stated that it has based its decisions on the structure of the Victorian legislation as, for one reason, it has undergone the most recent legal review.  Colvin’s focus on New South Wales OHS law is outdated, reflective, and unhelpful.

Colvin mentions a survey that found

“..more than 65 per cent said the risk of personal liability occasionally made them take an overly cautious approach in the boardroom and another 13 per cent said this happened frequently. Almost two-thirds felt this had inhibited an optimal business decision to a medium to high degree.”

This indicates that the risk of being prosecuted on OHS breaches is being discussed at board level – great result.  Whether this translates to the board improving the OHS performance of their company is doubtful as Colvin’s article implies that directors are looking at ways of avoiding responsibility and liability rather than accepting the reality of their OHS obligations and working to improve them.

Colvin says that

“Directors should not be held criminally liable for a company’s misconduct simply because they are a director.”

Directors are not prosecuted for OHS breaches because of their status or position.  They are prosecuted because of the decisions that they make and the ramifications of those decisions.  If a director is dismissive of OHS issues and palms them off to someone else in the organisation and an incident occurs, should not the director be called to account for why they considered the safety of their workers to be unimportant, even when for over thirty years directors and executives have had responsibility for OHS compliance?

Colvin believes that holding directors accountable implies that directors have more control over the actions of their employers than they do.  Current business and management theories promote the position that directors should be more in touch with what is happening on the shopfloor.  The theories promote informed leadership and an increased awareness of how the company and its people work, they promote a level of engagement that creates a positive workplace culture and displays leadership.   Colvin seems to be encouraging the opposite.

He ends his article with

“More fundamentally, it unfairly treats directors more harshly under the law than the rest of the community.”

He misunderstands the application and aims of OHS law.  All people in a workplace have a responsibility to ensure a safe and healthy workplace for themselves, for employees and for members of public on and off their worksites.  Directors have more detailed obligations, but not less, because they have control of production and benefit more from the success of the company than do the employees. 

Ultimately, Colvin’s article reflects the misunderstanding of OHS that directors and companies have had for decades.  Companies need to realise that the best performing companies in OHS, and those with the best productivity, are those that have embraced their obligations for safety and have incorporated the principles within their own culture. 

The review into model OHS law has indicated the way of the future and company directors would be well-served to realise this and get on board.  Being left behind will benefit no one, especially the shareholders.

Kevin Jones

CEO loses job over safety failures

Free Access

Health funding and management is a constant political issue.  The attention increases hugely during election campaigns like the one that is currently occurring in the Australian state of Queensland.

This week the leader of the opposition parties, Lawrence Springborg, called for the release of a government report into the sexual attack on a nurse and security in Torres Strait islands.  SafetyAtWorkBlog has written repeatedly on OHS issues associated with the attack in February 2008.  Springborg has pledged increased safety resources for remote area nurses.

Queensland Health reports on 25 February 2009 that the CEO of the Torres Strait District’s health service CEO has been stood aside as a result of the government’s investigation.  The statement reads

“Director-General Michael Reid said the Crime and Misconduct Commission had reviewed the report by the Ethical Standards Unit and was satisfied with the investigation.
“Some allegations that members of the Torres Strait and Northern Peninsula Health Service District executive did not act appropriately were upheld by this investigation,” he said. “We accept this investigation has found serious faults in the way Queensland Health staff responded to this critical incident and we are taking immediate action.”
The CEO of the Torres Strait-Northern Peninsula District has been stood down, effective immediately, while her role with Queensland Health is under further consideration.”

Many of the issues raised relate to possible corruption and improper behaviour by the Queensland Health and others.  These are the political points that Springborg is likely to chase.  

In terms of occupational health and safety, the focus of this blog, Queensland Health says

“There is substantial evidence that there has been a systemic failure by the Torres Strait and Northern Peninsula Health Service District to acknowledge and address workplace health and safety issues within the District over a long period of time.”

“There is sufficient evidence to conclude, on the balance of probabilities, that members of the Torres Strait and Northern Peninsula Health Service District (TSNPHSD)
Executive responded inappropriately and insensitively when notified of the alleged rape of a Remote Island Nurse on Mabuiag Island on or around 5 February 2008.”

“Further, there is sufficient evidence exists to find, on the balance of probabilities, that the repatriation of the remote area nurse from the outer islands as not managed or coordinated at a level cognisant with the seriousness of the events which had occurred.”

It is no wonder the CEO of the health service has lost her job.  It is a little surprising that more, and more prominent, heads have not rolled.  It is suspected that this may be one of the aims of the opposition politicians during the current election campaign.

To return to our core issue of OHS and accountability, this result clearly indicates that senior executives, particularly in the public sector in this instance, must take a preventative approach to the health, safety and security of their staff, wherever the employee is located.

Kevin Jones

Beaconsfield Mine Collapse – Coroner’s Report Released

Free Access

On 26 February 2009, the Tasmanian Coroner, Rod Chandler, released his findings in to the death of Larry Knight in the Beaconsfield mine collapse of April 2006

The Coroner found that 

“the evidence does not permit me to make a positive finding that any person, corporation or other entity, by their conduct, directly contributed to Mr Knight’s death.”

The report is available for download HERE

SafetyAtWorkBlog will bring more information on this important decision over the next few days.

UPDATE

The brother of Larry Knight, Shane, and union representative Paul Howe, have expressed their disappointment with the findings of the Tasmanian Coroner.  In an interview with journalists there was mention of the inadequacies in the risk assessment process, the poor resources of Workplace Standards Tasmania, the lack of attention given to safety advice from multiple consultants.

Shane Knight continues to believe that the mine management was responsible for the death of his brother.

Paul Howes called on the government to end the approach of self-regulation and called on business to not put profit before safety.