Pipeline explosion may lead to invocation of emergency powers

This post is receiving a lot of attention from around the world so, although, at the moment, the workplace safety issues have diminished, it is interesting to note that The Australian newspaper for 12 June 2008 reports that the Premier, Alan Carpenter, has acknowledged that he may need to invoke emergency powers to seize control of electricity and gas supplies.

This is an extraordinary development that indicates the infrastructure fragility of Western Australia.

The supply disruption is now also receiving federal government attention as it begins to affect Australia’s ability to supply China’s insatiable appetite for Australian minerals and energy.

Alcoa Australia is the latest company to announce a “force majeure” as a result of the Apache Energy pipeline explosion.

It is phenomenal to see how an event that in OHS terms is a “near miss” has the potential to weaken a country’s economic growth.

60 Minutes, Dust and Responsibility for Workplace Safety

On 8 June 2008, a US 60 Minutes report on combustible dust joined the conga-line of critics of the Occupational Safety And Health Administration.  The tone of the report is set by the reporter, Scott Pelley’s introduction stating that it is OSHA’s responsibility to avoid the explosions.  For OHS practitioners and professionals this is a peculiar statement as it is usually the employer’s responsibility for workplace safety.

The 60 Minutes report illustrates the difficulty that OHS inspectors face when visiting workplaces. Can an inspector be expected to identify ALL the hazards present in a workplace?  This is a constant problem for OHS regulators, employers and sadly, the Courts.

The accusation in the 60 Minutes report is that inspectors had no information or training on the explosive hazards of dust.  Training is not the solution for everything and an inspector’s state of knowledge should have identified dust as a potential hazard.  Even if the hazard was identified in terms of an inhalation risk, or housekeeping, the explosive risk would be reduced if housekeeping was applied properly.

OSHA clearly stated the responsibility of workplace safety being on the employers.  The missing element of the entire 60 Minutes report is that the site operators and employers who have experienced dust explosions were not interviewed.

 

More information on the February 2008 explosion at the Imperial Sugar plant mentioned in the report is available by clicking HERE

For those of you who find dust explosions exciting a video of a dust explosion in a silo is available HERE

For those employers or inspectors who did not do high school science, a schoolroom example of the combustible hazards of dust can be found HERE

 
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New York Crane Safety Podcast

On 3 June 2008, Brian Lehrer of radio station WNYC conducted a discussion on the issues of occupational health safety as it relates to New York City’s second crane collapse in a couple of months and a sharp rise in construction deaths so far in 2008.

The speakers are very critical of the Federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration and the resources provided to it by the Federal Government.  Speakers also raise the issues of the rate of construction, the skill levels of inspectors, shortage of building equipment, union membership, in passing, the legal status of migrant workers, and the assessment criteria of inspectors on construction sites.

The resource levels and strategic planning matters raised in this discussion echo many of the debates that are occuring in Europe and Australia.

The podcast is available for download by clicking HERE

Pipeline Explosion in Western Australia

Western Australia’s gas supply has been disrupted due to an explosion at the Apache Energy off Dampier (shown below) on 3 June 2008.  Thirty per cent of the gas supply for that state is out of action.

There were no injuries and personnel were evacuated safely. The explosion site is pictured below.

This explosion presents important energy supply questions for the Western Australian government but, in the context of this blog, there are several paths to follow.  One will be to watch how Apache Energy handles the disaster management and business continuity.  The government will, undoubtedly, begin an inquiry and it will be interesting to note the assessment team structure and reporting lines. 

Another perspective will be to watch all of this evolve in comparison with the Esso Longford explosion in Victoria in 1998 which took out domestic and industrial gas supplies for almost two weeks. This incident lead to a Royal Commission. Compare and contrast.

