Workplace health – international response

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Rory O’Neil, editor of Hazards magazine has written in response the SafetyAtWorkBlog posting on workhealth initiatives.  His response was posted on one of the many safety-related Internet discussion forums and was brought to my attention by Andrew Cutz and others.

WorkHealth initiatives – it’s about the workers, isn’t it?

The Victorian system is not garnering the necessary support because it is lifestyle focussed and has not answered concerns raised by unions, who want the programme to also address conditions caused or exacerbated by work. Business is annoyed because unions had the audacity to require that workers have a say in measures relating to their health (the poor little things are supposed to be passive recipients, apparently, taking the medicine and behaving like good little children). Below is my little news summary from 1 November.

There’s a rash of these lifestyle related interventions around the industrialised world. The EU is pushing fruit into some workers’ mouths, for example, as part of the ISAFRUIT project. However, two apples a day don’t make a worker as happy and healthy as a pay rise or some constructive participation in decisions about how work is organised, how satisfying that work might be and at what pace and for what reward. Or wage levels that allow healthy dietary choices for the whole family, at home and at work.

The lifestyle-focussed projects tend to be couched in language about making the worker healthier but are frequently more concerned with reducing sickness absence costs and winnowing out all but the superdrones that can work long hours in bad jobs without complaint. If employers cared so much, sickness absence procedures would not include punitive elements and health and safety whistleblowers wouldn’t be an endangered species. The unionisation campaign at Smithfield is a pretty clear case in point – bad jobs, bad pay, runaway strains and injuries and victimisation for those would stood up against it.

I’ve nothing against been given free fruit, free gym membership or anything free for that. But the time to use the gym, eat the fruit and have a life both inside and outside work that is meaningful and fulfilling might make it easier to swallow. This issue is about good jobs, with good conditions of employment and good remuneration. If workplace health policy ignores these factors, then it is an irresponsible diversion.

This is my latest measured contribution on the issue:

You big fat liars [Hazards 104, October-December 2008]
Oh, they say it’s because they care. They’ll weigh us, keep tabs on our bad habits and ask questions when we are sick. And when we fall short of perfection, they label us shirkers, sickos and slobs. Hazards editor Rory O’Neill questions whether all this attention from employers is really for our own good. more
More on this theme: www.hazards.org/workandhealth

If ACOEM is developing policy, then it should consider how work factors dominate our working days and frames the comfort and health of our working lives and beyond. That means integrating better work into any health model and making sure workers are allowed to participate fully in – and influence the design and operation of – any workplace health system.

Rory also points to the Trade Unions Congress posting that quotes the Victorian union response to the WorkHealth program and says this about the major employer group’s position:

The employers’ group, meanwhile, is adamant it will not accept the changes under any circumstances. David Gregory, the head of workplace relations at the Victorian Employers Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said it amounted to making the programme an ‘industrial weapon.’

Office design hype risks

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On 11 January 2009, John Read posted an article on office design.  The first paragraph is below:

“Paying attention to office design and building maintenance are imperative parts to doing business that many company owners ignore. The layout of office interiors can have a deep consequence on the disposition and productivity of staff members and upper management. Providing a well-maintained office is crucial in reference to health and safety issues. Through the use of proper design and upkeep, offices are able to experience some amount of control over the contentment, welfare, and effectiveness of not only their staff members, but themselves also.”

My comment was posted this morning

“The refurbishment and redesign of offices can have a positive effect on the morale of workers if the environment becomes cheery, colourful and refreshing. However, companies often use refurbishment as a cover for more important cultural and organisational issues.

Successful businesses and happy staff come from active personnel management more than from the physical environment in which this occurs.

Companies should not be distracted from organisational issues by window dressing and office redesign is, usually, a low-priority matter that is more often than not, coordinated through an image consultant or brand marketing.

Another risk with office redesign is when the ergonomic, operational and communication needs are not considered at the design stage. In many instances, offices quickly become shabby because workers need to accommodate design deficiencies in order to achieve comfort and peak productivity – additional heating, more lighting, different seating, additional technologies…..

Plants have been advocated as a positive, and functional, presence in offices for decades however, windows that open to allow ventilation, have been around much longer. The environmental design of an office building should be considered before taking on a tenancy.

The definitive government guidance on office safety and design is OfficeWise by WorkSafe Victoria, which is available online.”

Australian electronic media today, and probably the newspapers tomorrow, have been reporting on a new literature study into office design undertaken by Dr Vinesh Oommen from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) concerning open-plan office design.

