Issue 211 - SafetyNet Issue 211Welcome to SafetyNet 211 - read the latest news, research and more in OHS from Australia and around the world.
Vale Mr John Smith
It is with great sadness that the VTHC learnt that Mr John Smith, OHS and WorkCover Advisor with the Victorian Employers Chamber of Commerce and Industry, passed away this week. John, while always representing the views of his 'constituency', the employers, was at all times practical and open. He was respected by union officers in all stakeholder forums and his contribution and sense of humour will be sorely missed. The staff of the VTHC OHS Unit extend our condolences to Mr Smith's family.
Your views – thank you!
This is the 211th edition of SafetyNet – the 'April Fool's Day' edition – but we're not playing any tricks on people today. OHS is too serious a matter, as highlighted by one of the comments we received in response to our call for your views in the last journal. One of our readers, after our editor thanked her for sending in comments, responded, 'My next door neighbour didn't come home from work last year and it's really focussed my attention on our collective need to look after each other. Thanks for telling me that my comments are helpful.' We received so many positive, and very thoughtful, comments to our request to send in your views, and we would like to thank everyone very much. Not only will these comments be used in our submission for renewal of funding, but they have provided a huge boost to the morale of all of us at the Unit. It's wonderful to learn that when we send the journal 'out into the ether of the internet' real people – reps, workers and even employers – read it and use it.
Thank you again everyone. If you didn't send a comment but would like to, please do so now, we are still putting the application together. Email Renata
All the comments sent were fabulous, and we ended up sending out six 'parcels' with some OHS goodies – if we could have sent a prize out to everyone, we would have - so thank you again.
Triangle Shirtwaist Fire – 100 years on
Last Friday March 25, marked exactly 100 years since New York's Triangle Shirtwaist Fire which took the lives of 146 workers, mostly young immigrant women. The tragedy galvanised New York clothing workers to campaign for healthy and safe working conditions and a living wage. To commemorate not only that fire, but also the many 100s of other workers killed around the world in similar fires, Victoria's Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union (TCFUA) held an event at the Trades Hall. Speaking from the back of a vintage fire engine on the footpath outside the Trades Hall, Michele O'Neil, TCFUA Secretary, asked the gathered crowd why is it that we were still commemorating an event that happened so long ago? The answer was chilling: textile workers in countries such as Bangladesh and Thailand are still working long hours in shocking conditions, still locked in and dying in their 100s in fires. In Australia, 100 years on, fires still occur in TCF industries. In January 2011, a fire occurred in a carpet factory in Preston. There was no loss of life in this fire, but about 90 workers have had either no wages or short working hours since the fire. It was luck that the factory had not yet re-opened following the Christmas shutdown.
Ms O'Neil called for the Gillard Federal Government, the Greens and the Opposition to use the opportunity provided by the current OHS laws harmonisation exercise to ensure that in a developed country like Australia, in the 21st century, we have the best and the strongest laws to protect workers. Instead, the model laws as currently drafted will reduce the protections for Australian workers.
International Workers Memorial Day
Worker's Memorial Day is held on 28 April every year - this year it will fall on a Thursday, right after Easter. All over the world workers and their representatives conduct events, demonstrations, vigils and a whole host of other activities to mark the day. The day is also intended to not only remember the dead, but also to fight for the living.
This is an early reminder of the commemoration ceremony at the Remembrance Rock at the Trades Hall, beginning at 10.30am, which is being organised jointly by the Victorian Trades Hall Council and the Industrial Deaths and Advocacy Inc. There will also be the traditional wreath-laying ceremony organised by the Gippsland Asbestos Related Diseases Support Inc. There will be other events around the country and around the world, and there will be more information in SafetyNet closer to the day, but in the meantime, go to this page on the website for more information, including details of these two events and a history of International Workers Memorial Day.
I'm temping at the call centre of a large national organisation. I'm working five hours per day and have been told I am allowed a total of 10 minutes break per shift. I have also been told that I must take toilet breaks in that time, and am not allowed to go to the toilet outside of my allocated break. When I asked what I should do if I have to go to the toilet twice, I was told that I would have to split up my break into two lots of 5 minutes. This means that I now have no time to eat (unless I try to eat between calls at my desk) because my entire break is taken up by toilet stops. I was wondering if this is legal.
