Health and safety. A fine idea
AS a crane driver and dogman in the construction industry I cannot speak for the carpenter I work beside, the steelfixer who labours with spine bent and hands torn or the sparky who does mysterious things with wiring, or the humble peggy who cleans our amenities.
I can, however, offer you an insight into an industry where safety is mentioned at every turn (although health takes a convenient back seat), where documents and brochures are produced until I hear the Amazon scream “no more” and where, in reality, safety remains more honoured in the the breach than the observance.
Health and Safety. A fine idea. To be adhered to only when the God of production is appeased. Or when Worksafe is dragged out into the light by someone with the courage to ring them. Or when a good OHS rep or delegate or individual (with the backing of their union and mates) is willing and courageous enough to take to task an employer who in their own opinion sees health and safety as an impediment.
Although I do not wish to do good men an injustice by suggesting all jobs are letting down their employees by failing to have good risk assessment and control measures in place, I can comfortably claim these places are so rare in this new world, they remain etched in our memories, because after 30 years they can be counted on one hand.
They are thought of fondly, as you might think about your children or a great work of art. Even to be drawn upon as a reminder that all hope is not lost and that efficiency and safety go hand in hand if the culture allows for the marrying of skill with needs and full co-operation between bosses and workers.
So common is the erosion of standards and the consequent de-skilling in our industry that the topic of discussion among any crane crew will be safety. It may not be the only thing we talk about but it will be the topic we talk about with the most passion and sometimes for too damn long.
While we rail against the bosses who treat us poorly, at times we too are complicit in the lowering of standards. It is not just because we look the other way if a mate is at risk or a machine is faulty. It is why we look the other way that is significant.
We do it because we want to keep our jobs. Our jobs do more than provide an income, they give us purpose and meaning. A sense of worth. The opportunity to use our knowledge and resourcefulness and be proud of the outcome. Consequently the threat of losing one’s job is a very big stick indeed.
The other weapon is debt. There are many who are in debt and who have young families. Men and women alike, they are loathe to stand up on issues of safety for fear of reprisals.
Then there are those without secure employment or who work for a subcontractor and are in no position to demand decent standards on site as the client tells the subcontractor to never bring them again. The over-casualisation of our workforce and the use of subcontractors is a disgrace. Gone are the days when the principle contractor hired the bulk of the blue-collar workers.
The following stories are real
More often than not, junior engineers with little experience and poor salaries are writing out JSAs (job safety analysis documents) and expecting the people doing the task to sign them. Often the person signing is denied time to read or discuss the contents of the document. For those who are wondering, these documents are supposed to be the cornerstone of our work method. They are to guide us in the elimination or the reduction of risk.
It is often impossible to write this document without knowing the crane to be used, the location, the gear available, what is to be lifted and how we as the experienced people are going to do the task. But they are written often without our input and are nearly always grossly inaccurate and seldom reviewed as circumstances change. Another box is ticked by the emlpoyer. Another tree falls.
Another box to be ticked is toolbox talks. This is where at the beginning of the day activities are discussed. Often minutes are not taken, consequently there is no documented evidence if an issue is raised. When I have challenged this practice I get a shrug of the shoulders. Bosses remain present at these meetings to discourage frank and open dialogue and to take note of those who are brave enough to speak out. There may be no OHS rep on a job. If there is a representative bosses may forget to introduce them. Often on smaller jobs there is no OHS committee elected by the workers.
Some of these tactics were used on a job near Wonthaggi. You may remember it. It was in the papers.
On this job by the sea at Wonthaggi there was an all terrain forklift that had badly worn tyres. Alarming really as the tyre pressure was the only thing to stabilise the machine. It had, by our foreman’s own admission, eight flat tyres in a fortnight. Yes, eight.
Well I told my mate who drove it and who had a young family to support that I would stand up over this issue. A row ensued and luckily someone told the union and they placed an out-of-service tag on the machine. The driver then admitted that he had nearly rolled the machine twice because of the deflating tyres. I became a target in the eyes of the company and was sacked a couple of weeks later. Hmmm.
In another incident they had about 13 steel tubes spear through the roof of a building because an inexperienced dogman slung a load and it slipped. Why was he working on his own? People are supposed to be trained and competent. What steps were taken to assess him and his level of expertise?
It was common on this job for young riggers with no experience to work together instead of placing an older worker with a younger worker so one could pass knowledge to another. Maybe they do not want older educated workers teaching the young ones? Men my age may tell them about their rights and the obligations of their employer.
Back in Melbourne, I experienced an incident with a work group of 35 people. In 32 degree heat we were told that we would have to go as individuals and get water. Yes, 35 journeys. That is efficiency for you. The nearest tap was 500 metres away. I complained about this absurdity and was told to “bring your own water”. Should I then bring my own air as well. Hmmm. Obviously water is a luxury. Not a human right.
On the same job we were expected to work at night without lighting. We could use torches!! A torch doing a crane lift? Meanwhile live traffic was coming through our job. No barriers were erected. No exclusion zone. No traffic control of any kind. Just do not get hit by a car or truck.