A typical example of journalistic hyperbole with a “comical” photo can be found in The Queensland Times from an AAP story.

Dr Oommen is quoted as saying:

“In 90 per cent of the research, the outcome of working in an open-plan office was seen as negative, with open-plan offices causing high levels of stress, conflict, high blood pressure, and a high staff turnover.

The high level of noise causes employees to lose concentration, leading to low productivity, there are privacy issues because everyone can see what you are doing on the computer or hear what you are saying on the phone, and there is a feeling of insecurity.”

Dr Oommen has previously gained media attention with his research in children and junk food.

The media is going to run with this story, particularly now it has appearedon the AAP wires services.  Yet we can’t access Dr Oommen’s study in the Asia-Pacific Journal of Health Management as the publication is only for members of the Australian College of Health Service Executives . Until then it is wise to consider the media’s interpretation of an unseen research article before making the decision to redesign your open-office into ripple glass and swinging doors.

To investigate whether your offices are an occupational hazard, you are recommended to remind yourself of the safe design guidelines or, as mentioned above, reread the latest version of OfficeWise, or its sister publication, StressWise.

Let others go off half-cocked while the safety practitioners deal with reality.

 Kevin Jones

Eliminating hazards

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In the aims of most of the Australian OHS legislation is 

“to eliminate, at the source, risks to the health, safety and welfare of employees and other persons at work…”

I have written elsewhere on how this conflicts with the push for “reasonably practicable” but the need to remember this important aim was emphasised by a study undertaken by the Graduate School of Public Health and the School of Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh and published in the January 2009 issue of “Neuropsychology”, which is published by the American Psychological Association.

The researchers followed up on the 1982 Lead Occupational Study, which assessed the cognitive abilities of 288 lead-exposed and 181 non-exposed male workers in eastern Pennsylvania.  It measured “five primary cognitive domains: psychomotor speed, spatial function, executive function, general intelligence, and learning and memory.”

According to the media statement, in the 2004 follow up study,

“Among the lead-exposed workers, men with higher cumulative lead had significantly lower cognitive scores. The clearest inverse relationships – when one went up, the other went down – emerged between cumulative lead and spatial ability, learning and memory, and overall cognitive score.

This linkage was more significant in the older lead-exposed men, of at least age 55. Their cognitive scores were significantly different from those of younger lead-exposed men even when the researchers controlled for current blood levels of lead. In other words, even when men no longer worked at the battery plants, their earlier prolonged exposure was enough to matter…”

“The men who built lead batteries were exposed to it in the air and through their skin. Other occupations, including semiconductor fabrication, ceramics, welding and soldering, and some construction work, also may expose workers. The authors wrote that, “Increased prevention measures in work environments will be necessary to reduce [lead exposure] to zero and decrease risk of cognitive decline.””

Lead has been identified as a major occupational hazard for a very long time and is a good example of how “reasonably practicable” is not always a reasonable solution.  Lead paint products have been banned in many countries.  Asbestos similarly so.  The attitude that there are “safe” levels of exposure to some industrial products is not worth pursuing in most circumstances.

Safety is similar to medicine in that both aim to “do no harm”.  If Hippocrates, or Galen, were alive today they would not say

“do no harm, as far as is reasonable practicable”.

That is not a belief that will establish a centuries-old profession and it should not be blindly accepted by the safety profession in the 21st century.

Kevin Jones

Workplace health initiatives in unstable economic times

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All through the Presidency of George W Bush, safety professionals have been critical of the lack of action on workplace safety.  As with many issues related to a new Democrat President in Barack Obama, organisations are beginning to publish their wishlists.  The latest is the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM).

On 9 January 2009, ACOEM released a media statement which began

“American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) calls on the Health and Human Services Secretary-designee Tom Daschle to address the critical link between the health, safety, and productivity of America’s workers and the long-term stability of its health care system and economy as he begins work on the Obama administration’s health care agenda.”

The requested changes could be interpreted as a criticism of what the situation has been under George W Bush.  ACOEM says the next government

“must put a greater emphasis on ensuring the health of the workforce in order to meet the twin challenges of an aging population and the rise of chronic disease…”

ACOEM President Robert R. Orford, MD goes into specifics

“…calling on Daschle to focus on preventive health measures aimed at workers that could range from screening and early detection programs to health education, nutritional support, and immunizations.”

The ACOEM reform program is based on the following

  • “investing in preventive health programs for workers;
  • creating new linkages between the workplace, homes and communities to reinforce good health;
  • providing financial incentives to promote preventive health behaviors among workers; and
  • taking steps to ensure that more health professionals are trained in preventive health strategies that can be applied in the workplace.”

