Interview: ABC National OH&S Advisor - Peter Clancy

Interview: ABC National OH&S Advisor, Peter Clancy: 10th March 2003

Peter Clancy is the National OH&S Advisor at ABC (for all Divisions (13) including those concerned with publishing and broadcasting Television, Radio, New Media and Enterprises).  Peter is also on the Screen Production Safety Review Committee that is currently reviewing and updating the main media industry safety document ‘Occupational Risk Management in the Australian Film and Television Industry – Draft National Safety Guidelines’.

Peter sits down with Greg Tingle to discuss what ABC is doing to keep ahead of the pack on OH&S concerns.

GT: What parts of the OH&S jurisdiction most affects you and your staff at the ABC?

PC: The ABC is a Commonwealth Statutory Authority. We are primarily under Commonwealth legislation and that legislation lacks the extensive personal and corporations sanctions and fines that exist, say, in the recent NSW legislation.

What this means in practice is that it is hard to use the ‘big stick’ approach to get managers and employees to comply with legislation, regulations, codes of practice and the like. It means having use your influence alone, to manage the inter-divisional relationships, in order to achieve good safety outcomes for the ABC. It means working hard, as I am presently doing to have OH&S KPIs put into the job plans of managers and other staff so that they can be measured against them in their annual assessments. This may become even more critical given that there is a very recent view in legal circles that State legislation in all states and territories in which the ABC operates in Australia, might very well apply to the ABC. This raises a whole new set of challenges, given the extra 8 jurisdictions. 

On a micro level, the effect of new technology on say, newsgathering and editing (journalists and crews) brings new roles, new systems of work, new hazards being identified , new controls having to be put in place. Roles of Journalists for example, are changing.  They are multi-skilling across a number of mediums (Radio, TV, Internet / Intranet / New Media). Some journalists embrace those changes and some resist those changes. Managers have to be able to safely manage those changes. Journalists also work in a variety of contexts - in the office, in the field, overseas, in hostile environments, often under limited direct supervision. - so it’s a moot point as to what parts of the OH&S jurisdiction most affects me and the ABC staff . Another big area of hazards and potential  risks to all ABC employees is in the area of Occupational Overuse Syndrome (OOS) – through poor posture, poor workstation design / ergonomics, poor systems of work including too few breaks with too long hours as well as poor management controls to minimize the risk.

It is worthwhile noting that the ABC is currently seeking to upgrade the level of OH&S knowledge that exists throughout the ABC both in its operational and in its support services. One of those areas of knowledge targeted is ergonomics and safe systems of work.

GT: What areas do you see room for improvement in the guidelines?

PC: There needs to be one set of rules nationally for all Australians instead of multiple jurisdictions. At present there are varying levels of proof and sanctions – and in some states e.g. Victoria was recently attempting to introduce the charge of  “industrial manslaughter.  Jurisdictions take very different approaches to the law and its enforcement.

Further - Employers need to ensure that they are doing the right thing on a daily basis. There is always the temptation for management throughout Australian businesses to try save on costs by not properly assessing and controlling OH&S risks.

GT: What type of issues come up most often for both office based, and field based journalists and TV presenters?

PC: Different contexts throw up very different types of risks as well as those common to all.. Sometimes managers and employees don’t embrace the need to properly identify, assess, control as well as monitor and review those OH&S risks. Risk assessment is very important and often it needs to be done by the very people who may be injured i.e. ‘dynamic risk assessment’ – for example a (non-ABC) journalist was recently knocked down and injured by a police horse at a protest rally.

Eliminate the risk if possible - If you can cover an event e.g. a bushfire from long range, rather than being right in the middle of it, then that is a much safer approach. If you choose to have staff go closer to a fire then ensure that there is a safe system of work in place, including risk assessments, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and training.

Driving long distances and working alone in regional Australia is another set of risks for some ABC employees.

Journalists and crews in hostile environments – may be tempted to take risks to get a story. Often they may be relying on imperfect information and sometimes have been lucky that that no one got hurt. Other (non-ABC) journalists in Afghanistan have not been so lucky some deaths have occurred.

We have recently been working towards superior risk assessment in hostile environments (e.g. war zones). This is very important that this be done properly to minimize the exposure to serious injury and death. It’s important to remember that although the ABC has a fixed budget and is basically a non-profit making organization, it does need to spend money to ensure the safety of our staff. And we do. [It is worth noting that subsequent to this interview, that ABC journalists and crews were pulled out of Baghdad to eliminate their risk of death and injury. Unfortunately, about a week later a camera person Paul Moran was intentionally killed in Northern Iraq by a suicide bomber driving a taxi near him.]

