Possible cancer cluster at fish hatchery

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For several weeks News Limited papers have reporting weird goings on around a fish hatchery in Queensland.  In a small area of Cooloothin Creek people living on properties neighbouring the Sunland Fish Hatchery have been noticing an increase in cancers.  The latest victim is a hatchery foreman who has been diagnosed with bowel cancer.

The issue has been bubbling along since a two-headed fish larva was discovered around 11 January 2009.  On 26 January 2009, the foreman has formally requested an investigation into a cancer cluster.  The 26 January quotes cancer expert, Bruce Armstrong.

Professor Armstrong said the fact there was more than one type of cancer would normally militate against a cluster. But the deaths and health problems among chickens, horses and dogs — as well as the fish — were extremely worrisome. “Clearly, there does seem to be an ecological issue here,” he said.

He suggested an investigation could help determine if the agrichemicals posed a threat to humans.

Local residents produced a video about the issue of crop spraying which is available on YouTube.

This current case will increase the pressure on government’s for increased regulation of farm chemicals and delivery systems.

UPDATE – 28 January 2009

Queensland’s Primary Industries and Fisheries Minister Tim Mulherin has established a taskforce to investigate the Noosa fish abnormalities.  It’s first meeting will be on 28 January 2009.

It includes private aquaculture veterinarian Dr Matt Landos, who says the available  evidence points to farm chemicals.

According to a ministerial media release Dr Landos said

“I am extremely pleased that the minister is keen to progress this issue and welcome the opportunity to work with the minister and the State Government. We need to consider interim alternative chemicals and farming practices in co-operation with macadamia farmers, to provide improved safety for aquatic animals and sustainable macadamia production.”

The ministerial release also said  that

“claims of a cancer cluster in the area are a matter for Queensland Health to consider.

Queensland Health has said the need for an investigation into an alleged cancer cluster will be determined once specific information is received from the community about their health concerns.”

SafetyAtWorkBlog will be following the taskforce’s progress.

HR vs. OHS

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I have written elsewhere in SafetyAtWorkBlog concerning the silo mentality of managers in relation to human resources and OHS.  This weekend a reader posted the following comment on this blog:

“You are right about the divide between HR & OHS.  Fact is HR are the culprits of negligence, they exist to support Management.  Any one with a serious complaint thinks long and hard before sticking their neck out and going to HR…”

What struck me about this comment was that human resources was seen to be aligned with management whereas workplace safety was not.  A successful safety management system cannot exist in conflict with other management systems but how much compromise does OHS need to make to achieve an integrated management position?

I am sure that HR professionals would not perceive their position in the same way as above but I remember a colleague once saying that safety professionals were on the same level of influence to companies as hairdressers.  Perhaps OHS professionals are envious of the level of influence that HR professionals seem to have with senior management and say such things from bitterness.

At some time or other we all feel less than relevant to employers but  circumstances have a way of re-establishing relevance, sadly in OHS this is often and injury or a compensation claim.

I don’t believe that the disciplines of HR and OHS are incompatible but I have seen many instances in companies where the HR Manager sees OHS as divisive, particularly in the areas of stress and bullying.  I believe that HR professionals by-and-large have a poor understanding of how safety should be managed in companies but that is not necessarily the fault of the HR professional.  OHS professionals need to be far more analytical of their own actions and purpose within organisational structures and start being active.

Kevin Jones

Government report into plastics and chemicals

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Australia’s Productivity Commission has released a report into the national regulation of plastics and chemicals.  The supplementary report has additional topicality as it is released a week before the Review Panel into Model OHS Law presents its report to the government.  The key points of the Productivity Commission report are

  • “The Productivity Commission has recently completed a research report on the regulation of chemicals and plastics in Australia. In most cases, national approaches to regulation were found to deliver significant benefits compared with each state and territory pursuing its own approach. This supplementary paper provides a more detailed examination of some of the features of these national arrangements.
  • National approaches to regulation should draw on the strengths of each level of government:
    • Commonwealth, state and territory governments acting together through Ministerial Councils or other forums can provide leadership and policy frameworks for national issues.
    • The Australian Government may be best placed to play a role in policy coordination, and to undertake national risk assessments.
    • State and territory governments are often best placed to enforce regulations and respond to the needs of sub-national constituencies.
  • Improvements in national consistency can be achieved through a range of mechanisms, including through jurisdictions:
    • adopting uniform regulations
    • harmonising key elements of their regulatory frameworks
    • mutually recognising other jurisdictions’ regulations.
  • In chemicals and plastics, the most common legislative mechanisms for achieving national consistency have been to use template or model legislation, regulations and codes of practice. The template and model approaches can be effective, but both have their weaknesses.
  • Because the process of developing and implementing nationally-consistent regulations can be costly and drawn out, reform should only be pursued where there are prospects of material net benefits.
  • In the past, the Commonwealth has provided incentives for state and territory governments to forgo some sovereignty so as to achieve the benefits of national consistency. This approach was effective in encouraging and enabling the reform process.”

