This is a story you won’t read in the newspapers since it’s about newspapers and unsafe workplace practices resulting from often overweight product.

The findings of an ergonomic assessment into the handling of newspapers by newsagents in South Australia make for concerning reading. According to the report, current work practices are unsafe. Newsagents in South Australia are yet to be given a copy of the report and therefore may not be aware that they and their employees may be engaged in unsafe work practices. The key ergonomic risk factors identified in the report exist, in my view, in Western Australia, New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria in addition to South Australia where the research was undertaken.

The professionally prepared report documents unsafe work practices which stem, in part, from having to handle heavy newspapers. Any newspaper above 0.6kg in weight is considered to be heavy. Consider this quote from the Executive Summary:

The Results section of this report (page ten) has outlined significant ergonomic risk factors associated with the newspaper delivery tasks. These risk factors are particularly related to dimensions of the weekend papers (Advertiser and Sunday Mail) when combined with the repetition, volume and manual handling aspects of the delivery process. In particular, there are significant risks associated with the delivery/throwing of the larger dimensioned and heavier Saturday Advertiser and Sunday Mail newspapers.  

The report makes recommendations in the areas of unloading trucks, feeding wrapping machines, the loading of delivery vehicles, the weight of wrapped newspapers and the safe number of newspapers to be thrown by one person each day. But it all comes back to the weight of the newspaper and specifically, the weight of the Saturday newspaper. Section 5.2 of the report goes to the heart of the issue:

Agreement between the suppliers of the newspapers (i.e. The Advertiser) and the Australian Newsagents’ Federation about the safe task demands for the distribution of the newspapers. The current situation, in my view, is unsafe and modifications to the weight, dimensions and volume of papers distributed per person need to be reduced to provide a safe system of work.

There are requirements for the performance of safe work by members of the Australian Newsagent’s Federation as per the “Handling Procedures” outlined in section 8.5 of the Territorial Distribution Agency Agreement where it states “Distributor must ensure that its employees, contractors and agents engaged in the performance of this Agreement, including, but not limited to, the handling, wrapping, strapping or delivery of Publications:

(a) perform their duties in a manner which does not expose them to any risk to their health, safety and welfare;
(b) do not cause any injury to themselves or to others, and ……”

There is also, in my opinion, and as outlined in the South Australian Occupational Health, Safety and Welfare Regulations (1995) an obligation for the manufacturers of the newspapers, News Corporation in this case, to provide a product that is safe to handle by the members of the Australian Newsagent’s Federation.

The Australian Newsagents’ Federation, which commissioned the report, received it from David Nery four months ago. I understand from the ANF website that it is currently seeking advice from a QC experienced in the OH&S area.

Workplace practices are not something one ought to spend too long thinking about. Either current practices are safe or they are not. If they are not safe, safe practices ought to be implemented immediately and in an economically sustainable way.

Since the weight of the newspaper is at the heart of the OH&S issue here, newspaper publishers will need to be involved in the solution.

They control the weight of the product, the contractual terms under which newsagents operate and the fees newsagents may charge for the home delivery service. The fee will be an issue if, for example, what is currently a single wrap and throw for a Saturday Advertiser becomes two wraps and two throws. The fee is equally an issue if heavy newspapers continue to be thrown in one roll but with fewer throws per person per day as recommended in the report. The Nery report recommends that the average daily newspaper throws per person be reduced, because of newspaper weight, from 400-600 to 200-300. This is not economically viable for newsagents under the current delivery fee structure.

The ANF and newspaper publishers ought to provide newsagents with advice this week on how to immediately address the workplace situation. The Nery report contains some excellent and easy to implement advice in product handling. Publishers ought to also advise newsagents about how they plan to address the issue of overweight newspapers in the future to facilitate safe work practices. The solution begins with appropriately informing those who may be involved in unsafe work practices and advising changes which must be implemented immediately to ensure a safe work environment. Advice must also include an appropriate financial solution – ensuring that newsagents are not financially disadvantaged by oversized newspapers.

If newsagencies were unionised this report would be the subject of strike action. You’d be watching stories on TV current affairs shows of unionists picketing publishers in pursuit of a safer workplace. Newsagencies are not unionised. Most of the heavy work is done by newsagents themselves or by people too happy for the pay to be concerned about a heavy newspaper.

Publishers, newsagents and the ANF collectively have an obligation to urgently ensure that newspaper delivery practices are safe. Life is too short to risk injury because of a heavy newspaper.

For the record, I note that this report was not provided by anyone connected with any newsagent association. I make that point because I expect that there will be an accusation that the report was leaked to me by one of the state newsagent associations to get it into the public domain. My source is not under any confidentiality obligation and has given me this material so that newsagents can be informed of the need to improve work practices to better deal with heavy newspapers.

The report has been prepared by David Nery B.Sc. Hons. (Flinders), M.Sc. (London). He is principal of Nery Ergonomic Services. A search on Google quickly demonstrates his credentials in the area of industrial ergonomics.

Read Mark Fletcher’s Australian Newsagency Blog.