Manual handling and childcare workers

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Yesterday, a reader posted the following question

Are their any articles available on manual handling risk factors for workers in the childcare service industry (including programs for risk control)?

Below are some of the resources that are readily available in Australia, specifically on childcare.  In many cases the control measures employed for nurses overlap but in may OHS advisory and regulatory sites the hazards for nurses dominate the advice.

As an example of the dire need for accessible information in this area, there is a Canadian guide to “Health in Child Care Settings“.  It’s over 200 hundred pages with lots of great information.  The only mention of manual handling hazards for workers is 

“Use of proper lifting and transferring techniques can significantly reduce the risk of injury. Providers’ education in this area is essential.”

Yet we know that the medical evidence for safe lifting techniques is dubious.

There is a commercial DVD available at www.themedia.com.au  I would advise that playground equipment should be reviewed for durability AND ease of transport (there are many types of castor wheels with brakes available for heavy items) 

There is a training course that includes “Lifting Techniques & Manual Handling for Child Care Workers” available (in Australia – there are many more around the world)

In 2001 the Queensland OHS authority released  a guide called “Manual Tasks Involving the Handling of People Advisory Standard 2001“.  Again this reads very nurse-y but it specifically includes the handling of children.

Without knowing the background to the question – whether concerned with the handling of children or equipment – it is difficult to go further.  Perhaps the reader can provide more detail and we can see if other readers can help with specifics.

Kevin Jones

“Pilgrim’s Plague” and workplace absenteeism

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 Last year, Sydney Australia hosted World Youth Day (WYD).  In some ways Australia had not seen such a large influx of people from so many countries for a single event before.  The Sydney Olympics had a high proportion of locals attending and the 1956 Melbourne Olympics never had the infrastructure to provide so many overseas visitors.

For several months after the 2008 World Youth Day, it was rumoured that the level of absenteeism in workplaces was very high.  At the time of WYD there were several reports of quarantined pilgrims and the risk to public health of the Sydney population was assessed. (Peter Curson, professor of population and security in the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney wrote a discussion piece on this)

There were reports of influenza and viral gastroenteritis amongst pilgrims who were required to be quarantined.

The Medical Journal of Australia has released a report into the impact of World Youth Day on the emergency departments of hospitals (MJA 2008; 189 (11/12): 630-632).  This study found minimal impact in this sector of the hospital care.

However, SafetyAtWorkBlog is not aware of any research having been done on the impact of  World Youth Day on workplace absenteeism.  The EMJA study correlates World Youth Day with hospital admissions but it would be useful to see a comparative study of workplace absenteeism in the weeks after WYD, during the incubation period of influenza in particular.

World Youth Day did seem to overlap with the existing flu season in Australia’s winter but those statistical peaks are well-established and it would be interesting to see if those peaks had increased just after World Youth Day.

If there were a correlation, cost estimates for hosting the event may need adjusting to include the reduced productivity due to the “pilgrim’s plague”.


Safe Work Bill and Parliament

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It has always seemed an odd timetable for the Australian Government to introduce a Bill for replacing the Australian Safety & Compensation Council with Safe Work Australia when there is also an active  national review into the laws that the authority may end up managing.  

This week the Minister for Workplace Relations, Julia Gillard, set aside the Safe Work Bill because she would not accept amendments by the Opposition or she had to verify changes through the Workplace Relations Ministerial Council, depending on your political leanings.

Parliament has ended for 2008 so the reintroduction of the Bill will wait till 2009.  This allows the government to make another pitch by including the recommendations of the National Review.  The Review has consulted broadly across the political spectrum and should present legalistic sweeteners to all.  This also allows  the government to say that they didn’t get cross and arrogant but have been able to be more inclusive and consultative.

The amendments proposed by the Opposition don’t have a great deal to do with safe workplaces but a lot to do with limiting union influence in the decision-making of the new OHS body.  Some amendments are just unnecessarily provocative by trying to limit ministerial interference.  The alternative jargon to this is the exercising of ministerial discretion.  It’s the same thing except to those on the receiving end or who feel excluded from the process.