Rest breaks are regulated under the industrial agreement which covers that particular industry or workplace. Under most awards (many of which have now been superceded by Enterprise Agreements), the first break - which is unpaid - must be given no less than one hour and no more that five hours after commencing the shift. But this is a meal break. So it's not 'illegal' to allow only a ten minute break if your shift is five hours long.
HOWEVER, what you describe is ridiculous, and in breach of an employer's duty of care under occupational health and safety legislation: to forbid workers from going to the toilet when they need to! Workers are not machines that can be programmed to only need to go to the toilet once and at a particular time. Under the general duty of care in the Victorian OHS Act, the employer must provide and maintain for employees a working environment that is safe and without risks to health, and this includes safe systems of work.
Not being able to go to the toilet can create serious physical health problems, not to mention stress. It is not unusual for call centres to micromanage their workers – but this is not acceptable (see the section of the site on the hazards of call centres) The employer must be more reasonable and allow workers a level of flexibility.
If you have any OHS related queries or questions, send in an email through the Ask Renata function on the website . You'll get an answer within a couple working days at the latest.
ACTU warns on increase in precarious employment
In an address to the ACOSS National Conference this week, Ged Kearney, President of the ACTU, spoke on the perils of precarious work and its impact on productivity. In Australia today, nearly half of all workers are engaged as casuals, fixed term workers, contractors or labour hire workers. Ms Kearney said any discussion about productivity and participation had to encompass how we deal with insecure work. Precarious work is no longer confined to particular sectors or particular occupations. It is now experienced across the entire labour market - by men and women - and is increasingly the reality of paid work for many. Ged Kearney's address to ACOSS
As announced in SafetyNet 208, delegates at the AWU's 2011 conference endorsed a Guard it or Ban it. There has been some criticism that the campaign message is over-simple, but a recent article on the SafetyAtWorkBlog by Dr Yossi Berger, the AWU's National OHS Co-ordinator highlights the stark need for action to be taken. The article Authority in Denial? explores the SA Coroner's response to the tragic 2004 death of an 18 year old in an unguarded horizontal boring machine.
Concern for miners' mental health
At a forum held in Perth this week, experts warned that workers in the mining, resources and construction industries, particularly fly-in, fly-out workers, need special mental health "first aid" programs. Chief executive of the Australasian Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health, Jennifer Bowers, said mental health and suicide prevention were still being ignored in many male-dominated industries, and while some companies were very proactive about mental health issues on their remote sites but others did little. "In the blokey world of mining and resources, too often mental health is stigmatised and not seen as a 'safe' topic," Dr Bowers said. "One can't help but wonder if mental health has even emerged as something for these companies to think about." Source: The The West Australian
International Union news
IUF calls for lung killer action
After many years of union activity for workplace regulation of the highly toxic food flavouring diacetyl California has introduced a strict new workplace standard. The chemical can cause the crippling lung disease bronchiolitis obliterans, now widely known as 'popcorn workers' lung'. National controls introduced in the US are much watered down, however. According to the global foodworkers' union federation IUF there is little action on the widely used butter flavouring elsewhere in the world. The IUF is highly critical of authorities in Europe for ignoring the risks. It says the European Union 'has set no exposure limits for diacetyl, which has never been evaluated with regard to inhalation and other forms of exposure in manufacturing.' IUF adds: 'In recent correspondence with the European Food Safety Authority, the agency stated that diacetyl has been declared safe, that no new evaluation was carried out, that it has no plans to do so, and that evaluation falls outside its mandate, which is limited to oral exposure rather than inhalation.' According to IUF, 'This regulatory inaction in the face of a known workplace killer stands in sharp contrast with the introduction of a binding standard in California.'
Workplace noise, anxiety and depression linked
Australian researchers from the University of Newcastle have unexpectedly seen a relationship between low-frequency hearing loss, poor balance and anxiety and depression among workers exposed to noise. The researchers assessed more than 3000 Royal Australian Air Force workers including F-111 aircraft-maintenance workers, at an increased risk of hearing loss due to increased noise and solvent exposure. They found workers with low-frequency hearing loss also had lower functional reach (signifying poorer balance) and reported anxiety and depression. The researchers concluded that the results highlighted the need for further research in occupational populations.
