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Category Archives: OHS

May 18, 2009 – 7:59PM

Australia is a step closer to having a national Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) system after state and federal workplace relations ministers met on Monday, a leading business group says.

The ministers agreed to a framework for national laws to replace the current situation in which each state runs its own OHS regime.

A communique issued by the ministers after the meeting said it was a historic day for workers’ safety.

Heather Ridout, chief executive of the Australian Industry Group, said the decision paved the way for a genuinely national OHS system.

“Safety is too important to have the rules rewritten in every state,” she said.

Businesses would have problems with some of the recommendations made at the meeting, but that could be worked on, Ms Ridout said.

She supported some recommendations, including the principle that a person accused in an OHS case was innocent until proved guilty, instead of the other way around as practised in some states.

It was also good news that bosses would be required to do what was reasonably practicable to provide a safe workplace, Ms Ridout said.

Workplace Ministers will next meet in June.

By Joe Hildebrand
The Daily Telegraph
May 12, 2009 12:01am

SYDNEY grandmother Patricia Pitfield was forced out of her job by retail giant Myer – because she could not do squats.

Bosses told the 61-year-old, who has been with the company for three decades, to stay home without pay after they ruled she was not physically fit enough for the clerical job she has done for the past 10 years.

Ms Pitfield was asked to squat in front of a human resources manager and attempt to climb steps without holding a railing. When she was unable to do so she was sent home.

Myer claims that without being able to do a full squat Ms Pitfield will be unable to open a bottom drawer or plug in a cash register and is therefore unfit for work – even though her doctor has declared her able.

Yet despite having no income, she cannot take unfair dismissal action or even claim Centrelink benefits because Myer has not fired her.

Nor can she pursue a worker’s compensation claim because her condition was not caused by her job.

She said she was first sent home in January after she produced a doctor’s report stating she was unable to fully squat because of a bad back and knee replacement surgery.

She had to use all her sick and annual leave which ran out after a few weeks and then was paid nothing.

The United Services Union took the company to the Industrial Relations Commission in early April but the commission was unable to rule her dismissal had been unfair as she had not actually been fired.

During the conciliation process Myer said it would re-employ Ms Pitfield, yet when she went to work three weeks ago a human resources officer asked her to squat while keeping her back straight. She protested she could not do that, only a “semi-squat”.

“As soon as I went back in they made me do the safe workplace practices test (a written test for which she got a perfect score) and they said to do this squatting,” she said.

“The same day they sent me home after I failed the test. They said, ‘You’re still employed but we’ve got no work for you.’ They said, ‘We’re not paying you’.”

Ms Pitfield said the process was degrading.

The USU, which branded the store’s actions “barbaric”, is now considering legal action including suing for lost wages and going to the Anti-Discrimination Board.

Myer confirmed she wasn’t allowed to work due to health issues and backed its move not to pay her when she was away.,27753,25465168-5012426,00.html

Terry Smyth
April 30, 2009

Pity the poor battery hen, but what about battery people? When Dr Vinesh Oommen, a researcher from the Queensland University of Technology, published a study confirming long-held fears that open-plan offices were a health hazard, he did not expect a worldwide reaction.

Oommen’s review of all literature on the subject found that open-plan offices, which put multiple workers together in the same space, caused high levels of stress and staff turnover, increased workplace conflicts and feelings of insecurity from lack of privacy, caused loss of concentration due to excessive noise, and increased the risk of high blood pressure and infectious diseases.

YOUR SAY: Open-plan offices

Oommen concluded that traditional enclosed offices promoted a healthier, happier, and thus more productive workforce, and advised employers to consider changing back.

When the study, published this year in the Asia-Pacific Journal Of Health Management, received international media coverage, office workers seized upon it as evidence supporting what they had long suspected, leaving Oommen wondering whether he had sparked a revival.

“I was surprised to find that people have very strong views on this – the international response more so than the Australian response,” Oommen says. “I had more requests from overseas countries, especially [Europe], all wanting to get rid of the open-plan work environment.

