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Workplace safety and its management


Workplace safety may be the last thing on your mind during your practicum placement, but watch out – being at work can be more dangerous than driving there! As one commentator puts it:

    For every two people dying on the roads, there are three who die after being crushed, burned, drowned, or injured by chemicals at work (ABC Background Briefing 8/6/97)

These are dramatic examples of accidents in specific workplace settings, which you might think ‘wouldn’t happen to me’. However, give some thought to the following more common examples that form the basis of concern and debate: the use of mobile phones (link requires RealOne player) whilst driving a car; drinking alcohol on the job; or workplace bullying.

Legislative framework

One significant legal advance for workers is the development and implementation of health and safety legislation in Australia. Each State of Australia now has an Occupational Health and Safety Act, specifying what the law requires of employers, supervisors and employees. Employers must provide a safe working environment, adequate welfare facilities and safe work systems. They must ensure that all equipment is safe to use. This means that employers have a responsibility to provide instruction and information about workplace hazards, and provide supervision in the workplace.

The National Occupational Health and Safety Commission states that the law expects employers to provide information on:

  • Workplace health and safety.
  • The health effects of specific hazards.
  • The employer’s risk management program.

Employers are also expected to:

  • Give employees who do hazardous work proper information, instruction and training before they start work.
  • Provide employees who could be put at risk from changes in the workplace with proper information, instruction and training before the changes take place.
  • Provide managers and supervisors with the information, instruction and training they need to ensure that each employee is safe from injury and risks to health while at work.

Whilst employers have a legal responsibility, employees are also expected to take reasonable care to protect their own health and safety at work. Employees have specific obligations, such as:

  • Following instructions, including training provided in health and safety workshops.
  • Complying with any occupational health and safety policies.
  • Reporting any behaviour that is hazardous to others.

Although this legislation focuses on workers, a wide range of people need training in health and safety matters — new employees, contractors, casual and part-time staff, and, most importantly in the practicum context, students.

On placement

As a new student on placement, there is a lot to learn about workplace safety. Accidents can, and do happen to students and workers who are new to the job, because they are likely to be:

  • Involved in activities that are unfamiliar and therefore carry a higher risk of injury.
  • Unaware of the hazards involved in the workplace, and poorly skilled in managing difficult situations.
  • Unfamiliar with standard safe workplace procedures.
  • In an environment that contains unfamiliar levels of risk (driving on country roads, working on boats or in different climatic conditions).

Although the law requires employers to provide information and instruction on workplace hazards, you can do a lot to prepare yourself to work safely. The Workcover site provides information to guide workers about occupational health and safety, and to identify specific risks in a range of workplaces.

The activities associated with this discussion ask you to think ahead and identify the sorts of occupational health and safety issues in your practicum. You might like to look at the RMIT University Occupational Health & Safety Policy and use this as a guide/check list for adaptation to your practicum environment.

What are some of the hazards you might face?

You might think you are safe from injury because you are starting a professional ‘white-collar’ placement. However, whilst it might seem that workplace accidents happen to blue-collar workers, the reality is more complex. Go to the National State and Territory Workers’ Compensation Statistical Tables and explore statistics by occupation, industry, injury and cause. As you can see from these charts, professional and para-professional occupations have their share of workplace injuries, and even deaths! Various occupational health and safety organisations provide information about specific risks in a range of activities, industries and occupations. The following table summarises some common types of injury, disease or risk experienced in professional and vocational groups.

