Few would argue against the need for occupational health and safety (OHS) regulation for high-risk work but many are arguing against OHS laws on the basis of low-risk workplaces. It seems logical that low risk work should not require laws but perhaps the traditional definition of OHS and risk is colouring our judgement. Perhaps some are making these arguments because they are afraid to change. Perhaps some of these leaders are, in fact, cowards.
There is discussion in New Zealand currently about exempting small “low-risk” businesses from some OHS obligations in the name of “red tape” but also on the understanding that small business seems to equal low risk. (Similar discussions, or changes, have occurred in the UK, Australia and the US) Opponents are pointing to the farming sector as an example of a small business that is also high-risk but, in New Zealand in particular, the agricultural sector is politically influential and the red-tape argument seems to be winning against the risk issue.
But these discussions remain linked to the traditional mindset that safety risks are primarily traumatic physical injuries. There is an increased acceptance that psychosocial risks at work can be as harmful (costly?) as physical injuries albeit in a different form. This position has led to the perception that mental health risks are increasing but the accurate measurements required to substantiate this perception are only just beginning as people argue over definitions and jurisdictions. However there is no doubt that psychosocial risks now must be considered in any OHS management system.
So are low-risk workplaces low risk?
So are low-risk workplaces low risk? Yes, if we only consider physical risks but no, if we broaden our definition of risk and hazard to include psychosocial issues. (Perhaps the question should be “are low-risk workplaces low harm?”) OHS and Work Health and Safety (WHS) laws increasingly require us to use the latter definition so that companies comply.
The advocates of red-tape/low-risk exemptions understand this change in approach and seem to have been frightened by the apparent magnitude of the task. They have realised that to achieve OHS/WHS compliance they will need to change the way they do business and the way they treat their workers and this is scary.
This fear has generated calls to change the rules, to make it easier to comply. The sad part of all of this is that the fearful response is happening at the same time that there are calls for greater OHS leadership. Surely the best leadership results from facing these fears and conquering them.
The Dominion Post’s editorial of August 8 2015, summarises the political challenges over this issue well, challenges that other governments will also need to face:
“The Government can declare that agriculture is not high risk and so free its political mates from that bothersome stuff about work safety representatives. Or it can do the rational thing, declare agriculture high risk – and face a backlash. That decision will show how much National really cares about work safety.”
Behind this political challenge is a discussion about the fundamental elements of workplace safety. These include –
- our moral obligations to others, particularly those who work for us;
- our preparedness to accept less profit but to have safer workers; and
- our capacity to accept mistakes or failures and to learn from them.
Workplace safety is often only as hard as it is allowed to be. The inability to change shown by some business leaders is complicating the OHS task.
One website lists the following words as antonyms for Leadership:
Perhaps we should add cowardice.