OHS lessons from investigations into the US poultry industry

Earlier this year, the Charlotte Observer began researching avian influenza but ended up with an expose about occupational health and safety in the US poultry industry, called “The Cruelest Cuts”. A recent podcast, and vodcast (I recommend the vodcast), highlights many safety management issues that are relevant to other industries and other jurisdictions

  • Migrant labour
  • OHS regulation
  • Musculo-skeletal disorders
  • Reportable incidents
  • Inspectorate priorities
  • The Bush government approach to OHS
  • The Ergonomics Standard
  • Activity rather than safety results
  • Misusing Lost Time Injuries

The arguments generated by the Charlotte Observer’s articles continue. A recent article reports on the House Education and Labor Committee hearings and the issues summarised in the above vodcast.

Some of the issues raised may bring “Fast Food Nation” to mind but Eric Schlosser had a broader agenda in his book than in the Charlotte Observer reports.

The articles and the video remind us to question and to ask and to prod and probe when any government department report on OHS management is released. They also illustrate how easy it is to make a company look like it is safe.

In Australia at the moment there is debate about migrant workers and soem employers have recently been prosecuted on OHS matters related to these workers. In fact, today (2 July 2008 ) according to WorkSafe Victoria, a Victorian Magistrate will sentence Lakeside Packaging over OHS issues.

The case involves injuries to two Chinese guest workers on s 457 visas. One man was hurt on two occasions – both arms broken. Lakeside Packaging Pty Ltd pleaded guilty to 7 charges.

The incidents:

Guoping Cai (35) was hurt on 16 March 2006 at the company’s Dennis St, Campbellfield premises, when his arm was crushed in an unguarded printing machine as he cleared a paper blockage. Both bones in his right forearm were broken and he was in hospital for 2 weeks Plates and bolts were put in his arm and he required a skin graft.

Zhi Hong Fu (52) fell from a ladder which had been placed on top of a steel working platform on 5 April 2006 at the Rex Road, Campbellfield premises. He was doing electrical work for which he was not qualified. He broke his right wrist and suffered other injuries He returned to work four days later with his arm in plaster. On 30 June, with his dominant right arm now in a brace, he suffered a second injury while using a drill with his left arm and steadying it with his chin. The drill kicked and his other (left) arm was broken. The company pleaded guilty to 5 charges in relation to these incidents.

Australia does not have a Mexico on its border, and the governments have heavily regulated the migrant intake but, as the court action has shown, the safety management approaches of some employers are the same the world over.

Australia military and safety culture

Australia is accumulating a considerable body of knowledge about safety cultures in workplaces.  Sadly most of the information comes from inquiries into disasters that involve multiple fatalities.  The UK has its body of knowledge from oil-rig explosions and train crashes.  Australia’s is predominantly from mining disasters, gas plant explosions and, also, train crashes.

Now according to the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian Defence Force also has a deficient safety culture.  In some ways this is of greater concern than such criticisms of private sector disasters as one would expect the military to have greater control over issues such as equipment maintenance, and staff conduct due to its regimented command structure.

ABC’s AM program reported that the board of inquiry findings into the crash of a BlackHawk helicopter on the deck of a navy ship in 2006, identifies

“.. a culture of risk taking and sloppy safety standards in the army’s elite helicopter squadron.”

According to media reports

“The inquiry’s final report found senior pilots in the Sydney-based 171 Squadron had a culture of aggressive flying, safety procedures were slack and the reporting of incidents involving engine failures and other safety breaches was haphazard,..”

A video report on the board of inquiry which includes film of the crash is available online.

Employer concerns over National OHS Review

In February 2008, I interviewed  Garry Bracks of the Australian employer association, Employers First.  Garry has been prominent in the industrial relations and OHS debates for some time and it was a pleasure to finally catch up with him.

The podcast of the interview illustrates some of the general concerns of employers with the government’s announce review into OHS law.

Issues leading up to Varanus Island pipeline explosion

Adjunct Professor Geoff Taylor recently emailed me with his concerns about the pipeline explosion on Varanus Island.

Media reports in Western Australia over the last few weeks raised serious questions about the gas crisis. Some may say that it is easy to be wise after the event, but the government had ample opportunity to be wise before the event, and develop a plan to keep a close watch on the engineering integrity of energy suppliers’ plant and an emergency plan for the state and nation. There presumably would be a safety case on file for Varanus, for example, and safety cases include contingency plans.

Prof. Andrew Hopkins wrote a book Lessons from Longford that reported on the contributing factors to the Longford gas explosion ten years ago, which left Melbourne without gas.

Here more recently we have had vibrations in the Dampier-Perth pipe, the Woodside electrical substation problem in January which cut gas supply, the National Offshore Petroleum Safety Authority (NOPSA) concerns reportedly expressed to Apache in April,  and the prohibition notice NOPSA issued to the Four Vanguard FPSO off Barrow Island reported in May.

In fact it has reportedly emerged that the WA government has a critical infrastructure protection committee advising the Premier. The police had also apparently looked at Apache, from the point of view of a terror attack primarily, in 1993 and 2001, and provided advice to the company.

It is vital that the state government’s energy ministry takes a keener and more sustained interest in these matters in the future, as they clearly can affect not just WA firms and residents, but the state and national economies, and Australia’s overseas customers.

Clearly better coordination between NOPSA, WA Resources Safety (both of which find it hard to keep staff), the energy ministry and the Premier’s committee is vital. The state’s energy system cannot be run continuously at near full capacity, because there will be outages and shutdowns for maintenance.

The advent of peak oil has highlighted the critical nature of hydrocarbon supply to our way of life, and that and the need to address the greenhouse effect also require a clear national and state energy and urban design strategy, for a state and nation so far designed around cheap fuel.

Geoff is the co-author of some excellent OHS books, particularly Enhancing Safety.

Independent okay for New Zealand’s sex industry

In 2000, sexworkers advocates in Australia published “A guide to best practice – Occupational health and safety in the Australian sex industry”. They tried for some time to have OHS authorities accept it as an industry-based code applicable to that particular State. As far as I know, they were unsuccessful but many of the elements of the guide have been picked up in various laws and licensing conditions since then. An updated soft version of the guide is available online, along with guidelines from other jurisdictions. (My edition of Safety At Work concerning the sex industry is still available as a free download)

I was reminded of this today when I saw a report from New Zealand about sexworker safety. It was reported that two Women’s Institute members from England have undertaken a world tour of brothel districts to determine the impact of local laws on prostitution. They were very impressed by New Zealand’s sex industry.

I am very impressed that an institution like the Women’s Institute undertook this activity. The realist approach to an activity that will never go away speaks volumes for how an organisation unfairly stereotyped is establishing a contemporary relevance.

Disclaimer: I treasure the WI Cookbook I purchased in the Lake District on my honeymoon over 20 years ago. It’s much better than some of the modern books that rely on manufactured ingredients.

OHS professional standards

Some years ago the CEO of an OHS certifying body came to Australia from the US.  He spoke intriguingly about the benefits of having an independently-assessed safety practitioner registration.  I could see the potential international career benefits but I am already a registered safety practitioner through my membership with an OHS professional association.  I couldn’t…

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Construction site deaths and union calls for manslaughter charges

Last weekend two Queensland workers fell 26 storeys from swing scaffolding to their deaths.  They were patching concrete on a building from a platform similar to those used by high-rise window cleaners. According to a 24 June 2008 ABC news report: “The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) says the men were wearing harnesses…

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