Avoiding COVID-19 distractions is essential

Recently Australian law firm Herbert Smith Freehills conducted a webinar on mandatory vaccinations. (2,000 attendees = hot topic) This workplace issue is moving quickly in each Australian jurisdiction and almost every day. There was some helpful advice in this seminar that was, thankfully, not reliant on case law and the avoidance of occupational health and safety (OHS) liability. Below is a discussion of some of the self-analysis and risk assessment that all employers should undertake to manage their workforce through COVID-19.

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Mandatory vaccinations without making vaccinations mandatory

In a little over a month, the Australian conversation about mandatory vaccinations at work has changed dramatically. In early August, food processing company SPC was treated suspiciously over its requirements for its workers, customers, and contractors to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Recently, the New South Wales Premier, Glady Berejiklian, required vaccinations for workers to move outside of certain residential locations. And today, the Victorian Health Minister, Martin Foley, has all but made vaccinations mandatory for the construction industry.

As Berejiklian has shown, you don’t need to impose mandatory vaccinations to make vaccinations mandatory.

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“Too little, too late” but potential in primary prevention

On Australia’s Women’s Safety Summit, Wendy Tuohy contemplated, in The Age, after the first day;

“It may turn out to be too little, too late, but if there’s real commitment behind Morrison’s lines, we could conclude it’s a start.”

There are few signs of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s commitment. Women will continue to work in companies and workplaces where they are at risk of psychological harm from sexual harassment and physical harm from sexual assault. Occupational health and safety (OHS) laws offer a harm prevention option that nobody seems keen to consider.

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Image reuse resolved, sort of

It has taken several months to obtain some clarity from the Copyright Agency about WorkSafe’s reuse of an image of mine in one of their email broadcasts without my knowledge.

This week the Copyright Agency advised:

“The Government Statutory Licence, in particular that under s.183 of the Act, allows the Government (Commonwealth and State/Territory Governments) to use copyright for government purposes but they must come to terms with the rightsholder or (for government copies i.e. reproduction) the declared collecting society. It seems that the use of your image by WorkSafe Victoria in the manner you describe likely falls within the uses allowed under s.183.

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Save lives or save money – the OHS tension

There are two core elements to the work of the occupational health and safety (OHS) professional – the management of Safety and the management of Safety Liability. In the simplest of terms, the former saves lives and the latter saves money. OHS (and politics) has always involved juggling these two extremes.

There are many examples of this tension but the most obvious, at the moment, is COVID-19 and the vaccination of workers.

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Why would you NOT make COVID vaccinations mandatory?

Now that Australia is vaccinating its people at a reasonable rate from a very slow start, the issue of mandatory vaccinations for workers has reappeared. Several months ago the issue was more hypothetical but evidence has appeared from England, the United States and Israel about vaccination rates and the resumption of business and work. Australian businesses need to reach a clear position on vaccinations and the return of employees to workplaces, and this will require an assessment of the ethics applied by employers.

The occupational health and safety (OHS) position is remarkably clear but is not really being heard or promoted.

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Dehumanising OHS

A recent online article started:

“We all deserve to leave for work each day, knowing that if we say goodbye to our loved ones, it’s not goodbye forever. And when we’re at work, our laws should protect us and keep us safe.”

It contains a heartfelt sentiment but also perpetuates a myth. Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) laws do not protect us or keep us safe. They establish a socio-legal framework that needs to be enforced by a combination of employers, workers, Regulators, Health and Safety Representatives, bystanders, the public, the government, relatives, and others, depending on the work situation at the time.

Just as “mindful” has a different subtext to “careful” so we need to avoid empowering laws beyond their design and dehumanising the OHS process. We need to remember that people are integral to the enforcement of OHS laws, duties and obligations for if we remove people from this activity, OHS becomes a responsibility of everyone and no one.

Kevin Jones

BTW, the article is a lovely profile of Lana Cormie