Presenteeism in the new world of work

Presenteeism has largely been analysed through the principles and managed through the actions of the Human Resources profession. The COVID19 pandemic has changed the presenteeism conversation. There seems to be more enforcement of occupational health and safety (OHS) obligations on employees to not present a hazard to their work colleagues and customers and, therefore, to remain home.

On May 5 2021, in Darwin, the Australian Labor Party’s Shadow Minister for Industrial Relations, Tony Burke, spoke about presenteeism at a Transport Workers Union meeting. He said that the COVID19 pandemic showed that “a third of the workforce in Australia didn’t have sick leave” and:

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Inquiries need more evidence and less anecdote

Recently the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) made a curious submission to the Federal Government’s Senate Select Committee on Job Security. This submission (not yet available online) illustrates the ACTU’s political and ideological position of job security and precarious work, including the occupational health and safety (OHS) impacts, but it could have been more convincing and helpful.

Here is its section on Insecure Work and Safe Workplaces, the last section before the Conclusion:

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A “safe” workers memorial

At yesterday’s memorial for workers, Victoria’s Minister for Workplace Safety, Ingrid Stitt (pictured above), announced more financial support for the families of deceased workers. She also pledged that the prevention of illness and injury will remain a focus of WorkSafe Victoria and the government, but the centrepiece of her speech was additional post-incident funding.

According to a media statement in support of her appearance at the memorial outside the Victorian Trades Hall, she announced

“…an increase in support delivered by WorkSafe Victoria’s Family Liaison Officers and Family Support Specialists in the first weeks following a workplace death [including] … appointing external Bereavement Support Workers, who will work with WorkSafe and families to ensure ongoing support is available, particularly ahead of important milestones relating to workplace deaths.”

The Minister’s commitment is consistent with the position of the Andrews Government for some time, especially since the campaign for Industrial Manslaughter penalties. The challenge may come from lobbying for grants for these support services.

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Non-military safety lessons from the latest Royal Commission (open access)

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation broadcast an episode of The Signal on April 21, 2021, which discussed the complexity of the culture of Australia’s military, and I strongly recommend you listen to it. It does make some points about culture worth contemplating in the context of one’s own workplace and profession.

The most useful point was that an established institution cannot have a uniform culture that meets the expectations of all relevant stakeholders. Generations take their culture with them. So those who started in the military in the 1980s and 1990s (and later) will bring the values and lessons of that time into their maturity and when they move into senior and leadership positions – positions that are intended to both preserve and progress the organisation’s culture. This will result in conflict between the expectations of new recruits and the realities of the established military executives. Not open revolt, but a dissatisfaction that may or may not result in leaving the organisation.

The topic used by The Signal to illustrate the extremes of the defence force members and stakeholders was mental health.

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The economy is King

There has been discussion over many years about the business case for occupational health and safety (OHS). Several academics have attempted to quantify the financial benefits of good OHS management and systems. Business does not operate in a political or economic vacuum but it is possible to think it does when the OHS profession is so quiet on socioeconomic elements.

Australia and many other countries operate in a neoliberal economic and political system that provides OHS benefits and harms. The OHS context is touched on occasionally in public forums but the size of the challenge for structural and organisational change in Australia is perhaps best illustrated by an excerpt of Prime Minister Scott Morrison‘s presentation to the West Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry on April 14, 2021. When asked about his priorities as Prime Minister he said:

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The hill that OHS needs to climb for respectability remains a mountain

The current Australian debate about sexual harassment at work illustrates the forces ranged against occupational health and safety (OHS) being seen as a legitimate approach to preventing psychological harm. Entrenched Industrial Relations perspectives appear to be the biggest barrier. Such barriers are not always intentional and have evolved over years and decades as cultures and ideologies do. Some of the recent media coverage on the release of the Federal Government’s response to the report of the 2020 National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces illustrates the dominance of industrial relations thinking – part of the reason Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins has described elements of the government’s response as a missed opportunity.

The OHS profession must start to overtly tackle each of these dominant perspectives.

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Should we feel safe or be safe?

A major impediment to establishing safe and healthy workplaces is that there is a widespread expectation for everyone to feel safe at work. Yet, the legislative occupational health and safety (OHS) obligation on employers and workers is for them to be safe. It is a significant difference, for the former addresses perception, and the latter requires action.

Recently the Australian Government responded to a major inquiry into sexual harassment at work. Attorney-General Michaelia Cash, launching the official response with Prime Minister Scott Morrison, said:

“In terms of sexual harassment in the workplace, I think we’d all agree – in fact, it needs to be just a basic fundamental – everybody has the right to feel safe in the workplace.”

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