Workplace depression approaches are too narrow

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Further to other SafetyAtWorkBlog posts concerning Ms Paula Wriedt’s sacking, Ms Wriedt has issued a statement expressing her disappointment at Premier David Bartlett’s decision.

One comment from a newspaper columnist struck me as odd but worthy of note.  The columnist said that Paula Wriedt’s public statements have followed the line pushed by beyondblue, a depression support and lobby group.  I have had no dealings with beyondblue but note that newspaper articles often end with “For further information on depression contact…..” similarly television news reports.

beyondblue has been a spectacular success in self-promotion and, hopefully, increasing awareness of depression.  In the context of the Premier’s decision on Paula Wriedt, David Bartlett contacted the chair of beyondblue (and former Victorian Premier) Jeff Kennett, prior to his decision.  The Weekend Australian newspaper reported

“I have not taken this decision lightly; in fact, decisions don’t come any tougher than this,” Mr Bartlett said. He received support from former Victorian Liberal premier Jeff Kennett, the chairman of depression support group Beyondblue.

After speaking to Mr Bartlett, Mr Kennett told The Weekend Australian he believed the decision was a very tough call for the Premier, but added: “When you balance up all his responsibilities, the correct one. It might just be what Paula needs to start rebuilding her health.  That is, she doesn’t have other ministerial responsibilities now and she can now focus more directly on her recovery.”

beyondblue does admirable work and has acheived much but it is dominating the discussions on psychosocial issues in the workplace.  It is difficult for other groups to raise matters that are just as relevant to the workplace, if not more so, such as occupational violence, stress, dignity at work, and so on.

We are not yet clear on all the circumstances of Paula Wriedt’s suicide attempt, and we may never know.  We do not know if work stresses or private stresses caused her self-harm but that is not necessarily the point.  Occupational health and safety long ago left the confines of the workplace and controlling workplace hazards, particularly psychosocial issues, needs a bigger canvas.  There must be an approach that assists the individual in work and non-work contexts. 

Some countries and States are trying this through work/life balance initiatives but the approaches are usually skewed to focus on interventions on the individual rather than looking at the social structures.  In OHS we look at the “system of work” to determine the most effective interventions.  To affect true and lasting change, we must apply the “system of living”.  We must be careful not to over-emphasise the individual and be distracted from the cultural initiatives.

Politician who attempted suicide is “sacked”

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In early August 2008, Paula Wriedt, Tasmanian MP, tried to commit suicide.  Six weeks later the Tasmanian Premier has sacked her from Cabinet, according to an ABC report.

Premier David Bartlett denies this is a sacking, more a “withdrawal of commission”.  He says it is for the good of the government and for the good of Ms Wriedt.

Ms Wriedt was asked to resign her Cabinet position but the Premier says she was “not in a position to make such a decision”.

An audio interview with the Premier put to him that his decision was “despicable” and “reflects the way the state deals with people with mental health problems”.

Ms Wriedt’s suicide attempt had already raised discussion on the workplace issues of stress, compensation, workloads and mental health.  The listener’s question in the audio interview will reflect the majority of the community’s response to the Premier’s decision and Premier Bartlett will have a difficult time explaining how his decision was for Ms Wriedt’s benefit.

Ms Wriedt’s current situation and future career decisions will provide an interesting illustration on how the public service and Tasmanian politics manages an employee with mental health issues, particularly when, on OHS matters, the public service should be exemplars.

The Importance of Independent Safety Groups

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I am a Life Member of an industrial safety group and have been for many years.  Safety groups have existed in Victoria for over 40 years and provide practical and independent safety advice to local communities and businesses in their area.

There has rarely been any coordination between them because sometimes it is hard to accept offers of resources without relinquishing autonomy.  Some groups have administrative support from organisations, others rely on OHS regulators for speakers, some are incorporated, some are trade-based, several are within capital cities but just as many fill information gaps in rural and regional areas.

The major advantage I see in safety groups is that there is no set agenda.  By and large, these groups do not have grandiose ambitions but are content to achieve a functional and sustainable level of membership in order to support the aims of improving safety in their particular areas or industry sectors.

They all struggle with maintaining their effectiveness, promoting their existence and ensuring continuity.

There have been several vague approaches over the years to unify or provide more formal support to, what I see as, an essential mechanism for educating and informing the community and business without hype or political agendas.

It is with this sort of goodwill and effective groups that true altruistic support can provide great benefits.  Sometimes to be more than what you should be generates strife, politics, baggage and interference that can distract an organisation from its valuable and simple aim of improving safety of the community.

Beaconsfield inquiry seems quiet but there’s conspiracy fodder

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Several readers have asked for information about what is happening at the Tasmanian coronial inquest into the death of Larry Knight at Beaconsfield Mine in 2006.  Since the return of Beaconsfield’s legal team, media reporting has been fairly quiet as expert opinions and risk consultant reports are argued over.  There is considerable effort being expended to determine what the mining company knew and when.

Conspiracy theorists could benefit from reading about the late appearance of, apparently, important documents.  The underground mine manager, Pat Ball, had taken notes at mine meetings where seismicity issues were discussed in 2005 and 2006.  The notes were only presented to the inquest last week as Mr Ball had only just relocated them.  As these notes were missing, the previous investigations, such as that by Greg Mellick, could not draw on the information.

This has lead the legal team for Larry Knight’s family and the Australian Workers’ Union to issue

“a request for all such documents, later defined to include all notes, memoranda, minutes and diary entries relating to daily head of department and weekly planning meetings between October 9, 2005 and April 25, 2006.  This includes any such documents generated by Mr Ball, mine manager Matthew Gill and chief geologist Peter Hills.”

Conspiracy or stuff-up?  Always go for the stuff-up first.

Is OHS a profession?

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There are some in the safety profession who question whether OHS practitioners have the right to describe ourselves as professionals.   Comparisons have been made to the medical profession where one is either a doctor or not, a nurse or not, a medical practitioner or not.  This is an unfair comparison as the medical profession has a history going back centuries.  As a regulated profession, the history is shorter but that it is a profession is unarguable.

A profession focusing on safety is a recent development, only a couple of decades old.  I would mark the new approach to safety from Lord Robens but others may take it from Australian OHS legislation in the mid-1980s. (An argument could be made for the beginning to be from the increase in safety engineering in the 1960’s and maybe even Ralph Nader’s safety activism).  The safety profession is still embryonic.

The added challenge is that additional hazards and social safety issues seem to be appearing much faster than happened decades ago, as manufacturing processes change much quicker and society applies more psychosocial hazards in a work context.

Maybe it is not yet a profession but it is becoming one and perhaps we need to focus on the journey more than on the result.  Business and legal concerns have evolved just as rapidly as our approaches to OHS and becoming a profession is more complex than it was previously.  The level of business regulation, government oversight and reporting has never seemed higher. 

Previously business and employers could be trusted in some business areas.  In the early 21st century trust has evaporated.

One element of the comparison between the OHS profession and medicine is particularly useful to consider.  It is now an accepted practice that if a serious health matter is diagnosed we seek a second opinion.  We don’t seek a second opinion from safety advisers even though that “profession” is far less regulated than medicine.  That seems an absurd business practice to me.

For a primer on what is meant by a profession, Wikipedia is a good place to start.  It’s not authoritative but it is free and always a good place to start.