Trade unionist talks about nanotechnology risks

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In October 2008, SafetyAtWorkBlog spoke with Renata Mussolino of the Victorian Trades Hall Council.  At that time the trade union movement was finalising its policies and positions on nanotechnology into the campaign  that is being rolled out at the moment.

In the SafetyAtWork podcast released in April 2009, Renata talks about how nanotechnologies links with mesothelioma but also some parallels with genetically modified organisms.  She discusses the need for more information about the nanomaterials and how one should apply the precautionary principle in this case.

More information about Renata is available at the Victorian Trades Hall Council website

Lawyer speaks on nanotechnology risks

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A leading Australian OHS lawyer, Michael Tooma, spoke to ABC Radio on 16 April 2009.

Tooma spoke about the potential risks employers face by dealing with a substance whose hazard rating is unclear. HE says

“Employers at the moment may be unaware of the extent of the potential liability sometime down the track. …We could be facing another epidemic in our industrial history of people, large groups of people, displaying latent symptoms from current exposures that are taking place at the moment. “

The unions have repeatedly made the comparison with asbestos hazards but as  Dr Craig Cormick of the Australian Office of Nanotechnology says, in the same interview, that in the early usage of asbestos evidence of potential harm was available but not shared.

An April 2007 legal update from Tooma on the issue is available

Engagement is Consultation re-badged

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Recently an international business established an intranet discussion forum concerning “employee engagement”.  By and large, this is another example of business management twaddle.

Essentially, when one engages with another, there is discussion, a conversation and the sharing of ideas in a cooperative, positive manner.  In OHS circles this is called “consultation”.  By discussing issues, people learn the basics, they refine their understandings and, often, come to a consensus or a resolution.

“Engagement” is another word for what happens on a daily basis in workplaces everywhere.  What is bothersome is when a new management term is generated in order to, primarily, sell a new management book, and in a much lower priority, to provide a new perspective.

In the current edition of Australia’s business magazine, BRW, there is a discussion on engagement, (not available online).  Through an OHS perspective, interpret the following quotes about “employee engagement scores):

“About 40 per cent of employees were failing at the most basic level, saying they either didn’t know what was expected of them or didn’t have the tools to do it.”

OHS = consultation, job description, induction, supervision.

“Those in a leadership position now are taking advantage and redoubling their efforts around employee engagement.”

OHS =  leadership, safety culture

The article makes a useful distinction that an “engaged employee” does not equal a “happy employee”.

The BRW article does not, however, discuss the possible downsides of engagement.  There is a risk that benchmarking of engagement may applied inappropriately and, according to the CIPD:

“Research confirms however that there is a significant gap between levels of engagement found among UK employees and those that would produce optimum performance.  HR professionals need to recognise that engagement is a strategic issue that cannot simply be left to manage itself.”

Engagement is another tool for management but just how many tools are needed?

In short, a management system needs to talk with employees, listen to employees, and support employees.  Wow, how radical.  It can be that simple.

Kevin Jones

How Workers’ Memorial Day should be treated

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For the first time in many years, I will not be able to attend the local service for the Workers’ Memorial Day on 28 April 2009.  I will be attending the Safe Work Australia Awards in Canberra which, coincidentally, is on the same day.  I hope that the award ceremony includes a minute’s silence to remember those who have died at work.

Recently the San Francisco Labor Council passed a resolution in support of Workers’ Memorial Day.  It provided several good reasons why trade unionists and, I would say, OHS professionals, should support this day.  Below is part of the resolution

wmd-sf-0000000lyerWhereas, April 28, 2009 is an international day of commemoration for injured workers and workers killed on the job; and

Whereas, the elimination of all doctors at Ca-OSHA has threatened the health and safety protection of California’s 17 million workers; and

Whereas, the introduction of new technology such as biotech and nanotechnology without proper oversight can and has become a threat to workers and our communities; and

Whereas, the deregulation of workers compensation has harmed injured workers and their families in California and throughout the country; and

Whereas, many of these workers have been forced onto SSI, Disability Insurance and other state and local agencies to cover their healthcare costs which is cost-shifting; and

Whereas, senior workers in many industries have been forced into retirement due to their disabilities on the job and discrimination against them due to their disabilities and age including at the US Post Office and other industries; and

Whereas, all working people and their families whether working or injured are entitled to full healthcare,

Therefore be it resolved the San Francisco Labor Council endorses and supports a Workers Memorial Day event on April 28, 2009 in San Francisco at ILWU Local 34 and encourages it’s affiliates to publicize and participate in this California Coalition for Workers Memorial Day (CCWMD) 

It is a lesson for other unions and organisations that such a day does not deal with localised industrial relations disputes and can be a platform for improvement in the quality of life of workers by calling for 

  • increased enforcement and policy resources;
  • caution over emerging hazards;
  • reassessment of deregulation;
  • insurance and healthcare improvements; and
  • appealing early retirements due to illness and injury.

