Guidance can help but change needs a challenge

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) has released a guide for employers on managing sexual harassment in workplaces. It contains a lot of helpful information, but it also illustrates the self-imposed limits that business has on preventing workplace psychological hazards. To a lesser extent, it is downplaying the preventative role of occupational health and safety (OHS).

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“Too little, too late” but potential in primary prevention

On Australia’s Women’s Safety Summit, Wendy Tuohy contemplated, in The Age, after the first day;

“It may turn out to be too little, too late, but if there’s real commitment behind Morrison’s lines, we could conclude it’s a start.”

There are few signs of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s commitment. Women will continue to work in companies and workplaces where they are at risk of psychological harm from sexual harassment and physical harm from sexual assault. Occupational health and safety (OHS) laws offer a harm prevention option that nobody seems keen to consider.

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Back to the old office in a new world

Many employers are rattling around floors of empty offices while their employees are working remotely or at home and almost entirely due to modern telecommunications. This has not been at the request of employers but due to government lockdown requirements. The push to have workers return to multi-storey offices is reflective of the desire to return to normal rather than accepting that established business structures have been rendered impractical or unfeasible for the coronavirus future.

A recent article in the New York Times illustrates this new circumstance well. The article, titled “New surveys show how pandemic workplace policies are shifting“, says that the major information technology companies in the United States that every business seems to want to emulate even though their practices are very questionable are continuing to postpone the return of workers to bricks and mortar (or glass and stainless steel) offices. The NYTimes article is the first to discuss this phenomenon and its relation to mandatory vaccinations.

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Can the sex industry be the same as any other industry?

The Australian State of Victoria has committed to the decriminalisation of sex work. It made this decision some time ago, conducted an inquiry into how this could be achieved and is now in a further consultative process on what laws and practices need to change. The aim is honourable – to reduce the stigma of a legitimate industry. However, there is one statement repeated in media releases and discussion papers that encapsulates the challenge:

“Decriminalisation recognises that sex work is legitimate work and should be regulated through standard business laws, like all other industries in the state.”

That challenge is can, and should, Victoria’s sex industry be treated like “all other industries”?

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NZ research into transport industry OHS is relevant everywhere

In 2019, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews flagged that incidents involving commercial vehicles would be reflected in workplace health and safety statistics. There has been little visible change on this pledge. Still, recently WorkSafe Victoria reviewed its work-related fatality statistics to include truck fatalities and other causes of work-related deaths for the last couple of years. Guess what, the number of deaths almost doubled for that period from 26 to 49!! What would the rate of serious injuries be if it was also reassessed?

New Zealand undertook a similar exercise a few years ago, which has led to a significant research project into that country’s transport industry and supply chains, a research project with substantial relevance to Australia and elsewhere.

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Is tripartism a closed shop?

Occupational health and safety (OHS) policy in Australia has been determined through a tripartite structure of representatives from Government, Industry and Trade unions for decades. It has not changed because the structure recommended in the early 1970s suited the political power structure. However, there are several indications that this tripartite consultative mechanism may be showing its age.

Recently, Safe Work Australia has been consulting OHS professionals, advocates, and commentators through Accenture to develop its next 10-year strategy document. (I have been one of those interviewed) That it is interviewing beyond its traditional pool of experts is heartening. However, it will still need to consult further and with those who have traditionally been critical of government intervention and over-regulation.

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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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