Table 5.1 Common workplace injuries for occupational groups

Clerical Laboratories Nursing Social work Teaching
RSI Chemical burns Back injuries Client aggression Pupil aggression
Back and neck strain Heat burns Needlestick injuries Stress Stress
Paper cuts (resulting in infection) Electric shocks Patient aggression Driving accidents  
    Dermatitis from various drugs and chemicals Dog bites  

NOHSC databases

Protection from workplace injury — a joint responsibility

What protection do you have from workplace illness and injury while on your practicum? Workplace safety is the responsibility of both employer and employee. Your employer has a duty of care to provide a safe workplace (see Managing occupational health and Comcare Occupational Health and Safety/Prevention), but as a worker/professional you have particular rights and responsibilities (as well as those stipulated in your Placement Agreement between yourself, the University and the Placement Provider). Given these legal obligations, you need to take steps to protect yourself, and also to be aware of your employer’s responsibilities. Hence the first line of protection is to comply with the safety policies and procedures provided in your workplace. When you arrive at your host organisation, ask for a copy of these.

Whenever someone new begins work, the employer is responsible for providing training so that he or she has the skills and knowledge to work safely. This training may include such things as identifying hazards at work, interpreting safety signs and information, how to work safely, first aid procedures, how to report incidents and hazards, and the names of people who can discuss issues with you.

There has been a good deal of research into safe practices for particularly hazardous work activities. With identification of hazardous activities, explicit guidelines have been developed. Check out the guidelines provided by WorkSafe Victoria.

Everyone who works in the workplace has a responsibility to follow occupational health and safety procedures, and to take an active part in ensuring that the workplace is safe. Consider this example of how an employer of residential care staff responded to complaints from his staff:

One of the health and safety issues in aged care is working with older people who are demented and aggressive (PDF doc). The Chief Executive Officer of this residential facility noted that several staff were complaining about being hit after working with a particular older person. After discussing the problem with staff, the manager acted to prevent these incidents by determining what caused the woman to be aggressive. He then worked with staff to modify her care arrangements, supervised new staff responsible for this woman’s care and also trained all workers to de-escalate difficult situations.

The importance of self-reliance

In the first instance, however, the best line of defence against illness and injury is to pay attention to what you are doing and to exercise common sense. In the case of smaller workplaces, there is likely to be a lower level of formal supervision than in larger workplaces, so self-reliance is particularly important. In outdoor or isolated locations where risks are greater, there is less supervision and help may be far away, it is even more important to pay attention to common sense rules (e.g. wearing a hat and drinking lots of water if working on a hot day; wearing a life jacket and ensuring you have working radio equipment if in a boat; wearing appropriate safety equipment if working with chemicals etc.; paying attention to warning signs in remote locations, e.g. ‘No swimming — crocodiles!’). You can do a lot to prepare yourself before you leave for, and shortly after you arrive at a placement.

Before you leave for your placement

Here are some questions you might ask before you go:

  • Can I identify the potential hazards that can cause harm to workers in my placement? Seek relevant web resources such as VOCED - Work Experience - Risk Assessment Report Form (general) or SLI | Biological Hazards and Diseases | HIV/Aids and Work (medical), and have conversations with practicum staff to identify possible hazards.
  • Are these hazards in the area where I work?
  • Do they involve particular equipment?
  • Do they involve moving equipment?
  • Do they involve cleaning, maintenance or repairs?
  • Do they involve substances that I am expected to work with?
  • Do they involve how and where things are used?
  • Do they involve working with particular clients?
  • Do they involve where I work, especially in the community, homes or remote locations?
  • Do they involve the way I work, including systems and work processes?

When you arrive

Here are some questions you might ask when you arrive at your placement:

  • What are the workplace health and safety procedures and instructions?
  • What types of health and safety training are available? Does this involve skill development, explanation and demonstration?
  • What specific information is available about risks and hazards?
  • What hazards are present in the workplace?
  • What do particular symbols and signs mean in the workplace?

If you are from a non-English speaking background or if you are completing a practicum from another country, it is important that employers or trainers take account of your literacy levels and cultural background. You may have to speak up about this during orientation to the workplace.

What you can do if you need help

If you are concerned about health and safety issues during your practicum placement or something goes wrong:

  • Record details of all events and circumstances in a notebook.
  • Report all issues to your immediate workplace supervisor and/or practicum coordinator in the first instance. Discuss these issues with them.
  • Approach the elected health and safety representative in the workplace and discuss your concerns.

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