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Look beyond cabin for safety change: experts

Safety law changes should look at the entire chain of responsibility, experts say


Innovations to boost heavy vehicle safety should reach well beyond the truck cabin, academics have argued in submissions to a New South Wales Parliamentary inquiry.

Macquarie University associate professor Louise Thornthwaite and UNSW Canberra academic Sharron O’Neill made their submission to the NSW parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Road Safety, also known as the Staysafe Committee, based on earlier research the two had conducted.

Launched in 2017, Evaluating Approaches to Regulating WHS in the Australian Road Freight Transport Industry included a survey of 559 NSW freight truck drivers, which found a significant minority said they could rarely or never meet their schedules safely.

Click here to read ATN’s report on the study when it was first released. 

“This included 18 per cent of owner drivers and 14 per cent of employee drivers. Significantly, 27 per cent of owner drivers and 39 per cent of employee drivers also responded that they had rarely/never had any input into their schedules,” they wrote.

The study also found that 18 per cent of owner drivers and 12 per cent of employee drivers had said they could not refuse a schedule they considered unsafe, while an unsafe load could not be refused by 16 per cent of owner drivers and 9 per cent of employee drivers.

The researchers found that this reluctance was due to the fear of dismissal or loss of work, a fear of retaliation or the belief that supervisors would not act on the expressed concerns.

They said this showed the practical limitations of focusing on individual driver behaviour as a means to reduce the risk of injury or fatalities, saying that improving the willingness of chain of responsibility participants to meet their safety obligations “must become more of a safety priority.”

“With the current operation of work health and safety regulations in the heavy vehicle sector in Australia, enforcement resources are directed disproportionately at drivers, rather than those further up the CoR who are actually involved in the negotiation of contractual terms that, ultimately, impact safety,” they wrote.

While they said government should pay more attention to providing orders that commit operators to implementing specific safety measures and practices, it noted that penalty regimes were only effective where regulators were funded appropriately to enforce them.

“In the heavy vehicle sector, more resources for regulators are needed to enable enforcement to meet stakeholder expectations,” they wrote.

A different focus for technology

Based on that argument, the researchers argue that in-vehicle speed and fatigue detection technology should be used as a level 3 risk control – the same level as personal protective equipment – “providing an additional layer of protection against failures of higher order management system controls (e.g. scheduling).”

This was instead of using them as a behavioural control – which the researchers said could introduce additional hazards relating to distraction, stress and anxiety.

“Alerts signal a need to review, in the first instance, the adequacy of organisational systems for managing speed/fatigue risk,” the researchers say.

“If the intent is for these in‐vehicle technologies to provide evidence of effective safety management systems, including scheduling and other safety critical practices, then they may encourage compliance along the CoR by those at the supply chain apex.”

For policymakers, the researchers say it is essential that any new safety initiatives were based on an accurate understanding of the factors that lead to accidents – one of which is the behaviour of light vehicle drivers around heavy vehicles.

Building on this understanding would create a number of additional opportunities for safety interventions, including technological ones.

“A need to prioritise organisational and structural (safe design) solutions over behaviour controls… is an essential tenet of the hierarchy of control approach embedded in work health and safety regulation,” the researchers say

This could include extending the use of point-to-point cameras, which some surveyed drivers said had helped to reduce the pressure to speed, further along regional routes.

Technologies such as apps that helped to identify quality rest areas, ideally with parking availability, and identifying ways to improve the oversight of roadworks, to ensure signage was accurate and up to date, were among the suggestions made in the submission.

Both Thornthwaite and O’Neill have been called upon to give evidence to the first hearing of the Staysafe Committee into this issue, scheduled to take place on Monday.


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