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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“as far as politically practicable”

Last week WorkSafe Victoria announced that it was prosecuting the Department of Health over breaches of its occupational health and safety (OHS) duties with the management of Victoria’s Hotel Quarantine program. There is very little information available beyond what is included in the WorkSafe media release until the filing hearing at the Magistrates’ Court on October 22 2021.

Most of the current commentary adds little and usually builds on the existing campaigns to charge (Labor) Premier Dan Andrews with Industrial Manslaughter. Still, it is worth looking at WorkSafe’s media release and the thoughts of some others.

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No psych regulation in Victoria until mid-2022

The Victorian Government has pledged to introduce regulations to address psychological risks in workplaces. According to a second consultation paper on psychological health regulations, seen by SafetyAtWorkBlog, the consultation process continues but has been extended, so the new regulations are unlikely before the middle of 2020. This extension would seem a little unnecessary given the work on this hazard already from Safe Work Australia and SafeWorkNSW.

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Angry workers demanding access? OHS has got this – sort of

The reopening of workplaces in some Australian States is causing alarm over potential violence and abuse from those who do not meet or choose not to meet the new COVID-19 access requirements. This is perhaps most succinctly put in a recent article in The Guardian (paywalled) asking “… who will enforce rules for unvaccinated customers” – a question with which many employers are struggling.

The article discussed the expectations of employers about the rules or public health orders that they are expected to enforce but also about who can they call on if there is trouble, given there are mixed messages from the New South Wales government, in particular. (If “unprecedented” was the most used word in 2020, “mixed messages” may be the 2021 equivalent)

The enforcement question is being faced by all workplaces in all States that need to reopen under COVID-19 restrictions.

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Time for a rebrand to Organisational Health and Safety?

Outside of unionised workplaces, psychological hazards are usually managed as part of the Human Resources (HR) function. HR’s principal reference point is the industrial relations (IR) laws. Occupational health and safety (OHS) overlaps with IR and HR but is usually treated as the annoying little brother following his siblings, who know better because they are older and closer to adulthood.

This situation must change for employers to effectively prevent mental ill-health in their workplaces, but it will require more concessions, or maturity, from Human Resources professionals. Lawyer Alena Titterton hinted at this change in a recent article for the Australian Institute of Health and Safety.

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Anonymous reporting in Victoria’s legal sector

Industry groups and employers should accept the reality of their occupational health and safety (OHS) duties, especially concerning sexual harassment. Recently the Victorian Legal Services Board (VLSB) launched an online complaints service for lawyers. According to the September 16, 2021, media release, the service:

“…enables both targets and witnesses of sexual harassment to report what happened, where, when and to whom. Reporters can provide as much or as little detail as they feel comfortable”

The attraction of this service is that one would expect such a service from a legal services board to be spot on with its legal and privacy, and human rights obligations. But then, that comes from a non-lawyer.

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