COVID, Blame and Employers

Australia has not had a crisis in public health to the magnitude of COVID-19 for a very long time. It is understandable for people to look at a public health crisis through the reference point of their own experience and profession. There is an overlap between the management of the pandemic and occupational health and safety (OHS), but that overlap should not be inflated.

Jason Thompson wrote an excellent (and recommended) article on COVID-19 and blame for the University of Melbourne titled “Get Ready for a Shift in the COVID Blame Game”. I had the chance to put a few questions to him about the article.

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Twelve months of work-related deaths

In 2008, prominent occupational health and safety (OHS) advocate, Hilda Palmer wrote about the inadequate estimates of work-related deaths in the United Kingdom. Keeping work-related death confined to traditional categories provides a false understanding of the reality of OHS. Palmer wrote:

“Far from being complacent about the health and safety record in this country, we need to be honest and open, and examine what is really going on”.

Recently, at the 2021 Workers Memorial, a representative of the Victorian Trades Hall read out a list of those who have died at, or due to, work in the last 12 months. It was a list of 47 people. The categories have expanded to include truck incidents, asbestosis, silicosis as well as the more traditional traumatic injuries. Curiously no suicides. A transcripted list of those 47 is below.

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Change in the air on ventilation

One of Edward O’Donoghue’s recent Motion supporters in Victoria’s Parliament was Georgie Crozier, the Liberal Opposition’s Shadow Health Minister. In her speech in support of the Motion, she mentioned ventilation:

“I have been asking for the audits of what has occurred in hotel quarantine under the new structure that the government put in after that catastrophic failure of last year. They said, ‘The system’s fixed; everything is fine. We’ve got processes in place and it’s safe’. Well, it is not safe. I have been wanting to see those ventilation audits, see those safety audits, look at the issues that are arising here, because the other states are not having the same degree of breaches and problems and terrible consequences that we are in Victoria. So something is going wrong; something is going terribly wrong. It is the Andrews government that has to take responsibility for this. It is an absolute outrage that they continue to not take responsibility for this.”

Hansard, Page 24

Until recently, Australia was reluctant to accept the spread of COVID19 by air. The focus was on droplets and the cleanliness of surfaces. An aerosolised coronavirus’s risk was, until very late last year, a fringe risk – one not substantiated by evidence.

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Biden reverses Trump’s position on workplace safety

It is fair to say that the term of office for President Trump was not supportive of occupational health and safety (OHS). Former President Trump did not seem to see the need for OHS regulations and his attitude to the COVID-19 pandemic meant that it would never be considered as an occupational disease. Reports over the last week in the United States media, and the issuing of an Executive Order, indicate that new President Biden values workplace health and safety.

The New York Times (paywalled) is reporting that

“President Biden directed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration [OSHA] on Thursday to release new guidance to employers on protecting workers from Covid-19.
In one of 10 executive orders that he signed Thursday, the president asked the agency to step up enforcement of existing rules to help stop the spread of the coronavirus in the workplace and to explore issuing a new rule requiring employers to take additional precautions.”

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Mandatory COVID19 vaccinations? Yep.

Each Monday in January 2021, workers are returning to workplaces, worksites, and offices, often with regret that the Christmas/New Year break was not long enough. This year their return is complicated by concerns about COVID19.

The major talking point, at least in Australia, is “can an employer force a worker to be vaccinated as a condition of returning to work?” and the answer seems to be “Yes”.

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Alan Jones vs Dan Andrews

Not Alan Jones

The calls continue for the Victorian Premier, Dan Andrews, to be charged with Industrial Manslaughter over COVID19-related deaths that resulted from a poorly-managed hotel quarantine program. This time the topic was picked up be one of Australia’s conservative big guns, Alan Jones.

Jones hyperbolic rhetoric was on full display in his interview with Ken Phillips, who started the Andrews Industrial Manslaughter campaign.

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“the point is not science, but safety”

Early last year Professor Andrew Hopkins wrote the following about making important safety decisions:

“If you are a CEO in charge of a large company operating hazardous technologies, you cannot afford to wait for conclusive evidence. You must act on the basis of whatever imperfect knowledge you currently have.”

page 110

This seems relevant to those who have had to make decisions about COVID19 this year. In response to the Hopkins quote, I wrote:

“This applies equally to directors and managers of companies of all sizes. It is hard, it is uncomfortable, but it is part of running a business. It is the application of the “precautionary principle” which, if the precaution proves valid, you are a hero, a visionary and a leader; if it does not happen, you are seen as a doomsayer – a reputational potential that few are willing to risk. However, in terms of OHS and the safety of people, the precautionary principle should be given prominence over reputation for many reasons, for if there is a disaster and fatalities the precautionary principle will be analysed through hindsight and may be influential in arguing reasonable practicability.”

The continuing COVID19 pandemic is a disaster with an horrendous fatality rate and the Precautionary Principle has started to be discussed in academic research about COVID19 and face masks.

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