Latest guidance on working alone

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Western Australia’s WorkSafe has just released its latest guidance on working alone and it is the most practical look at the hazard from any OHS regulator in Australia.Working_alone cover

Importantly, it differentiates between “alone” and “remote”.  In 1995, when the Victorian First Aid Code of Practice raised the issue of isolation, there was considerable confusion.  How can someone in the metropolitan area be isolated or remote?

  • Undertaking an assessment of first aid needs of a multi-storey building which has cleaners or nightshift working at 2am.
  • Working alone in a petrol station in an outer suburb.
  • (Sadly) showing a potential client a new property in a new real estate development on the fringes of the city.
  • Security guard walking the perimeter of an industrial site
  • Delivering pizzas at 3am
  • Home visits from medical specialists

The WA definition of “alone” is very useful and needs to be kept front-of-mind in OHS policy and procedure production.  It could be used in the review process of existing policies and prores to ensure their applicability.

“A person is alone at work when they are on their own, when they cannot be seen or heard by another person, and when they cannot expect a visit from another worker or member of the public for some time.”

The working alone guidance identifies four industry types that require special support for working alone:

  • Agriculture
  • Pastoral
  • Forestry
  • Mining

Although SafetyAtWorkBlog advocates low-tech control options as much as possible (usually because of increased reliability) thankfully this guidance discusses mobile phones, satellite communications, GPS locators and other communications devices.

Kevin Jones

When employees are their worst enemy.

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A recent article in a rehabilitation newsletter reminded me of a client from several years ago.

Several employees in a small item packaging line were reporting wrist and forearm soreness toward the end of their shift.  They believed that the line speed was too fast for them to comfortably work their full shift.

In consultation with the workers and the operations manager we went through various possible control options – line speed, automation, seating, posture, warm-up exercise, footwear, length of shift…..

A couple of days later, I was at the workplace at the end of the shift.  The employees said they were sore but they did not go home.  They stayed on for several hours of overtime.  When I asked them about this they said they always do the overtime.

So the assessment of working environment had incomplete data.

My advice was that if the employees were putting themselves at harm of the potential for harm, undertaking overtime while not fit-for-work contravenes their own OHS obligations.  If the employer offered these employees overtime knowing the employees were in pain, the employer is breaching the OHS obligation.

That is the straight OHS position.  But life is more complex than OHS.  The right OHS decision deprives the employees of additional income.  The right OHS decision could encourage employees to not report their pain or discomfort, for if they do, the offer of overtime would be withdrawn.  Non-reporting of injuries is a common short-term decision that many employees make.

It is in this context that consultation is required between employees, production manager, supervisor, human resources officer, and the health & safety rep, if one is on site.  This consultative group can then make a decision that everyone understands the justification for, even if some participants do not like it.

A question to ponder from the scenario above – if one of the workers developed pain during the normal work shift, undertook overtime without the employer being informed of the pain and put in a worker’s compensation claim for the pain, would the employer feel justified in contesting the claim?

Kevin Jones

Evidence, subjectivity and myth

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There is a big push for occupational safety and health decisions to be made on evidence.  OHS academics in Australia are particularly big on this and there is considerable validity in the lobbying but as academics can have a vested interest in research, the calls are often dismissed.

There is also, around the world, a questioning of the value and validity of the risk assessment process related to workplace safety.  In Europe, in particular, the business groups see risk assessment as a major unnecessary business cost (but then again, how many businesses even perform OHS risk assessments?).  Risk assessment has often been criticised because of its subjectivity.  In some circumstances, risk assessment may perpetuate workplace and safety myths.

In the absence of evidence, myths fill the gap.  Sometimes assessments, investigations, estimates and FOAFs (friend of a friend) add to the tenuous credibility of those myths.

Peter Sandman has talked about dispelling myths through risk communication.  One myth he discusses, the risks of flu vaccinations, is also touched on in an interview with Dr Aaron E. Carroll of the Indiana University School of Medicine on the ABC’s Life Matters program.

OHS professionals must seek evidence on workplace hazards so that their advice is sound but equally, myths must be countered.  The links in the paragraph above, along with the excellent website, www.snopes.com, can provide some assistance in how we can reduce the transmission of myths.

I am a big advocate of the “contrary”.  Only by asking questions about established beliefs and tenets can the flaws in our decision-making be illustrated.  Sometimes this is dismissed as being a “Devil’s Advocate” but the process does not advocate bad behaviours, it questions the basis for established behaviours – a process that many people, organisations AND business find enormously threatening.

As we get older or become socialised, we tend to forget the tale most of us heard as a child, The Emperor’s New Clothes.  This tale should be read regularly to remind us of how the contrary position, the quizzical, can be constructive and sometimes, revolutionary (even though in the tale the Emperor ignores the child’s spoken truth) but still provide evidence.

Kevin Jones

OHS crime alert

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Media     -0x1.8b5ce0p-63lert-            52392336nal[1] - crimeIn late June 2009, WorkSafe Victoria tried a new approach to raising the awareness of the criminal status of OHS breaches through producing a formatted media alert and placing an ad in the daily newspapers.

It is unclear how else the “flyer” will be distributed other than through the WorkSafe website.  Indications are that a hard copy of the alert for distribution through WorkSafe offices is not planned.

The ad, pictured right, refers to the prosecution of Rapid Roller over the second serious lathe incident at that workplace in 12 months, the most recent resulting in a death.

Kevin Jones

Root Cause and Camels

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In tertiary risk management courses, one is urged to look for “contributory factors” to an event.  An event can be a specific action or failure but a good investigation looks at the factors that led, or conspired, to the failure – “contributory factors” – as well as the failure itself.

For example, a common phrase is “the straw that broke the camel’s back” meaning a specific event that caused damage.  The common application of this phrase focuses on a single event in an already overburdened situation.

However occupational health and safety (OHS) expands this single event over time and work to analyse the cumulative effects on the camel of carrying innumerable straws.  It just so happened that one particular straw broke the camel’s back.

OHS is also about the cumulative effect of hazards on a company’s health.  There are a multitude of camels and a multitude of straws but the focus remains the same – investigate the combination of issues or hazards that culminated in an injury, event or disaster.

Decades ago investigators would look for a “root cause”, a phrase rarely applied in the technical discipline now but one that remains in common parlance.  However, root cause is not something that OHS professionals should forget or ignore.  A root cause can be an aim of an investigation but not one that dismisses other possibilities.  This may be why the term is out of vogue because it implies a fixation, an “Ahab”, which is a perspective that leads to very poor decision-making in all of the areas of work, business and life.

Kevin Jones