OHS in politics this week

Foggy Winter Morning,Aerial view of the Parliament House Canberra,taken at Red Hill Lookout, Canberra,Australia.

Occupational health and safety (OHS) popped up in the Australian Parliament this week in odd, oblique ways. OHS was tied to

  • asbestos imports,
  • the Ensuring Integrity Bill,
  • a construction company owner in Western Australia, and
  • sexual harassment.

Question and Answers

On September 19 2019 several questions were put about the importation of asbestos containing products. The Government through the Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton, advised that:

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Look closely at the camel rather than the straw

There are strong parallels between the National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces and others addressing workplace issues, such as the Victorian Royal Commission into Mental and the Productivity Commission’s mental health inquiry, but there is also a connection to the Royal Commission into Banking and Financial Services which has focused the minds of some of Australia’s corporation s and leaders into examining their own workplace cultures and, for some, to reassess the role and application of capitalism.

This is going to become even more of a critical activity as the National Sexual Harassment Inquiry completes its report prior to its release in the first month or two of 2020.

Cultural analysis, and change, is often best undertaken first in a microcosm or specific social context. The experiences of sexual harassment of rural women in Australia is one such context, a context examined in detail by Dr Skye Saunders in her book “Whispers from the Bush“.

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Arts Wellbeing Collective shows how it’s done

From an occupational health and safety (OHS) perspective, part of the reason that the Arts Wellbeing Collective (AWC) is being so successful and admired is that it originated outside of the traditional OHS and Health funding models. Existing in the performing arts meant the Collective drew firstly on their modern version of patronage by approaching their sponsors.

Recently the CEO of the AWC, Claire Spencer, spoke at the launch of Victoria’s Health and Safety Month and reminded the audience of the dire straits the performance arts were in with relation to mental health. She referenced the research commissioned by Entertainment Assist and conducted by Victoria University

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Bystanders, safety hazards and prevention of harm – “what you do or don’t do”

Occupational health and safety (OHS) relies on workers to “blow the whistle” on the existence of hazards to their employers, even though the process is not considered whistleblowing. The avoidance of many workplace hazards has always relied on bystanders – one’s work colleagues who may say “watch out!” In recent years, the action of notifying employers and authorities of hazards, and of drawing colleagues’ attention to0 hazards has increased in prominence and debate, especially around the issue of psychological harm and, a subset of that harm – sexual harassment.

In September 2019, the Victorian Government released what it describes as a toolkit on bystander interventions in relation to sexual harassment and sexism. The full document is useful but, as with many government guidances on this issue, almost ignores the role of health and safety management in the prevention and reduction of this type of hazard.

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Important discussion of moral harm, moral repair and what can be done

Occupational health and safety (OHS) needs to talk more about failure, in a similar way that other business processes are dissected and reported. But the challenge to this, and I think the main reasons failure is not discussed, is that OHS failures result in serious injuries, life-altering conditions and deaths. OHS shares something with the medical profession which “buries its mistakes”. There appears to be something shameful in talking about these failures in public, although the OHS profession is full of chatty anecdotes in private.

One of the ways for OHS to discuss these uncomfortable experiences is to focus on Harm rather than legalities and the chase for compliance.

The first paragraph in Derek Brookes‘ new book, “Beyond Harm“, seems to speak to the OHS profession:

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