A vision for the OHS profession

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WorkSafe Victoria is very involved with moves to improve the professionalism of OHS practitioners in Australia.  There is no doubt that improvements are required but the role of a state-based regulator in a non-regulatory system is curious. Surely such changes should be run from a national perspective

Safety professionals often look at the prominence, influence and market share of professional organisations for the doctors or the accountants.  In Australia, at the moment, the health care profession’s accreditation/registration process is having a new structure introduced.  After a long review process the Australian Health Workforce Ministerial Council identified these areas for change

  • Accreditation standards will be developed by the independent accrediting body or the accreditation committee of the board where an external body has not been assigned the function.
  • The accrediting body or committee will recommend to the board, in a transparent manner, the courses and training programs it has accredited and that it considers to have met the requirements for registration.
  • Ministers today agreed there will be both general and specialist registers available for the professions, including medicine and dentistry, where ministers agree that there is to be specialist registration. Practitioners can be on one or both of these registers, depending on whether their specialist qualification has been recognised under the national scheme.

This third point is an excellent one and so easily applied to the safety profession and the practitioners. “Specialist” and “generalist” seems to reflect the composition of the safety industry in Australia.  There are those on the shopfloor or offices who deal with hazards on a daily basis.  There are those who research and write about safety.  And there are those who are a bit of both.  The two category system of accreditation seems simple and practical and readily understood by those outside of the profession.

  • Both categories will attract experts in various fields but the categories themselves don’t relate to specific areas of expertise. The Ministerial Council has agreed that there will be a requirement that, for annual renewal of registration, a registrant must demonstrate that they have participated in a continuing professional development program as approved by their national board.
  • Assistance will be provided to members of the public who need help to make a complaint.
  • The Ministerial Council agreed that national boards will be required to register students in the health profession
  • …boards will be appointed by the Ministerial Council with vacancies to be advertised. At least half, but not more than two thirds, of the members must be practitioners and at least two must be persons appointed as community members.
  • There will be a new “Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency”

 These points deal with matters sorely lacking from many areas of the safety profession – independence, transparency, skills maintenance, a clear and independent complaints procedure, diverse representation and a formal regulatory agency.

To this SafetyAtWorkBlog would add the concept of a Safety Industry Ombudsman for it is always necessary to have someone watching the “watchmen”.

Currently the Australian safety profession is part way through a mish-mash of a process of professionalisation.  Surely it would be better to follow the most contemporary of processes being implemented by health care and others.  Such a process would take some time and require support from the various disciplines of safety and the government.  More importantly, it may require “vision” but during this time of substantial change in OHS legislation and regulatory structure, it is surely the right time to bring in long-term structural change to a profession that would benefit business and the public very well indeed.

Kevin Jones

How many Australians work from home?

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SafetyAtWorkBlog is mostly produced from a home office.  This is principally because the type of work undertaken can be done in a domestic setting.  There are thousands of small – and micro-businesses in a similar situation.   Thousands of people choose to run their businesses from home.

 This has often been overlooked in the teleworking movement over the last decade or so. “Working from home” has more often than not been considered an addition to working in an office.  The home workplace is seen as a back-up to a principal place of work.

In early may 2009, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released statistics on working from home, both as a main and second job.  The media statement emphasises those who take work home and does have one paragraph on home-based businesses.

“People who were owner managers in their main job were much more likely to use their own home for their main location of work (27% of the 1.9 million owner managers) than employees(1.4% of the 8.2 million employees*). Women who were owner managers in their main job were more likely to use their own home for their main location of work than male owner managers (45% compared with 18%)”

The media statement went on :

“Around one in every 12 employed persons (764,700 persons or 8%) worked more hours at home than any other single location in their main or second job.  Of these people:

  • The majority (83%) were aged 35 years or older
  • 55% were women
  • 39% were in families that had children aged under 15 years old
  • The main reason for working from home was ‘wanting an office at home/no overheads/no rent’ (37%), followed by ‘operating a farm’ (21%) and ‘flexible working arrangements’ (15%)
  • 31% worked 35 hours or more at home in all jobs”

The OHS profession has never really been able to cope with a workplace that is also a domestic residence.  To help, OHS professionals advise to have a dedicated home office so that the workplace has a defined area.  This allows OHS obligations to fit the concept.

Working from a kitchen table with a dog, a hungry child and three baskets of washing to hang out, is not what the legislation anticipated but it can be the reality.

Another reality is that many media and professional people can work out of their car or local cafes almost 100% of their time.  How does the advice from an OHS professional match those scenarios?  Legislation based on the assumption of a fixed work location or site might not meet these particular working environments.

