When managing stress, are safety managers looking at the wrong thing?

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Today is World Mental Health Day and the media, at least in Australia, is inundated with comments and articles on mental health.  This morning, Jeff Kennett, a director of beyondblue, spoke on ABC Radio about the increasing levels of anxiety that people are feeling in these turbulent economic times.  Throughout the 5 minute interview, Kennett never once mentioned stress.  This omission seemed odd as, in the workplace safety field, stress is often seen as the biggest psychosocial hazard faced in the workplace.

SafetyAtWorkBlog spoke with Clare Shann, the senior project manager with beyondblue’s Workplace Program, about the role of stress in the workplace and its relation to mental health.  She clarified that stress is not a medical condition but a potential contributor to developing a mental illness, such as anxiety disorders or depression.

To put the situation into context, there is a fascinating interview with a Darren Dorey of Warrnambool in Victoria.  The 20 minute interview was conducted on  a regional ABC Radio station on 9 October, and describes the personal experience of depression and anxiety that stems, to some extent, from work.

It seems that in trying to manage stress, OHS professionals may be focusing on the wrong element in worker health.  Perhaps what are considered workers compensation claims for stress should be re–categorised as claims for mental illness.  This may result in a better acceptance of the existence of this workplace hazard.

An exclusive interview with Clare Shann can be heard clare_shann_mental_health

Irrational decision-making

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Occupational health and safety often gets sidetracked from the main issue of preventing injury and illness at work.   I often hear employers, particularly in small business, complaining that their workers continue to do the wrong thing even though the employers have done everything they can think of.  

Sometimes an approach is offered that seems like a quick-fix to all the safety problems.  The one that always annoys me is behavioural-based safety.  BBS is like the Hydra and reappears regularly in different guises and with different jargon.

A podcast crossed my desktop this morning that provides a different perspective on “why rational people make irrational decisions”.  

The podcast illustrates the conflicts in trying to make the right decision by discussing the decision of a pilot in the Canary Islands who caused a major crash.  The pilot was also the head of safety at KLM Airlines.

The podcast does not focus on workplace safety but the discussion is probably the better for it.

Professor Michael Quinlan, Beaconsfield and Safety Cases

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I have spoken elsewhere of the non-release of Professor Michael Quinlan’s OHS report into the Beaconsfield mine.  On 4 August 2008, he spoke at the coronial inquest into the death of Larry Knight.  According to media reports, Professor Quinlan said about the rockfall that killed Larry Knight:

“I can’t say the event wouldn’t have occurred – I can say that the chances of it occurring would have been reduced… They are steps that should have been taken, in my view.”

He has also been very hot on the validity of risk assessment processes at workplace. As part of Melick report into the disaster, Melick used Quinlan’s report when writing

 “As far as can be determined, the risk ranking of ground control was not reassessed or revised in the light of these (earlier rockfall) events…. The evidence indicates that the possibility of further significant seismic events in the mine in 915 and 925 metre levels was foreseeable.” 

In December 2007, I interviewed Professor Quinlan about a range of OHS issues including major hazards.  In the SafetyAtWork podcast, he said that some mines in Western Australia have begun to apply a safety case regime to safety because of the high-hazard nature of the workplace.  At that time he supported such a move.

Quinlan pointed out, though, that safety case regulation is very resource-intensive and, therefore, only relative to large organisations and well-resourced regulators. 

It is unlikely that such a combination could have been applied to the mine in Beaconsfield as Quinlan is reported as saying at the inquest that 

“Workplace Standards Tasmania was under-resourced and [he] recommended the development of mine-specific safety laws and trade-union mine inspectors.”

Many submissions to the National OHS Law Review have mentioned the relevance of a safety case approach to OHS but only one of the currently available submissions mentions that the safety case approach could be applied to mines.

Employer concerns over National OHS Review

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In February 2008, I interviewed  Garry Bracks of the Australian employer association, Employers First.  Garry has been prominent in the industrial relations and OHS debates for some time and it was a pleasure to finally catch up with him.

The podcast of the interview illustrates some of the general concerns of employers with the government’s announce review into OHS law.