Fair Work and OHS

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Last week the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Workplace Relations, Julia Gillard, delivered on some of the government’s promises by presenting the Fair Work Australia Bill into the Australian Parliament.  This does not present a revolution but is a solid rollback of some of the excesses of the previous (conservative) government.  The responses from employer groups and trade unions were in the tones and on the topics that were expected.

The National Review into Model OHS Laws rolls on towards its January 2009 deadline.  The OHS law review was not something urgent for the government, even though it was an election pledge, and it does not indicate a commitment by the government to improving the level of safety in Australia.  The aim is to provide an easier way of managing safety across state borders in Australia with the hope that this will flow to benefit the safety of workers.

It is important to remember that this review came after years of concern about the perception(?) that OHS was part of the red tape of managing businesses, and therefore an unacceptable cost burden.  The danger in this review is that the recommendations will reduce the business costs with no discernible improvement in safety.

There are many OHS professionals and organisations who are hoping for some grand review of workplace safety.  It is a review of law and business bureaucracy, not safety.  Those who will most benefit will be large companies that operate in multiple States.  It will provide no change to small business.  It will not increase safety in the vast majority of workplaces.  It may improve the bottom line company results in 2009 when profit growth is declining but that just means that managerial bonuses are less than normal.  It does not mean that the cost savings will be used to improve safety.

The Fair Work Australia Bill and the National OHS Law Review may change some of the ways in which corporates approach OHS but they will have little, if any, benefit to individual workers.

It is important to remember that any legal changes always benefit legal practitioners, as well.  And OHS lawyers are almost always there after the incident in order to minimise company damage.  Policies and procedures are largely determined without legal involvement.  Machine guarding is not installed by lawyers.  Abusive supervisors are not tempered by legal threats.  Safety is the manager’s job in partnership with the employees, and it will always be so.

It is harder to prevent than compensate, but more important

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Tonight in Adelaide the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Catherine Branson QC, will be delivering the 2008 Don Dunstan Foundation Oration.

Ms Branson has said

“I want to live in a society where everyone can take advantage of his or her abilities and where everyone has a real say about the world they live in, be they an Indigenous person, a person of Muslim faith, a parent wanting leave from work to care for a child, or a person in a same-sex relationship.

“We all want a society where we can all feel safe and protected from violence and harassment no matter who we are or where our children can access appropriate educational opportunities no matter where they live.

“These are hardly controversial ideas.”

Indeed they are not.  But in many of the past discussions on human rights, rights at work are missed, yet they are just as important.  The omission may be because it seems there is a plethora of avenues of appeal in the workplace – discrimination, unfair dismissal, sexual harassment tribunals etc.  Yet none of these focus on the prevention of harm in the way that legislative OHS obligations do.

Until the human rights advocates’ speeches become inclusive of workplace matters, there will be societal anchor dragging on progress of basic human rights.

Safe Driving and OHS management impacts

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SafetyAtWorkBlog has always been critical of those OHS professionals who try to explain OHS in comparison with driving.  They are different processes in different environments with different purposes and different rules.

However, there is a section of overlap and this relates to those whose work environment is transport and driving.

Worksafe Victoria has released a “Guide to safe work-related driving“.  This is essential reading for fleet managers, in particular, but good fleet managers would already have OHS as part of their driving policies.

For those of us who have not known how to interpret OHS obligations for our company vehicles, WorkSafe has issued these clarifications:

  • purchasing and maintaining a safe and roadworthy feet
  • ensuring employees have the relevant appropriate driver licences
  • scheduling work to account for speed limits and managing fatigue
  • providing appropriate information and training on work related driving safety
  • monitoring and supervision of the work related driving safety program.

In this type of workplace, workers seem to have as many obligations as employers but WorkSafe has listed for following as employee duties:

  • holding a current, valid drivers licence
  • abiding by all road rules (eg speed limits)
  • refraining from driving if impaired by tiredness or medication
  • reporting any incidents required by the employer’s program
  • carrying out any routine vehicle checks required by the employer.

There are many areas of contemporary life where the OHS obligations can seem absurd but work-related driving has always been a neglected area of workplace safety.  Every time SafetyAtWorkBlog receives notification of traffic incidents, the emergency services are asked whether the vehicle was being used for work purposes.  Unless it is a bus or a chemical tanker, the question is rarely asked or the information recorded at the scene of the crash.  As a result, the data on work-related driving incidents is scant and WorkSafe has done well in applying what there is.

The guide is terrific but it won’t raise the awareness of these necessary business and employee obligations until WorkSafe’s enforcement and investigative resources are included in traffic incidents and until a case law of OHS prosecutions for work-related driving is established.

The practice of having police and criminal prosecutions replacing OHS prosecutions for work-related incidents must end.  A transport vehicle is a mobile workplace and should be treated as such by having prosecutions under the road transport legislation AND OHS laws.  If not, we will be getting more airbags and less hazard elimination.

