Is workplace health and safety still relevant?

A quiet revolution is happening in workplace health and safety in Australia.  I don’t mean the laws – that boat sailed with the failure of the attempt to harmonise laws and tweak them for the new Century.  The change is coming from a realisation that what is still mostly called Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) has been misunderstood and misapplied, especially in the context of work-related psychological hazards.

OHS emerged in its most contemporary form in the 1970s in the UK and manifested in new laws in Australian States in the 1980s.  These laws stipulated that the primary duty of care for the health and safety of workers AND those affected by the work processes suits with the employers (ignore the absurd modern variation of employer in the Work Health and Safety laws – the PCBU – Persons Conducting Business or Undertaking as only lawyers really use the term.  Some prominent lawyers pronounced the acronym as “Peek-A-Boo” (you know who you are) as if OHS was a barely-held-together nightie! It was juvenile and didn’t help).  Workers have a duty to not harm themselves or others and to support the employer’s OHS processes.

For many decades longer than they should OHS regulators, the OHS profession (yes, Australia does have one), industry groups and trade unions focussed on traumatic injuries in the workplace for various reasons.  These were more visible, easier to investigate, easier to campaign round and the laws seemed to support this approach.  But even when the OHS laws were introduced, everyone knew about the occupational hazards of asbestos, dusts such as silica, hazardous chemicals and other substances that caused chronic ill-health and agonising deaths. 

In the 1980s, manual handling came to the fore when many data entry workers, particularly in the Australian Tax Office, became crippled as a result of new technologies. At the time it was known as Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) but became known as Occupational Overuse Syndrome (OOS). Asbestosis, silicosis, chemical exposures, OOS persist decades after these occupational hazards were supposed to be eradicated. 

Over the last 20 years, mental health and wellbeing has been acknowledged as an OHS issue.  These risks have the potential to be far more damaging and to a larger section of society than the traditional hazards because the effects are communicable.  Many in the mental health sector speak of the “ripples” that psychological incidents have to the individual, their work colleagues and their families.  This is particularly noticeable in specific communities – geographically isolated ones like farms and those with a strong internal culture such as the emergency services.

Safe Work Australia and research by other Australian organisations have identified the causes of mental ill-health at work.  Some of these are a restatement of the causes of, what used to be called, “workplace stress” but there are more recent factors such as the design of how we work; the management structures that were promoted, and still are, as “best practice”; the hours that we work (paid and unpaid); and the level of respect and trust that all workers at all levels of the management structure give to others and receive. 

These are established causes of psychological harm, but you wouldn’t know it from the current debates and inquiries in which the harm is fractured into a multitude of, often, incompatible hazards – sexual harassment, workplace bullying, overwork, stress, suicides, occupational violence, customer violence………….  OHS offers a fix for all of these issues, or a least a pathway to solutions, well beyond the yoga and yoghurt wellness programs and the resilience training of often already damaged workers.  It is a fix that has been an OHS duty on employers and workers since, at least, the 1980s – prevent harm by trying to eliminate the risks, a duty that very few apply in the way the law intended or as the community is increasingly expecting.

Sexual Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins is a strong advocate over the need to prevent sexual harassment and the harm it creates to the individual worker.  Former Mental Health Commissioner Alan Fels told a business lunch late last year that the funding of the mental health sector would have a greater beneficial effect if it was reallocated to harm prevention strategies, amongst others, rather than support after damage has been done. “Prevention is better than cure” is a cliché but also a truism, one that the OHS profession supports and is supported by OHS laws.

Fels’ data reminds us that although OHS is seen as contained within employment structures and the factory wall, the harm to workers goes beyond those convenient boundaries and is an important social consideration.  The conversations of OHS being an unreasonable business cost is almost a nonsense as it has been established for many years, and through independent research, that employers bear less than 5% of the costs of injuries and illnesses.  The rest is covered by the worker and the community.  95% of the cost from workplace injuries and illnesses is NOT borne by the employer.

These figures should be kept at the front of mind as Australia’s Productivity Commission starts its inquiry into mental health and Victoria sets up is Royal Commission into mental health.  Any business costs are overshadowed by the social cost. 

And this is where OHS can have its greatest impact.  OHS has the evidence of what causes harm and so can identify what changes are needed to prevent that harm.  The prevention of incidents prevents harm to workers and others, and the absence of incidents means the absence of costs to business, the community and the government.    

Kevin Jones

Categories community, Duty of Care, ethics, government, health, law, mental-health, OHS, psychiatric, psychosocial, safety, Uncategorized

3 thoughts on “Is workplace health and safety still relevant?”

  1. Hi Kevin
    Why do we continue to use the term OHS when the legislation is the Workplace Health and Safety (WHS) Act and Regulations 2011. Haven’t we moved from OHS Act & Regulations to WHS Act and Regulations. I have found that using the term OHS can be confusing within industry particularly within the WHS training sector. Understand it is still used overseas and in Victoria but the Model legislation is WHS. Could it be that old habits are hard to change?
    Would be interested in your comments.

    1. Steve, someone raised this issue a year or so ago. My current take on this is that Occupational Health and Safety is a set of principles on which the laws were built and represents decades of research in Australasia and internationally. WHS is almost entirely an Australian legislative concept and a very recent one. I would like readers to understand that OHS has a life outside of legislation and a long one, but if people say OHS, WHS or “Health and Safety”, I don’t see it as a big issue, as long as people are clear about the topic of conversation. I have grown up with OHS and it is my default terminology. If it causes a problem , please let me know.

      On a side issue, recently I was helping a Victorian client with the new HR software management system that includes a WHS module. WHS or OHS didn’t bother me until I found that the software had NONE of the Victorian Codes of Practice, Guidances or Industry Standards. I found this to be unacceptable and unsuitable for my Victorian client as it, I think, it shows disregard for the compliance needs of their Victorian customers. I don’t mind what the module was called but I was very annoyed at the lack of information directly relevant to my client’s jurisdiction.

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