Accepting that one Australian State, Victoria, is considerably smaller than the US (Victoria  has a population of around 5,200,000, the US had 301,621,157 in 2007), it is interesting to remember what the Victorian Government proposed (or promised) just on 12 months ago concerning its WorkHealth initiative.

“Over time the program is expected to free up $60 million per year in health costs, as well as:

  • Cut the proportion of workers at risk of developing chronic disease by 10 per cent;
  • Cut workplace injuries and disease by 5 per cent, putting downward pressure on premiums;
  •  Cut absenteeism by 10 per cent; and
  •  Boost productivity by $44 million a year.”

[It would be of little real benefit to simply multiple the Victorian commitments by the differential with the US population to compare monetary commitments, as there are too many variable but if the WorkHealth productivity was imposed on the US, there could be a $2.6 billion, not a lot considering the size of President Bush’s bailouts and Barack Obama’s mooted bailout package.  However, in the current economic climate, in order to gain serious attention, any proposal should have costs estimated up front and, ideally, show how the initiative will have minimal impact on government tax revenues – an approach that would require.]

In each circumstance there is the logic that unhealthy people are less productive than healthy people.  This sounds right but it depends very much on the type of work tasks being undertaken.  It is an accepted fact [red flag for contrary comments. ED] that modern workloads are considerably more supported by technology than in previous labour-intensive decades.  Perhaps there are better productivity gains through (further) increased automation than trying to reverse entrenched cultural activity.

In late 2008 an OHS expert said to a group of Australian safety professionals in late-2008 that WorkHealth

“is not well-supported by the stakeholders.  The trade unions feel it is a diversion away from regulated compliance and that it is going to refocus the agenda on the health of the worker and the fitness of the worker as the primary agenda, which is not what the [OHS] Act is setup to focus on. The employers are basically unkeen to get involved on issues they think are outside their control.”

The expert supported the position of some in the trade union movement that WorkHealth was always a political enthusiasm, some may say folly.

This is going to be of great importance in Australia with the possibility of new OHS legislation to apply nationally but also muddies the strategic planning of any new government that needs to show that it is an active and effective agent of change, as Obama is starting to do.  In the US, the public health system is not a paragon and the workplace safety regulatory system is variable, to be polite.  Fixing the public health system would seem to have the greater social benefit in the long term, and a general productivity benefit.

(It has to be admitted that the packaging of health care in employment contracts in the US is attractive employment benefit and one that seems to be vital to those who have it.  Australia does not have that workplace entitlement but those employers struggling to become employers-of-choice should serious consider it, particularly as a work/family benefit.)

Each country is trying to reduce the social security cost burden on government and it would seem that public health initiatives would have the broader application as it covers the whole population and not just employees, or just those employees who are unfit.

Work health proposals in both jurisdictions need to re-examine their focuses and to pitch to their strengths.  Business has enough to worry about trying to claw its way out of recession (even if the US government is throwing buckets of money to reduce the incline from the pit).  OHS professionals have enough work trying to cope with the traditional hazards and recent, more-challenging, psychosocial hazards.  Workplace health advocates are muddying the funding pool, confusing government strategic policy aims, and blending competing or complementary approaches to individual health and safety in the public’s mind.  

 Kevin Jones

Update 16 January 2009

More information on this issue is available HERE

Those at risk of exposure to asbestos

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Over this last weekend, asbestos-safety advocates, ADSVIC, took advantage of the topicality of the navy’s poor management of asbestos by including half-page ads in major Australian newspapers.  The ads focused on the risks associated with DIY home renovators but law firm, Slater & Gordon, related their asbestos information sheet directly to the media attention about the Australian Navy.

Slater & Gordon, a former employer of Australia’s industrial relations and education minister, Julia Gillard, have always been active in seeking new clients and have participated in many class actions based on workplace safety issues, particularly the James Hardie Industries legal action of earlier this century which was important for many reasons, including the furthering of political careers.

Slater & Gordon’s information sheet includes a list of those people who it believes are at risk of asbestos-related diseases.  It doesn’t much leave room for anyone to feel safe from this risk.

  • Miners
  • Asbestos plant workers
  • Handlers and waterside workers
  • Asbestos factory workers
  • Carpenters, plumbers, electricians and builders
  • Wives and children of workers
  • Office workers
  • Mechanics/brake workers
  • Power plant workers/refinery workers
  • Teachers and students
  • Hospital workers
  • Telstra workers
  • People at home

Kevin Jones