LEAD Action News
LEAD Action News vol 11 Number 2, December 2010, ISSN 1324-6011
Incorporating Lead Aware Times (ISSN 1440-4966) & Lead Advisory Service News (ISSN 1440-0561)
The journal of The LEAD (Lead Education and Abatement Design) Group Inc.
Guest Editor, Dr Chrissie Pickin. Editor-in-Chief: Anne Roberts

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Guardians of safety?

By Yossi Berger, Director of the Australian Workers’ Union’s Occupational Health and Safety Unit

The Australian Workers’ Union became involved the Rosebery matter in the same way it has in other divisive issues affecting both workers and the wider community.

Health and safety concerns for a union generally start with risks to workers at work.

We are extra cautious when chemicals are involved because we are well aware that over the years, many exposure standards which were once considered safe for an 8 hour day, 5 days a week, over 40 years of work life, have too often been demonstrated to be wrong - in many cases wrong by orders of magnitude. Benzene and beryllium are two examples.

After work, workers usually simply become citizens in the local community in which they and their families live. The AWU therefore takes an interest in H&S issues within such a community which may be related to the workplace in question. When unease is expressed by workers, their families and/or members of that community we take special note.

It’s usually not an easy matter to establish any chemical effects on people or the lack of any such effects. Simply using a benchmark for safety – such as an exposure standard – should always be regarded only as a starting point. What is the minimum achievable and why can’t that be achieved? History shows that any presumably ‘safe’ levels are likely not to be regarded as such in a decade or two.

When people in a community report what they regard as ill affects as a result of what they believe is exposure to various chemicals, too often a predictable pattern of events is generated. It often then flows back into the workplace and can seriously distress a number of workers who may be working with such chemicals. A form of local social distress can be created. Levels of anxiety and fear about health may take on inappropriate and irrational proportions. Which is not to say that the original sense of harm was wrong, or that the original anxiety about possible health effects was wrong or that the range of difficult questions asked by such people or community groups is inappropriate. It usually is appropriate and can become an effective socio-occupational agent for change, such as the AWU achieved in Australia with synthetic mineral fibres (fibreglass, rockwool, and ceramic fibres), and the very dangerous pesticide, parathion.

When the social mechanisms that such people turn to for help, such as local councils, clinics, government departments such as health and environment, don’t understand that initially the anxiety is the issue, the perception of harm, and resort too quickly to the tenuous guardians of reason, such as exposure standards, accepted ‘safe’ levels in blood or urine, ‘stay safe’ techniques “such as wash your hands more frequently”, they tend to increase the anxiety rather than deal with it.

When that happens and those who see themselves as victims feel abandoned by ‘the system’ they tend to shop for alternative advice because they remain anxious and their illness becomes more worrying. I quickly add here that I’m not dismissing the obvious observation that such people may very well be ill in a number of ways directly related to exposure to certain chemicals. I’m establishing the community context in which the AWU may find itself.

Since the questions asked about chemical risk are difficult to easily resolve that creates levels of uncertainty that feed directly into ‘it’s the chemicals that are making me sick, can you prove otherwise?!’

In such circumstances I try to bring all the relevant people together and begin by stating that those people who say they are affected by any chemicals must be regarded as being so affected. Then, from that starting position (from that hypothesis), any experts and scientists ought to be able to provide reasonable evidence and argument why this is not the case. Their task is to show that the ‘culprit’ chemicals are not the likely cause of any illness. If they cannot do that then the proposition must stand, i.e. they are so affected.

I try to involve all the relevant government departments, all the community groups, the workplace and workers. It’s of great importance to involve those people who report ill effects – without their involvement, the issue will never be resolved in a humane manner. The main things that the affected people can bring to the discussion is their suspicions and the tools and means they prefer used in tackling those suspicions. That is, they may regard certain departments as biased, they may regard certain experts and scientists as partisan or not knowledgeable enough, they may regard any company information as self serving, and regard with high suspicion any consultants used by the company. All of this must be brought out in the open, discussed and dealt with in a fair manner.

In all these circumstances, it’s important not to make the mistake that the primary issue is the ‘true’ perceptions of those who see themselves as victims. It’s trite to say that the perceptions are true (veridical*) but the chemicals aren’t the main issue. The chemicals are the main issue, but related anxiety has emerged as the vehicle with which to deal with all these matters. If this tone is not taken and the perceptions are obviously treated as the main issue the affected people will become insulted and feel demeaned; the issue will escalate.

* veridical

coinciding with reality; "perceptual error...has a surprising resemblance to veridical perception"- F.A.Olafson wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn

True; Pertaining to an experience, perception, or interpretation that accurately represents reality; as opposed to unsubstantiated, illusory, or delusory

In Rosebery, we observed at early community meetings that a lot of bitterness in the community had already emerged. Luckily the company was helpful as were the two government departments involved. So was the region’s local council. We did not succeed to involve the group representing some of the affected people, and to that extent the process is still not resolved. The department which was regarded as unhelpful by some of the affected people has, in fact, worked very hard behind the scenes to resolve these issues, as it still is. People within it continued to extend themselves to address the full range of issues involved. Not at any stage did I detect the slightest disrespect towards any of the people involved.

Nevertheless, I found that there was a touch too much confidence in standard, scientific rationality and standard research logic. The AWU remains concerned about any exposure to the heavy metals and we are closely interacting with workers to keep a watching brief on working practices. Just in passing, I believe that exposure levels to lead are still too high and that very careful neuropsychological testing regimens – in many workplaces around the country – would in fact indicate that early, ‘pre-clinical’ signs of effect already exist, even at the currently presumed ‘safe’ levels.

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