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Oct 09 2012

Why Can’t They Get it Right: Sloppy Journalism Creates Workplace Safety Myths

Workplace Safety FatigueFor whatever reason, News Limited media outlets have picked up a story on the Draft Code of Practice for Preventing and Managing Fatigue in the Workplace. The draft was released by Safework Australia (SWA) in September 2011 along with 14 other drafts for public comment. The response to all of these and particularly the Fatigue and Workplace Bullying Codes, was probably a bit more than SWA had anticipated which led to the following comment of the their website:

The Preventing and Managing Fatigue in the Workplace and Preventing and Responding to Workplace Bullying draft model Codes of Practice are currently being revised based on public comment. They are expected to be finalised in the second half of 2012

Interestingly, the fact that the draft code is being re-written has not prevented News Limited journalists from commenting on it and selectively quoting from it (usually out of context) as if it was still valid which it is not. But then again I doubt very much whether they actually read the code or were even aware of its existence before reading some bodies press release about it.

The Media in Action?

The first story was by National Social Editor, Natasha Bita and was published in News Limited press outlets on Sunday 7 October 2012. Even by News Limited’s standards this was a sloppy piece of journalism. I doubt whether Ms Bita bothered to read the draft code which remains available on the SWA website. If she did then she has interpreted it very differently than I and her article attributes much to the code that isn’t actually there.

Lucy Kippist, another journalist from News Limited, released a slightly more researched piece on Monday 8 October and at least considered some of the consequences of workers being fatigued and commenting that there may be some positive benefits to having such a code of practice in place.

While there may be some excuse for over-worked, rushed and tired journalists quickly grabbing a press release and going into print, the same cannot be said when composing an editorial statement as occurred with this unattributed piece in the Brisbane Sunday Mail on 7 October 2012.

Employer Views

Nor can the same be said for representatives from employer bodies quoted in Ms Bita’s article. Peter Anderson, chief executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry is quoted as saying:

… employers should not be held responsible for fatigued workers worn out from partying or family demands.

“It [the code of practice] would require employers to delve into matters of a personal and private nature that are none of their business,” he said.

“We don’t want to be the yawn police.

Mark Goodsell, who as the Australian Industry Group’s representative on the SWA Board should know better, is quoted as saying:

… that employers might be held responsible for the fatigue of staff moonlighting in other jobs.

Any boss who pried into a worker’s partying habit would “look like a nark and invade their privacy”, he said.

“People can lie to you and say they weren’t doing anything on the weekend to make them tired,” he said.

“They’ve got no obligation to tell you what they’re doing at home.

“But there is a legal implication that if an employer is accused of breaking the law, the fact you weren’t following the code can be used against you.”

These statements are false. The code does not require employers to pry into the private lives of their employees. It does mention that what employees do in their private lives can affect their fatigue levels at work as well a number of other factors. However, part 1.3 of the code discusses legal responsibilities for managing fatigue specifically states that an employer’s (Person Conducting a Business or Undertaking (PCBU) in the new jargon) responsibilities are in respect to that business or undertaking and that officers of the PCBU

… must exercise due diligence to ensure the business or undertaking complies with the WHS Act and Regulations. This includes taking reasonable steps to ensure the business or undertaking has and uses appropriate resources and processes to eliminate hazards or minimise risks associated with fatigue.

By focusing on the effect that lifestyle factors may have on fatigue levels and exaggerating the employer’s responsibility to monitor this, attention is drawn away from the other identified risk factors detailed in the code over which the employer does have significant control. These are:

  • Mental and physical demands of work;
  • Work scheduling and planning;
  • Environmental conditions; and
  • Organisational factors.

Creating Workplace Safety Myths

Selectively quoting the code out of context pervades these articles. There are many instances where options or examples in the code are converted into requirements. For instance the opening paragraph of Ms Bita’s article states:

Bosses will have to roster jobs around workers’ social lives and check that staff who yawn or daydream aren’t too tired to work safely.

What does the code actually say?

 To avoid any potential conflicts between personal and work demands, controls include:

  •  consult with workers and design shift rosters that will enable workers to meet both work and personal commitments, and
  • develop a fitness for work policy and implement health and fitness programs.

Inserting “possible” between “demands” and “controls” in the first line (it is a draft document after all) totally changes the meaning. It is interesting that none of the articles mention the suggestion to develop and implement a fitness for work policy.

Yawning, low motivation or moodiness are only mentioned in a section dealing with possible indicators of fatigue which lists 15 things that may indicate that a person may be fatigued.

Ms Bita’s article states:

 The code says employers should train workers in “balancing work and personal lifestyle demands”.

The code actually says:

Information and training for workers should include:

  • the work health and safety responsibilities of everyone in the workplace;
  • the body clock and how fatigue can affect it;
  • risk factors for fatigue;
  • symptoms of fatigue;
  • hazards and risks that may be associated with fatigue;
  • effective control measures for fatigue, for example, work scheduling, shift work schedules;
  • procedures for preventing fatigue, for example, incident reporting;
  • effects of medication, drugs and alcohol;
  • nutrition, fitness and health issues relating to fatigue; and
  • balancing work and personal lifestyle demands.

Other relevant information including human resources policies or programs (for example, a Working from Home policy, Fitness for Work policy, Health and Fitness programs) and consultative mechanisms for raising work health and safety matters should also be provided to the worker at the beginning of their employment or contract.

and

 Workers, managers and supervisors should be provided with training and information on how to manage fatigue at work, as well as beneficial practices to minimise the risks, such as gaining sufficient sleep.

A little more extensive than Ms Bita suggests.

Summary and Other Disappointments

These are not unusual tactics and are used by unions as well as employer bodies and marketers of safety related products. They rely on the ignorance of the reader about the issue being discussed as well as the their unwillingness or inability to actually check the facts. While this might be accepted among the members of the public it should not be the case within health and safety forums. People who contribute to these forums are largely employed as full-time safety people or who hope to be and who should therefore display some knowledge of what’s really happening. This has not been the case in this instance. It has been disappointing to see the number of people claiming to be safety professionals who have commented on these reports without questioning their accuracy or validity. One would hope that they research the issues better when composing advice for their managers and/or clients.

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