Nobody hates ‘”reasonably practicable” – we tolerate it

Do unions want employers to hold an absolute duty of care for work health and safety? Do unions hate the concept “as far as is reasonably practicable”?

The last Australian jurisdiction to hold employers to an absolute duty of care was New South Wales. That position was eroded by the harmonisation process and NSW OHS laws moving to the Work Health and Safety regime. An absolute duty of care, in the SafetyAtWorkBlog dictionary, is that the employer is responsible for any injuries occurring at work.

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It’s all about the context

Occupational health and safety (OHS) should prevent any of its conference speakers from ever using the image of an iceberg or a triangle to illustrate managerial theories. The images are valid but have been done to death in conferences over the last decade.

I came to this position when recently reading a very short article on Systems Thinking by Veronica Hotton in Dumbo Feather magazine. Hotton used the iceberg as a visual metaphor for what can be seen and what is less visible but equally influential and much larger than the visible top.

Her article is a very good, succinct explanation of systems thinking for the general reader, but I was less interested in the iceberg and more in the ocean.

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Talking about safety without saying much

The Australian Federal Budget is to be released very soon. As in every year, corporate and industry lobbyists release wishlist budget submissions even though there is no formal submission process. Sometimes these submissions include information, statements and pitches concerning occupational health and safety (OHS). The Master Builders Australia’s prebudget submission has been around since early January 2022 and the OHS chapter is educative on how the Master Builders Australia (MBA), and perhaps similar organisations, sees and understands OHS.

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We need a revolution in how we think about working hours

If there was only one way available to improve the health and safety of workers in Australia, it would be to limit and enforce working hours to those in the official Awards and job descriptions.

This situation which would really be simply a case of working-to-rule, would need to be supported by other not unreasonable changes, in no particular order:

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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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HR and OHS remain “nice-to-haves.”

The recent HR/OHS article was an article originally intended to link to International Women’s Day regarding “female” business roles and influence. Coincidentally my social media feeds popped up a 2015 article from the Harvard Business Review entitled “Why We Love to Hate HR…and What HR Can Do About It“.

The author, Peter Capelli, reminds us that in the 19950s and 1960s Personnel Management was considered “the most glamourous area in business by executives” as it was considered integral to developing the business. Human Resources changed when an increasing number of managers were appointed from outside the organisation and the “full employment” of the 1970s reduced the perceived need for powerful HR departments. The HR role was reduced to essential services of hiring and retention.

Capelli suggested two strategies to regain influence, which are equally relevant to the occupational health and safety (OHS) professional:

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“Insecure work is absolutely toxic”

The Victorian Government is trialling the provision of five days of sick, and carers’ leave for casual workers.  This was announced jointly by the Premier Daniel Andrews and the Minister for Workplace Safety, Ingrid Stitt on the Labour Day public holiday, indicating that this is a big reform and one directly related to occupational health and safety (OHS).  But the OHS arguments are not at the fore, regardless of the quote from the Premier that is the headline above.

The OHS context of precarious work has been articulated clearly and over many years by many Australian researchers. The lack of serious action by employers to address the structural causes of physical and psychological risks related to precarity offers a good indication of the values and priorities of business owners and employers. 

Into this void, the Victorian Government has stepped.  Sadly, it is a mini-step that offers more political benefits than tangible change, especially in an election year.

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