“From Canada to China, people from all over the world wanted evidence to change the way their organisation was heading. One of the major banks in Switzerland sent me an email saying they wanted to use this article to redesign their workplace.

“And in Australia, the CSIRO [Staff Association], which for years has been fighting against the open work environment, used the report as part of their enterprise bargaining, to make sure people don’t get open-plan environments in the future.”

While critics of the research claim it ignores outside factors that can contribute to work stress, such as social pressures and personal problems, Oommen stands by his findings. “What we did was a systematic review, which is one of the strongest forms of evidence,” he says.

“All the studies we reviewed had the same conclusion – that the open-plan work environment is one of the worst environments in which you can put an employee.

“The only advantages of working in such an environment is that you can give people the opportunity to communicate better. It can be a much friendlier environment.”

However, the cons far outweigh the pros, according to the study which says that workers who move from a private workspace to an open-plan office often report difficulty concentrating because of increased interruptions, diversions and noise from photocopiers, phone conversations, air-conditioning, lift doors, employee chat and people moving around.

The study finds such interruptions can lead to accidents as employees become irritated and are unable to concentrate. A lack of privacy also contributes to stress, with many feeling their work and conversations are always being monitored because they are forced to conduct their business in a public area.

Many experience feelings of a loss of control and become worried that their private conversations are being overheard, while they also become unwillingly privy to others’ private conversations, possibly leading to stress-related illnesses such as high blood pressure, and aggravated relationships with co-workers. The study also finds those in open-plan offices are more prone to eye, nose and throat irritations and to contracting the flu.

The physical setting in which people work is equally as important as the nature of their work, the study stresses. It says the more comfortable a worker is with their environment, the better their work tends to be. This is an important factor in employee satisfaction which is itself vital to an organisation’s success as it affects job perception, attitudes, and staff turnover and its associated costs.

The study also finds that almost all highly skilled jobs need concentration and privacy in order to be done well.

The now ubiquitous open-plan office took decades to evolve as various working methods went in and out of fashion, beginning with the typing pool – the early 20th-century version of the Roman galley.

The typical typing pool was a large space in which squadrons of white-collar workers spent their working hours at desks in regimented rows, beavering away amid the deafening clank of manual typewriters and the monotonous cranking of adding machines, all under the beady eye of a supervisor. All that was missing was the drum and the whip.

Gradually, the open space was divided into enclosed offices, often sized and furnished according to rank, and invariably personalised by workers. The principle behind it was that privacy promoted productivity. By the 1960s, however, the clock was turning back, with open-plan offices fast replacing enclosed offices.

Employers were increasingly enthused by claims that the open-plan design improved workflow, made communication between colleagues easier and eliminated status issues, encouraged efficient sharing of resources, promoted team-building and, most importantly, was cheaper – at least 20 per cent cheaper.

Most employees, though, lamented the loss of their very own private, secure space, however dark, airless or pokey.

The years since have brought variations on the open theme. The freestanding desks of early open-plan design have given way to interlocking, modular workstations that can be readily reconfigured and are significantly cheaper.

Marked pathways through workspaces have been replaced by grid designs, which allow more workers to be housed in a given space and are, accordingly, far cheaper.

A compromise between open and enclosed designs gave us the cubicle – some with high screens workers cannot see over, others with screens just low enough to allow workers to keep a lookout for predators in the manner of meerkats.

Individual cubicles have morphed into screened clusters of workstations officially known as “pods” but unofficially decried as “cube farms”.

Less popular still is “hot-desking” , whereby several workers share the same workstation. So individualise your desk with say, family photos, if you must, but make sure you take them home again at the end of your shift. Hot-desking can cut costs by up to 30 per cent through space saving, but employees often complain that they find it dehumanising.

Today, even though Dr Oommen’s research confirmed that the vast majority of workers preferred enclosed offices, most commercial offices are open plan.

But Tom Wright, a Sydney architect and an expert in office design, says the days of the off-the-shelf office plan may be numbered.

