Can OHS achieve change in a neoliberal world?

The operation of the European Union is a mystery to everyone outside the EU and to most people in the EU.  Any organisation that juggles the legislation of over 20 countries has a thankless task but some of the work being undertaken by occupational health and safety (OHS) advocates provides a clarity on power relationships between employers and workers. I never tire of reading articles and editorials by Laurent Vogel of the European Trade Union Institute. Below is an excerpt from his editorial in the Autumn-Winter 2015 edition of HesaMag:

“At times of crisis, social action is harder to organise in offensive areas such as the quality of working conditions. However, these obstacles are not insurmountable. The authority of employers is losing its legitimacy. Both the economic crisis and the environmental crisis have shown that neoliberal policies lead to impasses. The dizzying rise in inequality is challenging the productivity-based illusion that, sooner or later, the increased wealth produced will be redistributed and ultimately benefit the entire population.

The same loss of legitimacy is evident in the daily life of businesses. The neoliberal reorganisation of work is harmful to health, and is also ineffective in terms of the quality of work. The search for instant profits that are as high as possible is an intrinsic part of the new management methods. Focused on quantitative indicators, management is becoming increasingly distant from the actual work carried out. The aim of these management methods is to individualise in the extreme an activity that, in its very essence, requires collective cooperation. Throughout Europe, the emergence of damage caused by psychosocial risks is evidence of this crisis.”

The whole editorial deserves to be read even though the machinations of the Barroso Commission require a lot more background than the editorial offers.

Vogel has written from an anti-neoliberal position that is common in the modern trade union movement but neoliberalism is hard to understand unless one has a strong interest in social studies, economics or political sciences.  Yet it is important for OHS professionals to have a basic familiarity with neoliberalism so that the power relationships and OHS rationalisations of business owners, employers and some politicians are better contextualised.

That the “authority of employers is losing its legitimacy” is debatable.  The authority of employers is amazingly adaptable and new pathways of influence, or the re-branding of established and discredited pathways, are being created all the time in line with the current political and economic climate.

The effects of the global financial crisis (GFC) has raised questions about the legitimacy of some corporate decisions but the corporations are so ingrained in the economic structure that it only needs one company “to take one for the team” to diffuse the outrage.  This sort of lip-service is common in workplace safety where businesses are looking for a reason or excuse to make an embarrassing incident or fatality to go away so that the real purpose of business – profits and shareholder returns – can continue.  OHS professionals may successfully argue that incidents have occurred due to organisational factors but few put their jobs on the line for this, and that sort of commitment is what is sometimes required.

The attention given to individual, worker accountability for workplace incidents is often used as a distraction to the organisational changes required to eliminate risks at the source.  This usually unconscious tactic and example of groupthink is an OHS manifestation of neoliberalism.

Vogel states that neoliberal reorganisation of work is unhealthy and unsafe.  The neoliberal ideology is behind the current discussions and research areas in Australia concerning work/life balance, job quality, job design and workplace flexibility as well as evident in some pf the political and business responses to recent media scandals regarding the exploitation of migrant, and regular workers, in already low-paid jobs. Australia has a proud tradition of establishing social baselines in social security, wages and employment conditions yet those operating within the neoliberal morality do not see these achievements as applying to them.

Vogel could have been referring directly to the lot of the OHS professional when he wrote:

“Focused on quantitative indicators, management is becoming increasingly distant from the actual work carried out.”

Safety professionals frequently complain about being “stuck in the office” or “drowning in paperwork” all which is supporting the quantitative indicators that managers and clients demand.  Occupational health and safety is about reducing harm and too many OHS professionals are divorced from the worksite which transforms OHS from the management of safety to the management of liability.

A core element of OHS management is the requirement to consult.  The need to talk about safety, to tell stories, to provide educated opinions, to share wisdom, are all elements of consultation which Vogel refers to as the “collective cooperation”.  Vogel sees the individualisation of safety as an indication of neoliberalism and it is difficult to argue against this when one considers the contributory factors that support the behaviouralist-based approaches to safety that have been advocated over the last twenty years.

Vogel’s point about psychosocial risks is worth noting when one considers the increased attention to workplace mental health and wellbeing.  The neoliberal focus on the individual in the application of corporate wellness programs may be a response to hazards that have resulted from neoliberal programs.

Neoliberalism and Vogel’s brief discussion in his editorial goes some way to explaining the frustration that safety advocates and trade union activists feel and that seems to contribute to the fatalism and cynicism that seems to affect so many OHS professionals.  It is unlikely that OHS’s roots in social justice can bring down an economic and political system based on neoliberalism but it can bring some humanity into workplace relations, government policies and, perhaps, organisational culture.

We can only hope.

Kevin Jones

3 thoughts on “Can OHS achieve change in a neoliberal world?”

  1. Interesting article Kevin. Neo this and Neo that certainly play a large part in European political demographics and hopefully we won’t see so much of that in Australia as we did in decades past, although we saw it more as far right and far left with extremes in some of the early change business practices and extremely militant union tactics.

    I have a feeling that most Australians are a little savvier and quick to reject the ideals from far right or left. Nonetheless showing a bit more “humanity” in the workplace can go a long way and does rub off. Many of us know that humanity as empathising with others and yes it is sadly lacking in many parts of our culture and definitely in organisations, but it is always amazing and gratifying on responses when you go even just a little bit of the extra mile to help, assist, resolve issues and in reality for those who do this consistently without looking for additional reward, they can become linchpins of change within an organisation and also become “go to” people for others as well as being bouncing boards for change ideas and improvements.

    The challenge is for organisations to really value such people and ensure that what they do is encouraged and developed within others as well, lest those who are already involved and acting on such things become discouraged and leave. Such leaving does leave a significant gap in an organisation and the gaps are not always readily filled as too many see it as hard work or outside the scope of their role. Hope springs eternal!!

    1. Thanks Richard, and do consider signing up for Laurent’s HesaMag. They send hard copies to Australia which even IOSH doesn’t do anymore. The back catalogue is very good too so I am glad it’s online.

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