Beware the OHS hype on chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

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World COPD day was held on 17 November 2008.  COPD Stands for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. As with many of these health-related days there is more hyperbole than substance and often the most relevant information appears after the hype has died down.  This is the case with a report just released by the Occupational And Environmental Medicine. [[Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease mortality in railroad workers Online First Occup Environ Med 2008; doi 10.1136/oem/2008.040493]]

According to a media statement that accompanied the report:

They wanted to gauge the long term effects of diesel exhaust on the risks of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), an umbrella term for progressive lung diseases, such as emphysema and bronchitis.

In 1946, just 10% of rolling stock was diesel powered; by 1959, virtually all rolling stock was.

The researchers checked the health records of the US Railroad Retirement Board, which has maintained digital records of all its employees since 1959, including a yearly listing of all job codes and time spent in post.

Anyone working on the trains (conductors, engineers, brakemen) was considered to have been exposed to diesel exhaust.

Those working in ticketing, signalling, maintenance, admin, and as station masters, were regarded as not having been exposed.

The results showed that those who had been exposed to diesel exhaust were more likely to die of COPD than their peers who had not been so exposed.

The risks increased by 2.5% with each year of employment among those who were recruited after conversion from steam to diesel locomotives.

This risk fell only slightly after adjusting for smoking, a known risk factor for COPD.

Of all the reports that were released in the last two weeks, this one is the clincher because it shows that smoking did not have an appreciable effect on the health findings.  There is a direct relationship between a work activity in a work environment and worker health.

This correlation is sadly lacking from other COPD data which reads primarily as a new spin on anti-smoking campaigns.

According to the International COPD Coalition (“a nonprofit organization composed of COPD patient organizations around the world, working together to improve the health and access to care of patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease”)

World COPD Day 2008 features new patient and health professional initiatives that address the misconceptions and lack of awareness surrounding chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). These misconceptions – revealed in a global survey, the International COPD Coalition (ICC) Report – include poor public awareness that smoking is the main cause of COPD, a failure to diagnosis COPD in its early stages, when medication can be used to prevent further lung deterioration, and a mistaken belief that initial COPD symptoms, like coughing and shortness of breath, are a normal consequence of aging.

We may be unaware smoking leds to COPD but we are well aware that smoking can kill you.  Whether it is emphysema, lung cancer, heart disease or COPD doesn’t change the fact that smoking increases the risk of premature death.  It is insulting that a “World Anti-Smoking Day” needs to masquerade under a new health risk.

For those workers who have suffered work-related respiratory problems the Queensland governmenthave  released a very good guide for those who have breathing difficutlies or for those who look after them – the Better Living With COPD – A Patient Guide  (pictured below)

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Latest Australia workplace fatalities data

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The latest official, but not comprehensive, data for Australian workplace fatalities has been released. The Australian Safety & Competition Council has published the Notified Fatalities Statistical Report July 2007 to June 2008.

Chairman Bill Scales AO said that this report provides analysis of notified fatalities across Australia for the full financial year. “There were 16 fewer notified worker fatalities in 2007-08 (131 worker fatalities) than in 2006-07 (147 worker fatalities), a decrease of 11 per cent.  While this suggests that we are taking steps in the right direction to reduce work-related fatalities, every death in the workplace is still one death too many.”

Some other key findings of the report include:

  • In 2007-08 there were 150 notified work-related fatalities (131 worker notified fatalities and 19 bystander notified fatalities). 137 of these fatalities were of males.
  • Four industries accounted for eight out of every ten notified work-related fatalities: construction (24 per cent), transport and storage (23 per cent), agriculture, forestry and fishing (18 per cent) and manufacturing (13 per cent).
  • The most common causes of fatalities were vehicle accidents (44 fatalities), being hit by falling objects (23 fatalities), being hit by moving objects (21 fatalities), falls from a height (16 fatalities) and being trapped by moving machinery (12 fatalities).
  • Construction workplaces recorded a consistently high number of notified worker fatalities over the period 2003-04 to 2006-07 (ranging from 18 in 2004-05 to 36 in 2007-08).
  • There was a notable decrease in the number of notified worker fatalities in agriculture, forestry and fishery workplaces (42 fatalities in 2003-04 to 25 in 2007-08).
  • There was a notable decrease in the number of notified worker fatalities in mining workplaces (4 fatalities in 2007-08 compared with 13 fatalities in 2006-07).

The ASCC has also released the Work-Related Traumatic Injury Fatalities, Australia, 2005-06 report. Some key findings of this report for 2005-06 include:

  • 270 people died from injuries sustained while working for income.
  • 123 persons died from injuries incurred while travelling to or from work.
  • 41 persons were killed as a bystander to work activity.
  • The agriculture, forestry and fishing industry and transport and storage industry recorded the highest number of deaths while working for income (55 deaths each) followed by the construction industry (43 deaths).
  • Vehicle accident was the cause of 40 per cent of the working for income deaths. The next most common cause was being hit by moving objects (14 per cent) followed by falls from a height (13 per cent).
  • Vehicle accidents accounted for 18 bystander deaths, of those, 13 involved trucks, semi trailers or lorries. 

Other statistical reports are available at SafetyAtWorkBlog by entering the search term “statistics” in the search box below or by clicking HERE and HERE

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