Political argy-bargy on level crossing safety

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Earlier this week Queensland MP Tim Nicholls, of the Liberal-National coalition gave the Queensland Transport Minister, John Mickel, a serve over the $10 million program on level crossing safety by calling the response “window dressing”. 

Nicholls seems more interested in political point-scoring than safety but he asks

“What has happened to all their much vaunted safety studies over the last decade.  It’s about time this Government came clean and explained whether it would actually commit new funding, what ongoing rail safety programs, if any, it has and whether today’s announcement will mean money is redirected from other maintenance and safety programs.”

He points out that

“Railway level safety was included in the National Road Safety Action Plan in 2003 and the Australian Transport Council has previously described railway level crossing crashes as ‘one of the most serious safety issues faced by the rail system in Australia'”

Today, Shadow Transport Minister Fiona Simpson got the focus back to safety for political procrastination and funding arguments describing the Queensland Government’s staunch defence of its “risk model” for determining upgrades was “dangerous“.

The Transport Minister has responded with political bluster but within John Mickel’s bluster is some points worth noting.

“For example, she [Fiona Simpson] might want to familiarise herself with the research which shows that the overwhelming number of level crossing accidents are caused by road driver behaviour, and how more than half of the accidents happen at crossings where there are boom gates or flashing lights.”

Mickel goes on to say

“Under this [uniform national assessment] process a review of level crossing characteristics such as topography and visibility takes place, which is then combined with the volume of road and rail traffic. The assessed level of risk is then used to prioritise any work that needs to be done.

The approach developed by Queensland forms the basis of what is known as ALCAM – the Australian Level Crossing Assessment Model – which has now been accepted by all state Transport Ministers as the method to be used to evaluate railway level crossings across Australia.”

ALCAM is receiving a great deal of attention through the Victorian Parliamentary investigation into level crossing safety. 

The need for uniform assessment processes is worthy but decisions on upgrading government infrastructure always considers the political imperatives, some would just, just as strongly as independent scientific advice.

Over decades workplace safety has developed assessment processes based on a range of techniques from plain observation to QRA, FEMA and many others.  Only recently has OHS got to the point of realising that greater and longer-lasting safety can be achieved through designing workplaces safely from the beginning rather than trying to achieve safety through retrofitting.  Recently in Australia, there is a growing movement to apply safety case techniques to workplaces that are not high-risk organisations.

Level crossing incidents, as do workplace fatalities, indicate that there was something not right with the initial design or that necessary safety improvements were permitted to lag behind the status and technology of the users of the facilities.  The fact remains that there are too many unsafe level crossings in Australia and each fatality is generating a reactionary government response rather than instigating true leadership.

Defibrillators in public places

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official20portrait_oct07_sm-brumbyThe Victorian Premier, John Brumby, “unveiled” publicly accessible defibrillators at the Southern Cross station in Melbourne on 6 January 2008.  Australia has been relatively slow in the take-up of defibrillators as part of the non-professional first aid role.  Partly this was due to the initial expense of each unit but also because workplace first aid legislation took some time to accommodate technology.

In most States of Australia, this was exacerbated by the emphasis on allocating first aid resources on the basis of need rather than a prescriptive basis and, anyway, how can you gauge where people will have heart attacks?

SafetyAtWorkBlog is wary about relying on technology to solve problems simply because it seems simpler.  In the long-term, technology can be become cumbersome, unnecessarily expensive to maintain and often increasingly unreliable.  It is suggested that a cost/benefit exercise of the new defibrillators in Southern Cross Station would show them to be an unnecessary expense.  Direct cause and effect in terms of first aid is difficult to quantify.  But then again, according to the Premier’s media statement:

“In the 2007/08 financial year, Ambulance Victoria responded to 133 emergency cases at Southern Cross Station, including five cardiac arrest incidents.”

Defibrillators were obviously not applied as quickly in those incidents as can be in the future but for those first aiders in this blog’s readership the following statistic can be quite useful.

“Victoria has the best cardiac arrest survival rate in Australia, with 52 per cent of patients arriving alive at hospital.”

Let’s hope that these defibrillators will stop the Southern Cross Station from being a “terminal”.

Kevin Jones

Australian 2008 workplace statistics

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Every year newspapers and organisations undertake a “year in review”.  OHS regulators are no different.  As more statistics become available of the next few weeks, SafetyAtWorkBlog will provide the latest OHS statistics for 2008.  The most recent are below.

Western Australia

According to a media release by WorkSafe WA:

“In 2005/06, WA recorded 12 traumatic work-related deaths and 25 in 2006/07. There were 27 fatalities in 2007/08. In addition, every year around 19,000 Western Australians suffer an injury or illness serious enough to have to take time off work.”