Of course, the government is not obliged to accept all the recommendations of the review panel and over the next few months it will be closely watching the reception of its industrial relations legislative platform to perhaps indicate a more successful pathway for its Safe Work Bill.  

A sticking point, and overlap of the two legislations, is the right of entry.  Currently there is a political stink about how much access unions are entitled to in workplaces, some of which does seem unnecessarily intrusive, but frequently workplace safety is the impetus for entry requests, as per the recent intrusion to the desalination plant in New South Wales.  Right of entry will not go away as a political issue over the Christmas break while there are large infrastructure projects in New South Wales and Western Australia, in particular.

Leading from the top on impairment

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Advocates of safety culture regularly profess that it must be lead from the top of the corporate structure down.  This applies a false definition of leadership.  Leadership is innovation, understanding and support regardless of one’s position on the corporate ladder.

It is true that professing leadership and corporate goals should be supported by the appropriate actions but that is often the avoidance of hypocrisy rather than seeking active change. It must be acknowledged that leadership can also come from below  – in the mail rooms, the cellars, the janitors and from the shopfloors.

Workers in many industries are subjected to random drug and alcohol tests.  Often these apply to those workers who operate machinery or drive transport vehicles.  And rightly so.  These workers must undertake their tasks without any impairment of their cognitive functions.  Impairment is a concept that the Australian union movement has struggled with for well over a decade mainly because in the industrial relations world this is close to being “fit for work” and how does one define that?  It also has some relationship to “blaming the worker”.  In occupational health and safety, it is seen as looking after one’s self whilst looking after others and the obligation to do this has existed for decades in OHS legislation.

Impairment is commonly discussed now in terms of driving while drunk or stoned or while using a mobile phone.  But long before this there was “impaired judgement”.  As well as being fit-for-work, people needed to be fit-to-think. 

On 4 December 2008, the New South Wales Health Minister (and former Industrial Relations Minister) John Della Bosca rejected a proposal from the Rail, Bus & Tram Union (RTBU) to “to make breath-test kits available on a voluntary basis to MPs wanting to check their blood alcohol levels before they turn up for late night votes.”

It is reported that the RTBU secretary Nick Lewocki has said 

“All rail workers are subjected to random drug and alcohol tests, an infringement on their personal lives that they are told is necessary due to the safety critical nature of their work. But driving the state is every bit as safety critical, and decisions our politicians make on issues as diverse as health, education and transport policy do affect public lives.” 

Ignoring the political devilment of the RTBU, the comment focuses on being unimpaired when making decisions, regardless of the occupation, work task or corporate position.  The Minister has been put in a difficult position where he can’t be seen as responding to union naughtiness but there is merit in leading from the top and making breath-test kits available.  They are not suggesting random testing or mandatory testing but it is reasonable to expect important decision-makers to be fit-to-think and fit-to-decide.

Perhaps drug testing in the workplace would not be seen as the contentious issue it is if it had already been introduced in the boardroom.  The gesture would not be as empty as the corporate leaders may think particularly leading into the season when sauce and ganders were traditionally eaten.

 

The insidiousness of “reasonably practicable”

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WorkSafe Victoria recently released a guideline, or clarification, on what it considers to be the issues surrounding “employing or engaging suitably qualified persons to provide health and safety advice“.

SafetyAtWorkBlog remains to be convinced that such a process will lead to better safety outcomes in the small to medium-sized enterprises at which this program is aimed.  The OHS legislation clearly states that the employer is the ultimate decider on which control measures to implement to address a workplace hazard.  This is echoed in the WorkSafe guideline

“It is important to note that employing or engaging a suitably qualified person to provide OHS advice does not discharge the employer from their legal responsibilities to ensure health and safety as required under Part 3 of the OHS Act. This duty cannot be delegated.”

