Government report into plastics and chemicals

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Australia’s Productivity Commission has released a report into the national regulation of plastics and chemicals.  The supplementary report has additional topicality as it is released a week before the Review Panel into Model OHS Law presents its report to the government.  The key points of the Productivity Commission report are

  • “The Productivity Commission has recently completed a research report on the regulation of chemicals and plastics in Australia. In most cases, national approaches to regulation were found to deliver significant benefits compared with each state and territory pursuing its own approach. This supplementary paper provides a more detailed examination of some of the features of these national arrangements.
  • National approaches to regulation should draw on the strengths of each level of government:
    • Commonwealth, state and territory governments acting together through Ministerial Councils or other forums can provide leadership and policy frameworks for national issues.
    • The Australian Government may be best placed to play a role in policy coordination, and to undertake national risk assessments.
    • State and territory governments are often best placed to enforce regulations and respond to the needs of sub-national constituencies.
  • Improvements in national consistency can be achieved through a range of mechanisms, including through jurisdictions:
    • adopting uniform regulations
    • harmonising key elements of their regulatory frameworks
    • mutually recognising other jurisdictions’ regulations.
  • In chemicals and plastics, the most common legislative mechanisms for achieving national consistency have been to use template or model legislation, regulations and codes of practice. The template and model approaches can be effective, but both have their weaknesses.
  • Because the process of developing and implementing nationally-consistent regulations can be costly and drawn out, reform should only be pursued where there are prospects of material net benefits.
  • In the past, the Commonwealth has provided incentives for state and territory governments to forgo some sovereignty so as to achieve the benefits of national consistency. This approach was effective in encouraging and enabling the reform process.”

The report recommends that national intergovernmental bodies set policy, the national government coordinates policy and the States enforce it.

The three mechanisms for consistency will be familiar to safety professionals and OHS advocates.

  • “adopting uniform regulations” – already being investigated through the national review panel
  • “harmonising key elements of their regulatory frameworks” –  this was flagged almost two decades ago by the National OHS Commission and work in some industrial and regulatory areas has been completed on this
  • “mutually recognising other jurisdictions’ regulations” – the east coast states have already achieved this with some of their licencing.  OHS regulators in New South Wales are already co-producing and co-badging OHS guidelines

Although the development and implementation of legislation should not be dictated to by economics, the review panel came about through a push to reduce red tape and business costs so it is unlikely that any suggestion that may increase cost to business will appear, particularly as the Prime Minister is reiterating the hard financial challenges we all face.

The risk in an approach where 

“reform should only be pursued where there are prospects of material net benefits”

is that important long-term improvements can be ignored or, worse, dismissed.

The last point above seems to support the recent statements by the Minister for Workplace Relations, Julia Gillard, on achieving trade-offs, some would say pay-offs, at state level in order to achieve change through the intergovernmental consultative structures.

It is important to note that the Productivity Commission’s report is not about OHS but industrial regulation.  The release of the Commission’s report is likely to be a coincidence but, for some sectors, it can be seen as preparatory for the OHS Law Review Panel’s final report.

Kevin Jones

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Gillard’s plans for new OHS agency – response

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 It was predictable for the Opposition party to accuse Julia Gillard of arrogance for bypassing the Parliamentary process.   Senator Eric Abetz wrote to the letters page of AFR on 21 January 2009, the text of the letter is below (although there were slight changes in the published version)

“It is highly arrogant and misleading for Workplace Relations Minister Julia Gillard to blame the so-called “intransigent” Senate and the Opposition for the delay in implementing harmonised OH&S laws (‘Gillard defies Senate on work safety”, 20th January 2009).

As the Shadow Minister who dealt with the issue in the Senate, I know that the facts of the matter are that what you might regard as an unlikely alliance of the Coalition, Family First, the Greens, Senator Xenophon, the ACCI and the ACTU (yes, even the ACTU) all agreed that the amendments proposed and passed by the Senate were necessary.

Unfortunately, our offer to meet with Ms Gillard to negotiate a way forward on this matter was rejected by a Minister who apparently thinks “it’s my way or the highway”. It is indicative of the disregard that the Rudd Government shows for the Parliament and the Senate is that it is now seeking to circumvent it on this important matter.”

The risk from the Gillard strategy is that once the process is completed the regulatory agency will forever be accused of being illegitimate, or a political ideological construct, having not undergone due process through Parliament. The Labor government needs to look beyond political expediency to construct a national OHS regulatory body of which noone can object.

Comment continues to be sought from the labour movement and opposition political parties.

Kevin Jones

New potential carcinogen and occupational asthma

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There are two reports of concern in the next edition of the journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.  One (Cancer risks in chemical production workers exposed to 2-mercaptobenzothiazole – Online First Occup Environ Med 2009; 10.1136/oem.2008.041400) raises the increasing likelihood that 2-mercaptobenzothiazole, or MBT, could be carcinogenic.

The article reports on a study of workers in a rubber chemicals plant in North Wales.   It found that 

“Based on national statistics for expected death rates, workers exposed to MBT were twice as likely to die of gut (large intestine) and bladder cancers.

Based on national statistics for expected new cases of cancer, they were also twice as likely to be diagnosed with bladder cancer, and four times as likely to be diagnosed with multiple myeloma (bone marrow cancer).”

The other article (Occupational exposures to asthma among nursing professionals Online First Occup Environ Med 2009; 10.1136/oem.2008.042382) is similarly worrying.  Moreso because the chemical products mentioned in the report are well-known substances, such as latex gloves and gluteraldehyde, and control measures are very well established.

