We deserve new OHS ideas, research, initiatives, strategies, epiphanies and enlightenment

This week, the Australian Institute of Health and Safety (AIHS, formerly the Safety Institute of Australia) is hosting its national conference in Melbourne, Australia. The heyday of occupational health and safety (OHS) conferences seems to have passed in Australia as, perhaps, was confirmed by the varying responses to last year’s World Congress on Safety and Health at Work. But expectations for this week’s conference are high; at least mine are.

But are those expectations too high? There is a direct competitor for OHS ears and eyes (no matter the arguments) in the same building at the same time, the Workplace Health and Safety Show. The AIHS Conference needs to work hard to retain its prominence and, most importantly, its influence. It is worth reflecting on how this messy situation came about.

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OHS needs to create discomfort

Occupational health and safety (OHS) decision-making by employers is dominated by reasonably practicable safety and health decisions. OHS advice is similarly dominated, leading to an industry that is cowed by the need for job security and tenure. OHS teaching in tertiary institutions is also influenced, if not dominated, by what is seen as (right-wing) “business realities”.

OHS is a small part of the university curriculum. In some universities, OHS education is missing entirely. The OHS discipline is not seen as important or marketable or an important source of revenue. A new book about universities in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s may help us understand the reasons for this.

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Can we laugh at workplace health and safety?

Occupational health and safety (OHS) has never had a profile as high as that of the environmental protection movement. OHS has never had a single, focused advocate like Greenpeace to make it visible. OHS activists do not hang banners off Tower Bridge or throw eggs at politicians (yet). One of the characteristics shared by OHS and environmentalists is the lack of comedy. An existential crisis like climate change is hard to laugh about, just as workers are dying, but some would argue that such black comedy could be productive and promotional. A recent show on the BBC World Service, The Climate Question, looked at environmental humour, but there are OHS parallels.

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Moral distress = moral injury = workplace mental ill-health = burnout.

On December 29 2023, The Guardian newspaper’s cover story was about doctors in the United Kingdom’s National Health Service experiencing high rates of “moral distress”. It is common for hospitals and health care services to consider themselves as workplaces with unique hazards rather than suffering similar occupational health and safety (OHS) challenges to all other workplaces. What makes the OHS challenge so significant in the NHS is the size of the challenge rather than its nature or cause.

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EY report shows a business model that generates serious job stress

In 2022 a young employee of EY died by suicide after a work function. EY announced an independent review of EY Oceania’s workplace culture and that the report would be publicly available. That report was released on 27 July 2023. EY’s response was good crisis management, but the public release is beyond what many companies would do, so EY’s transparency in this case should be acknowledged.

The report written by Elizabeth Broderick‘s company offers good news for EY. There is a high level of satisfaction, but results in the 80 percentages or some 90 percentages still allow for a significant number of personnel who are dissatisfied, harassed, bullied, and/or mentally stressed. It is not unreasonable to accept the EY report as being indicative of the workplace cultures of hundreds or thousands of similar businesses.

This report needs to be read widely and thoroughly by any Human Resources (HR), Executive and occupational health and safety (OHS) professional. The following article scratches the surface of this significant investigation.

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Advice for the 23rd World Congress on Safety and Health at Work

I will be attending the 23rd World Congress on Safety and Health at Work in Sydney in November 2023. After a previous attendance at the Singapore conference a few years ago, I have high hopes but also some reservations.

The Congress is a major opportunity to open our minds. We Australians may think we are leading in some areas of occupational health and safety (OHS), but other than nominated speakers, we may need to be silent about our success until after we have listened and learned about the OHS experience of others. Some delegates will have an inflated sense of importance (more than ours), but most have come to learn, and it’s these delegates on whom we should focus.

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OHS and management courses

Research findings that a sample of business and management courses have little to no OHS content are not surprising and match what has now become fashionable to call “lived experience”. Part of the reason for the findings is that the number of undergraduate courses in OHS has declined, and those that did exist were not often recognised as “management” courses, although OHS can be little else.  They were certainly not “integrated” with other traditional management approaches.

Part of the reason, I like to think, is because OHS principles challenge the ethics underpinning business management courses and concepts.  OHS would say that workers are people and not “units of labour”.  If workers are people for whom we are supposed to apply dignity, respect and care, how can Business exploit the worker’s labour, loyalty and goodwill in order to maximise profits or shareholders’ returns, which are supposed to be the main purposes of modern business?

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