Paralympian takes gold in workplace safety

Solutions for mining safety are at a premium, with companies throughout Australia under pressure to prevent injury to workers. Whilst traditional methods of training still serve a purpose, it is the Australian Paralympic Committee that is breaking new ground in the education of workplace safety.  

With a focus on prevention, WorkCover NSW and the Australian Paralympic Committee (APC) have teamed together to raise awareness about the dangers in heavy  industries by presenting audiences with real people who have suffered permanent injury as a result of a workplace accident and gone on to become paralympians. 
The Paralympic speakers program educates workers in a frank and open fashion about how they acquired their injury and the impact on their lives. As a result of the paralympian's visit, 68 percent of companies have said there has been a visible improvement to workplace health and safety.  
Ben Houlison, an APC Safety Speaker for WorkCover NSW, is an ex-coal miner who at 22, was left paralysed from the waist down after being crushed into the roof of a mine by a continuous miner. Four years later, after taking up rowing to keep fit; Ben came away with a Paralympic title, winning bronze in the 2009 World rowing championships. 
At 31, Ben now works with the APC, travelling to various mine sites throughout NSW seeking to educate workers about the consequences of taking short-cuts and to encourage those who have been injured- back into the workforce.  
When asked about safety precautions taken in the lead up to his injury, Ben admitted that better education and training would have prevented his accident but that the onus fell equally on him.  
"I was young and didn't really know that there was an issue- you learn the hard way I guess 
The biggest message I try to get across is that at 22, you think you're bullet proof, you don't have an interest in OHS and that's how things can go pear shaped very quickly." 
Ben knows the true value of his work and speaks passionately about the effect his talk has on his audiences. "You can see peoples mind sets change, they begin to picture life in a wheelchair- and it really registers" he said.  
A major change program being undertaken by the NSW Department of Trade & Investment is to achieve significant improvements in OHS through a systematic performance based approach to managing risk. The Industry has agreed that "further OHS improvement will require OHS culture change to close an apparent disconnect between OHS management systems and actual behaviour at the site". 
One of the culture challenges speakers see is typically from older people who think "well it's worked for 50 years, why change now." 
"We need to encourage the younger generation to stand up against that [mindset] and for it to be acknowledged" says Ben. 
Whilst mining is a dangerous industry, it seems education in safety is working. Workplace injury records are below that of construction and agricultural industries with manufacturing being the highest, proving that mining is at the forefront of change for OHS.  
Statistics from the 'NSW Mine Safety Performance report 2011-2012' recorded serious bodily injury rates had reduced by 55.7 percent- an all-time low for the industry. 
Ian Laing, Commercial General Manager for the APC, commented that the effect the program has is "amazing". 
"You might have 400 guys in a room and you can hear a pin drop. The stories of these athletes are so powerful¬it's not uncommon for a few tears to be shed." 
He added "It is not just physical improvements to health and safety that we see. It also increases reporting of near misses and hazards- an area in management that needs to be developed." 
A big issue in mining is that due to rapid growth, there are many new people joining the workforce who don't have experience behind them. Management have the policies in place, they know it back to front but this is not filtering down to the workforce.  
As Ben put it, "what good is a policy sat in a filing cabinet above surface?" 
Industries that have a high level of risk are required to have sufficient policies and preventative measures in place, this includes education. The APC are proud to work with companies to help achieve this.  
Laing is confident that a personal approach can improve OHS culture, adding that "when you consider the type of guys we talk to, sitting and reading a lengthy policy document might not be the best way to learn". 
"Hearing a real life case study pushes learning into a more experiential framework that is naturally more humanly engaging." 
With the support of WorkCover NSW, the APC program is growing- with hopes to extend into other states like Western Australia, to help spread the message about safety in the workplace. 

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