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.

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

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.

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.

Safety Behaviours and Enforcement

One of the main reasons that the Safety Institute of Australia included a single conference stream on CEOs recently was so that OHS professionals could gain an insight into CEO perspective – to hear from the horses’ mouths. In a question and answer session after his presentation, Jerry Ellis said “Regulatory requirements are not the…

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The Challenge for Australia’s OHS Law Review

Everyone is eagerly anticipating the issues paper of Australia’s review into model OHS law but talking with many people at the SIA08 conference this week, it seems that people are anticipating more from the review than the review was established. The review will be looking at OHS law and law establishes the parameters for managing workplace safety. However, OHS law is what underpins safety management and it is easy to focus on the law to the detriment of managing safety in workplaces.

Employers don’t need to be familiar with the intricacies of OHS law. They need to understand their legal obligations. Legal advice is usually sought if something goes wrong. So how will the current OHS law review change how we manage safety? I asked Tracey Browne of the Australian Industry Group for her opinion. Tracey said the review “has the potential to be revolutionary but everyone needs to realise that changing the law is not going to change anything on its own.”

To progress OHS law many of the issues that have come to dominate discussion over the last 30 years will need to be put aside. Of all the participants in the review process, Tracy believes that the OHS regulators may have the hardest time in achieving this position.
Cathy Butcher of the Victorian Trades Hall agrees that there are considerable agreements on OHS law but she identified some substantial sticking points. In a panel discussion at the Safety In Action Conference she listed the following big differences:

  • The removal of “reasonably practicable”
  • The union right to prosecute
  • The reintroduction of “risk assessment” into the Victorian regulations and OHS Act
  • Compliance Codes to “go the way of the dodo”

Whether this is an ambit claim will be seen soon through the OHS Law Review process.

Taxi Driver Safety Causes Blockade

One of Melbourne’s busiest intersections was blockaded again by angry taxi drivers. This follows the stabbing of a young cab driver on April 29,2008.
The calls were again for shields in cabs to isolate the drivers from, often, irate drunk and violent passengers.
In response to previous protests, cameras were installed in taxis as a deterrence and evidence-gathering device. This control measure is clearly not working as well as cheaper and simpler alternatives.
Cameras record the attacks, the maiming and the deaths. They help identify the attacker but they do not prevent the attacks. Drivers continue to work in an industry that is more hazardous than it needs to be.
In OHS terms, any worker can refuse to place themselves at risk and many drivers have retired over the years siting safety as an important consideration. However, this has lead to a driver shortage that is being filled by migrant workers and overseas students. (The most recent victim was reported to be a 23-year-old Indian student) The influx of migrant workers to perform jobs, that Australian residents choose not to undertake, has complicated occupational health and safety considerably, and unnecessarily.
Engineering solutions of shields and other driver separations could have been introduced years ago after similar security and personal safety protests. Many other Australian and overseas jurisdictions have driver-passenger separation as standard.
After 30 hours in the autumn cold the blockade has been lifted after the government agreed to install driver shields in taxis within 12 months. But this is cold comfort to the stabbed 23-year-old tax driver and those drivers who have been choked and attacked. This engineering control has been in existence for over a century and it is a stain on the decisions of previous governments who allowed taxis to be commissioned in, what has been proven to be, an unsafe state. Violence against taxi drivers and other transport drivers has been a known workplace hazard for a long time (bus drivers have had separation for years. How was driving a taxi different?) and again, it has taken a violent attack on a worker to achieve an acceptable level of safety – a level that a “reasonable man” would have agreed to or one that was always “reasonably practicable”.