“…those who regularly cleaned instruments were 67% more likely to report a diagnosis of asthma since starting their job.

And nurses who were regularly exposed to general cleaning products and disinfectants were 72% more likely to say they had been newly diagnosed with asthma, and 57% more likely to report symptoms similar to asthma.

Those nurses working with solvents and glues used in patient care were also 51% more likely to say they had symptoms similar to asthma.”

In both these circumstances occupational health and safety has established control measures that can reduce the harm from these products.  What they illustrate is that OHS professionals may apply a consistent standard of expectations that often strengthen as clients remain in one specific industrial demographic but workplaces, decades after hazards are known, have a highly variable level of safety and compliance.  This sounds obvious but specialisation can lead to complacency in advisers as much as customers.

It is also useful to note that the carcinogen research was in North Wales and the asthma study in Texas.  Both these countries have strong OHS legislation and a good amount of OHS resources but still unacceptable levels of occupational illness.  It is this level of resource and attention that has provided the chance for these studies to be undertaken.  

“The more we look, the more we find”

Kevin Jones

Evidence of horse racing risks

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The Australian Medical Association (AMA) has commented on an article in the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA) entitled “The incidence of race-day jockey falls in Australia, 2002-2006”.  The AMA summarises the report’s statistics

“Falls occurred at a rate of 0.42% in flat racing and 5.26% in jumps racing. Although most falls occurred pre- or post-race, falls occurring during the race resulted in the most severe injuries.”

However, the statistics, that can only be accessed fully by subscribers, should be looked at more closely in order to investigated the most appropriate control measures.  It should be noted that the risks for horses is not part of the report.

The report finds

“There were 3360 jockey falls from 748 367 rides. Falls occurred at a rate of 0.42 per 100 rides in flat races and 5.26 per 100 rides in jumps races. In flat racing, 54.6% (1694/3101) of falls occurred before the start of the race and 11.1% (344/3101) of falls occurred post-race.  The 34.3% (1063/3101) of falls that occurred during flat races resulted in 61.7% (516/836) of the injuries sustained.  In jumps racing, most falls occurred at a jump and 9.7% (25/259) of jockeys who fell were transported to hospital and/or declared unfit to ride.  There were five fatalities resulting from falls during the study period, all in flat racing.  Fall and injury rates were comparable with those found in the United Kingdom, Ireland, France and Japan.”

The authors found that

“Being a jockey carries a substantial risk of injury and death. Although rates of injury in Australia are not exceptional by international standards, there can be improvement to safety standards in the Australian racing industry.”

Most reports end with statements that seem blatantly obvious but it is worth considering the findings that the five jockey fatalities were “all in flat racing”. These finding would question the strategy of some safety lobbyists who focus on jumps racing.

The available information says that 85% of falls resulted from the jockey being dislodged.  More useful information would come from looking at the specific causes of the injuries – head trauma, shoulder injury, back…  This information is not publicly available but is crucial in determining what type of PPE jockey’s should wear, if any.  Much work is aimed at helmets and protective vests, and banning jumps racing with which the statistics from this report may assist.

WorkSafe Victoria’s guide on track safety mentions some track or barrier design changes.  It would be useful to know what injuries resulted from jockeys falling on railings in order to verify the value of the redesign recommendations.  Granted the WorkSafe recommendations don’t specifically address race day conditions but in terms of track design the situation is not relevant.

Specific information on jockey injuries in Victoria was reported to WorkSafe in 2006.  The report found

  • 67% of falls injuries recorded in the RVL [Racing Victoria Limited] data set are suffered by jockeys at race events;
  • 33% of falls injuries recorded in the RVL data set are to licensed jockeys at track work;
  • 43% of falls injuries recorded in the VWA [Victorian WorkCover Authority] data set are to track work riders (excluding licensed jockeys) at track work.

Control measures are recommended in the WorkSafe report, a report that was not referenced in the MJA article even though other work by one of the report’s authors, Steve Cowley, is mentioned.

All reports and investigations have their limitations and specific aims  but it is disappointing that the MJA article was more interested in benchmarking than proposing safety solutions.  The researcher’s aims for the MJA report was stated as

“… to determine the incidence of falls, injuries and fatalities occurring at race meetings in Australia, and to compare them with overseas rates.”

An opportunity was missed to provide some information on the safety changes that could reduce the injuries to, and fatalities of, jockeys.

Kevin Jones

A sort-of resolution for Paula Wriedt

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Paula Wriedt, a Tasmanian Member of Parliament who attempted suicide in August 2008, resigned on 18 January 2009.  According to her media statement

“I have made a significant recovery since my hospitalisation in August, but I believe it is in my best interests, and the interests of my family, to concentrate on improving my health away from the daily pressures of being a member of Parliament.

“This illness has had a significant impact on my life.

“The many demands I faced last year, on both a professional and personal level, meant I neglected to take stock of my health until it was too late.

“During this time, I made a mistake by forming an inappropriate relationship with a member of my staff. This had significant implications for the families involved, and I am not proud of my actions.

“I deeply regret the hurt that has been caused by this.”

She goes on to speak positively of undertaking meaningful work outside of politics.  It is hoped that Paula does not feel obliged to follow other politicians into promoting depression support services.  For most Australians Paula Wriedt will be associated with her affair and suicide attempt.  Tasmanians should remember her as a good parliamentarian, as mentioned by the current Premier David Bartlett (who is only slightly older than Paula at 41), and for her achievements in the education portfolio.  

Kevin Jones

Other post concerning Paula’s situation are available by searching for “Wriedt” in the field below.