Look right, look left, and look right again. As children, safety messages are hammered home and we learn to cross the street safely. But as adults, there’s a disconnect. Despite a growing focus on safety, work-related injuries, illnesses, and death cost Australians more than $60 billion a year.
This month, SafeWork Australia released Key Work Health and Safety Statistics Australia 2019 – a national overview of work-related fatalities, injuries, and disease. Despite an encouraging decline in the number of Australians killed in the workplace last year, 144 people unnecessarily lost their lives at work.
“While these trends are encouraging, they are not a cause for celebration. Every work-related fatality is a tragedy, and there’s a lot more work to be done” Safe Work Australia CEO, Michelle Baxter said.
“We know that work-related fatalities, injuries, and disease have a devastating impact on workers and their families. Understanding the latest statistics can help identify ways to prevent these” Ms Baxter said.
Workers in the supply chain are particularly vulnerable to accidents due to the labour-intensive nature of the work. More than a third of the people fatally injured in the workplace were machinery operators and drivers. Thirty-one percent of these involved a vehicle collision. In August this year, Australian Transport Ministers, on a State and Federal level, approved the country’s first National Freight and Supply Chain Strategy. The strategy recognises that “Australia’s freight systems are the lifeblood of our economy and way of life” and sets industry goals and targets for 2024. The upgrade aims to prepare for unprecedented freight and supply chain demands over the next twenty years. Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development, Michael McCormack, estimates about 163 tonnes of freight is delivered per person around the country each year. Mr McCormack says “with our freight volumes expected to grow by more than a third by 2040 and online shopping growth at over 20 percent a year, we need to increase the productivity of our freight system. At the same time, we have to plan for and manage the introduction of new technologies and risks from increasing natural disasters.”
The strategy targets four critical action areas, one of which is enabling improved supply chain efficiency. For the first time, the strategy will integrate the different transport modes, focusing on the entire supply chain rather than just looking at separate aspects in isolation.
It is therefore perhaps timely that Safework Australia has identified supply chains as a critical Action Area in its Australian Strategy. According to Worksafe Australia, the strategy is underpinned by two key principles. “Firstly, all workers, regardless of their occupation or how they are engaged, have the right to a healthy and safe working environment and secondly, well-designed, healthy and safe work will allow workers in Australia to have more productive working lives.”
With that in mind, some recruitment companies are taking a proactive approach to safety concerns before employment even begins. Erik Samuelson is the Medical Services Manager at LabourHealth, which provides comprehensive pre-employment assessments by qualified medical professionals for workers sourced by Labourforce. Specialising in providing staffing solutions to the supply chain industry, Labourforce has been focussed on providing safe employees for safer workforces across Australia and New Zealand since its inception 20 years ago. Each division of The Navital Group – Labourforce, Labourhealth and Impex Personnel – prioritises safety.
Mr Samuelson explained the company’s dedication to worker welfare. “Our target market is predominantly any work environment where there’s a lot of labour-intensive duties. So manufacturing, construction, transport are the ones we focus on the most, mainly due to the fact that the likelihood of someone injuring themselves is quite high compared to a white-collar office environment.”
One area where Labourforce differentiates itself from other recruitment companies is its strict drug and alcohol testing of all candidates put forward. The after-effects of out-of-hours recreational drug use can leave people with difficulty concentrating, exhaustion, blurred vision and headaches. It can be a just as problematic as being intoxicated on the job, leading to serious safety risks surrounding employees operating vehicles or machinery.
“Probably our main selling point is our pre-employment medicals so for individuals that you have coming on board, you can do a full medical, so you ascertain whether they have any existing injuries they’re going to be bringing into the work environment. Or whether they have any substance abuse issues.” said Mr Samuelson. “A healthy workforce that doesn’t use illicit drugs is more inclined to turn up to work on time and cause the employer fewer problems.”
The relationship between workplace safety and productivity and substance abuse was highlighted at the Australian Logistics Council (ALC) Supply Chain Safety Summit, held in September in Sydney. It’s an issue likely to receive more attention as the trend towards outsourcing places a greater demand on our supply chains – increasing concern relating to workplace safety.
“Once there is an issue with safety, it’s always a catalyst for change. Let’s say there’s an accident on site and the individual who caused the accident is found to be under the influence of drugs and or alcohol, then it’s usually a catalyst for that employer to implement a new drug and alcohol policy and start a random testing regime,” said Mr Samuelson.
That message starts at the top and will change company culture. Labourforce recognises workers are more likely to follow safety procedures in a company which demonstrably places maximum value on safety issues. But hiring only the right people from the beginning will accelerate change. Medical assessments and drug testing will separate workers who take their health and safety seriously. A better understanding of risk and a proactive approach to safety takes the issue from an HR incident report to sound business practice. The obvious benefit to reducing the number of accidents is saving lives but it also makes good business sense by avoiding productivity disruptions, costly injuries and absentee rates.
And then there are the flow-on costs. A recent Allianz study on workers’ compensation claims found a growing number of injured workers falling victim to a secondary mental health condition as a result of the initial injury. The cost of the secondary psychological condition to business was on average four times more costly than the original claim.
Of course, mental health concerns are not strictly predicated by physical injury. Flemming Hansen, General Manager Asia Pacific at Labourforce says it’s a growing safety concern in the workplace.
“We are coming across mental health issues more and more these days. It’s anything from anxiety to panic attacks to stress, which is a growing concern. It’s not like breaking an arm, where 6-8 weeks later, it’s back to normal. A mental health issue is likely to be much more complex”
Psychological hazards are treated the same as physical hazards under Australian work health and safety laws and businesses are urged to take note of Safework Australia’s four-step risk management process to avoid psychological injury and illness in the workplace. It’s also why business giants like Deloitte Australia are advocating psychosocial risk profiling as part of an overall workplace safety programme. Mental health issues make up almost a quarter of the $60 billion yearly costs of workplace deaths, illnesses, and injuries. It’s clear, safety goals align with business goals.
Mr Hansen agrees the cost of not taking proper safety precautions is far greater to business in the long run.
“Like any service or product, as long as the client is of the opinion that there’s a direct benefit to their organisation, then they can justify the additional cost.
It’s in everybody’s interest that everyone comes home safe, there’s no doubt about that.”