I went and got some barriers after the two engineers (bosses) stood there and looked confused. I said “so what the hell do you talk about at the toolbox meeting at the start of the shift?” I received no answer. Also on this road job I witnessed a crane driver, for no reason, hold a load over the heads of men and then commit the cardinal sin of exiting the cabin of the crane. I was stunned. Not a word was said.
People are afraid. And who can blame them?
One night I was asked to take over driving a crane for one lift as the driver was ill. Upon entering the cabin I heard the CB radio and thought why is this on? Well it was the radio they were using to communicate between the crane driver and the dogman. Not a dedicated channel. No. It was one where Fred the truckie, on an open channel was talking about last night’s dinner. Riveting stuff l admit but does the dogman who is directing the crane wait for Fred to finish before he talks to the crane driver? What if we begin the lift and Fred the truckie comes over the radio because he forgot to tell his mate about dessert?
I hope you are incredulous as you are reading this because I certainly was.
On another site I was expected to lift concrete panels that had no paperwork (panels are engineered to certain specifications). The truck that delivered them was on a road which is a public space and we would have been too close to the power lines while lifting. We had no spotter (required for lifts near power lines) no traffic control, no protection from live traffic for the men performing the task, no protection for the public and there was no safe way to hook the panels to the crane.
Our refusal created an uproar and complaints to our boss. We got no support from any quarter. Had we lifted these panels we would have broken half a dozen rules all at once. No strategy or guidelines had been put in place. What the hell are these bosses thinking about? Certainly not work.
I recently witnessed men applying Polyurethane without gloves or masks and they had no idea they were at risk. They were covered in it. Have a Google of organic compounds and you will see why I was alarmed. Not a Vegemite substitute.
On the same job there was asbestos, in big chunks I was told. When I asked about exposure they said because it was big bits it was ok. I hope someone told the edges not to fray particularly when an excavator came along and ran over it a few hours later.
I see men regularly grinding or cutting concrete with no masks or ear protection while bosses walk past.
Fatigue management is non-existent. Particularly if you drive a mobile crane. There are 14-hour days to be had. Work to be done. Bosses and bankers to satisfy. They are doing it tough in the property boom. Particularly after a recent 12-year drought. Do not worry that you cancelled dinner again or your children are asleep when you get home. Or that you are exhausted. We do not run log books in case you are wondering how we work 14-hour days. Truck drivers have to have breaks… we do not.
Standards in the building industry have slipped so much now that our crib rooms often contain tools or dusty clothing because there is no change room. In a crib room in Mentone the bosses had installed video surveillance. Years ago, older braver men would have smashed that camera because they would see it as the intrusion it really is. Do they want to know what my sandwich may have contained or did they think I was smuggling toilet rolls out by placing them down my shorts?
Nearly a year ago to the day I was on a job in Sunshine. I was in a crane and we were down one radio. It was known that two men did not have the correct tickets to do the lifts we were about to do. The rope on the winch drum on the crane was banging (potentially doing damage) and the crane was slightly out of radius to do these lifts. The day before had been too windy to do lifts and there were complaints made because we would not lift concrete panels in 50 kmh winds!
The steward knew about these issues, no minutes were taken during the morning meeting and l got no support. I went to management on my own because the steward would not come with me and I told them about these issues. We were told to keep working. Later in the day the wind got up and started to become unsafe. The pressure to do the last few lifts was enormous. We were lucky because as we unhooked from the last lift the huge wind that brought down the wall in Swanston Street and took three lives came through our job.
We too could have lost lives.
Are there workers at Grocon who looked at that wall and thought that it would not stand in a big wind? I bet there were. These poor buggers have to live with the fact that they could have said something. If only the culture was different. If only they were supported.
People are afraid to say something
So what do we do when the builder places pressure on you, your own boss throws up his hands and the delegate or OHS rep is not strong? Why is the situation so grim?
What do you do when you arrive at a job with your mobile crane and the labour they supply is not competent?
Why is the ticketing system and assessment and training of workers failing?
Because it has been taken out of the hands of government inspectors and left to bosses to oversee.
More importantly, people are afraid. And who can blame them?
Since the introduction of WorkChoices and the penalties that went with it, workers more often than not are saying nothing. We are not secure in our jobs and the public need to be aware that we are all at risk. Every corner cut by bosses is a dollar saved. Each time a worker says nothing, power shifts ever so slightly to those bankers and developers and real risk to real people increases.
Power has also shifted because unions have been under attack from governments both Labor and Liberal. They are mentioned in hushed tones, meetings are not held on-site unless they are behind the shelter shed with the smokers. There is an anti-union barrage from the plethora of right-wing think tanks and the mainstream media that bemoan decent wages and standards of safety.
Is it not enough that a high rise building goes up twice as fast as it did 20 years ago? With less labour I would guess.
No, it is not enough because when bosses are greedy enough is never enough.
If every worker brought up one issue each week it would be enough to change the tide of declining standards. One issue a day would be better.
We would feel better about ourselves and everyone would be safer.
Have courage – and good luck.
Working Life is a forum to share ideas and opinions about work and life, both light-hearted and serious. The opinions presented on Working Life are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent policies or views of the ACTU.