Another safety culture disaster in Australia

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In August 2007 the Australian equestrian industry was struck by its first-ever outbreak of Equine Influenza (EI).  The Federal Government’s report on the incident has been released and has significant lessons for several reasons.

Australia has been proud of its biosecurity and customs service for decades.  As an island nation at the end of the world, there is a level of purity in its ecology that needs to be preserved (even though there were many earlier mistakes – foxes, rabbits, cane toads – to name a few).  The country’s pride was obviously out of touch with reality as Justice Callinan was highly critical of the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service.  Few government reports have included the clarity (or bluntness) of phrase as this report includes.

“The objective of biosecurity measures at a post-arrival quarantine station for animals, such as Eastern Creek, is to prevent the escape of disease that might be present in the station. It is therefore essential that people and equipment having contact with the animals are adequately decontaminated before leaving the station. That was not happening at Eastern Creek in August 2007. Had such biosecurity measures been in place, it is most unlikely that there could have been any escape of equine influenza from the Quarantine Station.
That such measures were not being implemented was a consequence of a number of acts and omissions on the part of various employees and officers of AQIS at different levels of that organisation and over a number of years.”

As the media reports appeared and the Agriculture Minister, Tony Burke, spoke passionately about the need to review the entire biosecurity process, farmers and other were thanking their luck that the outbreak was EI and not Foot & Mouth or other equally nasty infection.

Indonesia, a consistent sufferer of Avian Influenza, is only a few hundred kilometres away.  If Australia had a poultry industry on its northern shores, would the Government’s approach to quarantine inspecton be different?

Callinan goes on to depict an organisation of mismanagement and is not afraid to point the finger of blame and responsibility.  He summarises:

“What I describe bespeaks an organisation that lacked clear lines of communication between those responsible for formulating procedures and work instructions and those responsible for implementing them; one in which there was insufficient training and education in relation to the procedures and instructions to be followed; one in which there was no checking to ensure that those procedures and instructions were being implemented; and one in which any business plan or other reporting system did not alert senior management to these failures.”

For OHS professionals and risk managers, these systemic failures would fit with too many other risk management failures.  It is too easy a criticism to say that the organisation was devoid of a safety culture.  In the case of quarantining possible infectious animals, the organisation and process was inept.

A few years ago, Chris Maxwell undertook a review of Victoria’s OHS regime and stated that he thought citizens should be able to expect government departments to be exemplars of workplace safety.  It is an expectation that may be unfair in many areas but when an organisation has been urging the public to be super-diligent over the importation of items that could potentially decimate agricultural industries, and then fails disastrously itself, maybe the public campaign funds could have been better spent inside the organisation.

ABC Radio report – http://mpegmedia.abc.net.au/news/audio/pm/200806/20080612-pm01-horseflu.mp3
Government response http://www.daff.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/690704/ei-response.pdf

Risk and empire building

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A British coroner has reflected a common perception on occupational health and safety and how OHS is “taking all the fun out of life”.

According to an article in This Is The West Country on 11 June 2008, West Somerset Coroner Michael Rose said

“All too often, there isn’t enough challenge for people in this country – everything is under health and safety. I don’t think we’d have been the country we were if we’d have had health and safety one or two centuries ago.”

Without taking MIchael Rose to task about his knowledge of health and safety in 1808, his comments can be heard in many everyday circumstances where OHS is a bit of a wet blanket.

It is fun to have the wind through your hair while tearing down a hillside with no bike helmet on.  It is fun to spin on a shopping trolley in the aisles of a supermarket. And it is exhilarating to stand on the top of a building, looking down with no safety harness. All of these things I have done and I suspect my children will do them too. 

There is nothing to stop you doing these acts if you choose to.  But if you are injured as a result, it would be unfair to exepct soemone else to pay for your stupidity.  And yet that is what is becoming the expectations of modern western society – we do not take repsonsibility for our actions.

But then there is a time and place for everything and maybe OHS simply restricts those two elements.

Australian employer group at the ILO

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On 9 June 2008, Peter Anderson, CEO of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI), addressed the 2008 International Labour Conference. The ACCI is an employer association that under the previous CEO, Peter Hendy, was seen by some as a business and economic mouthpiece for the then conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard. Whether this was true or not, it is interesting that Peter Hendy is now a political adviser to the Opposition Leader, Brendan Nelson.

Anderson spoke at the ILO conference about how the ACCI needs modernising whilst maintaining its core values. The only major change in Australia over the last 12 months has been the replacement of a conservative government with a labor government representing a substantial cultural and political switch. The ACCI has realised that it was too closely linked to the conservative political parties and, although business is strongly capitalist, to better represent its constituents, it needed to reflect the values of a broader range of its constituents.

These values, Anderson reiterates, are commitments to

  • an open market;
  • private sector entrepreneurship; and
  • employment as a social motivator.

Anderson states that

“we must do things differently, and not fall back to old prejudices or failed economic prescriptions when things go tight.”

He urges the ILO to provide social policy with a higher profile and advises the government to use public funds to enable a private investment framework. He emphasise that the ACCI can work well with unions and specifically addresses contemporary OHS matters.

“We can now show leadership to industry in this regard [working with trade unions], as there is common work to be undertaken – health and safety, work and family and workforce skills but a few examples.”

Peter Anderson emphasises, perhaps too much, Australia’s position in the Asia-Pacific region. He describes the region as “the powerhouse of globalisation”. This is riding on the coat-tails of China and India and applies Asia-Pacific in a very broad sense.

The ACCI speech at the ILO conference was carefully balanced to maintain its position as an employer delegate and to flag to its members that its approach will change. It outlines a changed approach which should be interesting in the upcoming hard negotiations necessary on industrial relations and workplace safety.

Pipeline explosion may lead to invocation of emergency powers

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This post is receiving a lot of attention from around the world so, although, at the moment, the workplace safety issues have diminished, it is interesting to note that The Australian newspaper for 12 June 2008 reports that the Premier, Alan Carpenter, has acknowledged that he may need to invoke emergency powers to seize control of electricity and gas supplies.

This is an extraordinary development that indicates the infrastructure fragility of Western Australia.

The supply disruption is now also receiving federal government attention as it begins to affect Australia’s ability to supply China’s insatiable appetite for Australian minerals and energy.

Alcoa Australia is the latest company to announce a “force majeure” as a result of the Apache Energy pipeline explosion.

It is phenomenal to see how an event that in OHS terms is a “near miss” has the potential to weaken a country’s economic growth.

Occupational Noise and Motorcycle Cops

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Phil Matier spoke on KCBS radio on 9 June 2008 about the changes that Oakland Police Department is making to its motorcycles to make them louder.  There is an argument that in some way this makes the vehicles safer.

It’s a bizarre report and should be listened to while bearing in mind a new Australian report on the increase in tinnitus in young people.  Perhaps American kids need to increase the volume of their iPod earphones whenever a Oakland motorcycle cop rides by.