BHP, swine flu and leave entitlements

Free Access

Many OHS professionals and business gurus state that safety leadership must come from the top of the corporate tree.  BHP Billiton received some rare positive press on 16 June 2009 concerning its OHS policies.

According to Mark Hawthorne, BHP CEO Marius Kloppers has revealed he is battling “pig flu”, in his words.  This seems to have generated a flurry of OHS activity.  Sadly the best OHS practice was not mentioned, which would be to send the infected CEO home.

Hawthorne’s article identifies several BHP swine flu actions:

  • non-essential trips have been cancelled;
  • executives who must fly are being provided with Tamiflu;
  • cleaning shifts have been increased;
  • telephones, keyboards, rest rooms and public areas are being disinfected more regularly; and
  • bottles of alcohol-based hand sanitisers have appeared.

SafetyAtWorkBlog is seeking clarification from BHP Billiton on a number of points.

It is hoped that these measures were not generated only by the CEO comments but were already in place, particularly, following previous incidents with SARS and even avian influenza.

Any measures should be supported by staff consultation that involves more than a notice on the board or an email in the intranet.  Many of these measures generate as many questions as they hope to answer and there should be information sessions for those who wish more detail.

Indeed one of the basic employment issues that always comes up in discussions about pandemics is leave entitlements.  The importance of brainstorming pandemic planning can be illustrated by an article in The Australian, also on 16 June 2009.  The ACTU believes that unpaid leave should not be applied if a worker needs to be absent from work due to influenza, even if the worker themselves are not ill.

The ACTU has told SafetyAtWorkBlog that the following motion was passed at last week’s ACTU Congress

that Federal and State governments should bring together peak union and employer groups to establish guidelines for handling the pandemic. These would:

  • ensure workers and their families are not financially disadvantaged by the outbreak;
  • provide employers with useful information and procedures to deal with any suspected cases of swine flu in the workplace;
  • ensure persons who are in isolation as a consequence of swine flu are not discriminated against or disadvantaged in their employment; and,
  • educate the community about the disease to stop misinformation, panic and help in the overall strategy to slow down the spread of the disease during the winter months.

One of the criticisms that SafetyAtWorkBlog has expressed about many influenza advice sites is that control of the hazard at work is not being seen in the context of occupational health and safety.  This was the case with www.fluthreat.com.

Sadly, influenza information from OHS regulators is of dubious value and application, in many instances, and the regulators have not been promoting their advice.  Very little OHS traction has been gained on the pandemic, even when the unions make the point to the media, as the ACTU did with The Australian newspaper.  The Australian’s article did not mention the following, and sensible, ACTU advice:

“Employers owe a duty of care to workers to provide healthy and safe workplaces as far as reasonably forseeable(sic) [and] the swine flu outbreak has been highly publicised and is reasonably forseeable.”

Let’s hope that the BHP Billiton control measures are part of an integrated OHS/pandemic plan and not a reflex action to please the boss.

Kevin Jones

Corporate health adviser’s recommendations on swine flu

Free Access

Recently SafetyAtWorkBlog wondered why the ACT OHS Commissioner referenced a commercial website instead of a government authority.  The commercial website was www.fluthreat.com operated by HSA Group which since early April 2009 is part of Medibank Private.

Fluthreat.com.au provides information on its Flu At Work page that is very flimsy and seems to be  intended to generate further enquiries to its commercial advisory service.  We’re not comfortable with that or the lack of badging from the parent company but…….

SafetyAtWorkBlog put some questions to HSA Group/Medibank and received the following responses from their media advisor over a week later.  We could be picky but we have decided to let the responses speak for themselves.

The questions were based on the bulletpoints listed on the Flu At Work page in order to flesh out the advice to a more practical level.

What does HSA Group recommend for basic personal respiratory hygiene methods?

HSA’s fluthreat website covers basic respiratory hygiene considerations.  Personal habits that we all should adopt include covering mouths when coughing and sneezing, using tissues and disposing of them properly, and regularly washing of hands.

In this time of swine flu, is the old way of throwing tissues in a waste basket no longer the right option?

Using a waste basket is fine.  The important thing is the waste is disposed of appropriately, and the waste basket does not require excessive handling in the disposal process.

Handwipes and gel have issues of their own – should they be applied after handwashing or instead of, should they be used after each sneeze or cough? What does HSA recommend?

Considerations of personal  hygiene should be a regular occurrence – not just simply after each sneeze or  cough.  Handwipes and gels are for occasions when you can’t wash your hands – it is not necessary to use both.  Handwipes and gels should be alcohol based, which has been shown to be effective in killing influenza type viruses.

Regarding adequate cleaning of surfaces and equipment, should this be undertaken by the users of the equipment or should cleaning contractors be contacted in order to upgrade their processes?

Unfortunately there is no one simple answer to this question.  Every business operates differently, and therefore will require a different response to a pandemic.  We encourage all businesses to have a pandemic plan, which will guide the business wide response.

Certainly cleaning of surfaces and equipment should be considered in the context of an organisation’s pandemic plan, and may include having staff take additional care for hygiene and cleaning, or having cleaning contractors upgrade their processes.  The appropriateness of such considerations are linked to the pandemic phase & an organisation’s response strategy in the context of their pandemic plan.

Regarding telephones, which are the closest item most office workers have to their mouths, years ago there were phone cleaners who  physically came to the office to clean and disinfect  handsets. Would HSA recommend this service be reinstated?

These services are still available for businesses who want them.  Alternatively staff can be trained to do it themselves with alcohol based wipes.  Again the specific needs of businesses will vary, and cleaning of telephone handsets should be set out in the pandemic plan.

