Over-emphasising the COVID pandemic

Everyone has struggled through the COVID-19 pandemic. Many have died. We have to continue to make many allowances for businesses and people due to the disruption, but some are using the pandemic as an excuse for not doing something. Occupational health and safety (OHS) inactivity is being blamed on COVID-19 in some instances, masking or skewing people’s approach to workplace health and safety more generally.

Jennifer Moss’ recent book on burnout is excellent, but the evidence and case studies she uses to illustrate and support her arguments are often from during the pandemic and limited. Burnout and its structural causes were around a long time before the pandemic, although the pandemic exacerbated the condition.

This is not arguing that COVID-19 should be ignored but nor should its OHS and workplace significance be overstated. For example, a lot of administrative jobs relocated to the home. The city office morphed into the home office, but the work tasks remained the same. Hazards were slightly different because of this relocation, but these were less occupational hazards than social and domestic. Many of these hazards were already known to the workers; the change was more in the length of time working at home. There were hazards and benefits in improved psychological health and productivity for many workers.

It is also important to note that the biggest work disruption was for those with administrative tasks. Government advised that “if you can work from home, then do so”, but most workers are not office workers. In most industries production, manufacturing, transport and more continued. Work continued; the existing hazards did not diminish; only COVID-19 was added.

In some ways, OHS was poorly equipped to address an external airborne hazard, but it scrabbled quickly to react. Unsafe air was always a low risk. It was less of a risk for Australians during intense bushfires several Summers ago. This was the first time they had to deal with inhalable particulates for many workplaces. It generated the wearing of masks at work and discussions on ventilation and air quality. Several months later, the same facemasks were used for a different particulate.

In workplaces where work was predominantly outdoors, COVID-19 presented a minimal risk, and as such, the hazard was more to do with site security than OHS. Entry to worksites was redesigned and tightened to ensure that the company complied with the COVID-19 control measures imposed by themselves and the government. In many workplaces, the existing site access measures, often little more than a labour-hire security guard, were shown to be inadequate but was it the OHS manager’s task to improve this access? I would argue that in most circumstances, site security is unrelated to OHS. Security in multi-storey office blocks was less of an issue because the building would be locked down unless the tenants conducted essential work.

Some regions in Australia had specific lockdowns or travel restrictions, such as occurred in Victoria. Metropolitan Melbourne had a “ring of steel” – no one in, no one out unless you had a pass/exemption. This meant that the OHS experience differed considerably for companies in Melbourne and those in rural and regional areas. OHS policies and procedures needed to accommodate this variation. The management of work-related mental health changed as the influence of external factors had never been higher.

Generalisations are everywhere and are mostly accurate, but COVID-19 has lessened their accuracy and usefulness even more. It is vital that when writing about OHS and looking at safety statistics, the pandemic is acknowledged as an extraordinarily abnormal and, increasingly, a short-term though devastating event; that the COVID perspective is not retroactively applied to an era in which it did not exist. This application risks skewing the priority needed for the most effective control measures.

Kevin Jones

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