We should give a fat RAT’s clacker about COVID-19 testing

Australia’s strategy for combatting the COVID-19 pandemic is almost entirely based on vaccinations. The supplementary control measures of increased ventilation, social distancing, mask-wearing and hygiene are still vitally important but have dropped off the radar a little in the rush to maximise the number of vaccinated citizens and workers. One of the measures not currently listed on the Safe Work Australia COVID-19 website (at the time of writing) is rapid antigen testing (RAT), even though this screening method is integral to reopening businesses in the United States.

RAT has started to appear in Australia. It is a valuable tool, but it is not a replacement for the medical PCR test, and there are administrative considerations that affect the occupational health and safety (OHS) management of COVID-19.

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It’s not the laws, it’s the implementation

A major criticism of the Australian government about its response to the COVID-19 pandemic is that it has provided mixed messages about what to do and when. Those messages are sometimes amended by State Governments, and the messages from both these sources could change in a matter of days. This creates an enormous challenge for businesses and their occupational health and safety (OHS) personnel, if they have any.

This is a major factor in the campaign by business and industry groups and trade unions for the government to issue Public Health Orders (PHO). PHOs take the risk assessments out of the hands of the employers by establishing specific criteria that are legally binding. This is convenient in the short term, but PHOs are regularly updated to address the changing COVID-19 situation, so the stability of messaging that PHOs hopefully remove could end up with similar administrative results for employers and business operators. This veneer of security was discussed recently by lawyer Michael Tooma.

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“as far as politically practicable”

Last week WorkSafe Victoria announced that it was prosecuting the Department of Health over breaches of its occupational health and safety (OHS) duties with the management of Victoria’s Hotel Quarantine program. There is very little information available beyond what is included in the WorkSafe media release until the filing hearing at the Magistrates’ Court on October 22 2021.

Most of the current commentary adds little and usually builds on the existing campaigns to charge (Labor) Premier Dan Andrews with Industrial Manslaughter. Still, it is worth looking at WorkSafe’s media release and the thoughts of some others.

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No psych regulation in Victoria until mid-2022

The Victorian Government has pledged to introduce regulations to address psychological risks in workplaces. According to a second consultation paper on psychological health regulations, seen by SafetyAtWorkBlog, the consultation process continues but has been extended, so the new regulations are unlikely before the middle of 2020. This extension would seem a little unnecessary given the work on this hazard already from Safe Work Australia and SafeWorkNSW.

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Angry workers demanding access? OHS has got this – sort of

The reopening of workplaces in some Australian States is causing alarm over potential violence and abuse from those who do not meet or choose not to meet the new COVID-19 access requirements. This is perhaps most succinctly put in a recent article in The Guardian (paywalled) asking “… who will enforce rules for unvaccinated customers” – a question with which many employers are struggling.

The article discussed the expectations of employers about the rules or public health orders that they are expected to enforce but also about who can they call on if there is trouble, given there are mixed messages from the New South Wales government, in particular. (If “unprecedented” was the most used word in 2020, “mixed messages” may be the 2021 equivalent)

The enforcement question is being faced by all workplaces in all States that need to reopen under COVID-19 restrictions.

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Job insecurity and OHS solutions

As well as featuring in a workplace psychology podcast Professor Tony LaMontagne spoke at the current Senate Select Committee on Job Security in Australia and made a submission that provides evidence of the connection between job insecurity and poor mental health. This strengthens the argument that the prevention of mental health at work (and maybe elsewhere) could be more sustainably achieved by structural and economic policies and practices outside of the direct control of employers.

LaMontagne’s submission (written with Dr Tania King and Ms Yamna Taouk) says:

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Ventilation is an obvious COVID-19 control but could be a bugger to use

Vaccines are currently the most effective tool available to minimise the spread of COVID-19 to large populations. Fortunately, effective vaccines have been able to be manufactured at such a rapid pace. But previous pandemics have not had vaccines and have had to rely, primarily, on hygiene and isolation. Part of the hygiene practice was to ensure that buildings were well-ventilated. Ventilation actions on COVID-19 were part of Europe’s response to the pandemic in 2020, but Australia has only just started to accept the need for improved ventilation as it was very late to the risks of aerosol transmission.

As vaccinated workers return to workplaces in many of Australia’s urban centres, employers will need to assess their occupational health and safety (OHS) duties in new ways, and ventilation will be a significant challenge.

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