The following article is an extract from a recent publication focusing on the impact and issues associated with workplace health and safety (WHS) harmonisation. In particular, this article examines the requirements and wider obligation for monitoring employee and contractor health. One of the key issues identified, is the cross state and international obligations and conflicting legislation associated with monitoring employee health.
Managing safety risks for contractors is one thing, but where do we start when it comes to contractor health surveillance? In particular it is quite conceivable that contractors may work for other organisations – especially when the work performed requires a higher skills baseor, as has been the experience in many higher risk jobs, organisations set to transfer health risks with that old warhorse: “not my employee, not my problem!”
The harmonisation laws by and large mean that principals effectively have the same obligations and responsibilities in regard to health and safety to contractors that they have to their own employees.
What is health surveillance?
According to peak health bodies, such as the World Health Organisation, health surveillance comprises those strategies and methods to detect and assess systematically the adverse effects of work on the health of workers. It is also used to includesystematic assessments of fitness for work, and/or of health status that is not directly related to an occupation but may have an adverse effect upon the individual and/or the occupation. It is a preventative effort used to screen and monitor the employees’ health for hazardous workplace exposures or for task requirements.
Health surveillance is immediately different from reactive treatments aimed at providing a response to reported injuries, illnesses and/or diseases.
Health surveillance uses validated techniques for detecting the effects of disease or health through:
Part of the intended changes will offer organisations a lot more flexibility with how and where they employ people, including a stronger ability to employ workers from interstate or highly transient and skilled workers who tend to migrate around the country dependent upon where work is available. My understanding of the harmonisation laws is that the same rationaleextends to the engagement of contractors and other PCBUs.
Often, attracting these people is one thing, but managing their overall health and indeed administering their health surveillance and risk profileswill be an ongoing headache for management within any organisation. For example, a fly-infly-out (FIFO) mine in Western Australia can have the business based in Queensland, employ or contract workers from Tasmania and fly them to and from work as needed.
In the mining industry, there has been a preference for contracting in labour to undertake some of the more arduous and time critical tasks, such as Ball Mill relining, refits and refurbishment, with little attention required to the overall health surveillance implications – except in some of the more ‘publicly aware’ areas such as asbestosis stripping and removal.
When it comes to health monitoring and health surveillance, ‘one in, all in’ should probably become the new workplace adage and, rather than trying to transfer or contract risk out, organisations will need to become much better at addressing health in the same way they have addressed contractor safety.
As a mining contractor during the 1990s and 2000s, it always struck me as odd that my health requirements as a contractor were different from those of an employee. That somehow, miraculously, my contractor status was an additional hierarchy of control, tacked on to PPE, which meant I was less susceptible to silicosis than an employee would be.
As we move forward, surely more flexibility and dedication to health monitoring in managing workforces should be seen as a key priority. Although, in itself, it will present new exposures and risks to organisations that clearly need to be identified and controlled as quickly as possible.
What effect will all of this have on health surveillance for contractors?
When looking purely at employees, at pre-employment level organisations will need to have much more control over how they recruit and essentially import risk into their business. It is worth bearing in mind that if transient skilled workers,such as contractors and sub-contractors, are used, ongoing health monitoring and fitness for work will become more of an issue – especially in the context of an ageing workforce.
This will mean that some form of pre-engagement health assessment will be required along with the capacity to measure, monitor and implement both health surveillance and the recommendations forthcoming from assessment in controlling an individual’s health.
Probably the key words when it comes to workforce and health are ‘monitoring’ and ‘mobility’.
In order to accommodate a mobile workforce, a mobile health system must be seen as critical, especially if company directors are to have a positive and proactive duty to exercise due diligence.
This will include incorporating (or maintaining) systems to ensure company directors and, by extension, executives have up to date knowledge of health safety matters and industry risks – as well as directing the necessary resources required.
The organisations that can best adapt to the 2012 changes and, indeed, embrace a healthy workforce and contractor base will surely be the ones to capitalise and reap the productivity benefits of being able to engage with their workforce anytime, anywhere.
It is worth quoting the World Economic Forum, Working Towards Wellness paper of 2007: “Potential to increase productivity with a conservative estimate of the benefits from improving the general wellness of a workforce indicates a likely annual return of three to one, or more.”