When managing stress, are safety managers looking at the wrong thing?

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Today is World Mental Health Day and the media, at least in Australia, is inundated with comments and articles on mental health.  This morning, Jeff Kennett, a director of beyondblue, spoke on ABC Radio about the increasing levels of anxiety that people are feeling in these turbulent economic times.  Throughout the 5 minute interview, Kennett never once mentioned stress.  This omission seemed odd as, in the workplace safety field, stress is often seen as the biggest psychosocial hazard faced in the workplace.

SafetyAtWorkBlog spoke with Clare Shann, the senior project manager with beyondblue’s Workplace Program, about the role of stress in the workplace and its relation to mental health.  She clarified that stress is not a medical condition but a potential contributor to developing a mental illness, such as anxiety disorders or depression.

To put the situation into context, there is a fascinating interview with a Darren Dorey of Warrnambool in Victoria.  The 20 minute interview was conducted on  a regional ABC Radio station on 9 October, and describes the personal experience of depression and anxiety that stems, to some extent, from work.

It seems that in trying to manage stress, OHS professionals may be focusing on the wrong element in worker health.  Perhaps what are considered workers compensation claims for stress should be re–categorised as claims for mental illness.  This may result in a better acceptance of the existence of this workplace hazard.

An exclusive interview with Clare Shann can be heard clare_shann_mental_health

Is technology the solution to everything?

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Today, I received a media statement by the Acting Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Mark V. Rosenker.  He said that new technologies have the potential to substantially reduce rail incidents.  Rosenker is quoted as saying

“Just think how far computer and GPS technology has developed in the past 10 years.”

He urged the delegates at the International Railroad Safety Conference in Denver, Colorado on 6 October 2008 to

“… be forward thinking.  Work closely with the highway industry to develop useful, intelligent transportation safety systems that can prevent accidents at grade crossings.” 

In mid-September 2008, the a Metrolink commuter train and a Union Pacific freight train collided in Chatsworth, California, killing 25 people.  The engineer of the Metrolink train was using new technology – he was texting on his mobile phone instead of paying attention.

I can’t see how the new technologies that Mark Rosenker discusses:

electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) braking, acoustic bearing detectors, wheel impact detectors, … truck performance detectors [and] intelligent transportation systems (ITS)…”

would have stopped the deaths of 25 people in Chatsworth?

I realise that the NTSB investigation into the Chatsworth collision has a way to go but I will be listening for some non-technological control measures to be proposed as well.  The NTSB is going to need to keep up its “qualification, training and oversight of employees” that it has implemented in the last decade or so becasue clearly in the case of the Metrolink engineer, Robert Sanchez, these techniques failed.

Inadequate resources generate workplace stress

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Survey findings released on 9 October 2008 by recruitment company Talent2 indicate that Australian employees are feeling stressed at work as a result of the effects of redundancies.

John  Banks of Talent2 said 

“… 71.7% say they currently do the job of more than one person, and this makes for a very stressful and unproductive workplace.”

The press release for the study stated

“More than half of Australian employees believe they are operating under extremely low staffing levels and 82.1% say they are expected to do far more work today than they were 5 years ago, according to a survey of 2,703 people.”

Almost 60% of respondents in Western Australia said that their workplaces are understaffed.  Between 48% and 58% of respondents in other Australian States agreed.

Banks said that companies can create a “false bottom line” by minimising staff numbers.  He said 

“Across the board, the sales/marketing sector has been most affected with 74.7% of employees in that industry asked to do additional work. The manufacturing sector is also guilty of asking staff to cover the work of more than one person with 74.2% of those surveyed dobbing in their bosses, and the legal sector is not too far behind at 70.4%.” 

It is acknowledged that the volume of claims for compensation for workplace stress increases during periods of corporate economic hardship and redundancies.

A terrific short article on the costs and impacts of workplace stress in Australia can be found in a newsletter by the law firm, Landers & Rogers.

It is also useful to note that the Talent2 survey results were released in the same week that the ILO has been promoting decent work, Australia is running Mental Health Week and the United Nations has its World Mental Health Day.

Corporate accountability – Lessons from Lehmans

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Yesterday,the CEO of Lehman Brothers, Richard Fuld Jr, faced an inquisition at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.  It was uncomfortable to watch but fascinating.

Video of the hearings shows the questions focused on Fuld’s accumulation of wealth in the good times and the retention of wealth in the bad times. There are parallels with the non-financial accountability of corporate leaders on matters such as workplace safety and corporate social responsibility.

The chair of the committee, Henry Waxman, spoke of company documents that 

“portray a company in which there was no accountability for failure”.

Waxman said he was troubled by the attitude of Fuld where Fuld would not acknowledge any wrongdoing. Fuld did accept responsibility for the failure of the company but would not accept that his behaviour or the behaviour of the company he lead, contributed to the failure.  In other words, Fuld would not accept that his company had a culture that may have contributed to the bankruptcy.

There will be more of this type of inquiry and in many countries other than the United States.  OHS managers should not sit back and watch the chief financial officer squirm with discomfit and anxiety for the way that the financiers handle this crisis, as there are important lessons about their own accountability, responsibility and disaster planning.

Is consultation really a “two-way exchange”?

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Talking about safety in the workplace is, by far, the best way to introduce and foster a healthy OHS environment.  OHS regulators in Australia have been pushing this for sometime.

A colleague of mine has pointed out an apparent anomaly in relation to consultation posted by WorkSafe Victoria on their website earlier this week.  In relation to Provisional Improvement Notices, WorkSafe says

“Consultation can still be said to have occurred even if:

* the duty holder does not respond to the HSR [Health and Safety Representative] in a reasonable time or at all.  In this case, the HSR can take the failure to respond into account before deciding to issue the PIN.  There does not have to be a two-way exchange – only the opportunity for this to occur;”

This sounds odd to me and I hope that one of the SafetyAtWorkBlog readers may be able to explain.

My colleague posed this question on the issue of consultation:

“If the duty holder generated an OHS issue and the HSR did not respond, would there still only need to be an ‘opportunity for this to occur’?”

It seems a far question when workplace consultation is supposed to be a “two-way exchange”.