Incidents such as the leak of the cancer-causing chemical hexavalent chromium by Orica in Newcastle in August last year highlight the importance of safety procedures and proper handling of health and safety incidents by organisations.
Following the leak the plant was closed for 6 months, it reportedly lost $90 million in earnings, it faced court over breaching Environmental Protection laws and the incident was the subject of a NSW Health health and safety risk assessment and two government inquiries.
The incident also forced changes in environmental protection laws, which now require companies to notify authorities immediately after an incident that poses a risk to the environment, with fines of up to $2 million for failing to do so.
The enquiries examined the apparent delays in reporting the leak both to the government and the public. The upper house report, released in February this year, was damning of the delays in reporting both by Orica and by the Minister for Environment. Orica also faced criticism for failing to alert the Fire and Rescue Service, which environmental experts advise should have happened immediately after the event.
While the risk assessment confirmed that the amount of the chemical released into the air was too small to have a serious health impact, the costs, both financial and reputational, to Orica and the local community were substantial.
In the aftermath of the leak, the part of the Orica plant involved in the release of the chemical was shut down. 70 homes were thought to be affected and a child care centre nearby was closed while the issue was investigated. An environmental claims lawyer also indicated that affected families were considering a class action to claim compensation for health impacts, stigma and a potential drop in property values.
Orica pleaded guilty in the Land & Environment court to breaching its Environment Protection Licence and to failing to notify the EPA as soon as practicable.
Incidents such as these highlight the importance of Occupational Health & Safety (OHS) policies and procedures, audits, risk assessments and organisational attitudes towards safety. Not only are companies such as those dealing with harmful chemicals at risk of health and safety issues, according to a WorkCover NSW report in 2008-09, there were 139 deaths resulting from workplace accidents and over 133,000 employment injuries reported in NSW. These occurred across a range of industries, including ‘low risk’ areas such as administration and insurance.
Safety surveys are becoming a popular adjunct to OHS initiatives aimed at improving employee commitment to safety. Considering the costs associated with work-related injuries and accidents, the importance of prevention strategies cannot be underestimated.
PeopleMetrics, RightPeople brand, has developed the Safety and Commitment Survey to help organisations gauge the attitudes, views and behaviour of employees with regard to health and safety, and the effect of constantly changing circumstances in the modern workplace. The survey analyses safety trends from a multidirectional viewpoint. It can help you to:
- Compare workforce and management views on current OH&S issues,
- Compare perceived vs actual compliance with safety policies and procedures, and
- Examine safety attitudes and behaviour both in and outside of the workplace