The recent employment data for Australia shows record levels of unemployment due, largely, to COVID19. People are out of work and are seeking jobs in areas and occupations with which they are unfamiliar, and we know that new workers are at a high risk of injury. But “safe jobs” has rarely been a government priority.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg held a long press conference after the release of the employment statistics on June 18 2020. Nine times the pair stressed the government’s priority was to get Australians “back into work”. Safe and healthy jobs were never mentioned. One could argue that occupational health and safety (OHS) was not part of the economic discussion on that day (it never is) but there is an equal argument to say that the inclusion of either adjective “safe” and “healthy” could create a cultural change in Australian workplaces, a cost-reduction strategy for Australian businesses and an increased quality of life and improved social cohesion for all Australians.
SafetyAtWorkBlog had the chance to put some questions to Dr Tom Doig in early 2019 prior to the book’s release. Below is that exclusive interview.
SAWB: “Hazelwood” is predominantly a book that describes the social and environmental impacts of the Hazelwood. What, if any, overlap did workplace health and safety (WHS) and WorkSafe Victoria have in the fire’s aftermath?
TD: In the aftermath of the mine fire, a number of WHS issues have come to the fore. Firstly, in the 2014 Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry, a number of criticisms were made of Hazelwood’s regulatory framework, with a suggestion that there was a ‘regulatory gap’, as expressed by Mr Leonard Neist, Executive Director of the Health and Safety Unit at the Victorian Workcover Authority (VWA), at that time:
‘If I identify that gap as, who is responsible for regulating for the protection of public safety, regardless of what the source of the hazard or the risk is, who’s responsible for public safety, that’s where the gap probably is and I can’t—if you were to ask me right now, I can’t tell you who is responsible for regulating public safety. I’m responsible for regulating workplace safety and responsible for public safety as a result of the conduct of that undertaking, but I couldn’t tell you who is directly responsible.’
In this case, while VWA focuses on the health and safety of mine employees, they aren’t explicitly concerned with the health and safety of the general public, if a hazard – like a 45-day plume of toxic smoke – is dispersed beyond a specific workplace.
On May 19, 2020, WorkSafe Victoria conducted an interactive webinar on Workplace Manslaughter laws due to be in place from July 1, 2020. The webinar was very good for those who are coming to the issue anew as the level of interaction was excellent. But the webinar also broadened beyond its topic, which was disappointing. At 90 minutes the event was too long, but revised versions of this consultation with the community should be scheduled regularly, even when physical distancing rules end.
Australia’s National COVID-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC) has released what it calls a toolkit for assessing COVID19 risks for businesses that are reopening soon. It is a useful checklist/template that the NCCC anticipates will take around 30 minutes to complete. What legal standing it may have is unclear as OHS in most Australian workplaces is regulated at State and Territory levels, but the Prime Minister says we need COVID Safe Plans and here’s a checklist to support it.
Business owners should understand that any checklist is only ever a tool to aid them to make an informed decision. It is not a compliance tick. Sadly, the COVIDSafe Plan template fails to answer its first question:
“Why is it important to have a COVIDSafe Plan?”
The answer should have been something like
“….all Australian business owners are obliged by law to provide workplace that are free of health and safety risks, including viral infections, like COVID19. This plan will help you fulfill your obligation which will also reduce the transmission of COVID19 and could save lives.”
The legal and moral reason for this checklist should have been upfront to emphasise the primacy of occupational health and safety (OHS) in helping control a public health risk.
On the afternoon of May 8 2020 the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, and Chief Medical Officer, Brendan Murphy, revealed the decisions of the National Cabinet. This is a national plan developed with the agreement of State Premiers and Chief Ministers who will be largely responsible for how this plan is implemented in their local jurisdictions. Many of the occupational health and safety (OHS) challenges have been anticipated by business owners as discussed in this morning’s blog article but it is worth looking at the infographics of the plan revealed by Morrison and Murphy but also the transcript of the press conference as that provides an important context to what the government expects to happen.
The government released two infographics, one was four pages of the broad plan, the other is that plan split into industry sectors.