The COVID19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on the government agencies that regulate and enforce occupational health and safety (OHS) laws. These regulators are not the lead agencies in pandemic control but as some countries relax lock-down protocols and people return to work in changed work environments, the role and actions of the OHS regulators are being re-evaluated.
Sarah O’Connor, in the Financial Times, opened her 26 May 2020 article brilliantly with
” Covid-19 has upended our notion of what a dangerous job looks like”
Office were often dismissed as low-risk workplaces with many site safety walks, if they happened, reporting on torn carpet and other similar hazards. That way of assessing risk should have been replaced, or supplemented, with assessments of the psychosocial risks of stress, bullying, a harassment, excessive workloads and many more harmful practices. So, offices may have a low risk of traumatic physical injuries but a higher level of risk of psychological harm. On top of this reassessment comes an infection risk that can be spread by workers showing no symptoms. Office-based risk has increased again and made the workplace itself dangerous.
On the afternoon of May 8 2020 the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, and Chief Medical Officer, Brendan Murphy, revealed the decisions of the National Cabinet. This is a national plan developed with the agreement of State Premiers and Chief Ministers who will be largely responsible for how this plan is implemented in their local jurisdictions. Many of the occupational health and safety (OHS) challenges have been anticipated by business owners as discussed in this morning’s blog article but it is worth looking at the infographics of the plan revealed by Morrison and Murphy but also the transcript of the press conference as that provides an important context to what the government expects to happen.
The government released two infographics, one was four pages of the broad plan, the other is that plan split into industry sectors.
Workplace health and safety risks related to COVID19 emerge in Australia and the United Kingdom.
Trade Union Suggestions
On May 5 2020, the Australian Council of Trade Unions released a statement on occupational health and safety (OHS) calling for certain Industrial Relations and OHS changes, including:
- Paid pandemic leave
- New regulations on safety and health standards, and
- Compulsory notifications to Health Departments and OHS Regulators.
SafetyAtWorkBlog has been led to believe that the paid pandemic leave is intended to apply from the time a worker is tested for COVID19 through their isolation while waiting for the test results and the operation of sick leave should the test results be positive.
Below is some interesting occupational health and safety (OHS) issues that have appeared over the last week that I don’t have the time to explore in the usual depth but are useful.
Danger Money appears
David Marin-Guzman reports that unions are asking for an extra
“$5 an hour to compensate [disability workers] for risks in assisting clients suspected of having coronavirus.”
The reporter’s Twitter account justifiably describes this as “danger money“, an issue forecast as likely by this blog recently. That such an offer is made by the Health Services and United Workers Unions is disappointing but unions can do little else as the employers have the primary OHS responsibilities. What such action also does though is let the employers off lightly from their OHS duties to continuously improve workplace health and safety. The $5 danger money may be cheaper than implementing other risk control options but OHS laws have a process for this type of decision making that has Cost as the last option to be considered. Allowances do not reduce worker safety risks and they can undermine future OHS initiatives.
On May 4, 2006, John Della Bosca advised the New South Wales Parliament
“The Government will clarify that the general duties and obligations under the Act apply so far as is reasonably practicable. Ensuring the health and safety of employees will mean eliminating risks to health and safety so far as is reasonably practicable. Where it is not reasonable to eliminate a risk, employers will be required to reduce the risks to the lowest level reasonably practicable. Practical risk management does not require employers to go to extraordinary, unrealistic lengths, and never has. Rather, it requires the management of risks that are likely to affect health and safety over which the duty holder has a level of control. This is what the Government has always said, and it has always been Government policy. This is what it intends to enshrine in legislation to give greater certainty to both employers and employees.”
Della Bosca paints “so far as is reasonably practicable” (ASFAIRP) as an integral part of eliminating risks to health and safety and it is an integral part of OHS laws, but it is also a limitation, a condition and a concession in achieving safe and healthy workplaces and one that is drastically in need of a thorough independent review.