Maya Guest, et al, Australia, An Observed Relationship Between Vestibular Function and Auditory Thresholds in Aircraft-Maintenance Workers. [abstract] Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Volume 53, Issue 2, February 2011..
Even 'mild' stress damages work prospects
A new UK study has found that even relatively mild stress can lead to long term disability and an inability to work. The large population based study published online in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health reports the association of mental health problems with long term disability is well known, but the impact of milder forms of psychological stress is likely to have been under-estimated. A research team headed by Dheeraj Rai of the University of Bristol tracked the health of more than 17,000 randomly selected working adults up to the age of 64 in the Stockholm area between 2002 and 2007. In that period, 649 people started receiving disability benefit: 203 for a mental health problem and the remainder for physical ill-health. Higher levels of stress at the start of the study were associated with a significantly greater likelihood of subsequently being awarded long term disability benefits. But even those with mild stress were up to 70 per cent more likely to receive disability benefits, after taking account of other factors likely to influence the results, such as lifestyle and alcohol intake. One in four of these benefits awarded for a physical illness, such as high blood pressure, angina, and stroke, and almost two thirds awarded for a mental illness, were attributable to stress. According to the authors, their findings must be considered in the context of modern working life, which places greater demands on employees, and social factors, such as fewer close personal relationships and supportive networks. These factors lead them to ask: 'Are the strains and demands of modern society commonly exceeding human ability?'
Dheeraj Rai and others. Psychological distress and risk of long-term disability: population-based longitudinal study, Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, Online First, March 2011; doi 10.1136/jech.2010.119644 [abstract]. Source: Risks 499
Lung cancer and occupations
Researchers from New Zealand conducted interviews with 457 people with cancer notified to the New Zealand Cancer Registry during 2007–2008 (and 792 population controls without cancer) in order to estimate occupational lung cancer risk across different occupations. The study found that, after controlling for a series of demographic factors, certain occupations had a significantly increased risk of lung cancer. These were sawmill, wood panel and wood-processing plant operators, butchers, rubber and plastic products machine operators, heavy truck drivers, and workers in petroleum, coal, chemical and associated product manufacturing. Non-significantly elevated risks were observed for a series of other occupations such as loggers, welders and flame cutters.
Several occupations and industries not of 'a priori interest' also showed increased risks, including nursing associate professionals, enrolled nurses, care givers, various plant and machine operators and assemblers, and others,
Corbin M et al, 'Lung cancer and occupation: a New Zealand Cancer Registry-Based Case-Control Study' (2011) [abstract] Vol 54, Issue 2, American Journal of Industrial Medicine.
WorkSafe uncovers nearly 100 safety breaches in Preston
WorkSafe Victoria has announced that during a five day campaign of small businesses in Preston its inspectors found 94 workplace health and safety breaches. Breaches included overloaded and damaged pallet racking, inappropriate use of ladders, mezzanine floors without edge guarding, poor chemical storage and unguarded machines WorkSafe visited 105 local workplaces between 14 and 18 March as part of its 'Safer Work Zones' campaign, which helps small businesses identify basic safety issues and plans to help injured people back to work. Seventy-two safety improvement notices were issued at 60 businesses with common and easy-to-fix issues identified. Another 22 issues were able to be dealt with on the spot. Other notices were issued by Return to Work Inspectors.
WorkSafe's Manufacturing and Logistics Program Director, Ross Pilkington, said preventing most of the 3500 injuries reported to WorkSafe from businesses based in the City of Darebin over the past five years could have been prevented. "It has cost $61-million to treat and rehabilitate people over the past five years as well as the commercial and incalculable human costs. It's the legal responsibility of employers to provide and maintain a safe workplace and the best place to begin is to talk to the people who work for you about what needs to be done. WorkSafe can help, but identifying the basic safety issues which contribute to slips, trips and falls and manual handling injuries is not hard."
