The decline of trade union influence in Australia, as membership remains low, has the sad effect of also seeing a reduced voice for some core elements of occupational health and safety (OHS) such as the importance and prominence of the “safe system of work”, the myth of the “careless worker” and the insidious hazard of impairment. These OHS issues remain significant and demand attention but who will be the new voice of workplace safety?
Impairment is a collective term that many trade unionists use for workplace hazards such as fatigue, drug use, alcohol use and other psychosocial hazards, such as stress. Impairment is a useful term as it relates to the worker’s fitness for work and the level of attentiveness that the employer expects as part of the employment contract. It also ties into the issue of labour productivity as an impaired worker, regardless of the cause of the impairment, is unlikely to be working as hard or as effectively, or productively, as the employer expects.
The downside is that using a collective term makes it more difficult to focus on specific interventions. Drug and alcohol use can be combated by a combination of preventive education and enforcement through testing but such strategies cannot be applied to fatigue or stress although both these elements may be contributory factors to drug and alcohol use. Stress and fatigue are more effectively reduced by job redesign and a reassessment of the organisational structure and morality, in other words, the establishment of a “safe system of work” as required by both the OHS and Work Health and Safety (WHS) laws.
Impairment may have some connotations of disability but its attraction is that it is a neutral term for describing something, or someone, that is not working as intended due to an external factor. It is a good descriptor but a poor term from which to base anything more than general action.
Safe System of Work
The “safe system of work” has been a term whose definition never seemed to have stabilised in Australia’s legislation. This is partly because it has been treated similar to a workplace culture, something that is thought to exist but never really understood.