Australian 2008 workplace statistics

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Every year newspapers and organisations undertake a “year in review”.  OHS regulators are no different.  As more statistics become available of the next few weeks, SafetyAtWorkBlog will provide the latest OHS statistics for 2008.  The most recent are below.

Western Australia

According to a media release by WorkSafe WA:

“In 2005/06, WA recorded 12 traumatic work-related deaths and 25 in 2006/07. There were 27 fatalities in 2007/08. In addition, every year around 19,000 Western Australians suffer an injury or illness serious enough to have to take time off work.”

Eleven of these fatalities have occurred since 1 July 2008

Victoria

According to information provided to SafetyAtWorkBlog by WorkSafe Victoria:
  • There were 21 work-related deaths in calendar 2008 compared with 22 in 2007 and 29 in 2006.
  • Deaths in 2008 occurred in building construction (four), transport and agriculture (three each), timber, electrical linesmen (two each). There were also fatalities involving forklifts, the meat industry, retail, firefighting, roadworks, warehousing and manufacturing (one each).
  • The 10 year average is 28.4 deaths/calendar year.  There were 39 fatalities in 1999, the highest in that period.  Lowest was 2004 with 18.
  • The 5 year average is 24 with a high of 30 in 2004, the highest in that period.
  • 29,087 [WorkCover] claims last financial year compared with 28,550 in the previous. There were 77 life threatening injuries in the last financial year compared with 66 in 06/07.

Kevin Jones

UPDATE – 7 January 2009

A spokesperson for WorkSafe WA has told SafetyAtWorkBlog that WorkSafe’s statistical experience varies from that in Victoria in the context of workplace injuries over the Summer break.  January is historically a month with a low rate of workplace injuries.  This may be due to the number and type of West Australian industries that close down for January or that workers are on leave for around two weeks in January.

Statistics on workplace injuries are notoriously difficult to compare from one Australian State to another and SafetyAtWorkBlog would argue OHS would be seen as more directly relevant by the community if statistics accurately reflected the level of work-related injuries and illnesses rather than being based on workers compensation claims and fatalities.   It certainly would change the strategic targets and enforcement processes if illness was accurately assessed.

Various Federal governments have promised to attend to statistical incompatibility over decades and it is hoped that the potential national consistency of OHS laws may also resolve the need for accurate and relevant workplace statistics.

 

 

 

 

Managing Safety After A Vacation

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On 4 January 2009, the Sunday Age contained a curious article based around some quotes from Eric Windholz, acting executive director of WorkSafe Victoria. The article reports Eric as saying that when workers return to work after a holiday break they can be careless. 

“People come back, they’ve taken their mind off the job, they’ve had a well-earned holiday and sometimes it takes them a little while to do the basics of making sure they’re working safe…..Recommissioning their equipment, starting plant, starting at construction sites again, people may not have their minds on the job and they get hurt.”

WorkSafe has advised SafetyAtWorkBlog (and provided the original media statement) that

“JANUARY is one of the most dangerous months with 3.8 deaths/year over the past decade.  There were three January deaths last year and 5 in 2007.”

However, this general data does not necessarily indicate injuries by those returning to work after a vacation and is likely to include seasonal activities in the high-risk Summer industries, such as farming.

Employer Obligations

The Sunday Age article makes no mention of the obligations that are also placed on the employer in a “restart” situation.  Often workplaces in January in Australia operate on a skeleton staffing level and the lack of adequate resources, or unreasonable expectations, can lead to an unnecessary risk of increased injury.  OHS systems must be able to operate throughout all levels of management and through the annual chronology of production.

A suitable management system should operate regardless of the number of staff working in that organisation.  After all, OHS legislation refers to a “system of work” not “the way we work when the boss is away” or “the way we work when away from the main office”.

“Blaming The Worker”

The omission of employer obligations in the article skews it dangerously to “blaming the worker” – an issue that recently came up in relation to WorkSafe’s young worker campaign but extends back, at least, to the 1980’s and 1990’s.  The issue is best illustrated in the chapter “The myth of the careless worker” in John Mathews’ book (now understood to be out-of-print) HEALTH AND SAFETY AT WORK (Pluto Press).

More recent information on this issue, and the rebadging of it as Behavioural-based Safety, can be found at the Victorian Trades Hall site where a BBS kit has been drafted based on a Trades Hall seminar that SafetyAtWorkBlog attended in 2005.

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The media statement provided to SafetyAtWorkBlog shows that WorkSafe did not specify workers or employers in its cautionary statement for those restarting their work and businesses after the Summer break.  It is, however, very interesting that The Sunday Age chose to focus on the obligations of workers, showing just how pervasive the concept of “blaming the worker” really is.

For the record WorkSafe makes the following suggestions, amongst others: 

  • Most people killed or hurt are doing routine tasks. 
  • OHS is a shared responsibility, BUT directors whether of large or small companies have clear responsibilities because they set the agenda – you might refer to the [WorkSafe] campaign where people were asked to do silly things by supervisors. 
  • Many people return to work next week – It’s easy to get swamped when you first go back – take some time before it gets too busy to identify known or potential hazards and fix them! 
  • Conduct regular reviews – get everyone involved – from the board room/main office to the newest person.

 


Latest WorkSafe ad – now online

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The Christmas ad campaign by WorkSafe Victoria is now available for viewing on line.

