Australia’s Prime Minister shows his ineffectiveness on OHS and COVID

Pragmatism was a theme of yesterday’s blog article. On January 19 2022, Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, showed political pragmatism in his press conference. His comments could create more discomfort between State and Federal jurisdiction and more occupational health and safety (OHS) confusion for business owners and employers.

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Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?

Occupational health and safety (OHS) laws continue to be relevant even when operating in a time of a highly infectious pandemic, but they are increasingly sidelined.

At the moment there are labour shortages in Australia because of the large number of workers infected, and affected, by the Omicron variant of COVID-19; a shortage exacerbated by the varying isolation and testing regimes applied by the Federal and State governments. It is a bit of a mess.

It is worth reminding ourselves that employers have a duty to proved a safe and healthy work environment with the support of employees. Employees are obliged to not allow hazards to be brought to work. At the moment, some employees are being encouraged or required to return to work if they are showing no COVID-19 symptoms; if they are asymptomatic. But everyone knows from experience and official advice over the last two years that asymptomatic people can continue to be infectious. Requiring workers to return to work, as seemed to be happening at one South Australian worksite, while still potentially infectious seems contrary to both the employer’s and employee’s OHS obligations.

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Why is the world “enthusiastic” for regulations?

Unsurprising from a global business magazine, The Economist’s special report on January 15 2002 (paywalled*) bemoaned the new “enthusiasm for regulation”. It clearly includes occupational health and safety (OHS) laws and Australia in its consideration but stops short of asking why this new enthusiasm exists.

Many regulations, especially in OHS, are proposed and introduced to address a wrong or misbehaviour or a new hazard. A major catalyst for Lord Robens‘ OHS laws in the 1970s stemmed from industrial deaths, especially those of the public. The pattern of deaths as a catalyst for change continues today with the Industrial Manslaughter laws, for instance. Another catalyst is new cultural sensitivities; what was tolerated previously is no longer acceptable.

The workplace bullying changes late last century in Australia is a good example, but this also ties in with unacceptable levels of harm. Bullying was often part of the initiation to work and seemed acceptable until workers were severely injured and traumatised, and people found out about it.

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A good job is also a safe job

At the moment, “The Great Resignation” remains a United States phenomenon, but part of that movement involves a reassessment of one’s job. Is it a good job? Is it meaningful work? Is it a good job now but likely not in the future? I would include my occupational health and safety perspective (OHS) and ask if it is a safe job, but I accept that my perspective is far from universal.

Recently Sarah O’Connor wrote in the Financial Times about the importance of having a decent boss. She wrote that

“Economists are increasingly of the opinion that the quality of jobs matter as much as their quantity”

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Australia needs its own Dirty Work

Eyal Press recently published “Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America.” One of Press’s contentions is that coronavirus has brought the invisible workers who do our dirty jobs into view. These are now considered “essential workers” but are still subjected to the inequality and poor working conditions that rendered them invisible to the rest of society, to those who benefit from the services and products of the invisible dirty workers.

Although this blog’s theme is occupational health and safety (OHS), Press’ description of “dirty work” is an important perspective on work generally:

“The familiar, colloquial meaning of “dirty work” is a thankless or unpleasant task. In this book, the term refers to something different and more specific.
First, it is work that causes substantial harm either to other people or to nonhuman animals and the environment, often through the infliction of violence.
Second, it entails doing something that “good people” – the respectable members of society – see as dirty and morally compromised.
Third, it is work that is injurious to the people who do it, leading them either to feel devalued and stigmatized by others or to feel that they have betrayed their own core values and beliefs.
Last and most important, it is contingent on a tacit mandate from the “good people,” who see this work as a necessary part of the social order but don’t explicitly assent to it and can, if need be, disavow responsibility for it. For this to be possible, the work must be delegated to other people, which is why the mandate rests on an understanding that someone else will handle the day-to-day drudgery.”

pages 11-12, reformatted to emphasis the definition elements
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The PM misses an opportunity for OHS leadership

Last week in Devonport, Tasmania, an inflatable jumping castle flew into the air injuring and killing several primary school-aged children.  Shortly after Prime Minister Scott Morrison conducted a press conference in conjunction with the Tasmanian Premier Peter Gutwein and others in which he spoke about the incident and its impact on the local community.  It is worth looking at the PM’s comments from an occupational health and safety (OHS) perspective.

Many readers will be aware that fatalities related to inflatable amusement devices becoming airborne are uncommon but not unknown, as the ABC article linked above shows.  Most Australian jurisdictions have issued OHS guidelines for amusement devices, including inflatable jumping castles. Here are links to two examples that illustrate the state of knowledge of the risk. This article makes no comment on the OHS circumstances of the Devonport incident.

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Increased OHS accountability sought

The political strategy of Ken Phillips of Self Employed Australia (formerly of the Independent Contractors of Australia) received a boost in The Age newspaper on December 12 2021, in an article headlined “Group to mount legal challenge to force prosecution of Premier over hotel quarantine disaster” online (paywalled) or “Business owners seek prosecution of Andrews over hotel quarantine” in the print version.

Phillips uses a section of Victoria’s Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act to make a political point about accountability. Previously, Phillips, his usual mainstream media contact Robert Gottliebsen, and others have called for Premier Daniel Andrews to be charged with Industrial Manslaughter (IM) over the deaths of over 800 people linked to a COVID-19 outbreak from the failure of Victoria’s hotel quarantine program. (The recent non-hotel outbreak is around 597 deaths)

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