Why isn’t workplace health and safety improving?

On Wednesday June 24 2020 at 1.30pm (AEST) I will be presenting my conference paper on the topic above. This is the first Australian Institute of Health and Safety conference to be conducted virtually and I am proud to be part of this year’s conference. As it is virtual, there is no limit on tickets so if you could not attend previous AIHS conferences, get to this one. Below is an extract from my paper:

The workplace fatality rates have been falling consistently for decades.  Occupational health and safety (OHS) professionals seem to be busier than ever.  So, the world must be safer than it has been in the past?  Maybe.  But this may not be the reality if we think a little deeper about the causes of harm and about the actions the OHS profession has applied.

Here is a typical graph showing the rate of workplace fatalities since 1985, when the modern OHS legislation was enacted in Victoria.

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From a spark to a flame

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.

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No OHS voice in this paper

Occupational health and safety (OHS) has always been part of the politics of industrial relations (IR) but it has rarely understood which part it plays as it has never really stood on its own two feet. In Australia, OHS advocates have been, primarily, from within the trade union movement. And for OHS professionals that was okay, as it allowed us to stay within our box, having others fight our battles. When those others weren’t as successful as we wanted, we remained content with the small achievements because they were achieved with minimal effort from us.

Australia, as it emerges from the COVID19 pandemic, is hoping to bring the camaraderie shared by the business groups, government and trade union to a new consensual IR strategy. OHS is an historical element of this discussion, but it needs to be more, and an OHS analysis of the Australian Industry Group’s IR reform paper released on June 6 2020 (but not yet publicly) may provide some clues on what to do about OHS influence.

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COVID19 and OHS gets political

Workplace health and safety risks related to COVID19 emerge in Australia and the United Kingdom.

Trade Union Suggestions

On May 5 2020, the Australian Council of Trade Unions released a statement on occupational health and safety (OHS) calling for certain Industrial Relations and OHS changes, including:

  • Paid pandemic leave
  • New regulations on safety and health standards, and
  • Compulsory notifications to Health Departments and OHS Regulators.

SafetyAtWorkBlog has been led to believe that the paid pandemic leave is intended to apply from the time a worker is tested for COVID19 through their isolation while waiting for the test results and the operation of sick leave should the test results be positive.

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What is needed to get us out of this crisis

As parts of the world begin to emerge from the disruption and lockdowns of COVID19 some academics and experts are advising that the future must be built on the past but should not seek to replicate it. Over a dozen prominent, global academics (listed below) have written a discussion paper to be published in the Economic & Labour Relations Review (ELRR) in June 2020 entitled “The COVID-19 pandemic: lessons on building more equal and sustainable societies” which includes discussion on workplace relations and factors affecting mental health at work. These big picture discussions are essential in the development of strategies and policies for the post-COVD19 world and occupational health and safety (OHS) has a legitimate, and some would say unique, voice.


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“a COVID safe workplace” – Mark 2

Less than 12 hours after not mentioning Safe Work Australia’s COVID19 occupational health and safety (OHS) guidance, the Minister for Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business, Michaelia Cash, issues a media release, in conjunction with the Minister for Industrial Relations, Christian Porter, saying that

“The Safe Work Australia (SWA) website has been transformed into a centralised information hub, which can be easily searched using a handy content filter to find work health and safety guidance relevant to 23 specific industries.”

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Quick OHS News – Danger Money, Red Tape and Toilets

Below is some interesting occupational health and safety (OHS) issues that have appeared over the last week that I don’t have the time to explore in the usual depth but are useful.

Danger Money appears

David Marin-Guzman reports that unions are asking for an extra

“$5 an hour to compensate [disability workers] for risks in assisting clients suspected of having coronavirus.”

The reporter’s Twitter account justifiably describes this as “danger money“, an issue forecast as likely by this blog recently. That such an offer is made by the Health Services and United Workers Unions is disappointing but unions can do little else as the employers have the primary OHS responsibilities. What such action also does though is let the employers off lightly from their OHS duties to continuously improve workplace health and safety. The $5 danger money may be cheaper than implementing other risk control options but OHS laws have a process for this type of decision making that has Cost as the last option to be considered. Allowances do not reduce worker safety risks and they can undermine future OHS initiatives.


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