Why bother with the Federal Government on OHS matters?

Australian political debate has a recurring thread of State and Federal responsibility. Currently, this debate focuses on the emergency response for floods in Queensland and New South Wales. Before this was the COVID response and the Black Summer bushfires. This argument over responsibility has trickled along for many years, for Constitutional and other reasons, including occupational health and safety (OHS).

Some years ago, all the Australian governments had a stab at resolving the split without reforming the Constitution through the OHS harmonisation strategy. It tweaked the system without Constitutional reform, but OHS will remain primarily a State and Territory matter (except for Comcare). This allows Prime Minister Scott Morrison to make bold statements (and some not-so-bold) about national problems like sexual harassment in Australian workplaces or worker exploitation in agriculture, understanding that the local jurisdictions are the ones who need to fix and police the problems.

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Notifiable psych injuries may be what’s needed

Recently the Victorian Government proposed six-monthly reports on psychologically hazardous incidents from employers to the OHS regulator, WorkSafe. The aim is to improve the pool of data available to the government in order to tailor harm prevention and reduction initiatives and a red tape campaign from employers is expected. These incident summaries are not the same as reporting a Notifiable Incident to WorkSafe but the notifiable incidents categories are overdue for a review and, maybe, an expansion.

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Is work health and safety “woke”?

Occupational health and safety (OHS) has always been progressive in that its purpose is to prevent harm to workers and people. It has lost its way sometimes and its effectiveness diluted at other times, but its core purpose has remained. At the moment, there is an ideological, political and cultural resistance to progressive structures and ideas that is often criticised as being “woke”. Woke has an evolving meaning, but it seems to mean well-intended but ineffective.

Recently Australian academic Carl Rhodes examined “woke capitalism” in a new book. Refreshingly Rhodes provides an analysis of woke capitalism rather than a rabid critique. OHS is not the focus of this book (when is it ever?), but his research and perspectives are relevant to how OHS is practiced and the level of influence we believe it deserves.

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A mouse that is trying to roar

Robert Gottliebsen continues to support the campaign led by Self-Employed Australia’s Ken Phillips, to have senior members of the Victorian government prosecuted for breaches of the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act. However, his arguments are becoming weaker.

On February 13 2022, in his column in The Australian (paywalled), Gottliebsen made big claims for Phillips’ legal action, which is being crowdfunded and advised by anonymous (but “some of Australia’s top OHS”) lawyers. He concluded his latest article saying:

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Speaking truth to power

Last week two young women, Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins, made speeches at the National Press Club about the sexual abuse of minors and an alleged sexual assault in Parl ment House, respectively, and the social changes required to prevent both risks. Both spoke about the need to prevent these abuses and assaults. OHS needs to understand and, in some ways, confront what is meant by preventing harm. The words of Tame and Higgins help with that need.

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Trade Unions, Cost, Exploitation and Responsibilisation

Trade unions have been the longest and strongest advocates on occupational health and safety (OHS) in Australia. Still, their political influence is falling slower than its declining membership due to structural legacies, of which the tripartite OHS consultation is one. The trade union strategy for OHS was to monetise it so that changes in OHS could be the catalyst for or on which it can piggyback industrial relations (IR) reform. A recent review of the work of Professor Michael Quinlan and a video from United States economist and author Robert Reich illustrates elements of this process.

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Achievements and opportunities

In November 2022, Victoria has its State Election. The current Government of the Australian Labor Party has a solid parliamentary presence and is tipped to win another term of government. Although the 2022 Platform is yet to be released, it is worth looking at the 2018 policy document for what was promised and has been achieved in occupational health and safety (OHS) since then and speculating on what is left to do or announce in 2022.

The opposition Liberal Party of Victoria does not release policy documents but does include a list of its “beliefs”.

Below is a list of what Labor “will” do from the OHS chapter of its 2018 platform document:

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