Australians become impatient for change on sexual harassment

Victoria, perhaps, has the best chance of applying occupational health and safety (OHS) principles to the prevention of sexual harassment and the psychological harm that harassment can generate. In the wake of the sexual harassment allegations against former Justice Dyson Heydon, several reviews into the legal profession have been announced.

Sexual harassment at work remains on the national agenda with the Federal Government yet to respond to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s (AHRC) Respect@Work Report which has been sitting with the government since March 2020.

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Call for change on sexual harassment could use support from OHS

Discussion on the sexual harassment allegations against former High Court judge Dyson Heydon continue even though some Australian States’ media have returned to COVID19 clusters and football. On July 6, 2020, five hundred women in the legal profession published an open letter calling for

“… wider reforms to address the high incidence of sexual harassment, assault and misconduct in the legal profession”

The signatories call for an independent complaints body for the Australian judiciary and changes to the appointment of judges. What is missing is Prevention.

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Lancing the boil of sexual harassment

The Australian Institute of Safety and Health’s online national conference offered some big topics this year. One of the most anticipated was the discussion of sexual harassment in the workplace. Luckily the panel discussion included big hitters such as Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins whose week was about to get a lot busier with the revelations of sexual harassment by Australia’s High Court Justice Dyson Heydon.

The Dyson Heydon sexual harassment accusations, which he emphatically denies, were revealed in an independent investigation for the High Court of Australia. The Justice Heydon case has generated copious media attention for many reasons including his prominence in a politically-charged Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption. His sexual harassment offences are awful, but the most startling revelations are not necessarily about one man’s inappropriate actions. Here was an organisational, maybe even a professional, culture that permitted this behaviour to continue unchallenged for many many years. It is this context that, I believe, offers the most significant lessons for the occupational health and safety (OHS) profession and where OHS skills can help others.

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How OHS can change the world

Yesterday, I was critical of an Industrial Relations paper written by the Australian Industry Group for not integrating occupational health and safety (OHS) into the submission to Government. This omission is indicative of the conceptual silos of OHS, Industrial Relations, Human Resources, and general business decision-making, and is certainly not limited to business organisations like the AiGroup.

In a presentation at the upcoming National Health and Safety Conference conducted by the Australian Institute of Health and Safety I urge OHS people to

“Provide submissions to any or all formal government inquiries, regardless of topic…”

This is an extension of the aphorism that safety is everyone’s responsibility and deserves some explanation. Through that explanation to the right people, on the right topic, at the right time, OHS could change the world.

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Gender, OHS and Checklists

The topicality and importance of many issues highlighted in early 2020 have disappeared. One of them was the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace and Libby Lyons, Director of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, has released the speech she intended to give at the, now cancelled, Commission on the Status of Women meeting at the United Nations. Lyons said this about sexual harassment and employers:

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