Friday, March 25, 2011

Is the blitz an effective prevention technique?

The following story was posted on the Australian Broadcast Corporation news website:
WorkSafe warns of asbestos blitz Posted Thu Mar 10, 2011 12:13pm AEDT

WorkSafe [Western Australia] will inspect a number of work sites across regional Western Australia to check safety provisions for asbestos.

Inspectors will target the construction and demolition industries over the next two months, checking licenses, protective equipment and waste procedures are up to standard.

Acting WorkSafe commissioner Lex McCulloch says businesses can face serious fines if they knowingly break the law.

"If they are made under 'duty of care' provisions of the Act then it can be up to $400,000," he said.

"If they are made under the regulations for an individual it can be $25,000 and for a company it can be $50,000, it just depends."

The story highlights a couple of important points. First, is that asbestos is the once and continuing threat to the long-term health of workers. Despite what we know about asbestos and what we can do to protect workers, workers are still getting exposed to asbestos without the protection they need. The second point is that we know many places where asbestos likely exists but that information is not always transmitted to everyone who might need to know.

The third aspect of this story is the compliance/enforcement technique employed: the blitz. By focusing attention on a few key issues (often in a particular region or industry) and publicly declaring their intention to enforce, the prevention organization heightens awareness. This may trigger questions in advance of the action that create consultation and education opportunities, and generates greater workplace vigilance and adherence to safe work procedures.

This technique is not unique to Australia. Other jurisdictions are using similar techniques but rarely do these initiatives gain the profile they do in Australia. Part of that may be timing. It is no coincidence that asbestos exposure stories—particularly in schools—have gained significant profile in the Australian press. The death of a young service station attendant in B.C. generated a lot of press, and a blitz of training and safety procedures in that industry. It also resulted in Canada’s first pay-before-you-pump standard.

I think the blitz is an important and effective prevention technique. It is important that people understand the blitz is just one technique of many, and one that will have a different impact on different workplaces. It certainly can heighten awareness and get people thinking and talking about safety. For workplaces with great safety cultures, the blitz will have little effect. Workers and employers in these workplaces know what to do and are doing it every day. The advance notice of a blitz will help other workplaces where the participants in the workplace mean well but do not have the knowledge or lack the skill or resolve to make safety a priority. The blitz announcement can be the impetus to make changes. For the minority of workplaces where participants know better (or should know better), advance notice of the blitz may cause some workplaces to take note, but it is unlikely to make any difference at all to places that routinely ignore safety precautions. For these workplaces, the orders or “improvement notices” issued when the blitz actually takes place, may prove to be the wake-up call that will start the workplace on the road towards a changed safety culture.

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