A respect at work council is not enough

Australian discussions about workplace bullying and sexual harassment at the moment is in a mess indicating that insufficient work has been spent on clarifying what these terms mean, how the consequences are managed and whether the harm can be prevented.

In Parliamentary debate on the 2020 Budget, the Liberal Party’s Sussan Ley, said:

“The Morrison government will establish a respect at work council to provide practical support to employers and employees to prevent and address sexual harassment in Australian workplaces. We know it’s a barrier to women’s workforce participation, particularly for women working in male-dominated fields, and the government is committed to eradicating it from Australian workplaces.”

page 100, Hansard

Respect and countering incivility are important in building a workplace culture that is equitable and safe. However a discussion on sexual harassment of women by a Federal Government Minister in November 2020 rings hollow when the government has still to respond to a world-leading inquiry into sexual harassment in workplaces handed to them early this year.

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What the judge said about Dreamworld, other than the penalty

Some readers raised eyebrows on the article titled “No lessons in the Dreamworld penalty” but the point was that the occupational health and safety (OHS) due diligence and governance lessons were there months ago following the Coroner’s damning findings.

Most of the media’s attention has been on the record size of the financial penalty but looking at Judge Dowse’s decision in the case provides a better understanding of that penalty, the breaches of the safety legislation and the opinions of the judge.

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A return to the Forgotten Royal Commission

Ministerial accountability. Occupational health and safety (OHS). Leadership. Industrial Manslaughter. These issues have existed in various combinations in various jurisdictions and discussed by many people. At the moment in Australia, this combination has in relation to COVID19 but some of the discussion contains tenuous links and some is masking long held political agendas. Much of it harks back to arguments put to the Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program.

The latest combination came to my attention from an August 19 article in The Australian newspaper (paywalled) written by business journalist Robert Gottliebsen.

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Liability, COVID19, Manslaughter and Working from Home – Welcome to the new OHS

Last week WorkSafe Victoria followed some of the other Australian States by requiring employers to report positive COVID19 cases as “notifiable incidents”. (If they can do this fro COVID19, shouldn’t it be possible to do the same for mental health disorders?) Expanding the pool of notifiable incidents is of little practical consequence but it is indicative of how occupational health and safety (OHS) management is changing, and how Industrial Manslaughter is becoming a pervasive threat.

Managing Liability

In the Australian Financial Review (AFR) on August 4 2020, employer liability for COVID19 incidents was discussed. Liberty Sanger of union-associated law firm, Maurice Blackburn, spoke of the importance of genomic testing to better identify the origin of the infection, ie. was it caught at work or at home.

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We’ve got Industrial Manslaughter laws, now what?

So, Victoria now has Industrial Manslaughter laws. Now what? Within days of the activation of these laws a worker died at the Thales worksite in Bendigo. This location is covered by the Federal Work Health and Safety laws, but this has not stopped social media from mentioning Industrial Manslaughter. It seems now that every work-related death will be assessed through the IM lens. It may be that the threat of jail should always have been the starting point for occupational health and safety (OHS) penalties and investigations but initial responses to the IM laws have been mixed, and some seem to be more interested in what, in the past, has been a sideline to the IM discussion – deaths, in work vehicles, suicides and industrial illness.

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To understand Industrial Manslaughter, look at the politics

On May 20, 2020 Industrial Manslaughter became an offence applicable to Queensland’s mining and resources sector, sometime after the offence was applied to all other Queensland businesses. Industrial Manslaughter (IM) laws have always been as much about politics as they are about penalties, deterrence and occupational health and safety (OHS).

Some of the politics is shown by the responses from Queensland business groups (sounding like spoken through gritted teeth) but to really understand these laws, it is worth looking at the Second Reading of the omnibus Bill that included the IM amendments as politicians in several other Australian jurisdictions will face the same issues. It is also useful for OHS people to understand the political and legislative context of the penalties their employers may face.

Also, in the last week of May 2020, the first company to be successfully prosecuted under the IM laws will be sentenced, Brisbane Auto Recycling. The company’s two directors have pleaded guilty to reckless conduct and will also be sentenced.

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Reasonably Practicable for the real world

The best public document on determining what is reasonably practicable under occupational health and safety (OHS) law remains this one from WorkSafe Victoria but, importantly, it is also unhelpful. The unhelpfulness is there in the title:

“How WorkSafe applies the law in relation to Reasonably Practicable”

What is needed more is a document about how an employer is expected to apply reasonably practicable to their workplace rather than how the law is interpreted. The focus should be on achieving a safe and healthy workplace but the discussion of Reasonably Practicable is almost always reactive and reflective with little advice on how to use this concept in Consultation to satisfy the positive (some still say “absolute”) duty of care. Below is a brief attempt at clarification.

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