When a ban is an understandable stunt

Australia has yet to offer a good reason for hazardous engineered stone products not being banned from import and use. On November 23 2022, Australia’s most influential construction union, the CFMEU, stated that it would ban these products from mid-2024 if the Federal Government does not. Trade unions no longer have the level of influence or numbers to achieve these sorts of bans. As with asbestos many years ago, such campaigns risk taking more credit for the potential occupational safety and health reforms than they deserve.

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A workplace injury could include adverse effects on physical, mental or cognitive conditions.

I recently refreshed my Lead Auditor in OHS training – the first time since Australia updated its Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems Standard to ISO45001. It was challenging on some issues but generic on others. Due to the recent heightened awareness of psychosocial hazards in the workplace, I was watching for how this hazard would be addressed. Still, I became stuck on the inclusion of “cognitive condition” in the definition of “injury and ill health”.

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Mixed OHS messages from business groups on COVID-19

COVID-19 and its variants persist as real risks in Australian workplaces, but employers want workers to continue to return to workplaces. Most of these workplaces have not been redesigned to increase ventilation. Most persist with long desks of multiple users in open-plan arrangements, although some continue with almost continuous cleaning regimes. Employers can argue that they are following public health guidelines (or their absence), but the occupational health and safety (OHS) risks still need managing.

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A new workplace hazard – Long Covid

The policy impacts of COVID-19 were missing from the recently concluded federal election campaign in Australia, but the coronavirus persists and continues to kill. Other than the issue of mandatory vaccinations, the occupational health and safety (OHS) context, outside of the health and emergency services sectors, has not been addressed since the initial SafeWork Australia guidance in March 2020.

The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work recently released a discussion paper on the “Impact of Long Covid on Workers and Workplaces and the Role of OSH”.

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COVID vaccination concerns exist in workplaces too

Recently NSCA Foundation conducted an online seminar on mandatory vaccinations. As happens with many online seminars, this one became more of a lecture because there was insufficient time allocated to answer the questions from the audience. The online seminar was in three sections – Occupational Health and Safety (OHS), Industrial Relations (IR) and Privacy. The information from Sparke Helmore lawyers was fine and current, but the questions from the audience provide an interesting insight on some of the main COVID vaccine challenges facing employers.

The seminar started with a useful poll. Below are the questions and results:

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It’s not the laws, it’s the implementation

A major criticism of the Australian government about its response to the COVID-19 pandemic is that it has provided mixed messages about what to do and when. Those messages are sometimes amended by State Governments, and the messages from both these sources could change in a matter of days. This creates an enormous challenge for businesses and their occupational health and safety (OHS) personnel, if they have any.

This is a major factor in the campaign by business and industry groups and trade unions for the government to issue Public Health Orders (PHO). PHOs take the risk assessments out of the hands of the employers by establishing specific criteria that are legally binding. This is convenient in the short term, but PHOs are regularly updated to address the changing COVID-19 situation, so the stability of messaging that PHOs hopefully remove could end up with similar administrative results for employers and business operators. This veneer of security was discussed recently by lawyer Michael Tooma.

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Ventilation is an obvious COVID-19 control but could be a bugger to use

Vaccines are currently the most effective tool available to minimise the spread of COVID-19 to large populations. Fortunately, effective vaccines have been able to be manufactured at such a rapid pace. But previous pandemics have not had vaccines and have had to rely, primarily, on hygiene and isolation. Part of the hygiene practice was to ensure that buildings were well-ventilated. Ventilation actions on COVID-19 were part of Europe’s response to the pandemic in 2020, but Australia has only just started to accept the need for improved ventilation as it was very late to the risks of aerosol transmission.

As vaccinated workers return to workplaces in many of Australia’s urban centres, employers will need to assess their occupational health and safety (OHS) duties in new ways, and ventilation will be a significant challenge.

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