A business manager will weigh up the advice sought or given from a variety of sources and make a decision.  A good business manager will take responsibility for the good or bad results of their decision.  But they need to have a clear understanding of their obligations and Victoria’s legislation could be confusing.

The guideline says that

“Employers are expected to take a proactive approach to identify and control hazards in the workplace before they cause an incident, injury, illness or disease.”

This reitereates one of the safety principles in the 2004 OHS Act

“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.”

But the principles are not legislative obligations.  As Michael Tooma writes in his “Annotated Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004

“… it is the intention of the Parliament that the principles be taken into account in the administration of the Act.”

The principles are there for judicial colour and community reassurance but with no real impact.

The obligations on an employer, the section that determines the actions and plans of the business owner or managers, are, as well as general duties:

“Duties of employers to employees

(1) An employer must, so far as is reasonably practicable, provide and maintain for employees of the employer a working environment that is safe and without risks to health……..

(2) Without limiting sub-section (1), an employer contravenes that sub-section if the employer fails to do any of the following-

(a) provide or maintain plant or systems of work that are, so far as is reasonably practicable, safe and without risks to health;

(b) make arrangements for ensuring, so far as is reasonably practicable, safety and the absence of risks to health in connection with the use, handling, storage or transport of plant or substances;

(c) maintain, so far as is reasonably practicable, each workplace under the employer’s management and control in a condition that is safe and without risks to health;

(d) provide, so far as is reasonably practicable, adequate facilities for the welfare of employees at any workplace under the management and control of the employer;

(e) provide such information, instruction, training or supervision to employees of the employer as is necessary to enable those persons to perform their work in a way that is safe and without risks to health. “

The “as far as is reasonably practicable” insertions allow business considerable flexibility in arguing the validity of their decisions after an incident but hamper the employer in being “pro-active” – (a hateful and lazy piece of business jargon).

The impediments to “pro-activity” can be seen in the general duties of Section 20 where 

“to avoid doubt, a duty imposed on a person…to ensure, as far is reasonably practicable, health and safety requires the person –

(a) to eliminate risks to health and safety so far as is reasonably practicable:…..”

This contrasts with the objects of the, same, Act which states that one of the aims is

“to eliminate, at the source, risks to the health, safety and welfare of employees and other persons at work:…”

It is strongly suspected that a crucial element of OHS legislation and management will likely disappear and this is to eliminate hazards “at the source”.  Outside of the objects of the Act this aim is not mentioned anywhere else in the legislation.  “Reasonably practicable” will erase this important social and moral clause.

Eliminating something “at the source” encourages research into new ways of eliminating hazards by placing an obligation on us to determine the source.  “Reasonably practicable” encourages us to research control measures until it is practicable to do so no more.  That is a half-quest that solves nothing.  What if Frodo was asked to dispose of the ring in Mordor only if “reasonably practicable”? The story would have been a novella instead of a classic trilogy.

Employer associations are lobbying for increased workplace flexibility.  That has nothing to do with the health and safety benefits of the employees but rather the health and safety of the balance sheet.  “Reasonably practicable” similarly focuses on business management and not safety management.

The battle against this insidious weakening of the OHS profession is not lost.  Heart should be taken from the preparedness of governments to roll-back unpopular legislation such as some industrial relations initiatives.  Hindsight can be an important motivator for change.

Recent fatalities data may sway some in government that OHS regulators are achieving their social and operational targets but OHS professionals know that fatality rates are not an accurate indication of the success of safety initiatives.  New workplace hazards are appearing regularly and many of the new ones don’t result in death but lead instead to misery and an incapacity to live a healthy life or to work again in a chosen profession.  

“Reasonably practicable” allows businesses to try, in differing degrees, to eliminate the hazards, such as psychosocial hazards, of its workforce and then shift them to social security and disability benefits.  And why not? It seems that corporations can serve their clients and stakeholders “as far as is reasonably practicable” and then expect a bailout from government over their mismanagement.  Immorality applies to much more than economics.