I saw it with my family for the first time last night on television and it had a terrific impact on my wife.  The hug from the teenage daughter is the clincher.  My teenage son had seen the ad previously and thought it was very effective.

A major change in the campaign is dialogue.  Refreshingly the conversation is not about safety and there is an undercurrent of fear of injury to the normal/banal family conversation that locate the action into our own homes.

The Homecoming ad made good use of the Dido music, for the time, but that campaign relied on visuals.  The latest ad hits the core family values and concerns and deserves a wide audience.

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The insidiousness of “reasonably practicable”

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WorkSafe Victoria recently released a guideline, or clarification, on what it considers to be the issues surrounding “employing or engaging suitably qualified persons to provide health and safety advice“.

SafetyAtWorkBlog remains to be convinced that such a process will lead to better safety outcomes in the small to medium-sized enterprises at which this program is aimed.  The OHS legislation clearly states that the employer is the ultimate decider on which control measures to implement to address a workplace hazard.  This is echoed in the WorkSafe guideline

“It is important to note that employing or engaging a suitably qualified person to provide OHS advice does not discharge the employer from their legal responsibilities to ensure health and safety as required under Part 3 of the OHS Act. This duty cannot be delegated.”

A business manager will weigh up the advice sought or given from a variety of sources and make a decision.  A good business manager will take responsibility for the good or bad results of their decision.  But they need to have a clear understanding of their obligations and Victoria’s legislation could be confusing.

The guideline says that

“Employers are expected to take a proactive approach to identify and control hazards in the workplace before they cause an incident, injury, illness or disease.”

This reitereates one of the safety principles in the 2004 OHS Act

“Employers and self-employed persons should be proactive, and take all reasonably practicable measures, to ensure health and safety at workplaces and in the conduct of undertakings.”

But the principles are not legislative obligations.  As Michael Tooma writes in his “Annotated Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004

“… it is the intention of the Parliament that the principles be taken into account in the administration of the Act.”

The principles are there for judicial colour and community reassurance but with no real impact.

The obligations on an employer, the section that determines the actions and plans of the business owner or managers, are, as well as general duties:

“Duties of employers to employees

(1) An employer must, so far as is reasonably practicable, provide and maintain for employees of the employer a working environment that is safe and without risks to health……..

(2) Without limiting sub-section (1), an employer contravenes that sub-section if the employer fails to do any of the following-

(a) provide or maintain plant or systems of work that are, so far as is reasonably practicable, safe and without risks to health;

(b) make arrangements for ensuring, so far as is reasonably practicable, safety and the absence of risks to health in connection with the use, handling, storage or transport of plant or substances;

(c) maintain, so far as is reasonably practicable, each workplace under the employer’s management and control in a condition that is safe and without risks to health;

(d) provide, so far as is reasonably practicable, adequate facilities for the welfare of employees at any workplace under the management and control of the employer;

(e) provide such information, instruction, training or supervision to employees of the employer as is necessary to enable those persons to perform their work in a way that is safe and without risks to health. “

The “as far as is reasonably practicable” insertions allow business considerable flexibility in arguing the validity of their decisions after an incident but hamper the employer in being “pro-active” – (a hateful and lazy piece of business jargon).

The impediments to “pro-activity” can be seen in the general duties of Section 20 where 

“to avoid doubt, a duty imposed on a person…to ensure, as far is reasonably practicable, health and safety requires the person –

(a) to eliminate risks to health and safety so far as is reasonably practicable:…..”

This contrasts with the objects of the, same, Act which states that one of the aims is

“to eliminate, at the source, risks to the health, safety and welfare of employees and other persons at work:…”

It is strongly suspected that a crucial element of OHS legislation and management will likely disappear and this is to eliminate hazards “at the source”.  Outside of the objects of the Act this aim is not mentioned anywhere else in the legislation.  “Reasonably practicable” will erase this important social and moral clause.

Eliminating something “at the source” encourages research into new ways of eliminating hazards by placing an obligation on us to determine the source.  “Reasonably practicable” encourages us to research control measures until it is practicable to do so no more.  That is a half-quest that solves nothing.  What if Frodo was asked to dispose of the ring in Mordor only if “reasonably practicable”? The story would have been a novella instead of a classic trilogy.

Employer associations are lobbying for increased workplace flexibility.  That has nothing to do with the health and safety benefits of the employees but rather the health and safety of the balance sheet.  “Reasonably practicable” similarly focuses on business management and not safety management.

The battle against this insidious weakening of the OHS profession is not lost.  Heart should be taken from the preparedness of governments to roll-back unpopular legislation such as some industrial relations initiatives.  Hindsight can be an important motivator for change.

Recent fatalities data may sway some in government that OHS regulators are achieving their social and operational targets but OHS professionals know that fatality rates are not an accurate indication of the success of safety initiatives.  New workplace hazards are appearing regularly and many of the new ones don’t result in death but lead instead to misery and an incapacity to live a healthy life or to work again in a chosen profession.  

“Reasonably practicable” allows businesses to try, in differing degrees, to eliminate the hazards, such as psychosocial hazards, of its workforce and then shift them to social security and disability benefits.  And why not? It seems that corporations can serve their clients and stakeholders “as far as is reasonably practicable” and then expect a bailout from government over their mismanagement.  Immorality applies to much more than economics.