OHS and wage theft

Australia is several years into a scandal of underpayment of workers referred to, by some, as wage theft. Occupational health and safety (OHS) would not normally figure in a wages and industrial relations (IR) scandal but the scandal has a legitimate OHS context.

The previous, and ongoing, scandals are not going to be summarised in this article as there are plenty of articles elsewhere in lots of different media but there is a common thread in many of the scandals. Workers are not being paid for some of the time they spend at work, work that is commonly described as unpaid overtime. This unpaid overtime extends the working day, for a variety of reasons, and OHS may not accommodate these additional hours (as they are “not official”) or OHS may be “stretched”, or risks downplayed.

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Cliché creates mixed message on OHS

In a welcome announcement about additional funding for WorkSafeACT, the Australian Capital Territory’s Minister for Employment and Workplace Safety, Suzanne Orr, stated that

“Safety is everyone’s responsibility and we must work together to create a strong safety culture so all workers can return home safe at the end of the day”

Orr needs to have her people think a little deeper before using the “everyone’s responsibility” cliché especially as WorkSafeACT gains independence for the first time ever.

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Good progress, but………

The Australian Government is starting to address the silicosis risk associated with engineered stone. The Health Minister, Greg Hunt, has said in a media release on January 23 2020 that the government will accept all five recommendations of the interim advice of the National Dust Disease Taskforce. However, some of these seem half-hearted and some actions will take a long time, which does not necessarily help those workers currently at risk.

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OHS law could prevent the psychological harm of sexual harassment

The prevention of psychological harm generated by sexual harassment has been a recurring theme in the SafetyAtWorkBlog. It is heartening to see similar discussions appearing in labour law research.

An article, published in the Australian Journal of Labour Law, called “Preventing Sexual Harassment in Work: Exploring the Promise of Work Health and Safety Laws” written by Belinda Smith, Melanie Schleiger and Liam Elphick strengthens the role that occupational health and safety (OHS) laws can play in preventing sexual harassment and its harm.

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What is needed is a discussion of the “safe system of business”

By the time you read this, one of Australia’s States may have Industrial Manslaughter laws. One sad part of all of the IM argy-bargy is that it has focused on the penalty of going to jail rather than on the enhancement of occupational health and safety (OHS) which can prevent harm. Part of this seems to be because people are uncertain how to talk about OHS. For instance, some arguing against IM laws have started talking about making these laws fair. But fair to who?

Recently the Australian Industry Group released a media statement titled “Industrial manslaughter legislation must be fair“. Firstly, although the IM Bill is a piece of legislation, it is not an Act or Regulation in itself. It is an amendment to the existing OHS Act. But this Act and its Duties hardly gets discussed in the current debate, which is a bit curious but convenient.

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Silicosis – “we need to licence the industry and we need to regulate the product”

Last year the Scientific Meeting of the Australia and New Zealand Society of Occupational Medicine (ANZSOM) had a fiery discussion on the occupational health and safety (OHS) risks of cutting engineered stone.  The status has changed a lot over 12 months with various Codes of Practice, new exposure limits, a National Dust Disease Taskforce and lobbying from Erin Brockovich.  However the risk of worker exposure seems too have not changed this much because it is employers who are responsible for safe workplaces and there are many layers of OHS-related communication between research and practical application.

Dr Graeme Edwards (pictured above) spoke first in the ANZSOM panel on October 29 and he came out with all guns blazing.

“Prima facie evidence of system failure. That’s what accelerated silicosis means. It is an entirely preventable disease.”

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