Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Update on WorkSafe response

It's been a while since I wrote an update on the Roberts Street issue, so, with the flats now well and truly gone, it's high time I reported the outcome of my attempts to get useful information out of WorkSafe about asbestos inspections during the demolition.

The last time we left our trusty workplace safety watchdog (14 May), I had received a call from Executive Director, John Merritt, and was unusually hopeful of some answers. A bit later that day, I received a call from a senior officer at the local WorkSafe office, whose statements, in my view, raised more questions than they answered. I perhaps somewhat impolitely instructed him over the phone to get back to me with some answers, and fired off another email to Merritt detailing the shortcomings of the response so far.

The following day (15 May) I received a string of bullet points from our safety guardian that...failed to answer the central questions about this issue. Merritt's response varied from that received over the phone a day earlier from the local office regarding the nature of the works undertaken on 2 April and the time inspectors were on-site. It should also be mentioned there were a number of differences between the account by the local office on 14 May and the account it gave on 2 April, the day asbestos removal works began at the Roberts Street Northcote site. Anyhow, I suppose we are to take Merritt's response as the official line.

That being the case, Merritt states in his 15 May email that no external works took place on 2 April, and that the works that did proceed took place inside, in 'confined areas'. These last words were a new addition to the WorkSafe account, and presumably put there to counter the unseemly possibility that 'inside' meant inside the units at Roberts Street that had broken windows or missing window frames and that were therefore potentially open to the extreme wind conditions on the day.

There was no mention in Merritt's email of what was meant by 'confined' and what checks were made to ensure that no work was done inside the units open to the outside.

Merritt also states in the email that the inspectors, in the course of their inspection on 2 April, discussed procedures for removing asbestos in 'adverse weather conditions', and also discussed the 'inclement' conditions themselves. Judge for yourself whether this answers the central question, asked time and time again, as to whether WorkSafe advised or directed that works finish early that day (as two accounts suggest they did) due to the weather conditions - namely, extreme winds that left thousands without power across Melbourne.

What WorkSafe's response really highlights is that they are unwilling to meaningfully answer hard questions where it involves the actions of a government department, and the potential for political embarrassment of a government that has touted exemplary asbestos safety in a major public housing redevelopment. It would be a very bad look indeed if WorkSafe publicly stated that asbestos removal had proceeded on a day when weather conditions argued against it, even if, as WorkSafe has stated, internal removal works under the prevailing conditions were permitted under the asbestos regulations.

A few hard questions and WorkSafe becomes so tangle-footed they're lucky they're not up on a building scaffold. And what does this show about the WorkSafe ads Tim Holding cites when defending the Victorian Labor Government's excessive advertising spend? They're a rather black joke - propaganda about public safety is not the same as accountable and transparent action to protect it.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

WorkSafe silent after radio challenge

A couple of weeks ago (30 April), I happened to catch WorkSafe Executive Director, John Merritt, talking about workplace safety on Radio National's Australia Talks program. As WorkSafe had failed to respond to questions I raised with them about video footage of an asbestos-contaminated Roberts Street Northcote demolition site, I thought I'd challenge John on air about how disclosure by regulators - or in this case, non-disclosure - might contribute to creating a culture of safety in the workplace.

As an example, I asked John whether it should take two calls and six emails to WorkSafe to get a response on an asbestos issue. He said that it shouldn't, and claimed WorkSafe had been corresponding with me on the matter. I pointed out that I had received no response on the video footage, including to emails I had sent to him personally. He said he was 'happy to take it offline' and I left my details with the program - not, I must say, with any high hopes for any answers. Guess what? I was right. Complete silence has been the only response from WorkSafe following my on-air radio challenge.

If you go to the page for the Australia Talks workplace safety program, about two-thirds of the way through the audio you can hear for yourself my questions and John's response, including his happiness to take the issue offline. You can also read my post in the guestbook. Also online, however inconvenient for WorkSafe, are links to the Roberts Street asbestos coverage on my blog from Holding Redlich's OHS magazine, as well as the OHS magazine of Trades Hall, SafetyNet (see under 'Asbestos News').

For more background on the specific questions arising from the video footage, see this earlier post.

So, are we going to get a response, John? You'll know about this post, because I'll be sending it straight to your inbox, as well as to the WorkSafe information email address. Please feel free to leave a comment. Maybe you can explain the lack of a response by your organisation, or even answer the questions I've asked about the video footage.

Update: Early this morning (Wednesday 14 May) I received a phone call from WorkSafe Executive Director, John Merritt, and again put forward my case for a response from the safety watchdog on asbestos removal works at Roberts Street Northcote on Wednesday 2 April. It is the first response of any kind from WorkSafe following my referral of video footage taken on the day, and I hope it will lead to some answers. Watch this space.