Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Is there only one way to keep workers safe?

Last week I was in Brisbane, Queensland on Australia’s east coast. Here’s a jurisdiction a bit bigger in population than British Columbia, a little smaller than Washington State, with a low injury rate and low workers’ compensation premiums (“workcover” as it’s called in Australia).

Brisbane is a modern, cosmopolitan city of three million. There are obvious signs of a vital economy. Buildings are going up, transportation networks are expanding, and unemployment is around five percent (vs. B.C. and Washington state where unemployment is hovering around the eight percent mark).

The workers that keep this economy running are engaged in similar activities to those in any large city. Perhaps because I’m aware of occupational safety and health issues, I couldn’t help but notice some similarities and differences.

Above the city, the complex choreography of cranes carries on as it does over urban construction sites everywhere. The cranes; however, are predominantly luffing jib cranes rather than the straight boom, hammerhead slewing cranes more commonly seen in many North American cities.

Brisbane South Bank construction - August 2012

Workers wear hardhats, but given the greater exposure to the sun, many have wide brim tinted visors and neck shades. Brightly coloured safety garments are seen everywhere. Fluorescent green or orange and contrasting blue polo shirts, fleece, and jackets are common on, and, off the jobsite. Delivery drivers, traffic patrol, baggage handlers — even cyclists — can be seen wearing these distinctive (from a North American perspective), high-visibility garments. It’s not that wearing hi-viz garments in jobs other than construction or traffic control is unheard of in North America, it’s just that wearing of this type of apparel outside the usual job sites is more common in Brisbane.

I’m not certain if Australians generally have a richer “safety culture” than North Americans. Overall, the workers’ compensation injury and fatality rates appear lower than most North American jurisdictions, although true “apples to apples” comparisons are, in my view, absent from the published, peer-reviewed literature.Perhaps an experience I had at the convention centre might be an indicator of something different in the way Aussies manage risk. Before several of the banquets I attended, a server came to our table and instructed us on safety procedures in the event of an emergency. That was something I’ve experienced occasionally at events in many countries. The server also explained a safety rule about always wearing shoes because of the risk posed by errant shards from occasionally broken glassware. I’ve attended a lot of conferences and this was an entirely new caution to me. It was a perfectly logical and important rule when you think about it, but (to be honest) I had never thought of broken glass as a risk in a carpeted banquet hall. And this in a brand new, spotless facility: Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre, on Grey Street.

I mention these examples to illustrate a point. Regardless of our national context, employers, workers, and OH&S regulators face similar workplace safety and health challenges. Each jurisdiction has developed solutions to manage risks to workers and other persons in the workplace. Not all solutions are the same. Sure, exit signs are ubiquitous, but the green and white graphic signs in Australia seemed just as clear to me as the red and black text-based exit signs we see in North America.

I’m not sure you could say any given solution is the only right way to protect workers, nor am I saying that you can simply transplant a standard from one jurisdiction to another. What I’m saying is that the diversity among developed western societies creates an opportunity for OH&S professionals to consider solutions others have implemented. Another important reason for building relationships across our jurisdictions.

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