Why have Australian workplaces become safer?

The number of work-related fatalities in Australia is declining. Plenty are claiming credit for this, but no one knows for sure which prevention strategies have been successful over the last twenty-odd years and/or to what degree. Australia’s recent Intergenerational Report may offer some clues to the reasons for this decline in traumatic workplace deaths and a way forward. This article dips into the 200-page report.

The report’s section on “the future of work” says this:

“Alongside demographic changes and increases in female workforce participation, the occupational structure of the Australian labour force has also undergone radical changes. Compared with 50 years ago, the number of people working has more than doubled. However, today’s workforce is comprised of a very different mix of jobs.
In 1966, machinery operators and drivers comprised around 11 per cent of the labour force and technicians and tradespersons around 21 per cent. Today they have almost halved to around 6 and 14 per cent of the labour force respectively. Meanwhile, professionals have doubled as a share of the workforce while community and personal service workers have nearly tripled.”

page 43

Machine operation has declined markedly, and these were high-risk jobs. Other high-risk jobs such as construction and manufacturing, and warehousing have also experienced a reduction in risk due to automation and increased technology. For instance, construction sites rarely include ladders now, and if they do, the ladders are hooked, secured or pinned. Manufacturing has been automated (if not off-shored), and ventilation standards have improved markedly.

The white-collar administrative and professional jobs have doubled, so it is little wonder that the rate of work-related psychological incidents has increased. Offices continue to be low-risk environments for traumatic injuries. Still, they are increasingly recognised as workplaces of high risk for psychosocial harms from fatigue, long hours and sexual and non-sexual harassment.

Neither of these socio-economic changes has been created by occupational health and safety (OHS), which has often helped support productivity initiatives. OHS is frequently mentioned in business decisions as an additional consideration, used to sweeten the argument for purchasing a new machine. Still, it is rarely, if ever, the primary reason for purchasing that new machine. For instance, in many cases, machine guarding remains a nice-to-have rather than a must-have. How many farmers would have upgraded their quad bikes or used crush protection devices if government rebates were not offered?

Critical to the Intergenerational Report is Productivity. As mentioned in this blog in the past, many who have complained about declining productivity have been talking about multi-factorial productivity. Labour productivity has not been declining over the long term and this report acknowledges that fact:

“The projections assume that long-run labour productivity growth converges to 1.5 per cent per year – consistent with the average growth rate in labour productivity over the 30 years to 2018-19. Achieving this will require an improvement over recent performance. Government policies and institutional settings can play an important role in lifting productivity and ensuring individuals and businesses take full advantage of new innovations and technologies.”

Page 1

In the past, workers would be urged/nudged/coerced to work harder and longer. Then employers realised that might not be safe, so the initiative turned to “work smarter, not harder”. Even then, it never made sense because of the institutional barriers to working smarter. The quote above illustrates the current conservative government’s preference for “innovations and technologies” rather than institutional and structural change. (This preference extends to its “strategy” on global warming.) Yet, it is becoming clear that sustainable improvement is most effective by addressing the source of the potential harm, which is usually institutional structures and processes.

It is worth at this point reminded ourselves of the most commonly proposed definition of Safety Culture – “the way we do things around here“. This has been interpreted as a progressive statement, but it implies motion in neither direction. The definition supports both action and inaction. It just is, which is contrary to the expectations of OHS laws that rely on continuous improvement to address harms and the sources of those harms – OHS requires action and progress and forward momentum. “The way we do things around here” could be interpreted as an endorsement of a disinterested, dysfunctional or toxic workplace culture that supports institutional structures, processes and biases. “Innovations and technologies” can be used to steal Carlo Caponecchia’s analogy to ice a despicable cake.

The productivity of working from home is yet to be clarified, and the Intergenerational Report makes no call on this context of Productivity, but it does discuss the flexibility.

“A focus for recent policy reform has been child care availability and affordability, and reducing high workforce disincentives for second income earners. Policy settings, workplaces and society have come some way in supporting more flexible and family-friendly work arrangements. The COVID-19 pandemic has also significantly disrupted the balance between work and home life, while potentially accelerating trends towards more flexible work.”

pages 40-41

The mental health benefits, or harms, of this move to flexible work, are still being worked out and probably will be only after psychological harm has occurred.

Most OHS professionals and advocates accept that the effective prevention of harm in workplaces requires a multi-disciplinary approach. It is essential to look at the immediate cause of an incident and the factors that may have influenced the decisions preceding the incident. Rarely do we look at the role of legislation, or the application of legislative duties, in contributing to incidents. Legislation has only two purposes – setting rules and enforcing those rules – but is the legislation supporting these aims as it can be? Do the OHS laws match the changing work circumstances? Is it still fit-for-purpose?

Equally, OHS investigations rarely consider the socioeconomic context in which businesses operate and the safety-related decisions made. Probably because this has always seen as too big to affect; however, these factors can be relevant in understanding the decisions of company directors and executives. They may be contributory factors of contributory factors, but the socioeconomic factors should not be ignored. That is where the 2021 Intergenerational Report fits in the OHS agenda.

Some of the other factors identified in the Intergenerational Report (page viii) that will affect how OHS is managed in the future include:

  • Slower population growth
  • Migrants are expected to continue to be the largest source of population growth
  • Ageing will reduce labour force participation

“Occupational structures” are mentioned in the first quote above so jobs, occupations and professions are on the government’s agenda, although maybe on the far fringes, OHS has often inhabited that same area. The report says, elsewhere:

“Technological developments, the continued shift towards a service-based economy, and broader changes in the occupational structure of the Australian workforce have the potential to support participation into the future.”

page 33

Occupational health and safety musty be ready for those “broader changes” and “the future of work”, for it is these elements that will change how OHS is applied and, maybe, legislated.

Kevin Jones

Categories accountability, culture, death, economics, evidence, government, health, OHS, Uncategorized

2 thoughts on “Why have Australian workplaces become safer?”

  1. There have been some improvements under the national OHS Strategy but occupational disease ,which exceeds traumatic injury, is not reflected in compensation data

    1. Part of the challenge is that OHS is measured, primarily, by workers compensation data even when it has been established that this is a flawed measure of injury and illness. I know Safe Work Australia is working on improving their data sources. This is not before time and I can’t help thinking that a retrospective analysis of existing “historical” data ie to 1985 could be undertaken which would provide a more accurate of past performance. Yes, that type of analysis may be embarrassing for some who have made organisational success claims in the past but it would offer a more fluid context to future data sets.

      There will be gaps and variations in this old data but the remaining data would still be useful and maybe clarify how to avoid these gaps in the future.

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