The report recommends that national intergovernmental bodies set policy, the national government coordinates policy and the States enforce it.

The three mechanisms for consistency will be familiar to safety professionals and OHS advocates.

  • “adopting uniform regulations” – already being investigated through the national review panel
  • “harmonising key elements of their regulatory frameworks” –  this was flagged almost two decades ago by the National OHS Commission and work in some industrial and regulatory areas has been completed on this
  • “mutually recognising other jurisdictions’ regulations” – the east coast states have already achieved this with some of their licencing.  OHS regulators in New South Wales are already co-producing and co-badging OHS guidelines

Although the development and implementation of legislation should not be dictated to by economics, the review panel came about through a push to reduce red tape and business costs so it is unlikely that any suggestion that may increase cost to business will appear, particularly as the Prime Minister is reiterating the hard financial challenges we all face.

The risk in an approach where 

“reform should only be pursued where there are prospects of material net benefits”

is that important long-term improvements can be ignored or, worse, dismissed.

The last point above seems to support the recent statements by the Minister for Workplace Relations, Julia Gillard, on achieving trade-offs, some would say pay-offs, at state level in order to achieve change through the intergovernmental consultative structures.

It is important to note that the Productivity Commission’s report is not about OHS but industrial regulation.  The release of the Commission’s report is likely to be a coincidence but, for some sectors, it can be seen as preparatory for the OHS Law Review Panel’s final report.

Kevin Jones

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Gillard’s plans for new OHS agency – response

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 It was predictable for the Opposition party to accuse Julia Gillard of arrogance for bypassing the Parliamentary process.   Senator Eric Abetz wrote to the letters page of AFR on 21 January 2009, the text of the letter is below (although there were slight changes in the published version)

“It is highly arrogant and misleading for Workplace Relations Minister Julia Gillard to blame the so-called “intransigent” Senate and the Opposition for the delay in implementing harmonised OH&S laws (‘Gillard defies Senate on work safety”, 20th January 2009).

As the Shadow Minister who dealt with the issue in the Senate, I know that the facts of the matter are that what you might regard as an unlikely alliance of the Coalition, Family First, the Greens, Senator Xenophon, the ACCI and the ACTU (yes, even the ACTU) all agreed that the amendments proposed and passed by the Senate were necessary.

Unfortunately, our offer to meet with Ms Gillard to negotiate a way forward on this matter was rejected by a Minister who apparently thinks “it’s my way or the highway”. It is indicative of the disregard that the Rudd Government shows for the Parliament and the Senate is that it is now seeking to circumvent it on this important matter.”

The risk from the Gillard strategy is that once the process is completed the regulatory agency will forever be accused of being illegitimate, or a political ideological construct, having not undergone due process through Parliament. The Labor government needs to look beyond political expediency to construct a national OHS regulatory body of which noone can object.

Comment continues to be sought from the labour movement and opposition political parties.

Kevin Jones

New potential carcinogen and occupational asthma

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There are two reports of concern in the next edition of the journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.  One (Cancer risks in chemical production workers exposed to 2-mercaptobenzothiazole – Online First Occup Environ Med 2009; 10.1136/oem.2008.041400) raises the increasing likelihood that 2-mercaptobenzothiazole, or MBT, could be carcinogenic.

The article reports on a study of workers in a rubber chemicals plant in North Wales.   It found that 

“Based on national statistics for expected death rates, workers exposed to MBT were twice as likely to die of gut (large intestine) and bladder cancers.

Based on national statistics for expected new cases of cancer, they were also twice as likely to be diagnosed with bladder cancer, and four times as likely to be diagnosed with multiple myeloma (bone marrow cancer).”

The other article (Occupational exposures to asthma among nursing professionals Online First Occup Environ Med 2009; 10.1136/oem.2008.042382) is similarly worrying.  Moreso because the chemical products mentioned in the report are well-known substances, such as latex gloves and gluteraldehyde, and control measures are very well established.

“…those who regularly cleaned instruments were 67% more likely to report a diagnosis of asthma since starting their job.

And nurses who were regularly exposed to general cleaning products and disinfectants were 72% more likely to say they had been newly diagnosed with asthma, and 57% more likely to report symptoms similar to asthma.

Those nurses working with solvents and glues used in patient care were also 51% more likely to say they had symptoms similar to asthma.”

In both these circumstances occupational health and safety has established control measures that can reduce the harm from these products.  What they illustrate is that OHS professionals may apply a consistent standard of expectations that often strengthen as clients remain in one specific industrial demographic but workplaces, decades after hazards are known, have a highly variable level of safety and compliance.  This sounds obvious but specialisation can lead to complacency in advisers as much as customers.

It is also useful to note that the carcinogen research was in North Wales and the asthma study in Texas.  Both these countries have strong OHS legislation and a good amount of OHS resources but still unacceptable levels of occupational illness.  It is this level of resource and attention that has provided the chance for these studies to be undertaken.  

“The more we look, the more we find”

Kevin Jones