The restricted state of knowledge – NDAs and OHS

A core element of the management of occupational health and safety (OHS) is creating and maintaining a “state of knowledge” on hazards and risks. There is an enormous amount of information already available in various OHS encyclopaedias, wikis and bodies of knowledge, but some of the most important information continues to be locked up in non-disclosure agreements and confidentiality clauses. On the issue of workplace sexual harassment, a recently established inquiry in Victoria, Australia, is set to look at the mechanisms that are principally used to protect the reputation of companies and executives but that could also have broader OHS benefits.

Liberty Sanger and Bronwyn Halfpenny are heading a task force designed by the Victorian Government to

“…develop reforms that will prevent and better respond to sexual harassment in workplaces.”

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“reasonably practicable” reduces workers to a cash value

Legal interpretations dominate occupational health and safety (OHS). Understandably, if OHS is only determined by laws, but if the safety of workers is a moral imperative to you, the law is less significant. This latter perspective is rarely voiced, and one of the most important elements of OHS law is compliance “as far as is reasonably practicable” (ASFAIRP). ASFAIRP makes business sense but not necessarily safety sense, especially when one is dealing with the recent phenomenon of work-related mental health.

Some of the most powerful discussions on ASFAIRP and its place in providing safe and healthy workplaces occurred over a decade ago. However, the issue still resonates, and its perspective deserves continuous consideration.

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New workplace mental health info but no new strategy

On May 20, 2021, Australia’s Work Health and Safety (WHS) Ministers to discuss a range of occupational health and safety (OHS) matters. One matter will be the inclusion of a specific requirement on employers that, according to the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU):

“…. would finally require employers to identify and address risks to mental health, in the same way, they are required to with risks to physical health.”

What the ACTU fails to make clear is why this regulatory change is required when the duty to provide a physically and psychologically safe and healthy workplace already exists in the current OHS/WHS laws in Australia.

The ACTU does, however, with the help of the Australia Institute and Centre for Future Work, provide more data on work-related mental health. The union movement is one of the few voices that acknowledge the structural elements of OHS but fails to consider any options other than regulation and, with a federal conservative government in power, it is unlikely to receive an attentive audience.

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OHS needs to get a seat at the ESG table

There has always been an overlap between environmental safety and occupational health and safety (OHS). This has happened not because of any particular similarity between the two disciplines but rather because of company executives’ duties, responsibilities, and accountabilities.

A recent report produced through the Centre for Policy Development (CPD) says this about climate change responses:

“Care needs to be taken to ensure that climate-related targets and analysis are rigorous, underpinned by appropriate governance, strategy and action, reflected in financial statements as required.”

Replace “climate” with “OHS”, and the overlap is clear. This is particularly important at this time when Australia is preparing its next national OHS strategy.

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“Hmm, do tell me more” – safety leadership

Recently the Australian Institute of Health and Safety (AIHS) conducted a lunchtime online seminar on leadership. The speakers were prominent Australian women – Naomi Kemp, Diane Smith-Gander, Kirstin Ferguson and Queensland Minister Grace Grace. Although the seminar was hosted as part of the Women in Safety and Health group, these events are open to everyone. As work-related sexual harassment has shown, men are as involved in the process of safety and harm prevention as are women.

One of the biggest weaknesses of any safety management system, safety culture or safety leadership, comes from hypocrisy. Leaders state the importance of occupational health and safety (OHS) to the business then make decisions where OHS and worker welfare is dismissed or minimised, or rationalised dubiously to “as far as is reasonably practicable”.

Smith-Gander spoke about how executives should embed OHS into all the Board and executive decisions beyond the obligatory and often poor quality “Safety Moments” at the start of a meeting.

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Selective duty of care being applied by the Australian Government – from the archive

Yesterday’s article on Comcare’s recent charging of two organisation over workplace-related harm to others generated so much interest that I have (re)published an article from 2016 that analysed an earlier, similar issue. Please also read the comments below and consider adding your own.

Australia’s work health and safety (WHS) laws confirmed the modern approach to workplace safety legislation and compliance where workers and businesses are responsible for their own safety and the safety of others who may be affected by the work.  The obligations to others existed before the latest WHS law reforms, but it was not widely enforced.  The Grocon wall collapse in Victoria and the redefinition of a workplace in many Australian jurisdictions through the OHS harmonisation program gave the obligation more prominence but has also caused very uncomfortable challenges for the Australian government – challenges that affect how occupational health and safety is applied in Australian jurisdictions.

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‘No Bystanders Rule’​ Bullshit

Guest Post by Dr Rebecca Michalak

About couple of weeks ago, the Australian Financial Review (AFR) featured a piece on a law firm that had introduced a mandatory approach to reporting sexual harassment – referred to as a ‘no bystanders’ rule. 

To be clear upfront, here is my disclaimer – I am not directly commenting on the law firm in question; there isn’t enough information in the articles to make any objective judgements on that front. The references used from the two media pieces are for illustrative purposes only. Call them ‘conversation starters.’

In the AFR piece, the contractual obligation was outlined to involve: 

“…chang(ing) ‘should’ (report) to ‘must’ – so any staff member who experiences, witnesses, or becomes aware of sexual harassment must report it,” 

with the affiliated claim being,

“That shift really reinforces that there is zero tolerance – and there are no confidences to be kept; it needs to be outed – bystanders [staying silent] will no longer be tolerated.

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