WorkSafe Media Release
WorkSafe article on using vehicles safely on farms
In the current edition of WorkSafe's Safety Express, Bruce Gibson (Agriculture Program Manager, WorkSafe), warns that irrespective of whether a farm is a workplace or not, using vehicles safely is crucial. He notes that in the past month there have been four deaths on farms, all involving a vehicle. The most recent fatality involved an 11-year-old boy who was riding a quad bike at Woorndoo near Hamilton. Safety Express and Handbook: Quad bikes on farms
Safe Work Australia Reports
Manual handling injuries costing Australia over $360m annually
In 2008 the National Hazard Exposure Worker Surveillance [NHEWS] survey collected information on 4500 Australian workers' exposure to nine biomechanical demands, pain and fatigue symptoms and the provision of various risk controls. Safe Work Australia has now released the report based on the results of the NHEWS: Exposure to biomechanical demands, pain and fatigue symptoms and the provision of controls in Australia workplaces The survey revealed that almost 100 per cent of workers are exposed to the biomechanical (physical) demands in their workplace, with the majority of workers being exposed to multiple demands and approximately 20 per cent of workers reporting exposure to all nine demands. In particular, young workers, male workers, night workers and lower skilled workers were most likely to report exposure and had the highest overall biomechanical demand exposure.
The report notes that musculoskeletal disorders are one of the leading causes of morbidity and disability and create a substantial burden to the individual and society. In Australia, work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs) account for the largest proportion of occupational disease workers compensation claims. Between 2002 and 2008, successful WMSD claims resulted in $361 million being spent on workers compensation payments per year.
The report, which can be downloaded as either a word or pdf document, presents detailed findings of the NHEWS survey and discusses the implications of these findings for work health and safety policy.
Wet work in Australia
A second SWA report from the NHEWS Survey:Wet work exposure and the provision of wet work control measures in Australian workplaces has also been released. Occupational skin diseases (e.g. contact dermatitis of the hands) are one of the most common work-related problems seen by Australian general practitioners, with an important risk factor being 'wet work' - exposure of the hands to liquids, either through frequent hand washing or through immersion of the hands in liquids. The report found that:
Almost 10 per cent of workers reported washing their hands more than 20 times per day and 4.5 per cent reported their hands were immersed in liquids more than two hours per day.
Workers in the Health and community services and Accommodation, cafes and restaurants industries were most likely to report exposure to wet work.
Exposure to wet work was strongly associated with dermal contact with chemicals. Those who reported skin contact with chemicals were more likely to report exposure to wet work.
Biological Hazards in Australian Workplaces
The third report issued by SWA from the NHEWS survey is Exposure to biological hazards and the provision of controls against biological hazards in Australian workplaces. Biological hazards are organic substances that pose a health risk to humans and other living organisms, and include viruses such as HIV, Hepatitis, Avian influenza, pathogenic micro-organisms, toxins, spores, fungi and bio-active substances. The findings include:
Almost one in five workers surveyed reported they worked in places where there were biological materials. These workers were considered exposed to biological hazards. Of the exposed workers, 75 per cent were in contact with human bodily matter and 30 per cent were in contact with live animals or animal products
Almost two thirds of workers who reported exposure to biological hazards were women
Exposure to biological hazards was concentrated in the Health and community services and Agriculture, forestry and fishing industries, and
Biological hazard control provision was high for workers exposed to human bodily matter, laboratory cultures and biohazard waste, sewerage and rubbish but relatively low for workers in contact with animals and animal products.
Source: Safe Work Media Release
Comcare OHS Awards – Reminder
Don't forget that nominations for the 2011 SRCC Safety Awards, designed to reward and recognise excellence in workplace health and safety, rehabilitation and return to work achieved by employers and individuals covered under the Comcare scheme, are now open. Categories include Best Solution to an Identified Workplace Health and Safety Issue, Best Individual Contribution to Health and Safety (two awarded: Employee, eg health and safety rep, and Employer). Nominations close 18 April, 2011. Read more
From WorkSafe WA: Preventing injuries from manual tasks through a risk management approach - a presenter's guide [pdf] and powerpoint presentation [pdf] suitable for delivery of a three hour session in the workplace.
