Australian OHS guidances for COVID19

Every occupational health and safety (OHS) man and their dog is providing advice about how to manage the COVID19 pandemic.  The only advice this blog has offered is to target your sources of information about managing the risks to your local health department or OHS regulator.  This information is changing all the time in response to new information but there are a couple of OHS guidances that are worth paying close attention to.

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“…the first thing you are going to want to do is organise the earliest survivors… into delivery people”

In 2005 I was able to interview prominent risk communicator, Peter Sandman. It was a time of pandemic threats from Avian Influenza, or “Bird Flu”, and we talked about pandemics, their complications and their management. The virus situation has progressed enormously from 2005 to today’s announcement by the World Health Organisation of a coronavirus pandemic but I provide access to this interview to offer a different and historical perspective on the current outbreak of coronavirus. I also had to include my tips for managing coronavirus in Australian workplaces.

Of most interest and relevance, perhaps, is this statement from Peter Sandman:

“If you really think there is going to be a severe pandemic, the first thing you are going to want to do is organise the earliest survivors, the people who get the flu and don’t die, into delivery people. Then they can deliver food and fuel and everything people need so that everyone else can stay home .”

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Mental Health conference assessment

As you could guess from some recent blog posts, the Criterion Conference called “Improving Integrated Approaches to Workplace Mental Health” conducted with the support of the Australian Institute of Health and Safety, was well worth attending as many of the speakers were excellent. What was missing was a strong voice of advocacy on behalf of the Human Resources (HR) profession to counter or balance the strong occupational health and safety (OHS) focus.

Below is a summary of some of the important points made by the conference speakers (or at least those who did not impose restrictions).

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Resilience training remains contentious

The issue of resilience training and its role in managing workplace mental health continues to confuse at a recent mental health conference.

Yesterday, several experts were critical of resilience training or, more accurately, the over-reliance on worker-focussed interventions when evidence shows that more sustainable benefits are obtainable by addressing the structural factors leading to poor mental health at work. One of the experts specifically said that resilience training may be relevant to emergency services workers where their workplaces are so dynamic that it is almost impossible to anticipate mental health hazards.

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New air quality standards for outdoor work

On January 30 2020, the Victorian Trades Hall released a new “approved safety standard” on air quality risks for outdoor workers. It is the latest of a series of alerts and guidelines generated by the persistence of bushfire smoke in urban areas of, especially, New South Wales and Victoria. Bushfire smoke is only going to become more frequent in Australia, and its persistence over weeks, requires a coordinated discussion on how Australian workplaces and practices need to change to adapt to the new climate.

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More than warm lettuce needed on Industrial Manslaughter laws

Applying the most effective way to have companies comply with their occupational health and safety (OHS) obligations has been debated in Australia and elsewhere for years.  The issue will arise again in 2019 and in relation Industrial Manslaughter laws as Australian States have elections, or the political climate suits.

There are several elements to the argument put by those in favour of Industrial Manslaughter laws. Workers are still being killed so the deterrence of existing OHS laws has seen to have failed.  Deterrence has been based on financial penalties and workers are still being killed so financial penalties have failed. Jail time is the only option left.

This is a simplistic depiction of the argument, but it is not dissimilar to some of the public arguments. The reality is that deterrence is achieved in two ways – telling the person of the consequences of an action and enforcing those consequences.

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HR and Legal have failed to address sexual harassment. Could OHS do better?

2019 is likely to be the year when the deficiencies and advantages of the occupational health and safety (OHS) approach to the prevention and management of the psychological harm produced by work-related sexual harassment will contrast (clash?) with the approach used by the Human Resources (HR) profession.  For many, many years OHS has failed to implement the control measures that the available research and guidance recommended.  For the same length of time, HR has largely focused on addressing the organisational consequences of accusations of sexual harassment displaying a preference for legal action or to move the accuser out of the organisation.

These approaches persist but there is some hope that recognition of each others’ role and purpose can bridge the ideological demarcations.  Australia’s inquiries into work- and non-work-related harassment have the potential to change the way psychological harm is seen, managed and, maybe, prevented.

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