I urge OHS professionals to seek out your local commemorations and participate.  The more people attend, the more government will realise the seriousness of the issue.  More importantly, the services remind us why we entered this profession in the first place and, just maybe, how we have made a difference.

Kevin Jones

Migrant worker safety

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Recently one of the Australian boutique labour law firms ran a seminar on employment issues related to migrant workers.  Australia has a history of using workers from the Pacific Islands, principally, in agriculture.  Chinese have been working in Australia since the goldfields of the 1800s.  New Zealanders are so frequent that the countries almost share an economy in some ways.  Some labour is imported, other labour is invited or sought.

The global economic problems has exacerbated the difficulties many countries face with legal and illegal migrant workers.  Australia is not immune.  There may be less and less water in the country, certainly in the south, but it is still considered a land of opportunity by neighbours.

Workplace safety issues are perhaps the easiest to deal with in this labour sector as the employment status is not relevant to the obligation to provide a safe and healthy work environment.

pages-from-communicatingThe safety training, instruction and supervision matters are similarly unaffected by employment status.  However it has always been a difficult part of an OHS manager and HR manager’s job to make sure that workers understand their obligations and duties.  In Victoria, one of the first OHS Codes of Practice in the 1980s concerned providing OHS information in languages other than English.  It was probably the most ignored Code of Practice of all.

Recently, WorkSafe Victoria has issued Compliance Codes.  Following the recommendations and techniques in these codes implies compliance and can be wonderful for the small business sector.  One of the new codes is on communicating in languages other than English This is a great start but there needs a much greater effort, almost a movement, for Australia to avoid the problems facing countries like England.

In late-March 2009, the UK law firm Irwin Mitchell reported the following statistics

The report [by the Centre for Corporate Accountability], which makes the figures public for the first time and was compiled following Freedom of Information requests to the Health and Safety Executive, shows that a dozen migrant workers died in the construction industry in the year 2007/08 – at least double the figure expected and a six-fold increase in the number who died just five years earlier.

The 12 deaths comprised 17% of the total number of fatalities in the sector last year – more than double the HSE’s estimate of migrants making up around 8% of the total construction sector workforce.

Migrant deaths in other sectors is also on the increase, with the number of fatalities of non-UK workers up from nine in 2005/6 to 18 in 2007/8 and the proportion also doubling from 4.1% to 7.9% in the same period, against figures showing that 5.4% of the total workforce comprises migrants.

No official information is currently available on the level of injuries to migrant workers, as the HSE does not record nationality in injury cases, though estimates put the figure as high as 11% – again, double the expected level.

Many workplaces have already dealt with safety issues with migrant labour. Crews in rail maintenance, for instance, are often on ethical lines so that colleagues educate each other.  Often workplaces call on an established worker from a specific ethnic area to take the lead in supervising others and passing on OHS information.  These adhoc processes still need to be verified as effective but have worked in many workplaces for decades.

A recent rumour posted to the Australian website Crikey.com illustrates the type of attitude to migrant workers and the mixing of concerns about safety and industrial issues.

A Chinese owned mining project is advertising for a Bilingual (English Mandarin) Registered Nurse on their website [since removed].  The role is stated to be designed for liaison with Chinese workers and is required to have industrial safety knowledge, reporting directly to a company director?  How many Chinese workers is this project bringing into Australia given the recent restrictions on 457s [migrant work visas], what about the requirement for foreign workers to have some competency in English, anecdotal evidence that building and construction labour rates are already decreasing and how would the unions view this approach to health and safety of foreign workers?

One OHS expert at the law firm’s seminar accepted that the language requirements were woefully inadequate and not suited for the workplace situation.  It would be refreshing to see an OHS professional association begin lobbying the government on improving the language criteria for visa eligibility.  

The unions would be equally concerned about the safety of any workers onsite, hopefully regardless of the workers’ union membership status. 

Australia is in a lucky situation where many workplaces could continue to operate without migrant labour but the world and its economy is changing, and Australia will be dragged into the real world of the modern international workforce.  It is lucky because it has the opportunity to prepare.  It is such a shame that the preparation remains so thin.

Kevin Jones