OHS impact of the Fair Work Australia Bill

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Over the next few weeks, many Australian law firms are running information seminars on the government’s Fair Work Bill.  This legislation will change the way that workplaces are managed, particularly in the area of personnel management.

The overlap with OHS will come through the increasingly contentious issue of “union right of entry”.  Frequently unions request access to a site in order to investigate an OHS matter.  This is a legitimate part of the tripartite consultative structure that underpins workplace safety.

Given that the National Review into Model OHS Law has already flagged Victoria’s OHS Act as a useful template, it is worth noting that Victoria went through the same right-of-entry concerns in the development of its 2004 OHS Act as the Fair Work Bill is generating now.

Victoria established a system of licensed union OHS delegates through the Court system in 2005.  Earlier this year the CEO of WorkSafe Victoria, John Merritt said 

the ARREO system had been working well since it was introduced in mid 2005.

Mr Merritt said only eight matters involving ARREOs have been reported to WorkSafe since this section of the Act (Part 8 – Sections 79 to 94) took effect in mid-2005.

In seminars prior to the 2004 Act, workplace lawyers, some who have gained considerable prominence since, warned that “the sky was going to cave in” once unions gained this level of access.  It didn’t, but the law firms gained some new clients.  This type of scaremongering is being repeated currently in the Australian press at the moment.

Yes, under the Fair Work Bill, unions can access a broader range of company data than ever before, including salary information of senior executives, as asserted in The Australian Financial Review, but there are considerable safeguards and limitations in place within the legislation.  These safeguards have worked in relation to Victoria’s OHS laws and they will in industrial relations.

In terms of safety management, the establishment of a cooperative relationship with employees is the best way to minimise union involvement.  It is also the best way to minimise the visits of the OHS regulators.  

Remember that those who complain loudest are those with the most to fear.

Kevin Jones

 

OHS Right of Entry Guide
OHS Right of Entry Guide

Inherently Dangerous

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Every so often one will hear of an occupational that is “inherently dangerous”.  Every time we hear this or see the phrase in print we should protest loudly.  If a safety professional uses the term, they should be shunned.

Anything that is described as “inherently dangerous” reflects on the lazy thinking of the describer.  Working on a house roof was once inherently dangerous.  A firefighter running into a burning building was once (still is in the United States) an inherently dangerous activity.

Nothing is inherently dangerous when it comes to safety management.  Although it may be that a suitable control measure has yet to be devised, danger can be minimised or eliminated.  

The Confederation of Australian Motor Sports (CAMS) juxtaposes “inherently dangerous” with OHS in its policy:

The Confederation of Australian Motor Sport Ltd (CAMS) is committed to providing, so far as it is practicable, its stakeholders with a structured environment to minimise risks to health, safety and welfare. CAMS recognise that motor sport is inherently dangerous and will continue to strive to minimise risk to those involved through a shared and integrated approach to health and safety.

In a Brief History of Lighting in the US, the elimination of an inherent risk is amply illustrated with the move from gas lighting to electricity over time.

Around 1920, word was out that gas lighting was inherently dangerous and too many homes were burning down, and homeowners should remove their gas lighting and give the safer new-fangled electric lights a chance, even though electricity was probably just a fad.

“Inherently dangerous” dampens innovation (a buzzword in modern management) and should be avoided at all costs.  

One wonders how safe our world would have been if “inherently dangerous” was allowed to dominate our legislation in the way that “reasonably practicable” has.

Kevin Jones

Manual handling and childcare workers

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Yesterday, a reader posted the following question

Are their any articles available on manual handling risk factors for workers in the childcare service industry (including programs for risk control)?

Below are some of the resources that are readily available in Australia, specifically on childcare.  In many cases the control measures employed for nurses overlap but in may OHS advisory and regulatory sites the hazards for nurses dominate the advice.

As an example of the dire need for accessible information in this area, there is a Canadian guide to “Health in Child Care Settings“.  It’s over 200 hundred pages with lots of great information.  The only mention of manual handling hazards for workers is 

“Use of proper lifting and transferring techniques can significantly reduce the risk of injury. Providers’ education in this area is essential.”