In a closed environment, such as an office, where possible, should ventilation be increased by opening a window?  Some office buildings turn off they ventilation overnight even when nightshift workers are in the building.  Does HSA believe that nightshift workers could be at increased risk of contracting influenza?

Ventilation is important in workplaces, and not just due to swine flu. Where windows can be opened without affecting the air-conditioning flow this will help with ventilation. Air conditioning should remain on if people are present in the building.  However there is no evidence that nightshift workers are at an increased risk of contracting influenza – it is the behaviour of workers and their levels of personal hygiene that are the strongest influence on this.

Regarding encouraging sick persons to stay at home, why only “encourage”, when  employers have the legislative obligation to not place their employees at risk? What if the employee has shown no symptoms of influenza but may be infectious due to contact with a family member who is sick?

Employers should have policies in place that articulate how staff should  behave in such circumstances, and ideally a plan that covers pandemics specifically.  There is only a very small risk of people being infectious prior to symptoms appearing.

Sending workers home after the illness has appeared is an acknowledgement that illness is already present in the workplace.  In this instance, what would HSA advise the employer to do?

Employers should continue to activate their pandemic plan, which will trigger workplace specific staff communications and contingency plans.

Does HSA recommend the wearing of facemasks as a suitable control measure for anyone who may come to work sneezing (for whatever reason)?

Facemasks can be very helpful in controlling the spread of respiratory diseases.  However it should be noted that a sneeze does not necessarily equate to H1N1 or seasonal influenza.  A diagnosis of suspected H1N1 or seasonal influenza requires consideration of a number of other factors.

Regardless of the further information from HSA Group/Medibank, SafetyAtWorkBlog still recommends that the best advice is available from the relevant health authorities in your State or country.

Kevin Jones

Swine Flu and business continuity – video

Free Access

On the evening of 2 June 2009, the ABC TV show “Lateline Business” ran a short item on the business continuity issues associated with Australia’s swine flu outbreak.  Not much that was said was new but it proposed an interesting scenario for those people who manage aged care facilities where a potentially virulent illness could harm residents who it may be difficult to isolate or quarantine.

Michael Tooma of Australian law firm, Deacons, spoke briefly to remind viewers that health and safety were important legislative obligations that relate to illnesses, such as swine flu.  Interestingly he provided a rule-of-thumb scenario on business continuity.  He asked whether a business could continue to operate with 20% less staff, a 20% reduction in logistics services and 20% less customers, if the swine flu realises its potential.

Most of the speakers spoke from the current position that Australia is suffering from a “mild” case of this virus.  The story would be considerably different if Australia suffered its first swine-flu fatality, as have other nations.  One death and the terminology will change.

A video of the segment is available to view online.

Kevin Jones

The latest OHS advice on managing swine flu

Free Access

Some time ago SafetyAtWorkBlog was critical of OHS regulators releasing swine flu information because the advice was not being easily translated in the workplace, and some of the advice was just silly. 

Workplace_Guide_to_Managing_an_Influenza_Pandemic_Page_1Much better advice is available from the New South Wales government however, curiously, the Workplace Guide to Managing Influenza Pandemic has been issued by the Department of Commerce.  The department’s Office of Industrial Relations has released the document which makes more sense however the release seems to be contrary to WorkCover New South Wales who defers to the NSW Health Department, surely the most logical central point for communication on this public health issue.

There are too many “experts” on the workplace impact of swine flu influenza and pandemics.  SafetyAtWorkBlog has kept out of this issue as we share the position of WorkCover NSW – defer to the State or National authorities.

However, some companies feel obliged to be seen to be doing something, anything, about swine flu and their half-cocked measures are discrediting their overall process of safety management.

One national company recently issued a new policy advice to all staff on swine flu.  The policy was little more than a cut and paste from an official fact sheet.  It added little to the employees’ knowledge of the hazard and in no way answered staff questions such as 

  • If my child’s school is closed due to a swine flu threat, what type of leave am I entitled to take?
  • The company has provided annual influenza vaccinations.  Will I need re-vaccinating in the event of swine flu and will the company cover this cost?
  • In what circumstances can my employer send me home?

Not only was it next to useless, the company had the cheek to include its own corporate logo on the policy.  Public health and OHS information is usually flexible in its reuse but somebody in the company looks like they are empire-building rather than managing their staff.

People want advice on how swine flu will disrupt their lives and working lives, not information on swine flu itself.  Employers should leave the health information to the health authorities and concentrate on the management of the disruption and potential health threats within their area of expertise, their own workplaces.  

If employers raise expectations by issuing policies in areas outside of their expertise, they begin a spiral of the demand for information that it may be impossible to satisfy.

Kevin Jones

Worst Case Scenarios and Pandemics – 2005 interview

Free Access

In 2005 I had the great opportunity to spend some time with Peter Sandman, a world renowned risk communicator.  We spoke about worst case scenarios and risk communication in those times of avian influenza and smallpox threats.  The interview has gained additional poignancy in this time of swine flu.  

Although the audio is “noisy” as Collins St in Melbourne had more traffic on a Sunday morning than I expected, I think some readers may find this excerpt very useful at the moment.

Click on the magazine’s cover image below to download the interview transcript.

[For Peter Sandman’s current commentary on swine flu, see http://www.psandman.com/index-infec.htm#swineflu1 and especially http://www.psandman.com/col/swinecomm.htm]

or Peter Sandman’s current commentary on swine flu, see
http://www.psandman.com/index-infec.htm#swineflu1 and especially
http://www.psandman.com/col/swinecomm.htm. 

 

Kevin Jones

6i11 cover