Keeping on top of stress, OOS and the law

IT managers and other bosses face added responsibilities when new health and safety legislation comes into effect next May.

IT managers and other bosses face added responsibilities when new health and safety legislation comes into effect next May.

The government claims workplace accidents and deaths cost the country $4 billion a year – equivalent to 4% of national output. An estimated 400 people are said to die from occupation-related diseases each year and a further 100 from accidents at work.

Earlier this month, the government issued a study called Aftermath, which features 15 case studies, two involving workers in finance and data entry. It highlights the financial and emotional issues of workplace injury and how victims grapple with their problems.

The study comes as the government prepares to introduce amended safety legislation which, controversially, now includes provision for stress at work.

Opponents to the proposed changes point out that firms potentially face fines of up to $500,000 for causing stress, compared to the $20,000 maximum fine for causing death by dangerous driving.

The Employers & Manufacturers Association warns that stress and fatigue issues are leading to many workplace insurance claims in Australia. Stress, the EMA says, cannot be measured, so the New Zealand legislation will create much uncertainty. It plans to produce an employers’ guide to responsibilities under the new law.

Grahame Coles, former CIO of Zespri International, who feels the legislation won’t make much change at his organisation, nevertheless notes that in the US and Australia staff members suffering excessive stress from working too many hours, or having no back-up support or being unable to take leave, have lodged claims against employers of $500,000 or more.

IT industry leaders say the sector is not as dangerous as others, but admit stress and occupational overuse syndrome (OOS) are issues for all.

ITANZ executive officer Jim O’Neill says the stress issue is new and untested. Since IT is a new and fast-moving industry, it still has much stress, he says, and the new law would be a concern if it pushes up industry costs and unemployment.

O’Neill claims IT employers have a good safety record, and the industry has “come a long way” in the past 25 years, when it was known as “the most stressful career” and one which caused many marriage break-ups.

While IT firms usually treat their employees well, he says, it is often the demands of customers and individual staffers wanting to satisfy them that can cause the problem.

Recent changes to the amended act give a joint responsibility over the stress issue, says Anne Knowles, executive director of Business New Zealand.

“At least the obligation now falls on the employer if he or she ‘knows or ought reasonably to know’ about a stressed employee,” Knowles says. “This puts an obligation on the employee to keep the employer informed about specific factors that an employer can control, and it puts an obligation on the employer to deal with such matters in performance appraisals, for example.”

Zespri bosses have already been briefed on the new legislation, which Coles says “puts the onus on the manager and the staff to minimise the stress. Managers are going to have to be more aware of the particular types of stress and manage accordingly.”

Coles says Zespri regularly has Occupational Safety and Health officials visiting the firm to see that cables do not cross floors, lighting is appropriate and the like.

Already, he says, Zespri ensures computer screens are an appropriate colour and won’t cause eyestrain, screens are set at the right height — level with the eyesight — with the PC not just being left set at its base.

The mouse has to be the right shape and the right size for people’s hands. Zespri has also shifted many people from right to left-handed mice.

Some typists have gained “natural” bent keyboards, and staff have been told how to use keyboards and sit correctly, Coles says. He claims no OOS cases.

Christchurch City Council has just sent staff on an OOS prevention course and has human resource teams operating across the council on health and safety issues.

Food retailer Progressive Enterprises says OOS, also known as RSI (repetitive strain injury), is a top risk for the company, but new staff are told about it on their induction and the company claims it has no cases.

Progressive’s general manager of IT, John Donaldson, says “all managers [including IT] have some responsibility under the requirements of various acts [concerning safety]”, and stress is an issue for the IT sector.

John Edmonds, MIS manager at Christchurch City Council, says the public sector is no less stressful than the private sector. OOS may be likened to disaster recovery by being put off, he says, but there are legal requirements, so the council tries to update staff on the potential risks of OOS.

“I have some OOS problems myself. I do regular exercises and keep it at bay,” Edmonds says.

• Further advice on stress, OOS and VDU issues can be found on the OSH website.

Greenwood is Computerworld's human resources reporter. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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