Some journalists will work long hours – it is still part of the industry ethos– if a story needs to be finished by a deadline, it gets done.  Management needs to remind staff to look after themselves e.g. tell staff to work reasonable hours, have regular breaks and stretches. On occasion, ABC will do a “buy-out”.  This means we will build in a percentage, say 25% into their salary, for the extra time and effort a certain project will take. This also sets a ‘cap’ on the expectation as to the amount of overtime that they could be expected to do on a regular basis and so provides a disincentive to work excessive overtime.

GT: What new measures have you employed, if any, given the recent survey that MEAA reported, on levels of stress at News Limited, and does the ABC have these type of problems?

PC: The survey has not been brought to my attention by the MEAA and I am very much of the opinion that journalists alone do not own stress. The ABC has carried out its own survey in the past and monitors its health through the Employee Assistance Program statistics.

Notwithstanding, stress is certainly part of the media business and is of particular importance, given strict deadlines for some tasks e.g. news on the hour. Some staff thrive on varying levels of stress.  But too much stress i.e. beyond individual tolerance is not a good thing. In our organization, we do more than “lip service” to issues like stress, and we encourage our employees to have balance between work and family and have operational policies on that area of employees’ lives. We also encourage them to manage their work and not to do everything at the last minute.

We do acknowledge that stress is a very real issue in the media business. The amount of stressors that exists varies from department to department and from individual to individual. 

The ABC does, where it can, offer flexible working hours, working from home, flexible returns to work from maternity leave to assist employees to obtain and maintain that balance. There is now more flexibility than ever before in the ABC.  Ideas as to flexibility are discussed and sometimes attempted if they are ‘do-able’.  The flexible working hours have been well received.  If you do a proper analysis for a flexible proposal you often find that there are flexibilities that do exist and both parties may benefit form such an agreed outcome. 

The ABC has an ‘Employee Assistance Program’ run by “Corpsych”. It is there to assist, employees, managers and their families to deal the challenges that life throws at us all. They can provide a ‘toolkit’ of skills to help employees deal with stress and other issues.  It is annually used by approximately  6.4 % of staff.  Staff and immediate family members can have at least 3 free visits to a trained psychologist. Some may be referred on to other professional help providers if need be.

For example, the EAP was promoted to staff and their families when the ABC sent employees to Timor in the crisis.  It allows employees and their families to anonymously access help.  When the ABC recently did a ‘culture survey’ using Corpsych , EAP usage increased, perhaps because of the increased exposure to Corpsych.

All staff correspondence with Corpsych is totally confidential.  However, statistics are provided to the ABC and these can be used to assess the general health of the ABC as well as providing access to figures broken down by Division or ‘staff type’. We can look for hot spots in the ABC whether this is in a general location or identifies specific problem descriptions (types) and their linkage to specific roles. The ABC does a pretty good job of managing stress, in a stressful business.

GT: The ABC being a Government regulated authority is in somewhat of a unique position, compared to other networks – what does this mean as far as policy being implemented, and the potential of future OH&S issues going legal?

PC: We are covered by ComCare, being a Commonwealth Government Organisation. As mentioned previously, both National and State OH&S laws may have application to the ABC. Further, given that the ABC has a very good reputation for accuracy, lack of bias, seeking out the truth without fear or favor and being a good corporate citizen, that also needs to reflected in its own safe systems of work.

GT: What main concerns do you have with ABC’s OH&S policies?

PC: We need to keep ensuring staff have a high level of awareness of policies and procedures.  Our Human Resources division is largely responsible for communicating the information throughout the organization.  There are still some gaps in the policy mix and we are working at developing not only policies but safe systems of work. Safe systems of work need to be developed ‘locally’ to fit staff and managers in their operating environment.

Further, there is still too much ‘gray’ operationally - At the moment it is still up to individuals to do the right thing rather than specific and identified management and staff responsibilities and accountabilities being the norm. We are attempting to address that at present.

Further, there is still too much ‘silo-like’ activity – different Divisions and groups acting in isolation rather than through integration. For example, the Property Department will look after their section, HR its section and Procurement its section. The risk is then that things fall between the cracks and resources are not always used efficiently.  This has been targeted for change through the recent development of an OH&S strategy to improve the ABC’s OH&S Management System.

The ABC has OH&S in its induction programs, when new staff join the organization and when contractors and visitors come onto our sites.

Security, as a result of some stalking incidents, the war and the threat of terrorism is now more highly visible in the organization.

