“the point is not science, but safety”

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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.”

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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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Liability, COVID19, Manslaughter and Working from Home – Welcome to the new OHS

Last week WorkSafe Victoria followed some of the other Australian States by requiring employers to report positive COVID19 cases as “notifiable incidents”. (If they can do this fro COVID19, shouldn’t it be possible to do the same for mental health disorders?) Expanding the pool of notifiable incidents is of little practical consequence but it is indicative of how occupational health and safety (OHS) management is changing, and how Industrial Manslaughter is becoming a pervasive threat.

Managing Liability

In the Australian Financial Review (AFR) on August 4 2020, employer liability for COVID19 incidents was discussed. Liberty Sanger of union-associated law firm, Maurice Blackburn, spoke of the importance of genomic testing to better identify the origin of the infection, ie. was it caught at work or at home.

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Is it time for a Department of Safety?

The COVID19 pandemic is a public health challenge but what happens when workplaces are integral to the control and spread of the virus? This overlap between public health and occupational health is complicated and unlikely to be resolved in the short term, however, it can fixed in the longer term. The crisis in the Australian State of Victoria (where this author lives) offers an example of this complexity, but also an opportunity for positive change, perhaps even, a Department of Safety.

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All jobs are now more dangerous

The COVID19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on the government agencies that regulate and enforce occupational health and safety (OHS) laws. These regulators are not the lead agencies in pandemic control but as some countries relax lock-down protocols and people return to work in changed work environments, the role and actions of the OHS regulators are being re-evaluated.

Sarah O’Connor, in the Financial Times, opened her 26 May 2020 article brilliantly with

” Covid-19 has upended our notion of what a dangerous job looks like”

Office were often dismissed as low-risk workplaces with many site safety walks, if they happened, reporting on torn carpet and other similar hazards. That way of assessing risk should have been replaced, or supplemented, with assessments of the psychosocial risks of stress, bullying, a harassment, excessive workloads and many more harmful practices. So, offices may have a low risk of traumatic physical injuries but a higher level of risk of psychological harm. On top of this reassessment comes an infection risk that can be spread by workers showing no symptoms. Office-based risk has increased again and made the workplace itself dangerous.

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COVID19 and Safety Managers

Several weeks ago, researchers from Griffith University and Queensland University of Technology (QUT) commenced a survey about safety managers and COVID19. The research was called “Resilience in a COVID19 World” and aimed at

“Exploring health and safety measures taken by and for ‘essential services’ workers throughout Australia’s COVID-19 crisis, and how their contributions affect personal and organisational resilience.”

Some initial results are in a recent outline published by Dr Tristan Casey & Dr Xiaowen Hu through The Culture Effect consultancy. There were four key challenges but also significant positives.

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