Coroner Critical of OHS Regulator in Mine Investigation

In an AAP report on 21 May 2008, the Tasmanian coroner has been highly critical of the OHS legislative regime applicable to Tasmanian mines.  His comments have particular relevance during Australia’s national review of OHS law and as the coronial inquest into the Beaconsfield mining disaster is due to start within the next six months….

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Safety – on the fringe again

The Australian government has established an Australian Social Inclusion Board.  This is what the government says is the purpose and challenges of the Board:

This social exclusion is a significant barrier to sustained prosperity and restricts Australia’s future economic growth.

Promoting social inclusion requires a new way of governing. Australia must rethink how policy and programs across portfolios and levels of government can work together to combat economic and social disadvantage.

The Australian Social Inclusion Board which brings together leaders from around the country, will be instrumental in meeting this challenge.

Tackling disadvantage involves generating effective, practical solutions at the level of government, local communities, of service providers, employers and of families and individuals themselves.

The Australian Social Inclusion Board will consult widely and provide views and advice to the Government.

I am glad that consultation will be broad.  Narrow consultation, even in a tripartite structure, is often found to be too narrow and anti-inclusion.  It is acknowledged that as good as broad consultation is, change and influence comes from having a seat at the table.  I find it disappointing that an independent voice for occupational safety and health is not at the table given the higher rate of death and injury in workplaces of young workers, workers from outside Australia and workers with a poor command of the English language.

It would have been good to see the Australian government look beyond an artificial demarcation of work and non-work.  The OHS profession and OHS legislation dumped this demarcation several years ago when we started to deal with psycho-social hazards in the workplace and the impact of workplace hazards on non-work activities.

If there is not a seat at the table, given that the Minister for Social Inclusion is also the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and that the board’s Chair, Ms Patricia Faulkner  had an OHS role in the early 1990’s, I would expect safety (both occupational and non-occupational) to be a fixture on the board’s agenda.

National uniformity in the Australian transport industry

The argy-bargy about uniformity of OHS legislation continued this week and, again, stems from issues in New South Wales.

According to a report in the Australian Financial Review on May 19 2008 (sorry there is no hyperlink, Fairfax Media insists of payment for online AFR content), the CEO of the National Road Transport Operator’s Association , Bernard Belacic said

the reality is for an employer in the trucking industry, we’ve got a raft of regulations to comply with.  In NSW, we’ve got four different [driver] fatigue regimes.  As an employer, even as a driver…..which one do you comply with?
Let’s not get silly about duplicating efforts and creating further layers of regulation. If safety isn’t addressed properly through the OH&S framework, well, let’s fix that.

He was responding to the ACTU’s desire to have OHS incorporated into the NSW industrial awards for negotiation.

I agree that additional levels of legislation and regulation are probably not required however several trucking companies are continuing their swap to the national worker’s compensation system, permission for which was squeaked in before the Howard Government was voted out.  I cannot understand why the companies would want to continue with this action when further moves from the state to federal systems have been frozen, the OHS regulatory system is under government review, and such action would be inflammatory and very possibly short-term.

Many companies put a great store in worker’s compensation, probably because it is so expensive.  But I judge a company’s commitment to it’s workforce on the basis of injury prevention not compensation. 

Below are some publicly-available infoation on the latest companies moving to the Comcare system:

Remote housing audit action by Queensland government

The Queensland government has responded to the assessment reports on staff housing which includes the housing in remote locations.  The initiatives are good for the most part but it has to be noted that the motivation for action came from foreseeable, unjustified attacks on workers in isolated locations.  The safety status of the accommodation was…

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Politicians, Stress and Bulimia

Overnight English MP John Prescott “came out” as a bulimia sufferer. Or so the story goes in the British press. But the real story for the occupational health and safety profession is that Prescott’s doctors suggest the contributory factor – stress.

The Telegraph is a little more precise and says that it is unclear why bulimia occurs, that there may be a genetic trait and it often exists “alongside other mental health problems, for example, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and anxiety”.

