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.
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.
On May 15 2020, the Australian Government released a National Mental Health and Wellbeing Pandemic Response Plan. Mental Health has been on Prime Minister Morrison’s agenda since his election a year ago and the mental health sector is not going to be starved of government funds during his tenure.
Mental ill-health has been talked about throughout the current COVID19 Pandemic and has been forecast to increase due to the economic disruption and the requirements for social isolation. To some extent, the low numbers of COVID19 deaths in Australia has allowed it a “luxury” of addressing mental health, but some of the justifications seem not as strong as claimed and the National Mental Health Plan omits any consideration of occupational health and safety (OHS) other than for those in the health industry; the so-called “frontline workers”.
On the afternoon of May 8 2020 the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, and Chief Medical Officer, Brendan Murphy, revealed the decisions of the National Cabinet. This is a national plan developed with the agreement of State Premiers and Chief Ministers who will be largely responsible for how this plan is implemented in their local jurisdictions. Many of the occupational health and safety (OHS) challenges have been anticipated by business owners as discussed in this morning’s blog article but it is worth looking at the infographics of the plan revealed by Morrison and Murphy but also the transcript of the press conference as that provides an important context to what the government expects to happen.
The government released two infographics, one was four pages of the broad plan, the other is that plan split into industry sectors.
Many Australian workplaces will be reopening in the next few weeks. Their productivity capacity will change, their workplaces, will change and their approach to, and understanding of, occupational health and safety (OHS) will need to change. But there are signs that some business owners and employers are embracing risk and safety in this new operating climate but there are others who are either denying the changes needed, are struggling to think creatively, are ill-informed or are stupid. Most of these realities were on display in a single edition of the Australian Financial Review (AFR) on May 8, 2020 (paywalled) – the primary source for this article.
The timing of the newspaper edition is important as it was published on the morning before the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, and Chief Medical Officer, Brendan Murphy, revealed the decisions of the National Cabinet. A further blog article will be produced on those decisions shortly.
Lifts and Whinging
The AFR front page carried a short story called “Elevated risks in office lifts” that shows the deficiencies of several thought processes mentioned above.