Over-emphasising the COVID pandemic

Everyone has struggled through the COVID-19 pandemic. Many have died. We have to continue to make many allowances for businesses and people due to the disruption, but some are using the pandemic as an excuse for not doing something. Occupational health and safety (OHS) inactivity is being blamed on COVID-19 in some instances, masking or skewing people’s approach to workplace health and safety more generally.

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What does the IPCC report on climate change say about work?

Global warming will affect the way we work.  This was acknowledged in the most recent report from the International Panel on Climate Change.  The 3,676-page report cited several research papers related to these changes.  Below is a list of those papers and comments on the abstracts, where available.

Vanos, J., D. J. Vecellio and T. Kjellstrom, 2019: Workplace heat exposure, health protection, and economic impacts: A case study in Canada. Am. J. Ind. Med., 62(12), 1024-1037, doi:10.1002/ajim.22966.  https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30912193/

This abstract recommends “Providing worksite heat metrics to the employees aids in appropriate decision making and health protection.” This research adds to one’s state of knowledge but may not help with which on-the-ground decisions need to be made.

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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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Prevention is better than cure

The Hazelwood Mine Fire was a public health tragedy with an occupational context beyond the prosecution by WorkSafe Victoria. A clear example of the workplace risks was the fire-fighting efforts and the subsequent health impacts of David Briggs. According to a media release from the Maurice Blackburn law firm, Briggs had his successful WorkCover claim upheld by the Victorian Supreme Court last week.

Briggs has been mentioned several times in this blog’s coverage of the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry and the writing of Tom Doig on the catastrophe. His case should cause some very uncomfortable questions.

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Seeking accountability in a pandemic

The Australian newspaper’s Robert Gottliebsen continues to bash the Victorian Premier and WorkSafe Victoria over the outbreak of COVID19 that originated from workers in the Hotel Quarantine Scheme. He insists that the government has occupational health and safety (OHS) responsibilities for the workers in the hotels, especially the security guards through which transmission to the community occurred. His arguments are logical, but what he is really searching for is accountability and, perhaps, in a global pandemic, there is none.

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“the point is not science, but safety”

Early last year Professor Andrew Hopkins wrote the following about making important safety decisions:

“If you are a CEO in charge of a large company operating hazardous technologies, you cannot afford to wait for conclusive evidence. You must act on the basis of whatever imperfect knowledge you currently have.”

page 110

This seems relevant to those who have had to make decisions about COVID19 this year. In response to the Hopkins quote, I wrote:

“This applies equally to directors and managers of companies of all sizes. It is hard, it is uncomfortable, but it is part of running a business. It is the application of the “precautionary principle” which, if the precaution proves valid, you are a hero, a visionary and a leader; if it does not happen, you are seen as a doomsayer – a reputational potential that few are willing to risk. However, in terms of OHS and the safety of people, the precautionary principle should be given prominence over reputation for many reasons, for if there is a disaster and fatalities the precautionary principle will be analysed through hindsight and may be influential in arguing reasonable practicability.”

The continuing COVID19 pandemic is a disaster with an horrendous fatality rate and the Precautionary Principle has started to be discussed in academic research about COVID19 and face masks.

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Work-related elements for social change

It is almost impossible for occupational health and safety (OHS) people to stop looking at the world through the risk assessment parameters and hierarchies with which they work every day. The Hierarchy of Control could be applied to the COVID19 pandemic with the important lesson that the elimination of a hazard does not only come from the right purchase but could require months and months of a combination of Administrative Controls, Personal Protective Equipment, and perseverance. This impossibility should not be something that makes OHS professionals shy. It should be embraced and expanded, where possible, beyond the bounds of workplace organisations to societal design and change.

Michael Quinlan has recently written about a different investigative process that could be directly applied to the management of disasters, including COVID19. His research on Ten Pathways to Death and Disaster has been popping up in conferences, books and public speaking, including the OHS advocacy of Dr Gerry Ayers of the CFMEU, and has rarely been more timely.

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