Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?

Occupational health and safety (OHS) laws continue to be relevant even when operating in a time of a highly infectious pandemic, but they are increasingly sidelined.

At the moment there are labour shortages in Australia because of the large number of workers infected, and affected, by the Omicron variant of COVID-19; a shortage exacerbated by the varying isolation and testing regimes applied by the Federal and State governments. It is a bit of a mess.

It is worth reminding ourselves that employers have a duty to proved a safe and healthy work environment with the support of employees. Employees are obliged to not allow hazards to be brought to work. At the moment, some employees are being encouraged or required to return to work if they are showing no COVID-19 symptoms; if they are asymptomatic. But everyone knows from experience and official advice over the last two years that asymptomatic people can continue to be infectious. Requiring workers to return to work, as seemed to be happening at one South Australian worksite, while still potentially infectious seems contrary to both the employer’s and employee’s OHS obligations.

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Why is the world “enthusiastic” for regulations?

Unsurprising from a global business magazine, The Economist’s special report on January 15 2002 (paywalled*) bemoaned the new “enthusiasm for regulation”. It clearly includes occupational health and safety (OHS) laws and Australia in its consideration but stops short of asking why this new enthusiasm exists.

Many regulations, especially in OHS, are proposed and introduced to address a wrong or misbehaviour or a new hazard. A major catalyst for Lord Robens‘ OHS laws in the 1970s stemmed from industrial deaths, especially those of the public. The pattern of deaths as a catalyst for change continues today with the Industrial Manslaughter laws, for instance. Another catalyst is new cultural sensitivities; what was tolerated previously is no longer acceptable.

The workplace bullying changes late last century in Australia is a good example, but this also ties in with unacceptable levels of harm. Bullying was often part of the initiation to work and seemed acceptable until workers were severely injured and traumatised, and people found out about it.

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A good job is also a safe job

At the moment, “The Great Resignation” remains a United States phenomenon, but part of that movement involves a reassessment of one’s job. Is it a good job? Is it meaningful work? Is it a good job now but likely not in the future? I would include my occupational health and safety perspective (OHS) and ask if it is a safe job, but I accept that my perspective is far from universal.

Recently Sarah O’Connor wrote in the Financial Times about the importance of having a decent boss. She wrote that

“Economists are increasingly of the opinion that the quality of jobs matter as much as their quantity”

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Ethical Socialism and OHS

Every political leader on the progressive side, or Left, of politics, must address their relationship to Socialism. Recently The Guardian discussed this concerning the UK Labour leader Keir Starmer but the topic has relevance to Australia as several elections are scheduled for 2022. It is also important in understanding the ideological base of these prospective leaders as it is from this that progress on occupational health and safety (OHS) will emerge.

In a recent book “Sedated: How Modern Capitalism Created Our Mental Health Crisis“, UK academic Dr James Davies provides a valuable first-hand experience of the denial, or avoidance, of social obligations and the transference of responsibility to individuals in the context of Mental Health First Aid.

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Danger Money corrupts OHS

The traditional manner for employers to get unsavoury or hazardous work tasks done is to offer more money. This is referred to as Danger Money in some countries and Hazard Pay in others. There has been a resurgence in Danger Money during the COVID-19 pandemic, offered by some employers and requested by some workers and unions. This negotiation is a collaborative avoidance of both groups’ occupational health and safety (OHS) obligations and should be opposed vigorously by OHS associations and advocates.

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Australia needs its own Dirty Work

Eyal Press recently published “Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America.” One of Press’s contentions is that coronavirus has brought the invisible workers who do our dirty jobs into view. These are now considered “essential workers” but are still subjected to the inequality and poor working conditions that rendered them invisible to the rest of society, to those who benefit from the services and products of the invisible dirty workers.

Although this blog’s theme is occupational health and safety (OHS), Press’ description of “dirty work” is an important perspective on work generally:

“The familiar, colloquial meaning of “dirty work” is a thankless or unpleasant task. In this book, the term refers to something different and more specific.
First, it is work that causes substantial harm either to other people or to nonhuman animals and the environment, often through the infliction of violence.
Second, it entails doing something that “good people” – the respectable members of society – see as dirty and morally compromised.
Third, it is work that is injurious to the people who do it, leading them either to feel devalued and stigmatized by others or to feel that they have betrayed their own core values and beliefs.
Last and most important, it is contingent on a tacit mandate from the “good people,” who see this work as a necessary part of the social order but don’t explicitly assent to it and can, if need be, disavow responsibility for it. For this to be possible, the work must be delegated to other people, which is why the mandate rests on an understanding that someone else will handle the day-to-day drudgery.”

pages 11-12, reformatted to emphasis the definition elements
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Poor OHS consultation creates COVID disputes

One of the first Australian companies to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations, SPC, was back in the newspapers today concerning booster shots. SPC’s Chairman, Hussein Rifai, said he will not be making boosters compulsory:

“After rolling out a full vaccination policy in August, Rifai’s SPC workers have already beaten him to the third dose.
“We’re just not seeing a need for it,” Rifai says of mandating boosters. “Everybody is just going out and doing it.””

The Australian, Janury 5 2022

The primary objection to mandatory vaccinations was insufficient consultation with workers on what was fundamentally an occupational health and safety (OHS) matter.

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