COVID vaccination concerns exist in workplaces too

Recently NSCA Foundation conducted an online seminar on mandatory vaccinations. As happens with many online seminars, this one became more of a lecture because there was insufficient time allocated to answer the questions from the audience. The online seminar was in three sections – Occupational Health and Safety (OHS), Industrial Relations (IR) and Privacy. The information from Sparke Helmore lawyers was fine and current, but the questions from the audience provide an interesting insight on some of the main COVID vaccine challenges facing employers.

The seminar started with a useful poll. Below are the questions and results:

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“as far as politically practicable”

Last week WorkSafe Victoria announced that it was prosecuting the Department of Health over breaches of its occupational health and safety (OHS) duties with the management of Victoria’s Hotel Quarantine program. There is very little information available beyond what is included in the WorkSafe media release until the filing hearing at the Magistrates’ Court on October 22 2021.

Most of the current commentary adds little and usually builds on the existing campaigns to charge (Labor) Premier Dan Andrews with Industrial Manslaughter. Still, it is worth looking at WorkSafe’s media release and the thoughts of some others.

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Angry workers demanding access? OHS has got this – sort of

The reopening of workplaces in some Australian States is causing alarm over potential violence and abuse from those who do not meet or choose not to meet the new COVID-19 access requirements. This is perhaps most succinctly put in a recent article in The Guardian (paywalled) asking “… who will enforce rules for unvaccinated customers” – a question with which many employers are struggling.

The article discussed the expectations of employers about the rules or public health orders that they are expected to enforce but also about who can they call on if there is trouble, given there are mixed messages from the New South Wales government, in particular. (If “unprecedented” was the most used word in 2020, “mixed messages” may be the 2021 equivalent)

The enforcement question is being faced by all workplaces in all States that need to reopen under COVID-19 restrictions.

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SDG trumps ESG

Environmental Social Governance (ESG) initiatives are receiving a shellacking at the moment, with many of the same arguments raised against ESG’s related concept several years ago, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Part of the reason these concepts are vulnerable to this criticism is that they originate from traditional managerial thinking. The local role of occupational health and safety (OHS) is all but ignored in the ESG discussion, and yet it could add some much-needed clout.

Governance consultancy, Diligent, has released a well-intentioned whitepaper that illustrates the point.

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Guidance can help but change needs a challenge

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) has released a guide for employers on managing sexual harassment in workplaces. It contains a lot of helpful information, but it also illustrates the self-imposed limits that business has on preventing workplace psychological hazards. To a lesser extent, it is downplaying the preventative role of occupational health and safety (OHS).

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Look at the verbs to identify leadership and commitment

On September 16 2021, the Prime Minister of Australia, Scott Morrison, said:

“The first major initiative of AUKUS will be to deliver a nuclear-powered submarine fleet for Australia. Over the next eighteen months we will work together to seek to determine the best way forward to achieve this…”

The second line of this quote includes a specific timeline but less specific commitments – a combination of words that reflects much of the corporate-speak that is often used with occupational health and safety (OHS) duties and other pledges and obligations.

Morrison gives a deadline against which progress will be measured. He commits to working with the United Kingdom and the United States to meet this deadline. But then, he says they will “seek to determine” – they are not sure what they are doing, but they will look for it. And “the best way forward” for whom? And to what ends? We hope it will be to building a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, the current context.

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Avoiding COVID-19 distractions is essential

Recently Australian law firm Herbert Smith Freehills conducted a webinar on mandatory vaccinations. (2,000 attendees = hot topic) This workplace issue is moving quickly in each Australian jurisdiction and almost every day. There was some helpful advice in this seminar that was, thankfully, not reliant on case law and the avoidance of occupational health and safety (OHS) liability. Below is a discussion of some of the self-analysis and risk assessment that all employers should undertake to manage their workforce through COVID-19.

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