“There has been some movement back to more defined, enclosed spaces,” Wright says.

He agrees that the cost savings of open plan are a disincentive to change. “Obviously, a basic meat-and-potatoes office fit-out will tend towards open plan,” he says. “Certainly, places like call centres and those sort of organisations tend towards open plan.

“However, these days there’s a greater recognition that organisations all have their own internal cultures, which dictate to a great extent the degree of openness or enclosure. Whereas, back in the 1960s and 1970s, the trend was to break down the barriers, to open up the office. I think that went too far, and now we’re coming back to recognising that all organisations have their own specific requirements.

“In traditional legal and accountancy firms you’ll have offices because of confidentiality issues, whereas in other organisations it’s important that people around can hear what’s going on and see how things are done. As an architect, I know that for architectural offices, open plan is incredibly important because that’s how you train people on your team.”

In those sorts of offices, he says, a lot of senior people end up on workstations that have the same status as the 25-year-old who has just joined the firm.

“There’s a great sense of loss after having your own private domain, but if you want to continue moving up the food chain you’ll go along with that cultural change,” he says.

Wright believes the negatives of the high-density office can be offset by “breakout spaces” such as lounges and cafes.

Another change in attitude by management towards office design is recognising that a lot of valuable work doesn’t actually happen at the workstation. It happens in the corridors and break-out spaces such as the cafe, he says. “As long as you provide facilities that counter increased densities, it does make for a happy office,” Wright says.

And for employers determined to stick with open plan simply because it’s cheaper, Ooommen adds a note of caution: “You should understand that because as an employer you have an obligation under the law to provide a safe environment for your employees, if your employees continue to work in an open-plan environment you could have a lot of court cases in the future.”

Oomen suspects fear of litigation could well be the most powerful incentive for change.

* Improves colleague communication

* Increases workflow

* Eliminates markers of rank and occupation

* Allows flexibility of office layout

* Encourages teamwork, sharing and learning by observation

* Savings of 20 per cent or more on office fit-out costs

* Creates communal work culture

* Allows more employees to be housed in a given space, reducing real estate costs

* Reduces energy use and cost

* Stress and insecurity from lack of privacy

* Constant distractions from nearby conversations and other noise

* Feelings of dehumanisation in smaller workstations with ill-defined boundaries

* Increased conflict between workers in shared workspaces

* Low job satisfaction, leading to higher absenteeism and staff turnover

* Stress contributing to high blood pressure

* Increased risk of colds, flu

* Low productivity and poor job satisfaction from all of the above

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald

April 29, 2009 12:01am

SOUTH Australia is on alert and braced for the arrival of swine flu.

Chief medical officer Paddy Phillips said every reported flu case would be investigated and the state would not be caught off-guard.

“While this is a serious situation we’re well prepared,” he said yesterday.

“We’ve been preparing for a situation like this for several years.

“We’re asking people who’ve been to the U.S., Mexico and Canada, and who’ve got headaches, fevers, aches and pains and who have flu-like symptoms, to attend one of the designated hospitals – that’s the Royal Adelaide, the Women’s and Children’s, Flinders hospital and in the country, Berri, Port Lincoln, Mount Gambier, Port Augusta and Whyalla (hospitals).”

Staff at those hospitals have received extra training and equipment to deal with a flu epidemic.

Today, posters will appear at emergency department entrances warning recent international travellers with flu symptoms to don masks before entering the hospital.

Professor Phillips appealed for anyone who was experiencing flu-like symptoms to isolate themselves.

“Wearing a mask is not part of our culture (but) if someone has a respiratory tract infection of any type it can reduce the spread to other people,” he said.

Pharmacies contacted yesterday said they had face masks in stock but were yet to see any significant increase in requests for them.

In 2007, the Health Department devised a plan to deal with pandemic influenza.

The plan estimates an “attack rate of 25 per cent” would result in 46,000 new cases a week and 2600 deaths over two months.