    

 

Roadside drug testing of commercial drivers

On 1 June 2008, the South Australian Minister for Road Safety, Carmel Zollo, announced an increased enforcement campaign against drug-affected drivers

In her media statement, Ms Zollo says

“When people take drugs and drive, they are taking a deadly risk – and the worst possible outcome of such irresponsible behaviour is a tragic crash. Drug testing is relatively new and we need to do all we can to change attitudes – we need people to know they will pay a price, one way or the other – and we need to convince them the best thing to do is to stay off the roads.”

Given the large number of commercial vehicles and drivers on the road, I asked the Minister’s office how this enforcement process and increased fines would apply to drivers who are found to be drug-affected in a work vehicle or undertaking work tasks.  I haven’t had a response from the Minister but I put the same scenario to the SafeWork SA.

A spokesman for SafeWork SA told me that “the situation regarding the new drug driving laws in SA doesn’t change a whole lot as far as [SafeWork SA is] concerned. Such offences would fall under the Road Traffic Act in the first instance, and would be handled by SA Police.”

He emphasises that this issue 

“…is another compelling reason for employers who do have staff on the road to ensure a policy is in place regarding alcohol and other drugs in the workplace. This will ensure that all workers are clear about what expectations exist in relation to drugs and alcohol on the job, and what the consequences will be for any breaches.  Such a policy would assist employers in managing their legal obligation to identify hazards, assess risks and implement appropriate control measures for those risks.”

I agree and appreciate the fact that he did not say, as many employees and managers assert, that having a policy makes the workplace safer. Having a policy does not even imply compliance, only action and enforcement can achieve that.

What his comments do indicate though is that a workplace hazard that OHS professionals are expected to manage goes through several processes before it reaches, if at all, the relevant OHS authority and regulator.  Is it any reason that the drug driving of workplace vehicles gets little attention when a major motivator of change, legal OHS action from a government regulator or at least the threat of action, is not occurring in the OHS context.

The driver penalty structure only applies within the general driving conditions controlled by the Road Act even though a driver could be severely impaired in a mobile workplace. The workplace context applies in other safety legislation such as rail safety and mining safety, why is not the work context of a positive roadside drug test being applied?  On the issue of impairment, there is little difference between a white delivery van driver and 18-wheeler.  Both can kill others and themselves.

Perhaps the Australian National OHS Review can consider occupational issues in other traditionally public areas of safety – security staff in nightclubs? level crossings?

Law Review or Safety Review

The issues paper of National Review into Model OHS Laws is a peculiar beast for several reasons. Firstly, it is a review of legislation and restricts itself to the OHS Act. However it wants submissions on other safety legislation that has“interdependence” such as road safety, rail safety and others. That is a very big ask…

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Times when work/life balance should be sacrificed

Further to my post on public service workloads, the Finance Minister, Lindsay Tanner, author of the 2003 book on work/life balance, has stated on television (if you get through the fuel price discussion) that 

“There’s always going to be some disgruntled people in a large organisation,” he said. “Whether there’s truth in what they say, who knows. You just don’t know. But I believe that things will settle down to a degree. We’ve got a big agenda, we expect a lot of ourselves, we expect a lot of people working with us but it’s for the betterment of the nation, it’s for getting better outcomes for Australia.”

The challenge facing the government at the moment is that it is confusing productivity with hours of work. And I don’t accept that there is a difference between those who work in the civil service and those in private companies in terms of the health and safety risks associated with hours of work.

In today’s The Australian newspaper, John McDonnell, a public policy consultant, mentions the inconsistency in the government’s approach in passing.  He says

“leaving aside the inconsistency between the Government’s view of work-life balance for the public service as opposed to that for the rest of the community…”

Lindsay Tanner has written about work-life balance yet is not prepared to apply his knowledge to the industry he works in.  His comments above, and similar ones from his colleagues, are the first time that I have heard patriotism used in relation to workload. I wonder when the public service workers compensation claims begin to appear for stress-related disorders and depression, whether they will be rejected on the basis of “working for the betterment of the nation”.