Eleven of these fatalities have occurred since 1 July 2008

Victoria

According to information provided to SafetyAtWorkBlog by WorkSafe Victoria:
  • There were 21 work-related deaths in calendar 2008 compared with 22 in 2007 and 29 in 2006.
  • Deaths in 2008 occurred in building construction (four), transport and agriculture (three each), timber, electrical linesmen (two each). There were also fatalities involving forklifts, the meat industry, retail, firefighting, roadworks, warehousing and manufacturing (one each).
  • The 10 year average is 28.4 deaths/calendar year.  There were 39 fatalities in 1999, the highest in that period.  Lowest was 2004 with 18.
  • The 5 year average is 24 with a high of 30 in 2004, the highest in that period.
  • 29,087 [WorkCover] claims last financial year compared with 28,550 in the previous. There were 77 life threatening injuries in the last financial year compared with 66 in 06/07.

Kevin Jones

UPDATE – 7 January 2009

A spokesperson for WorkSafe WA has told SafetyAtWorkBlog that WorkSafe’s statistical experience varies from that in Victoria in the context of workplace injuries over the Summer break.  January is historically a month with a low rate of workplace injuries.  This may be due to the number and type of West Australian industries that close down for January or that workers are on leave for around two weeks in January.

Statistics on workplace injuries are notoriously difficult to compare from one Australian State to another and SafetyAtWorkBlog would argue OHS would be seen as more directly relevant by the community if statistics accurately reflected the level of work-related injuries and illnesses rather than being based on workers compensation claims and fatalities.   It certainly would change the strategic targets and enforcement processes if illness was accurately assessed.

Various Federal governments have promised to attend to statistical incompatibility over decades and it is hoped that the potential national consistency of OHS laws may also resolve the need for accurate and relevant workplace statistics.

 

 

 

 

Different political approaches to level crossing safety

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In the Melanie Griffiths movie, Working Girl, her character gained inspiration by linking an article in the social pages of a newspaper with a business article in the paper, much to Sigourney Weaver’s professional embarrassment.  This week SafetyAtWorkBlog received a similar confluence of information.

Following a fatal level crossing collision in Queensland between a passenger train and a garbage truck, the latest in several crossing incidents, the Queensland Transport Minister, John Mickel, issued a media statement outlining his plans.

QR [Queensland Rail – a government-owned rail company] will target priority level crossings in North Queensland with $10 million approved today to start work immediately on implementing improvements identified by a joint QR Task Force involving train drivers and rail unions.
QR will also step up its community education and public awareness campaigns about the need for motorists to be vigilant when using level crossings.
Transport Minister John Mickel said the urgent funding allocation and expanded community education campaigns would put greater focus on the on-going issue of level crossing safety.

A similar type of announcement was made over 12 months ago by the Victorian Transport Lynne Kosky.  In The Age on 6 January 2009, an article reported that the government has agreed to provide the roads authority with a $700,000 grant to paint 

“new yellow markings at more than 50 intersections around the city.”

Connex [a private rail company whose contract is up for renewal] has reported a big increase in near misses at level crossings in 2008 at the same time it

“demanded the Government prevent cars queueing dangerously on roads at rail crossings after drivers and other Government agencies reported the rising problem.”

The yellow markings are to “indicate cars must not stop there”.  

Apparently the government believes that drivers who push through traffic and get stuck on a clearly signposted level crossing are more likely to change their behaviour because there are now yellow lines painted on the road.  The hierarchy of controls is not big in government policy thinking.

The New South Wales government (the State between Queensland and Victoria) instigated a program of grade separation in the 1930’s almost eliminating the problem of collisions.  This required a vision of the future that is no different from the current circumstances – more people, more vehicles, more demand for public transport.  That government chose to plan for the long-term benefit of the community that live beyond the next election cycles.

Let’s hope that the Queensland government looks for sensible safety planning from the State next door and not the one down South.

Kevin Jones

The following links on Victorian rail crossing incidents can be used as a starting point for a greater understanding of the safety and political issues:

St Albans

Ambulance Officer

Kerang

Kerang Investigation Report

Drug abuse at work – podcast interview with Professor Steve Allsop

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The editors of SafetyAtWorkBlog produced SafetyAtWork podcasts several years ago.  These interviews deserve some longevity even though some of the references have dated.  In this context, SafetyAtWorkBlog is re-releasing a podcast from September 2006 on the management of drugs in the workplace. (The podcast is available at SafetyAtWork Podcast – September 2006 )

Professor Steven Allsop is a leading researching on the use of drugs at work and socially.  Steven is also the Director of the National Drug Research Institute.  In this interview he discusses amphetamine use, how to broach the issue of drug use with a worker and drug policies in industrial sectors.

Please let SafetyAtWorkBlog know of your thoughts on this podcast.

Kevin Jones