During a pandemic, “border nurses” would be stationed at the airport to screen international arrivals for influenza.

Designated flu clinics would be established, as well as fever checkpoints at hospitals and surgeries.

University of South Australia microbiologist Mary Barton, who researches zoonotic (animal-to-human) diseases, said Australia appeared to be taking “appropriate action”.

It was too soon to tell whether swine flu would develop to pandemic proportions.

“It’s a wait and see,” she said.

“It could just be a new strain of flu that isn’t very nice.”

Mark Metherell, Phillip Hudson and Jonathan Dart
April 29, 2009 – 8:47AM

THE Federal Government has secured sweeping powers to combat swine flu as the number of possible cases under investigation in Australia was lowered from 111 to 91 this morning.

The Minister for Health, Nicola Roxon, announced last night the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, had consented to new powers allowing health officials to detain and disinfect people suspected of having the swine flu.

Melb passengers quarantined
Passengers with any flu-like symptoms are being quarantined at Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport.

Concern spreads over swine flu
Global concern spreads over swine flu; Perth IGA store robbed at gunpoint and 9/11 plane scare over New York.


At a glance

Australia – 91 possible cases

New Zealand – three confirmed cases, 40 people in isolation.

Mexico – over 150 deaths, 1600 suspected cases

Canada – 13 confirmed cases

USA – 65 confirmed cases

Costa Rica – 1 confirmed case

Spain – 2 confirmed cases

Scotland – 2 confirmed cases

Israel – 2 confirmed cases

The move, which Ms Roxon said was precautionary and gave “reserve-like powers”, came as officials were seeking to contact 22 Australians, eight of them from NSW, aboard a flight from Mexico to Auckland at the weekend.

On the same flight were 10 New Zealand students, at least three of whom were confirmed last night to have swine flu.

Apart from the 22, another 69 Australians, including 10 from NSW, are being tested for the flu which has proved to be relatively mild in confirmed United States cases, but has been associated with more than 150 deaths in Mexico. There are more than 1600 suspected cases there.

Ms Roxon said there had been no confirmed cases in Australia and results of tests should be known in 24 to 48 hours. She said it had taken some time to identify those Australians on the flight from Mexico, and state authorities were now seeking them and they would be tested.

The Government has also upgraded the quarantine regime to level four, to boost efforts to delay the entry of swine flu into Australia.

The new powers, which extend existing quarantine laws to swine flu, would enable the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Jim Bishop, to put people under surveillance and enforce quarantine measures on planes and ships.

Ms Roxon said about 4800 people flew into Australia each day from the Americas, but yesterday only four possible cases were identified, and only one of those would need to be tested.

Yesterday authorities stepped up other precautions affecting both blood donors and travel to Mexico.

The Australian Red Cross Blood Service said it would defer potential blood donors for a period of two weeks from the time they left Mexico as an “added safety measure” to cover the incubation phase of swine flu.

The Government has upgraded travel warnings for the second successive day, and is now asking people to reconsider any plans to travel to Mexico.

NSW’s chief health officer, Dr Kerry Chant, said all 10 suspected cases had undergone testing, and the results were expected today rather than at the end of the week, as was initially announced.

Dr Chant said NSW had activated its pandemic plan, as had other states. Suspected victims were given the antiviral drug Tamiflu and were ordered to stay at home until results were known.

“These people would have been to Mexico, the US or Canada and obviously we are monitoring their situations closely,” she said.

Ms Roxon, stood by the decision of Australian experts not to declare pandemic status, as the US had done, saying it was a decision for the Commonwealth’s Chief Medical Officer.

In the US there had already been a large number of confirmed cases and travel between Mexico and the US was common. “So we need to make decisions that are appropriate for our circumstances,” Ms Roxon said.

Jonathan Dart and Erik Jensen
April 29, 2009

Risky business … safety equipment supplier Todd Saunders said one company bought enough masks for a month. Photo: Domino Postiglione

A CASE of swine flu has yet to be confirmed in Australia but Todd Saunders is already working overtime to combat the virus.

