OHS seen as not up to the task on sexual harassment

Then submissions to the Senate Committee inquiry into the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill reveal some interesting perspectives on occupational health and safety (OHS) from Australian businesses and other organisations.

The Kingsford Legal Centre says this of the work health and safety approach to sexual harassment:

“WHS law is designed to manage work health and safety risks which are many and varied and are distinct from gendered violence and discrimination. Many cases of sexual harassment and sex discrimination are not an easy fit for the WHS framework. WHS legislation is state and territory based and relying on WHS legislation does not address the Commonwealth’s international human rights obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). In also not naming the gendered nature of the issue, WHS law risks overlooking keys to prevention and culture change which are central to the Respect@Work Report.
While WHS processes may in some cases run parallel to complaints of discrimination or sexual harassment, there are fundamental ways in which WHS law differs in the management of claims. Most obviously there is not a clear process for people who have experienced discrimination and harassment to be allowed to speak through a conciliation process about the impact of such behaviour on them and seek specific forms of redress. We know from our research in this regard that this process is important in resolving complaints impacting on human rights and reflects a complainant-centred process. WHS law does not approach injuries in such a way.”

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Forces amass against the prevention of workplace sexual harassment

Most of Australia’s media has cooled its reporting on the sexual harassment law reforms championed by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins. Partly this relates to revised laws being proposed in Parliament later this year and that are currently subject to a Senate Committee Inquiry. The media coverage on the proposed laws and the senate inquiry has been thin with only the Australian Financial Review (AFR) giving it any serious attention.

However, research reports on sexual harassment in Australian workplaces continue to appear and the transcripts of the Senate Committee’s public hearings are publicly available, as are the submissions made by, primarily, business and law organisations. What is missing is the involvement of the occupational health and safety profession.

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Political attack falls flat

There is an animosity between the Liberal Party in Victoria and some of its sympathetic media and WorkSafe Victoria, particularly aimed at the CEO, Colin Radford. Most of this has been played out in the mainstream media, but recently, in the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee (PAEC) of the Victorian Parliament, the Deputy Chair, Richard Riordan (Liberal), slagged off WorkSafe and Radford over Victoria’s Hotel Quarantine Program. His attack was ineffective and showed a lack of understanding of WorkSafe’s enforcement role and occupational health and safety (OHS) laws.

This performance overshadowed some of the points being made by the Minister for Workplace Safety, Ingrid Stitt (ALP), in the hearing. However, she omitted the upcoming imposition of on-the-spot fines.

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Repeat OHS offender but you wouldn’t know it

Recently WorkSafe Victoria successfully prosecuted Midfield Meats International over an occupational health and safety (OHS) breach described as:

“a labour hire worker was hit by a reversing forklift as he was stacking cardboard sheets against a wall. The worker’s legs were crushed between the forklift and a steel barrier. He was taken to hospital and suffered nerve damage to his lower legs.”

The company pleaded guilty and was ordered to pay costs of $2000. In a media release, WorkSafe’s Executive Director of Health and Safety, Julie Nielsen, said

“This incident should serve as a wake-up call to this company and to others that it is simply unacceptable for pedestrians and mobile plant to mix…..”

But as OHSintros noted on a Facebook post about the prosecution, the Midfield Group is well known to WorkSafe, with OHS prosecutions going back to at least 2004 which attracted around $280,000 in fines, the largest penalty $95,000 in 2019. So it is worth a brief look at the OHS profile of the Midfield Group.

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Law firms are a focus for sexual harassment reforms

This year coverage of The Australian newspaper’s annual Legal Partnership Survey has focused on the number of women partners in law firms. This increase has generated discussion on sexual harassment, which has revealed some of the activities that law firms use to prevent the psychological harm (and brand damage) from sexual harassment; many strategies that are already very familiar to the occupational health and safety profession

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins has been paraphrased in the article (paywalled), saying

Non-disclosure agreements should be used to protect people who have been the subject of sexual harassment, rather than to reduce brand damage to organisations…..”

[link added]
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OHS is “… more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”

Occupational health and safety (OHS) may not be a common subject in the mainstream media but there is plenty of political discussion on the topic in Australia’s Parliament.

The current (conservative) federal government seems very slow to accept and respond to recommendations from official inquiries that it sees as a secondary political priority, such as sexual harassment and workplace health and safety. The hearings of the Senate’s Education and Employment Legislation Committee on March 24 2021, were, as usual, enlightening.

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