The hill that OHS needs to climb for respectability remains a mountain

The current Australian debate about sexual harassment at work illustrates the forces ranged against occupational health and safety (OHS) being seen as a legitimate approach to preventing psychological harm. Entrenched Industrial Relations perspectives appear to be the biggest barrier. Such barriers are not always intentional and have evolved over years and decades as cultures and ideologies do. Some of the recent media coverage on the release of the Federal Government’s response to the report of the 2020 National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces illustrates the dominance of industrial relations thinking – part of the reason Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins has described elements of the government’s response as a missed opportunity.

The OHS profession must start to overtly tackle each of these dominant perspectives.

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A closer look at the positive duty to prevent sexual harassment

The big occupational health and safety (OHS) news in Australia has been the release of the federal government’s response to the Respect@Work report on sexual harassment in Australian workplaces. And the biggest issue in that response seems to be the government’s lack of enthusiasm for a major recommendation of Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, the inclusion of a positive duty in the sexual discrimination legislation. Many lawyers have been asked for their opinions on the government’s response, but very few OHS professionals.

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OHS is “… more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”

Occupational health and safety (OHS) may not be a common subject in the mainstream media but there is plenty of political discussion on the topic in Australia’s Parliament.

The current (conservative) federal government seems very slow to accept and respond to recommendations from official inquiries that it sees as a secondary political priority, such as sexual harassment and workplace health and safety. The hearings of the Senate’s Education and Employment Legislation Committee on March 24 2021, were, as usual, enlightening.

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Playing the man and not the hazard

People like Ken Phillips continue to pursue Premier Daniel Andrews and others for alleged breaches of occupational health and safety (OHS) laws over COVID19-related deaths stemming from failures in Victoria’s hotel quarantine program. On March 17 2021, the pressure to hold the Premier to account increased in the Victorian Parliament, largely under the guise of OHS duties.

On March 17, 2021, the following motion was put to the Legislative Council by the Liberal Party’s Shadow Attorney General, Edward O’Donoghue:

“… that this House calls on the Minister for Workplace Safety, the Hon Ingrid Stitt MLC, to exercise her power, confirmed in section 7(1)(a) of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004, to direct WorkSafe Victoria to —
(1) conduct an urgent investigation into all occupational health and safety risks and corresponding responsibilities for duty holders within the Hotel Quarantine Program managed by COVID-19 Quarantine Victoria and its predecessors with responsibility for hotel quarantine;
(2) ensure the report includes details of the health and safety risks and corresponding responsibilities for duty holders;
(3) complete the inquiry and present a Report to the Minister for Workplace Safety by 31 May 2021; and
(4) cause the Report to be tabled in the Council on the next sitting day after it has been received from WorkSafe Victoria.”

Hansard, pages 23-24
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Selective duty of care being applied by the Australian Government – from the archive

Yesterday’s article on Comcare’s recent charging of two organisation over workplace-related harm to others generated so much interest that I have (re)published an article from 2016 that analysed an earlier, similar issue. Please also read the comments below and consider adding your own.

Australia’s work health and safety (WHS) laws confirmed the modern approach to workplace safety legislation and compliance where workers and businesses are responsible for their own safety and the safety of others who may be affected by the work.  The obligations to others existed before the latest WHS law reforms, but it was not widely enforced.  The Grocon wall collapse in Victoria and the redefinition of a workplace in many Australian jurisdictions through the OHS harmonisation program gave the obligation more prominence but has also caused very uncomfortable challenges for the Australian government – challenges that affect how occupational health and safety is applied in Australian jurisdictions.

Continue reading “Selective duty of care being applied by the Australian Government – from the archive”

The duty of care to “others”

In 2019 a man took his own life while being detained in the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre. At the time media reports said that the death was being referred to the appropriate authorities and the New South Wales Coroner.

On March 10, 2021, Comcare charged:

“The Department of Home Affairs and its healthcare provider (IHMS) ……with breaching Commonwealth work health and safety laws over the death of a man in immigration detention.”

Such an action against a government department under occupational health and safety (OHS) was always possible, as SafetyAtWorkBlog and others discussed in 2016.

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Now there is too much mental health information, and it’s like toothpaste

Australia is experiencing a boom in occupational health and safety (OHS) information about work-related psychological harm, including sexual harassment at work. This level of information is long overdue, but a consequence of this “boom” is that employers can be very confused about which information to use and which source they should trust or even what relates to their specific circumstances, especially after years of denying there is a problem.

Putting on my consultant hat, I would advise any State-based organisation to comply with the OHS guidances issued by that State’s OHS regulator. If a national company, look towards the guidance of Comcare or Safe Work Australia for the national perspective. The challenge is greater for companies that operate in multiple States, but these have been rumoured to be less than 10% of Australian businesses. If multi-State, they should be big enough to have the resources for OHS compliance.

However, some State-based mental initiatives have evolved into a national platform.

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