Yet we know that the medical evidence for safe lifting techniques is dubious.

There is a commercial DVD available at www.themedia.com.au  I would advise that playground equipment should be reviewed for durability AND ease of transport (there are many types of castor wheels with brakes available for heavy items) 

There is a training course that includes “Lifting Techniques & Manual Handling for Child Care Workers” available (in Australia – there are many more around the world)

In 2001 the Queensland OHS authority released  a guide called “Manual Tasks Involving the Handling of People Advisory Standard 2001“.  Again this reads very nurse-y but it specifically includes the handling of children.

Without knowing the background to the question – whether concerned with the handling of children or equipment – it is difficult to go further.  Perhaps the reader can provide more detail and we can see if other readers can help with specifics.

Kevin Jones

“Pilgrim’s Plague” and workplace absenteeism

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 Last year, Sydney Australia hosted World Youth Day (WYD).  In some ways Australia had not seen such a large influx of people from so many countries for a single event before.  The Sydney Olympics had a high proportion of locals attending and the 1956 Melbourne Olympics never had the infrastructure to provide so many overseas visitors.

For several months after the 2008 World Youth Day, it was rumoured that the level of absenteeism in workplaces was very high.  At the time of WYD there were several reports of quarantined pilgrims and the risk to public health of the Sydney population was assessed. (Peter Curson, professor of population and security in the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney wrote a discussion piece on this)

There were reports of influenza and viral gastroenteritis amongst pilgrims who were required to be quarantined.

The Medical Journal of Australia has released a report into the impact of World Youth Day on the emergency departments of hospitals (MJA 2008; 189 (11/12): 630-632).  This study found minimal impact in this sector of the hospital care.

However, SafetyAtWorkBlog is not aware of any research having been done on the impact of  World Youth Day on workplace absenteeism.  The EMJA study correlates World Youth Day with hospital admissions but it would be useful to see a comparative study of workplace absenteeism in the weeks after WYD, during the incubation period of influenza in particular.

World Youth Day did seem to overlap with the existing flu season in Australia’s winter but those statistical peaks are well-established and it would be interesting to see if those peaks had increased just after World Youth Day.

If there were a correlation, cost estimates for hosting the event may need adjusting to include the reduced productivity due to the “pilgrim’s plague”.


Safe Work Bill and Parliament

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It has always seemed an odd timetable for the Australian Government to introduce a Bill for replacing the Australian Safety & Compensation Council with Safe Work Australia when there is also an active  national review into the laws that the authority may end up managing.  

This week the Minister for Workplace Relations, Julia Gillard, set aside the Safe Work Bill because she would not accept amendments by the Opposition or she had to verify changes through the Workplace Relations Ministerial Council, depending on your political leanings.

Parliament has ended for 2008 so the reintroduction of the Bill will wait till 2009.  This allows the government to make another pitch by including the recommendations of the National Review.  The Review has consulted broadly across the political spectrum and should present legalistic sweeteners to all.  This also allows  the government to say that they didn’t get cross and arrogant but have been able to be more inclusive and consultative.

The amendments proposed by the Opposition don’t have a great deal to do with safe workplaces but a lot to do with limiting union influence in the decision-making of the new OHS body.  Some amendments are just unnecessarily provocative by trying to limit ministerial interference.  The alternative jargon to this is the exercising of ministerial discretion.  It’s the same thing except to those on the receiving end or who feel excluded from the process.

Of course, the government is not obliged to accept all the recommendations of the review panel and over the next few months it will be closely watching the reception of its industrial relations legislative platform to perhaps indicate a more successful pathway for its Safe Work Bill.  

A sticking point, and overlap of the two legislations, is the right of entry.  Currently there is a political stink about how much access unions are entitled to in workplaces, some of which does seem unnecessarily intrusive, but frequently workplace safety is the impetus for entry requests, as per the recent intrusion to the desalination plant in New South Wales.  Right of entry will not go away as a political issue over the Christmas break while there are large infrastructure projects in New South Wales and Western Australia, in particular.