Another thing that is always annoying is the assumption that it is office workers who work from home, so the tasks are necessarily technologically based.  Any OHS advice should apply to the issue of working from home in a broad sense and not just to specific work tasks.

As many professions become portable, OHS laws and legislation need to accommodate the flexibility.  If not more so, so do company policies, job descriptions, claims assessments, workplace safety assessments and others.

Kevin Jones

Working longer means staying healthy longer

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It is rare for anything of great relevance to occupational health and safety to come from the annual budget statement of the Australian government.  There is nothing directly relevant from the statement issued earlier this week except for the lifting of the retirement age to 67 in 2023.

Compulsory retirement age does not mean that people stop working.  If that was the case, farming and the Courts would be very different organisations.  The retirement age has more to do with financial independence or the pension eligibility than anything else but the government’s decision has focused the media and commentators on the fact that people will be working beyond traditional retirement age.

The announcement this week also supported the reality that has been increasing for many people for over a year now that the level of retirement income has plummeted because of the global economic recession.  People have a growing financial need to work, not simply a desire.

This will change the way that worker health will be managed by companies and by the individual.  Watch for even more interest in “the best companies to work for” campaigns.  In fact it should not be long before someone starts marketing on the theme of “is your health up to working into your seventies?”

This morning a package of interesting statistics were presented to a breakfast seminar held by Douglas Workplace & Litigation Lawyers.  One of the regular speakers, Ira Galushkin, provided the following Australian statistics

  • High risk employees (5+ Risks) are at work but not productive 32.7% of the time compared to low risk employees (0-2 Risks) who are not productive 14.5% of the time.
  • The productivity difference between health and unhealthy employees is therefore 18.2% or 45 days per annum.
  • High risk employees average 5.1 hours/month absence versus 2.4 hours/month for low risk employees.  This amounts to 32.4 hours (over 4 days) days per annum.
  • Healthy employees average 1-2 sick days per annum versus 18 days for those in the lowest health and wellbeing category.
  • The unhealthiest employees are productive for only about 49 hours out of each month compared to around 140 hours/month for the most healthy.
  • Poor health can account for an average 5% loss in productivity across the entire Australian workforce with the unhealthiest group reporting a 13% drop in productivity. About half [of] this is related to chronic conditions such as headaches, hay fever and neck/back pain,whilst half can be accounted for by lifestyle factors such as inactivity, smoking, obesity etc

All of this information shows the importance of workers maintaining their own fitness in order to live longer, but also to be able to present a case, if necessary, about their own productivity levels and how they have been saving their employer big dollars.

If we need to be able to work till older than previously, we will want to stay in a job we enjoy and that values us.  Some longterm health planning may be required by all of us.

Kevin Jones

Workplace bullying possibly increasing

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A United States report draws a parallel between increasingly difficult economic situations and an increase in workplace bullying.   This video report is lightweight but is a recent airing of the issue with a different approach.

The angle taken in the story is that of a “pink elephant” that women are just as likely to bully their workmates as men are.  Some of the speakers in the video try to relate female bullying to issues of female empowerment but bullying is more often a reflection of personal nastiness than a social movement.

Bullying received increased focus when workplace culture emerged but rather than a gender issue, our increasing intolerance for bullying is coming from a broader cultural movement than just through the workplace.

The video report originated through research undertaken by the Workplace Bullying Institute, an organisation that has existed for sometime and has very recently upgraded its website.

Kevin Jones

Big fine for go-kart death

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The AAP and others are reporting a big fine over the death of Lydia Carter whilst driving a go-kart at a work function held in Port Melbourne in 2006.  The significance of the $A1.4 million fine is that the company, AAA Auscarts Imports Pty Ltd,  is not a large or multinational corporation.

Ms Carter was wearing a seat belt that did not fit properly and safety barriers on the track had been incorrectly installed.  

Judge Duncan Allen said 

“There is no doubt in my mind that (Auscarts) not only was fully aware of the risk, but was fully aware of the ways to reduce them” 

“The company showed a gross disregard concerning the safety of employees and the public.”

For OHS professionals this case, which ended today (12 May 2009) in the Victorian County Court, will generate a fair degree of attention because of the fine’s size.  However, from the information currently available, the case seems one of the go-kart company having a work environment that was unsafe for customers, the company being aware of this and not doing enough to fix it.

SafetyAtWorkBlog is also looking  into how Ms Carter’s death has changed her employer’s organisation, what effect it had on her colleagues, what policy changes have been made, amongst other matters.

The judgement will also be made available as soon as possible.

Kevin Jones