Supreme Court awards worker $1.4m for back injury
The Supreme Court of Victoria, which just a few weeks ago awarded a young Victorian worker over $1m in damages (SafetyNet 209) this week ordered another huge payout of almost $1.4 to a lift fitter who was permanently incapacitated after suffering a back injury. The Court found the employer, Kone Elevators Pty Ltd, could have eliminated a host of "self-evident" manual handling risks through the introduction of cheap and convenient alternative processes. Rather than accept responsibility for failing to provide a safe and healthy working environment, the employer denied the worker's injuries were reasonably foreseeable, and claimed he was negligent in continuing to work with lower back pain and failing to inform his superiors that he believed the system of work was unsafe. Justice Macaulay, however, did not accept that the company would not have appreciated that very heavy manual work, carried out in awkward postures over a lengthy period of time would have led to injury, and if in fact they did not, it was because they had failed to undertake a risk assessment.
Japan: Concern grows for nuclear workersInternational reports are that the already-grave conditions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant worsened on Sunday with the highest radiation readings yet, compounding both the risks and challenges for workers trying to repair the facility's cooling system. At first, the Tokyo Electric Power Company mistakenly reported a radiation spike 10 million times above normal. In fact, the airborne radioactivity in the unit 2 turbine building was 1,000 millisieverts per hour, a level at which a worker there would reach his yearly occupational exposure limit in 15 minutes. This was enough to evacuate the workers, something which had also occurred following an earlier spike on March 16. A dose of 4,000 to 5,000 millisieverts absorbed fairly rapidly will eventually kill about half of those exposed. The government had already revised upwards the permissible allowable radiation exposure level for workers by 2.5 times at the plant. Several hundred workers are facing enormous challenges while performing what have been described as 'heroic tasks', like using fire equipment to pump seawater into the three failing reactors to keep the nuclear fuel from melting down and fighting fires. Several workers already exposed to high levels of radiation have been hospitalised. On Saturday the chief of Japan's nuclear agency called on Tepco to improve its worker safety. The number of workers working at the Fukushima plant fluctuates daily, ranging between 500 and 1,000. These include Tepco employees, subcontracted workers and members of Japan's Self Defense Forces or the Tokyo Fire Department.
The Washington Post, NHK World . BBC News Online, Fukushima Q&A. The Pump Handle blog Protecting health and safety during disasters and News roundup
Europe: Emerging OHS risks in 'green jobs'
A European project has begun the process of identifying new and emerging occupational health and safety risks associated with new technologies in 'green jobs'. Examples include workers close to moving machinery in wind turbine maintenance and waste recycling, hazardous chemicals in photovoltaic arrays and composite materials, explosion hazards such as in hydrogen filling stations and biogas digesters, and hazards from working at heights on roof top energy systems and in wind farms. A report notes that while many of the hazards are well understood to OHS practitioners, they will now appear in new contexts in green jobs and that the characteristics of the workforces exposed to them may also be different. The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work has published a report of the first phase of this project, Foresight of New and Emerging Risks to Occupational Safety and Health Associated With New Technologies in Green Jobs by 2020 .
Source: Regulation at Work newsletter
Pakistan: Tragic mine gas explosion
A coal mine declared unsafe just a few weeks ago by authorities in Pakistan exploded on 20 March with the loss of dozens of lives. Rescue workers used shovels and bare hands to dig out victims buried by methane explosions in the coal mine in south-western Pakistan, 43 bodies had been recovered two days after the explosion. It was originally reported that there were 52 people in the mine, but that figure may not be accurate, said Naseem Lehari, commissioner of Quetta. The mine is located in Baluchistan province, approximately 40 kilometres east of the provincial capital of Quetta. Iftikhar Ahmed, the provincial chief inspector of mines for Baluchistan province, said the mine had been declared dangerous two weeks prior to the explosion, but the warning was ignored. Last week he said all bodies had now been recovered and the mine sealed. The mine is owned by the state-run Pakistan Mineral Development Corporation but leased to a contractor, he said. Mining for gems, marble, granite, chromite and coal is one of the only industries in much of Baluchistan and northwest Pakistan. But it has attracted very little foreign investment in recent years due to the precarious security situation. Accidents are commonplace.