Frogging the National OHS Strategy

Australia has commenced its consultation process for the development of its next ten-year national occupational health and safety (OHS) strategy. These are peculiar documents as no one ever seems to be punished for not achieving the targets or the performance targets are so narrow or general that it is impossible to not achieve them.

One of the elements that all such strategies seek is “emerging hazards”. Even harder is when they seek hazards that no one else has considered or have yet to emerge. One of the challenges with these strategies is less about what they say than how they are implemented and enforced.

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OHS seen as not up to the task on sexual harassment

Then submissions to the Senate Committee inquiry into the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill reveal some interesting perspectives on occupational health and safety (OHS) from Australian businesses and other organisations.

The Kingsford Legal Centre says this of the work health and safety approach to sexual harassment:

“WHS law is designed to manage work health and safety risks which are many and varied and are distinct from gendered violence and discrimination. Many cases of sexual harassment and sex discrimination are not an easy fit for the WHS framework. WHS legislation is state and territory based and relying on WHS legislation does not address the Commonwealth’s international human rights obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). In also not naming the gendered nature of the issue, WHS law risks overlooking keys to prevention and culture change which are central to the Respect@Work Report.
While WHS processes may in some cases run parallel to complaints of discrimination or sexual harassment, there are fundamental ways in which WHS law differs in the management of claims. Most obviously there is not a clear process for people who have experienced discrimination and harassment to be allowed to speak through a conciliation process about the impact of such behaviour on them and seek specific forms of redress. We know from our research in this regard that this process is important in resolving complaints impacting on human rights and reflects a complainant-centred process. WHS law does not approach injuries in such a way.”

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Forces amass against the prevention of workplace sexual harassment

Most of Australia’s media has cooled its reporting on the sexual harassment law reforms championed by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins. Partly this relates to revised laws being proposed in Parliament later this year and that are currently subject to a Senate Committee Inquiry. The media coverage on the proposed laws and the senate inquiry has been thin with only the Australian Financial Review (AFR) giving it any serious attention.

However, research reports on sexual harassment in Australian workplaces continue to appear and the transcripts of the Senate Committee’s public hearings are publicly available, as are the submissions made by, primarily, business and law organisations. What is missing is the involvement of the occupational health and safety profession.

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Political attack falls flat

There is an animosity between the Liberal Party in Victoria and some of its sympathetic media and WorkSafe Victoria, particularly aimed at the CEO, Colin Radford. Most of this has been played out in the mainstream media, but recently, in the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee (PAEC) of the Victorian Parliament, the Deputy Chair, Richard Riordan (Liberal), slagged off WorkSafe and Radford over Victoria’s Hotel Quarantine Program. His attack was ineffective and showed a lack of understanding of WorkSafe’s enforcement role and occupational health and safety (OHS) laws.

This performance overshadowed some of the points being made by the Minister for Workplace Safety, Ingrid Stitt (ALP), in the hearing. However, she omitted the upcoming imposition of on-the-spot fines.

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Why have Australian workplaces become safer?

The number of work-related fatalities in Australia is declining. Plenty are claiming credit for this, but no one knows for sure which prevention strategies have been successful over the last twenty-odd years and/or to what degree. Australia’s recent Intergenerational Report may offer some clues to the reasons for this decline in traumatic workplace deaths and a way forward. This article dips into the 200-page report.

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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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Speak Global, Implement Local

Most of the international reporting in June 2021 was about the G7 meeting, but the International Labour Organisation (ILO) also conducted a World of Work Summit as part of its 109th International Labor Conference. Several world leaders recorded messages for the event, and two are particularly interesting – President Joe Biden and Pope Francis. Such statements do have global influence and can support local occupational health and safety (OHS) initiatives.

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