Australian Prime Minister talks to the great unwashed

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The edge of panic is starting to appear in Australian concerns over swine flu.  Some health officials, who should know better, are slipping slightly off message.  The Queensland government’s chief medical officer has recommended that food should be stockpiled.  This was quickly jumped on by the Federal Health Minister, Nicola Roxon, has tried to provide a more palatable context to the stockpiling:

“We want people to be aware of the risk of this disease, we want people to be taking sensible planning steps but we don’t want panic,” she said. “It’s very important that we don’t have a rush on products that people just during the course of their ordinary shopping might think about whether they have some of these extra supplies.”

The Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has offered some of the blandest, but relevant, advice:

“For all Australians to engage in the simple practice of washing their hands with soap on a regular basis.”

Kevin Rudd is not the poster boy for personal hygiene unless eating one’s earwax is a suitable hygiene practice.

SafetyAtWorkBlog will continue to watch for evidence of the effectiveness of handwashing in influenza control.

Roxon’s advice is sound however in one very important way – sensible planning steps.  Cut through the hyperbole.  Listen to reputable health advice, and keep your colleagues and employees informed.  If that happens, we’ll get through this threat.

Kevin Jones

Workplace safety can be funny

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This week workplace safety on a building site received a much needed dose of humour.  The Australian show “ThankGod, You’re Here” had a comedian enter a pretend building site and have to face questions from an OHS inspector as if he was the owner of the site.

The sketch has added impact because of its timing.  It is hard to imagine this occurring ten years ago in a society and industry where OHS compliance was less valued, when hardhats were considered optional and when brightly-coloured vests looked stupid.  That the sketch is funny is a measure of how OHS regulation and enforcement has matured and just how successful the OHS regulators have been in changing the society’s attitudes to workplace safety in Australia.

Also, it shows something more illustrative of comedy, more true.  In the sketch there are some wonderful stunts done by a small earthmover.  Only last year there was outrage, and fines, over some forklift stunts done for real by a young driver in Melbourne.  The environment makes the difference between laughter and outrage.

The success of the TV show’s concept is also indicated by the issue of the 12-year-old welder on the building site.  The comedian, Merrick Watts, removes the issue of age by insisting the young boy is actually in his fifties and just looks younger.

WorkSafe Victoria, whose logo is worn by the pretend inspectors in the sketch, have said that they did not pay for brand placement and that the show did not belittle the work they do.  In fact the show “actually showed that we have a job to do and that there are good reasons for it.”

Kevin Jones

Safe Work Australia Awards 2008

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Safe Work Australia is a fairly new configuration for  Australia’s OHS department but it’s awards have been going for some years.  On 28 April 2009 the awards were held in Canberra.  The timings don’t seem quite right but that is the scheduling of these sorts of things in Australia.

The award winners from the State events are nominated for national awards, usually, conducted six months later.  SafetytWorkBlog has written elsewhere  about the need to review this system.

The winners this evening were congratulated by the Workplace Relations Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, Julie Gillard and were

The obvious peculiarity in the award winners is the absence of winners from Victoria, Western Australia and Queensland, states with large populations and/or large mining sectors.

The Dorsal Boutique Hotel gained considerable kudos in New South Wales’s awards in October 2008 with its bed elevator that reduces the need for housekeepers to bend when making the beds.  It is a good example of thinking further into the problem and asking why beds are designed the way they are and why can’t we change it.  It has a limited use but considerable appeal to the millions of hotels around the world.  More information can be found on the solution at the NSW WorkCover Awards site.

It is always more gratifying to see successful things rather than successful programs as the things are often transferable to many workplaces and are visual solutions to problems, sometimes problems we weren’t aware of.  Leadership and management awards are more a recognition that a company has taken safety seriously which has been a legislative requirement on business for decades.  There is little innovation to show in these areas.  More the award is for the fact that known techniques have been applied in difficult work situations or industry sectors or company configurations.

This is not to say the effort of the award winners is less valuable than tangible solutions but often these changes come from a changed management structure or a traumatic event or new focus from the board.  It is easier to understand the significance of these OHS “agents for change” when focusing on an individual achievement.  The award for Viki Coad is a great example of the difference one person can make.  It is these achievements that should be more widely applauded. 

Indeed readers could benefit greatly from looking at the State winners in this individual category for that is where inspiration can be found.

Kevin Jones

(Kevin was invited to attend the awards event by Safe Work Australia)

Handwashing as a risk control

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Everyone knows that we are cleaner for the washing of our hands.  The childhood fibs of our parents that potatoes will grow behind our ears if we don’t wash there regularly have been pretty much dismissed.  There was little evidence for the benefits of washing behind our ears other than the authority and wisdom of parents but for most of one’s life that’s enough (or at least till we turn and mistrust everything our parents say).

In Australia, OHS has been pushing for evidence-based decision making.  Some have twisted this noble aim into short-term empire building on concepts such as a “body of knowledge” (- the more important question should be why do particular people want to control this knowledge in the first place).  But evidence is important and over the last few years some researchers have been seeking the evidence for the safety benefits of hand-washing in infection control, particularly during times of epidemics or pandemics.

The current swine flu scare (it remains a “scare” in many parts of the world) is generating recommendations on personal hygiene, as reported in SafetyAtWorkBlog on yesterday, but is there evidence or is hand-washing a comforting distraction?

Earlier this year Jody Lanard and Peter Sandman wrote:

The “Cover Your Cough” page on the CDC’s seasonal flu website begins this way:

Serious respiratory illnesses like influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), whooping cough, and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) are spread by: 

  •  
    • Coughing or sneezing
    • Unclean hands….

If you don’t have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your upper sleeve, not your hands.

We have been unable to find a single study that supports this recommendation with regard to influenza. The World Health Organization Writing Group report on “Nonpharmaceutical Interventions for Pandemic Influenza” makes the same recommendation for flu specifically, but concedes that it has been made “more on the basis of plausible effectiveness than controlled studies.”

As for hand-washing, a Mayo Clinic publication on hand-washing includes flu on a list of infectious diseases “that are commonly spread through hand-to-hand contact.” The Government of Alberta’s “Influenza Self-Care” publication advises: “Wash Your Hands to Prevent Influenza…. Next to immunization, the single most important way to prevent influenza is to wash your hands often.”

But here’s what the World Health Organization Writing Group report says: “Most, but not all, controlled studies show a protective effect of handwashing in reducing upper respiratory infections…. Most of the infections studied were likely viral, but only a small percentage were due to influenza…. No studies appear to address influenza specifically.” 

The Lanard/Sandman article discusses at length the way that hand-washing may be affecting our approaches to other control measures such as vaccination.  It tries to cut through the hyperbole on influenza and if you are a health care worker, the full article is strongly recommended.

At the moment there is no clear evidence of the benefits of hand-washing and if this swine flu scare remains a scare for most people, one of the areas for further research should be the effectiveness, and role, of hand-washing in the control of pandemic infections.  It just may be that “universal precautions” should not be so unquestioningly universal.

Kevin Jones