The fluctuating grey zone of compliance

The occupational health and safety (OHS) profession operates within the legislative context of “so far as is reasonably practicable“, that band of compliance, that non-prescriptive, performance-based flexibility offered to employers to encourage them to provide safe and healthy workplaces. It could be said that OHS was easier forty years ago because the compliance band was thinner, and in some cases, compliance was determined by specialist OHS inspectors on the day of the visit.

Today, that compliance band fluctuates and can be affected by community values and expectations, as shown in a recent discussion about sexual harassment at Australia’s Fair Work Commission.

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Mental confusion

Recently, Safe Work Australia published exciting and important data about mental health at work. The data seems to support the assertion that psychosocial hazards at work are a significant risk, but I remain confused. I asked SWA to help unconfuse me and they have tried.

One of the biggest handicaps that occupational health and safety (OHS) has experienced over decades is translating data and research into terms and concepts that the layperson (of which I claim to be) can understand. OHS communication is improving, but more effort is needed.

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A refresh of the Code of Practice for Working Hours could be of great benefit

Many workers have a working week that includes more hours than they were contracted for. This is often described as “unpaid overtime”, which is a misnomer as “overtime” traditionally involves being paid a higher rate of income to compensate for making one available beyond or “over” regular business hours. Unpaid overtime can also be considered employer- and employee-endorsed exploitation and lead to industrial disputes, as junior doctors recently showed in Victoria.

Since 2006, the West Australian government has had a Code of Practice for Working Hours, with supporting documents such as risk management guidelines. This level of prescription could be applicable in supporting and clarifying newly-emphasised occupational health and safety (OHS) duties for psychosocially healthy work.

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New Sexual Harassment Code is part of the workplace mental health transition

This month Safe Work Australia (SWA) released its Code of Practice – Sexual and gender-based harassment, which applies to almost all Australian occupational health and safety (OHS) jurisdictions. It is an important document for many reasons, not the least is to reduce, and hopefully to prevent, the potential for life-altering psychological harm. It is also important in the expansion of management areas traditionally managed through personnel departments to include OHS concepts and control measures.

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Is this the end of corporate wellness?

Yesterday, one of my LinkedIn posts reached over 20,000 impressions. The post concerned new research that questioned the effectiveness of corporate wellbeing programs. Some responses were febrile even though they had not read the open-access article! The points raised in the research were not new. Some have been covered in this blog previously, but the New York Times raised the question of the viability of corporate wellness programs in 2020.

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OHS seems to be no more than a “nice-to-have” to Australian politicians

Several events or non-events at the recent 23rd World Congress on Safety and Health at Work illustrated the political attitude to occupational health and safety in Australia, especially the lack of presence of national figures on official duties.

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Psychosocial laws may encourage political risks

In December, Australian law firm Maddocks launched its 2023 Year in Review. Two items were directly relevant to occupational health and safety (OHS) – Sexual Harassment and Psychosocial Safety – both addressed by Catherine Dunlop. The size of the challenge ahead on both these topics was shown by the Australian Financial Review on December 7, 2023:

“Fewer than half of directors are confident their companies will be able to adhere to new workplace sexual harassment standards when they come into force next week, with just one in five female directors saying their boards understand the requirements of the new regime.”

Outside of the Maddocks launch, there is also some speculation that Victoria’s proposed psychosocial regulations may never happen.

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