Sales of protective face masks have boomed in the past two days, said Mr Saunders, the general manager of safety equipment supplier Big Safety. One of his corporate clients has placed an order for masks to protect its entire workforce in the case of an emergency.

Melb passengers quarantined
Passengers with any flu-like symptoms are being quarantined at Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport.

“They’re planning to have enough masks for the next month for a workforce of 50,” Mr Saunders said. “We’ve also had a rush overnight of people ordering the masks.”

Only a handful of people arriving at Sydney Airport yesterday wore face masks. They came from Hong Kong and Japan – neither are flu-affected countries. “The news was quite excited,” said Hiroko Rosse, who was wearing a mask on a flight from Japan. “It was just to be safe. You never know.”

NSW nurses, seconded to the federal response, swept planes for people complaining of symptoms that “met the case definition for swine influenza.”

Five people were take to hospital for further testing, bringing the state total to 10. None of the cases have been confirmed. Two have been cleared. “They [the nurses] were going to everyone individually, checking symptoms,” said Grant Charlesworth, who had flown back to Sydney from Los Angeles. “They [the cabin crew] were making a lot of announcements an hour or two before we landed. They went through a whole heap of procedure: ‘If you have any flu symptoms, let the air crew know. If you have any symptoms in the next week, contact a doctor.’ ”

Four people complained of symptoms on Mr Charlesworth’s flight. None were deemed to require further testing. Once off the plane, customs procedures continued as normal.

Direct Health Solutions, a company that manages health issues for corporate clients including ANZ and the NAB, has had a 50 per cent increase in health inquiries, with 150 calls taken on Monday alone.

“We’re having a lot of enquiries,” the chief executive, Paul Dundon, said. “We’re running a 24-7 nurse call centre supporting around 20,000 people and there have been a lot of calls from people calling about their symptoms,” he said. “We’ve been flat out.”

The outbreak has also had a big impact on internet traffic, with Nielsen Online survey finding that almost 2 per cent of Twitter conversations involved the subject.

Published: 14/04/2009

Nanotech poses possible health and safety risk to workers and needs regulation

The rapidly growing nanotechnology market in Australia requires urgent regulation to protect the health and safety of workers and consumers, say unions.

Nanotechnology is hailed as a having enormous potential in the creation of new products and devices and is now used in over 800 everyday items including some sunscreens, cosmetics, bed sheets, building materials and paints.

Unions are concerned that there is mounting evidence showing some nanomaterials are potentially hazardous yet the industry is growing without adequate worker protections.

The nanotechnology industry is projected to grow from US$32 billion to US$2.6 trillion over the next decade.

Currently there is no mandatory register in Australia of who is importing, manufacturing, supplying or selling nanomaterials and no obligation to label products. But there are moves afoot internationally to introduce regulations (see factsheet).

Nanotechnology involves using materials at the nanoscale (one billionth of a metre), which poses challenges for occupational health and safety regulators.

Research has shown that some nanomaterials may act in similar ways to asbestos.

ACTU Assistant Secretary Geoff Fary said:

“With animal tests showing some nanomaterials share the same characteristics and reactions as asbestos fibres, governments and business must not repeat the painful lessons of the past and allow another tragedy to occur again.

“Existing laws and regulations were not designed with the unique properties of nanoscale materials in mind. A recent report from the NSW Parliament recommended this be addressed and we believe it should be done nationally too.

“Until we know more about nano materials, we should regulate as if it is dangerous to human health. It is the only safe option.

“Workers in manufacturing, retail, health, laboratories, textiles, and outdoor workers are potentially exposed to nanomaterials, and the list will grow as the industry grows.”

Mr Fary said that introducing regulations by the end of 2009 was a sufficient timeframe given the pace of industry development and would coincide with the introduction of Australia’s new nationally harmonised health and safety laws that are scheduled in under a year.

More information
Read the fact sheet by downloading the file below

View the article here