Is Ken Phillips shooting the messenger and missing the real reform target?

Ken Phillips of Self-Employed Australia is continuing his pursuit of Victorian politicians for breaches of the occupational health and safety (OHS) laws after the failure of the State’s Hotel Quarantine Program that led to the deaths of some Victorians from COVID-19. He has supporters in some of the mainstream media and was recently interviewed by Peta Credlin on Sky but perhaps the clearest explanation of his aims is in an interview with George Donikian on The Informer in May 2021. Just recently, Phillips obtained an update from WorkSafe Victoria and has been doing the media rounds again.

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The restricted state of knowledge – NDAs and OHS

A core element of the management of occupational health and safety (OHS) is creating and maintaining a “state of knowledge” on hazards and risks. There is an enormous amount of information already available in various OHS encyclopaedias, wikis and bodies of knowledge, but some of the most important information continues to be locked up in non-disclosure agreements and confidentiality clauses. On the issue of workplace sexual harassment, a recently established inquiry in Victoria, Australia, is set to look at the mechanisms that are principally used to protect the reputation of companies and executives but that could also have broader OHS benefits.

Liberty Sanger and Bronwyn Halfpenny are heading a task force designed by the Victorian Government to

“…develop reforms that will prevent and better respond to sexual harassment in workplaces.”

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Look to the greed behind the corporate culture

Today the Governance Institute of Australia distributed a promotional email for its September national conference. These conferences often provide a useful perspective on broad occupational health and safety (OHS) issues. One gets to see how OHS is seen to fit (if at all!) in the established business and governance structures.

A key theme of this year’s conference is Culture which is a critical issue for most companies, even if they don’t realise it, and one with which the OHS profession is very familiar. However, the Institute, its members and conference delegates should be challenged to analyse Culture more deeply than what is indicated in the promotional email and article.

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Industrial Manslaughter presents an empty hook

New South Wales’ Opposition Minister for Industrial Relations, Adam Searle, spoke recently in support of the introduction of Industrial Manslaughter (IM) laws. In Parliament on May 5 2021, he said

“… legislation is required to enable the prosecution of industrial manslaughter and to fundamentally change the approach across industry in order to raise the standard and embed a culture of workplace safety of a much higher and more stringent nature. We need a culture that supports workplace safety in our State, not a culture, as I indicated before, that allows and encourages the cutting of corners and the fostering of unsafe workplaces…..

page 43, Hansard,

Legislation can achieve many things but not by itself, and that reality often makes such penalties like Industrial Manslaughter little more than symbolic.

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New workplace mental health info but no new strategy

On May 20, 2021, Australia’s Work Health and Safety (WHS) Ministers to discuss a range of occupational health and safety (OHS) matters. One matter will be the inclusion of a specific requirement on employers that, according to the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU):

“…. would finally require employers to identify and address risks to mental health, in the same way, they are required to with risks to physical health.”

What the ACTU fails to make clear is why this regulatory change is required when the duty to provide a physically and psychologically safe and healthy workplace already exists in the current OHS/WHS laws in Australia.

The ACTU does, however, with the help of the Australia Institute and Centre for Future Work, provide more data on work-related mental health. The union movement is one of the few voices that acknowledge the structural elements of OHS but fails to consider any options other than regulation and, with a federal conservative government in power, it is unlikely to receive an attentive audience.

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OHS needs to get a seat at the ESG table

There has always been an overlap between environmental safety and occupational health and safety (OHS). This has happened not because of any particular similarity between the two disciplines but rather because of company executives’ duties, responsibilities, and accountabilities.

A recent report produced through the Centre for Policy Development (CPD) says this about climate change responses:

“Care needs to be taken to ensure that climate-related targets and analysis are rigorous, underpinned by appropriate governance, strategy and action, reflected in financial statements as required.”

Replace “climate” with “OHS”, and the overlap is clear. This is particularly important at this time when Australia is preparing its next national OHS strategy.

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