Occupational health and safety (OHS) seems to be on the lips of every engineer around the world today, and for good reason - the sheer number of work related deaths is still shocking at an estimated 2,256,335 workers per year. The annual injury rate must be in the hundreds of millions.
The mortality figure comes from a report put together by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) for World Day for Safety and Health at Work, which will be observed, rather than celebrated, on 28 April 2004. The day was first commemorated by American and Canadian workers in 1989, when they set aside a memorial day for dead and injured workers. Around that time, the push for greater awareness of occupational health and safety accelerated in developed nations.
Unfortunately however, all the moral reasons to improve workplace safety generally come second to pressing financial imperatives. The reality is that governments in industrialised nations have increased the priority given to OHS as costs have risen with the lost productivity and litigation associated with injuries.
Ranked seventh in OHS performance compared to the world's best performing nations, Australia is a good example of how economics are driving a new focus on safety. The economic cost of poor OHS performance to Australia is enormous, estimated at about $31 billion a year. The most recent figures from Australia's umbrella safety authority, the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission (NOHSC), show that 380 Australian employees lodge a worker's compensation claim every day and more than 2000 are thought to die each year from work-related injuries or disease.
The good news is that the figures are falling slowly. Death rates are down and so is the incidence of injury. The NOHSC's campaign to create a better safety culture gained new impetus in 2002 with the National Occupational Health and Safety Strategy. Signed by all Australian governments; the Australian Council of Trade Unions; and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the strategy commits them to a reduction in injuries of 40% and fatalities by 20% over 10 years.
Achieving those targets is primarily the responsibility of state governments, which implement state-based occupational health and safety legislation. In the 1980s, their approach to safety was highly prescriptive. Massive documents described detailed rulings for all sorts of machinery and armies of inspectors trod the streets to enforce them.
This approach had problems: it was very expensive to implement, too inflexible to allow for innovation and occasionally landed the inspectors and their authorities in legal hot water in the event of an injury. These deficits were highlighted by UK report by a Committee of Inquiry chaired by Lord Robens. In response, governments around Australia and the world began to walk away, shifting the "duty of care" for worker safety back on to machinery designers and modifiers, makers, importers, suppliers, users and, of course, the employers.
In the post-Robens legal environment, added pressure on the state governments to drive down injury rates translates to new education initiatives, but also more aggressive litigation by state authorities, together with broader negative publicity and bigger fines for convicted offenders. Where once legal action was usually limited to cases when an injury had occurred, OHS authorities are now bringing companies to court for incident-free compliance breaches. It is not surprising that safety has become one of the hottest topics in industry.
Even those who are committed to workplace safety face difficulty determining exactly what needs to be done in order to achieve compliance. Instead of spelling out requirements, safety legislation now generally contains measures of safety like "so far as is practicable", "adequate" and "reasonable". Unfortunately, those definitions are only tested when they reach the courts. Finding out that your idea of "practicable" safety is below par while you are on the witness stand in front of a clever prosecution barrister is the stuff of nightmares.
In developed countries, like Australia, New Zealand, the USA and most of Europe, engineers are turning to standards for guidance. Australian Standard AS4024.1, for example, provides the best guide to achieving machine safety. Judges are also using the standards to determine whether employers and machinery suppliers have met their obligations. On the other hand, most standards are voluntary and some overlapping standards have conflicting requirements.
The hurdles towards compliance with standards are often more to do with knowledge than they are about budgets and technical problems. Just AS4024.1 is a weighty tome, but before reaching that point, engineers could well have read several standards, attempted to wade through the legislation and wondered how they all relate to the endless range of marks and claims of certification made by equipment suppliers.
In short, finding your way to a safe system that will reduce risks and reflect well on you in court can be like exploring a wilderness for the first time - confusing, frustrating and even downright frightening.
The result is a burgeoning industry offering OHS-related products, services and advice. Any rapidly growing market draws its share of ill prepared and inexpert vendors offering poor advice to consumers - something that is dangerous, rather than simply unacceptable, in a field like safety where so much is at stake. It is the province of specialists because the key to compliance is knowledge. Engineers and employers should take advantage of every opportunity to stay abreast of current safety practices and rely only on the most reputable safety experts.
Fortunately, the increased awareness of safety is now beginning to be reflected in industry training. Just 12 months ago, the dearth of potentially life-saving training for engineers and technical people faced with automation safety concerns was addressed by Swinburne University in Victoria.
With the support of Pilz Safe Automation and a Swinburne Synergy Grant, the University launched a study of the skill gaps among production staff, technicians, engineering professionals and managers, so that suitable training programs and curricula for both its TAFE and university courses could be developed.
Swinburne's work is an early step towards closing a daunting gap for many engineers: the great divide between a desire to do the right thing and a detailed understanding of how safety can actually be achieved.