The Telegraph also lists potential risk factors as “social and cultural pressures regarding appearance, bullying, low self-esteem and family dysfunction”.

Our reactions to the supposed link between stress and bulimia needs to be carefully considered given there are considerable contrary, or complementary, factors. We should bear this in mind when dubious workplace well-being promoters come knocking on the office doors.

I would suggest that Prescott’s main control measure for bulimia, stress and a range of health issues, including diabetes, was that he left the front bench in 2007.

On the other factors of bulimia, the social and cultural pressures, outside of Britain, Prescott is still only known as that guy who punched someone in a crowd, and that had something to do with food as well – a far more telling manifestation of a stress response, I would have thought.

Is tripartite consultation still the way to go?

Australia's recently announced review into model OHS laws is firmly bound by the tripartite consultative structure formalised by Lord Robens in the early 1970s and comprising government, uniuons and employers. This is a sensbile structure as it involves all of the major influences in Australian workplaces. But just how relevant is it now, thirty years later?

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Australia’s recently announced review into model OHS laws is firmly bound by the tripartite consultative structure formalised by Lord Robens in the early 1970s and comprising government, uniuons and employers. This is a sensbile structure as it involves all of the major influences in Australian workplaces. But just how relevant is it now, thirty years later?

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Level Crossings, Driver Behaviour and Politicians

Victoria has experienced several more level crossing incidents in late-March 2008. The significance of one of the recent incidents is that a vehicle driver survived, as happened with the Kerang incident which resulted in multiple fatalities. Curiously, the most recent survival also involved a vehicle colliding with the side of a train already on the railway crossing.

In this case there were no fatalities as the train was freight. But the driver’s comments are interesting. 59-year-old Laurie Heffernan was reported by AAP as admitting using the crossing, 1.5 kilometres from his residence, over 30,000 times and has recommended that freight trains have reflective strips on the sides and that engines should have flashing lights. The incident occurred on a misty morning at 7am.

On radio interviews, Heffernan has also blamed the layout of the road and rail crossing and the proximity of sheds that obscure part of the view of the crossing. This seems a peculiar excuse for someone who must use the crossing on a daily basis.

Yes, Heffernan was travelling slower than the speed limit. Yes, the collision was a glancing blow, but the collision still bounced him “back a bit and it spun me”. He says “If I’d have been travelling faster I probably would’ve gone under it… I would’ve done a lot worse, I mightn’t be talking with you right now.”

His responses, sadly, support the Victorian government’s push for increased driver awareness of level crossings.

The crossing, at Terang, has no flashing lights or boom gates but has recently had rumble strips installed. There was no indication whether Mr Heffernan noticed the rumble strips but he stated they are “useless”.

I have great respect for Victoria’s Transport Minister, Lynne Kosky, having met her before she became a parliamentarian, but her comments after this most recent incident are alarming and ill-advised

Her government established a parliamentary inquiry into level crossings as a result of an increase in incidents and fatalities. That inquiry has received many submissions and has had its timeline expanded to October 2008. The inquiry is not a court case so is not sub-judice but the Minister has knee-capped the inquiry by stating that various safety control measures are not needed or cannot be afforded for rural crossings. Her comments could make some of the legitimate findings of the inquiry look stupid. The inquiry cannot now recommend boom gates on every rail crossing. It is highly unlikely that grade separations could ever be seriously recommended.

How such an intelligent parliamentarian could place such limitations on the inquiry, or her advisers let her say such things, is very surprising. In this circumstance politician-speak of “let’s wait and hear what the rail safety experts in the parliamentary inquiry will say when they report to Parliament in October” would have been appropriate.

Kosky is forever going to have to explain to the families of victims of rail incidents why one particular rail crossing had less control measures than another crossing down the track. If she had applied the political nous that I know she has, she would have increased the validity of the parliamentary inquiry that her own Labor Government established.

As it is she has shown that it is not only America that has politicians who resemble Tonya Harding.