We are becoming more pro active and we also building upon our relationship with our regulator, Comcare. We are getting more staff thinking that prevention is better than cure. There are more formal but practical risk assessments being done than ever before. We still have a long way to go.

Comcare uses an audit tool – ‘SafetyMap’ that was used in 2002 to audit NewsCaff in NSW; Production Resources in Victoria; Radio in Queensland. These have identified areas of improvement that are needed and these have been included in the OH&S strategy we were developing.

GT: What parts of Comcare’s policy do you believe need revising?

PC: Unions electing Health and Safety Representatives.(HSRs).  Fewer than 40% of employees are in the union at present. Unions actual run the elections yet represent less than 40% of staff.  Often they cannot find HSRs to cover our Designated Work Groups (DWGs). This part of the system needs changes to the legislation.

Also, the Commonwealth legislations lack of ‘bite’ through personal responsibility and accountability is a serious flaw. It needs to move closer to, say, the NSW model.

GT: If you could change anything about the OH&S guidelines, what would it be?

PC: The law needs to be more hard-hitting.  If the policy is not being complied to, the person responsible needs to be identified, all the way up to Director level.  If there is serious non-compliance, those responsible should be able to be fined and jailed.

GT: In your many years in the media business, what is the worst case of OH&S you have seen or heard about?

PC:  We have had a death in Sydney.  We had a cameraman fall off the top of a stationary vehicle’s roof, when it was hit from behind by another vehicle. [We have now just had another death of a cameraman in Iraq.] However, a bad OOS injury is not a pretty sight.

GT: Is stress in the workplace a big problem at ABC, and what is ABC doing about it?

PC:  As outlined elsewhere.

GT: Do you have an opinion you would like share regarding the possibility of employees faking, or overstating stress in the workplace?

PC: Stress in the media business like in other businesses can be very real.  Of course the opportunity is always there for someone to fake it, which is why investigation is so important to workers compensation claims. EAP statistics can also help to identify systemic areas of stress in the organization, although the presenting symptoms may not always be the real problem e.g. home life may be the real problem. The EAP can assist employees and their families wherever the stress might raise its head.

In a different vein, the ABC has in some traineeship interviews used personality type questions to attempt to identify if there is an alignment between the culture of the ABC and the personality and aspirations of the applicant / interviewee.   Ideally the organization and the employee should be a good “fit”. However, these sorts of tests are the exception and not the rule in the ABC.

GT: What else would you like to make public knowledge on OH&S in relation to ABC?

PC: The ABC is ‘raising the bar’ on OH&S performance in our many and varied workplaces.  We have carried out a number of steps, like internal audits, and are now attempting to fill the gaps in our OH&S Management System.  Risk assessment is a growing area of activity across a range of tasks.

Managers are now doing an OH&S Module in the ABC’s Frontline Management Initiative (FMI) which is better equipping our managers to manage OH&S in a very busy business with finite resources. This is a beginning not the end.

At the ‘pointy end’ – we are risk assessing hostile environments including bio-chemical, chemical and radiation weapons  – we don’t send Journalists to Bagdad without proper training and equipment. If the situation gets too heavy over there, we will our crews back out. We try to ensure that plans are in place for each eventuality in a hostile environment including a loss of communication (satellite phones) e.g. the Americans jamming the satellites for military advantage. 

Systems are in place for dynamic risk assessment to monitor the danger to crews in hostile environments e.g. We need more than one person signing off a risk assessment if they want someone to stay in Baghdad. There is a comprehensive checklist with a scoring system, and if the risks are too high, staff are directed to leave the danger zone. Staff are comprehensively educated as to the hazards, and the Management shall make the safety decisions by following a strict procedure.  The story is secondary to staff safety. We would rather they come back to Australia alive. 

To sum up, the ABC is a good employer to 4,500 people. It also engages many contractors and also has many visitors to its sites every year. It also participates in its own and others’ public events e.g jjj – ‘Unearhed’ and the RAS ‘Sydney Easter Show’ are just two examples of many.

To better address the risks that exist in its day to day activities the ABC is presently in the process of becoming much more systematic in the areas of Risk Management and OH&S. As you can imagine the challenge in such a diverse set of ABC workplaces is large and requires the application of multiple resources. Already the ABC has won an Award in the Risk Management field as well as in the Training field. It wouldn’t surprise me if it won a major OH&S Award within the next 5 years. The ABC survives as a robust institution, and being a survivor, with the ABC’s internal and external operating environment, is not an accident!



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