OHS, Shareholders & Work/Life Balance

I have always believed that safety practitioners in one country can learn much about safety management from the activities and events in other countries. Often it is possible to anticipate hazards by being able to look over our factory fences or national borders.

The increased risk of terrorist attack and the concerns over bird flu or H5N1 have changed our perception of workplace safety risks. During my studies we took an airplane crash as the extreme example of a high risk low probability event. That criteria has undergone some re-evaluation.

I have always believed that safety practitioners in one country can learn much about safety management from the activities and events in other countries. Often it is possible to anticipate hazards by being able to look over our factory fences or national borders.

The increased risk of terrorist attack and the concerns over bird flu or H5N1 have changed our perception of workplace safety risks. During my studies we took an airplane crash as the extreme example of a high risk low probability event. That criteria has undergone some re-evaluation.

The line between public health, public safety and OHS has always been fuzzy but that fuzziness is receiving more and more attention. Some are trying to clarify the line, others are trying to erase it altogether. I don’t think that Western societies are structured to have a complete overlap of these disciplines although New Zealand has a more social workers’ compensation system than others, Scandinavia almost has no distinction, and some non-Western countries rely on the various levels of social security to pick up workplace injuries.

Safety practitioners should, perhaps, ignore whatever distinctions the categories, regulations and government demarcations may provide by looking at the hazard. This is the way that OHS has traditionally been practiced but can this approach cope with the new workplace hazards that are generated from social, non-work activities?

Some of my clients continue to have workers claim that a weekend injury has occurred at work so that workers compensation will cover the rehabilitation and repairs. One client is experiencing a noticeable increase in hip replacements and knee reconstructions in the workers who are close to retirement age. Of course that the workers are keen football players or undertake very physical labour outside of work is not permitted to be taken into account. If the principle work is physically demanding then how can the injury be proved to be not caused by work?

This type of work expense for non-work incidents is a constant sore spot for employers but I wonder if government silently acknowledges these practices and structures its workers compensation systems accordingly. Should we see workers compensation as having its principle role in social security rather than in the business world, even though companies fund the scheme? Should business leaders see workers compensation premiums as their social contributions, rather than an annoying cost of operation?

Certainly shareholders would require some balance in these contributions as the companies exist to generate profit and dividends for shareholders, but would the drive to screw down workers compensation premiums be less strident if workers compensation was also seen as a community premium?

Companies are expected to change their working environment, management practices and workplace design to accommodate the work/life balance, a concept that acknowledges the workplace impact of non-work stressors. Perhaps businesses should specifically identify to shareholders the reductions in dividends and profits that the accommodation of work/life balance cause. Shareholders can then decide where to best invest for profit.

The difficulty is that by facing the fact that work/life balance costs (before it ever returns benefits) we are faced with the ruthless greed that most shareholders operate from. Yes, companies exist to make profits but we can’t blame the companies for that as it is the shareholders who provide the companies’ motivations.

Perhaps OHS professionals and practitioners should be trying to explain to shareholders how adequate investment in OHS can have a company and social benefit, as well as controlling workplace hazards. Safety from a moral basis, now there’s a challenge!

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