Health Department bans all employees from smoking at work

Most of the Australian media have reported on a memo to staff of the Australian Department of Health that only allows smoking while on meal breaks.  Health Department employees are not permitted to smoke while undertaking departmental duties or “when representing the department in any capacity”.

Government authorities have long participated in smoking reduction campaigns which have succeeded in minimising smoking.  Workplaces in Australia already have workplace smoking bans.  So what’s caused the memo (a copy which has not been seen by SafetyAtWorkBlog) to be issued?

The principal reason seems to be to improve the “professional reputation of the department”.  It has always been a ridiculous image to see Health Department employees crowding around departmental doorways smoking cigarettes.  Not only can it safely be assumed that the smokers are aware of the health hazards but the department is active in educating the public about the risks.

What the ban is not about is the health of the employees.

Most of the media reports have focussed on the civil liberties of smokers who have the right to choose to kill themselves slowly by smoking cigarettes.  Does the department have a right to enforce a professional image?

One of the commentators on the issue in a media report speaks directly to the OHS context of the ban.  Nick Duggal of TressCox Lawyers is quoted saying:

”I don’t think they can justify it on the health and safety of the individual who is smoking, but they can on other employees in the workplace,” he said. ”Smoking is a private, individual choice which is irrelevant to a person’s employment where it does not affect the health and safety of the workplace.”

Simon Chapman, professor of public health at the University of Sydney, provides his opinion on the civil liberties of smoking at work  in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Cigarette smoking is dangerous to the individual smoker.  The smoke can be dangerous to those who inhale it making environmental tobacco smoke an OHS issue.  It is difficult to see this ban having the result that the Department intended.  What it has achieved, in the short-term, is the opposite effect and shown that the Department of Health has issued an ill-conceived staff directive.

The Department is in an insidious position illustrated above by having staff freely partake in an activity that the Department spends millions lobbying against.

It was hoped that smoking was a generational behaviour that would deteriorate but it persists and so we must accommodate it no matter how offensive we may find it or how costly it is to a company’s productivity.  The Health Department was ill-advised.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

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