Benchmarking OHS records with national hazard exposure data

OHS records are vitally important, but as Ray Schaffer* reports for Safety First there are records of quite another type that are equally crucial.

OHS records are vitally important, but as Ray Schaffer* reports for Safety First there are records of quite another type that are equally crucial.

UNDER various legal compliance requirements set down in the NSW OHS Regulations 2001, for example: Chapter 4- register of asbestos records and maintenance records relating to electricity; Chapter 5-plant, and chapter 8- construction, employers are obliged to make and retain certain records in order to meet their -Duty of Care responsibility.

In the June 2008 issue of Safety First, this subject was addressed under the heading – “Diligent employers race to OHS records”.

The article identified a wide variety of OHS records that the employer must establish and maintain. Further examples include – a formal written list covering all the ‘foreseeable’ hazards to be found in the employers’ plant, equipment and process lines.

<[stk -3]>But, records of quite another type are also very important. These are exemplified by, for example, your workplace records relating to noise levels on your workshop floor at specific noisy work-station locations; exposure by operators to excessive amounts of dust, vapours, fumes and chemical substances (that is exposure to foreseeable bio-chemical hazards); lifting heavy loads; highly repetitive work over long periods of time or awkward trunk movements; or psycho-social hazards (pressure to work long hours for example); carry an excessive work load; suffer bullying or sexual harassment.

The problem until now has been that the ‘diligent employer’ may record the above hazard exposures but, no information has been available which gave the employer some sort of benchmark against which he/she could measure their level of performance.

The employers’ statistical figures that appeared to be good may, in fact, be poor when benchmarked against some sort of National Australian comparable figure. There was no way of knowing whether your performance figures were good, bad or average.

Over the past few years, the Australian Safety and Compensation Council (ASCC) requested the development of a National Hazard Exposure Worker Surveillance Survey. The goal being to determine the concrete nature and extent- of Australian workers’ exposure to selected occupational disease causing hazards.

National Survey Results

The records from the survey are to be used to develop a better idea of where workplace exposures exist which may contribute to the onset of one or more priority occupational disease, e.g. occupational cancer, respiratory disease, noise induced hearing loss, mental disorders, cardiovascular disease and contact dermatitis.

The survey was the first national survey on exposure to workplace hazards in Australia. Published in late November of last year, the primary objective of the ASCC’s survey is to identify “at risk” workers and to suggest where prevention programs should be targeted.

But, in fact the material offers some measure of a benchmark against which it is now for the very first time possible for an employer to examine their data regarding say, noise exposure and to be able to gain some sort of insight into just how well, or poorly- their figures compare to the ASCC’s survey figures.

Noise Exposure

To illustrate the above, we might begin by examining the survey findings for noise exposure.

The median weekly exposure was five hours. The top three control measures were ear-plugs (63%), ear-muffs (60%) and training (41%). These figures relate specifically to the manufacturing industry.

Other “control” measures used were as follows: 45% of employers tried rotating operators’ jobs.

Next, 98% of employers favoured to move the noisy equipment to an isolated room; 41% of employers purchased quieter equipment and 17 % of employers did nothing about addressing the problem.

The figures are helpful in a number of respects – first, they indicate an interesting range of different “control” types employed by owners of manufacturing businesses.

Second, they indicate the percentage preference of control type employed third; they indicate that diligent employers are using a multifaceted approach to controlling the hazard.

Fourth, that a growing number of employers are planning ahead and purchasing quieter machinery wherever possible and fifth, implicit, is the fact that provided the employer is performing equal to or better than the hazard survey guide he has grounds for arguing the business’ OH & S performance is diligent.

Thus, in the event of an incident – say excess noise exposure where a worker is “injured” and the employer is on a benchmark comparison found to be performing at a higher percentage level than the national survey figure, there are concrete grounds for arguing that the employer’s “due diligence” exhibited and confirmed by the survey figure is at a higher level than the national average. A most welcome fillip- to an already “sound” performance.

Chemical Substances

To take another example from the survey findings – exposure to chemical substances.

The latter are defined as including cleaning products, solvents, paints, glasses, cement products, fuels, general chemicals and gardening pesticides.

Some 36% of survey respondents were exposed to one or other of the above list of chemicals.

Workers in the construction industry were one of the most likely to report a high average weekly duration of exposure to chemicals.

The provision of hand gloves was the most common preventative measure/control (83%). Disposable latex and rubber gloves were the most commonly used.

Some 84% of those who worked with chemicals were provided with hand washing facilities and gloves to prevent exposure problems caused by working with chemicals.

About 6% of respondents advised the employer had done nothing to prevent their exposure to chemicals.

Examples of the “other” controls employed included the provision of labelling and warning signs (69%), providing training or information about safe handling of chemical products, provision of protective clothing (60%) and employers who offered nothing by way of protection for their workers (6%).

Several other health hazards were surveyed. For more informations go to www.ascc.gov.au.

* Ray Schaffer is the principal consultant with RMH Schaffer & Co -occupational, health, safety and environment consultants 02 98780613. Visit www.environmentdiy.com.au, pose a question and receive an answer at no cost. The author wishes to acknowledge the kind assistance in provision of the above material by Dr. Peta Miller, Director of Research, ASCC Canberra.