Shiftwork risks

For fixed periods over the last two years I have been working morning or night shift for a multi-national business information company.  I know shiftwork fairly well although I have never worked rotating shifts and the longest shift worked is around nine hours.  That may well categorise me as a wimp to those oil-rig workers, firefighters, bakers and miners out there, but…..

being an OHS professional I have been very watchful of my own health when working shiftwork.  On full night shift it took my digestion weeks to break the routine of over forty years.  My weight has increased but no chronic illnesses yet.  My biggest risk comes from fatigue in the drive to and from work though I have to admit that at 2.30 in the morning in Melbourne, I could use my cruise control on the suburban streets as the traffic is so light.

I have also been more keenly aware of the studies and reports on shiftwork and the health risks associated with it.  Often these reports garner considerable media coverage and, as is the way with media, some contrary articles never get a run.  Below is a selection of links to articles that highlight increased risk or the reduction of risk in relation to shiftwork:

Epidemiological Diagnosis of Occupational Fatigue in a Fly-In–Fly-Out Operation of the Mineral Industry

Simple Schedule Changes Could Improve Shift Worker Health

U of T research finds shift work linked to organ disease

This is a selection of the most recent and show the difficulties posed to OHS professionals and managers in handling this emerging risk.

For the moment, I am taking the issue of shiftwork out of my personal concerns.  I will focus instead on the health, fitness and fatigue issues applying the logic that the hazard variable over which I have the most control is myself.

Varanus Island and Worker Safety

The safety of workers at the Varanus Island pipeline has been questioned through emailed photos of the explosion site and the accompanying email.  The images have not been confirmed by Apache Energy.

The email, reported by The Age and perthnow, says the “big bang” had occurred because the pipe had corroded “to the thickness of a match stick”.

It was also reported to include the following comments from a worker

“We ran for our lives, really really really scary. Does not feel good to be back here so soon (5 days later) The place is quiet, no noise, nothing. Just us hitting spanners ect (sic). Not sure if I really wanna be here when it’s up and running, which will be months away, a lot of damage.”

Minimising stress hazards by managing better

Wendy MacDonald, from Latrobe University’s Centre for Ergonomics and Human Factors, discussed the possible breach of OHS legislation by the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s dismissal of the risk of working excessive hours by public servants, recently on ABC radio.

The podcast can be accessed HERE

By identifying the links between excessive working hours and the increase in cardiovascular problems due to stress, the report echoes other posts in safetyatworkblog but also adds a new dimension to the Victorian government’s WorkHealth strategy.  If the link of excessive working hours to stress-related conditions is proven, and I think the evidence is already there, then there is an obligation under OHS law to control the hazard at the source, to eliminate the hazard. 

I wait to see the WorkHealth publications that advise managers to reduce workload to “healthy” levels, to ensure that adequate leave is taken to ensure people are “fit for work” and that they cap working hours to a safe level.

The need for broad and open consultation on OHS law

Bill Calcutt makes some excellent points about the consultative strategy used by the Australian government in its recent 2020 summit.  The summit showed that this government had differentiated itself from the previous conservative one through “transparent evidence-based decision making” and a wide consultative base, even though the guests were selected. Sadly, I am not sure…

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The Crucial OHS Review Role of John Della Bosca

The New South Wales Industrial Relations Minister, John Della Bosca is a linchpin in the move for harmonisation of OHS law in Australia.

All attention is on New South Wales as it is said to have OHS laws that are the most onerous on employers.  Employer groups are calling for a greater preventative focus and more cooperation on improving workplace safety, specifically those areas of conflict that employer groups have in New South Wales.

Della Bosca supports the New South Wales OHS regime, at least lately he does, in reaction to the employer groups wanting, according to the Minister, a “version of harmonisation…aimed at reducing safety standards and eliminating the strong NSW laws.”

The NSW Minerals Council, reported in the Australian Financial Review on 13 June 2008 (page 19 sorry, there is no online reference), has concerns over the New South Wales operation of duty of care, double jeopardy, and appeal rights. 

The wobbly element in the NSW argy-bargy is the political future of John Della Bosca.  He has been stood down from his portfolio due to events relating to an alleged altercation in a restaurant that involves his wife, Belinda Neal, who is a member of the Federal Parliament. (Any internet search on “Della Bosca” is sure to turn up articles on this as the story has been running for almost two weeks).  Della Bosca is one of the strongest performers in New South Wales politics and has held the IR portfolio for a long time.  Political analysts are saying he will weather the storm but that his wife has little parliamentary future. 

In the mean time, Della Bosca’s strong position on OHS is absent in the political discussion and this will have ramifications in the harmonisation process.  The Treasurer, Michael Costa, the only other strong NSW performer, could take on the role but the longer Della Bosca’s absent, the more ground the government and its strong trade union support loses to the employers.

In a roundabout fashion, this also puts pressure on the recently-appointed Secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Jeff Lawrence.  Some unions are less than impressed with his political performance.  In Della Bosca’s absence, Lawrence needs to step up his lobbying and maybe continue it even when the Minister returns.

Business Continuity from Pipeline “near miss”

Australia’s Resources Minister, Martin Ferguson has emphasised that the National Offshore Petroleum Safety Authority (NOPSA) is a competent investigative organisation and that people should not speculate on the cause of the Varanus Island pipeline explosion before the report is completed.

At a joint press conference with the Minister on 14 June 2008, West Australian Premier, Alan Carpenter said it was too early to gauge the impact of the gas supply disruption. (Politically too early but the finance papers are full of the impact on Australian business.  Look at the disastrous share performance of Babcock & Brown Power for evidence.) Carpenter then estimated a cost to the economy of “hundreds of millions of dollars a day”.

NOPSA’s report should be fascinating reading on the operation of an isolated gas pipeline but more fascinating would be a book about how the West Australian energy infrastructure was allowed to become so fragile.  The book should also document the positives about the business continuity programs of the major WA industries.

The next impact will likely come from the insurance companies.

Another safety culture disaster in Australia

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