Industrial Manslaughter, psychologically safe workplaces and insecure work – just another day in the Senate

Australia has entered a federal election campaign, but the mechanics of the Australian parliament continued, and various occupational health and safety (OHS) comments were voiced in Senate Estimates. These comments touched on Industrial Manslaughter, regulations on psychologically safe workplaces and insecure work.

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Should heartlessness be the status quo?

On April 7, 2022, prominent trade unionist Luke Hilakari had an opinion piece published in The Age newspaper titled “Paul was told he has arthritis. His workplace injury was far more serious”. Hilakari told a story, familiar to many, of one man’s journey from workplace injury to impecunious hardship.

The story is tough to read and full of injustices, but the political point of the article is lost. The Victorian Government has been provided with a report that could reduce the bureaucratic and surveillance challenges faced by Paul, but the system itself will not change.

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Nobody hates ‘”reasonably practicable” – we tolerate it

Do unions want employers to hold an absolute duty of care for work health and safety? Do unions hate the concept “as far as is reasonably practicable”?

The last Australian jurisdiction to hold employers to an absolute duty of care was New South Wales. That position was eroded by the harmonisation process and NSW OHS laws moving to the Work Health and Safety regime. An absolute duty of care, in the SafetyAtWorkBlog dictionary, is that the employer is responsible for any injuries occurring at work.

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Why don’t we act on the evidence?

Several years ago, I worked for an organisation that handed out awards for exceptional efforts and achievements. One time the award was given to a worker who had worked in the office for most of the weekend to meet a semi-important deadline. I was horrified as that worker had sacrificed important “downtime” with family friends and his own welfare with no time in lieu. But he was lauded by the boss.

Rewarding those who sacrifice their own health and safety for the apparent good of the company must change as there is increasing evidence that working long hours increases serious health risks. An extensive research project for the World Health Organisation has found:

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No fanfare for Victoria’s workers’ compensation review

This week the Victorian Government released Peter Rozen‘s report called Improving the experience of injured workers: A review of WorkSafe Victoria’s management of complex workers’ compensation claims. The public release has been long anticipated as it has been sitting with the Minister for Workplace Safety, Ingrid Stitt, since April 2021.

The Review was forced on the Government after the second damning report on WorkSafe Victoria’s performance from Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass. In some ways, Rozen’s report can be seen as the third report into the Victorian workers’ compensation scheme.

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Why bother with the Federal Government on OHS matters?

Australian political debate has a recurring thread of State and Federal responsibility. Currently, this debate focuses on the emergency response for floods in Queensland and New South Wales. Before this was the COVID response and the Black Summer bushfires. This argument over responsibility has trickled along for many years, for Constitutional and other reasons, including occupational health and safety (OHS).

Some years ago, all the Australian governments had a stab at resolving the split without reforming the Constitution through the OHS harmonisation strategy. It tweaked the system without Constitutional reform, but OHS will remain primarily a State and Territory matter (except for Comcare). This allows Prime Minister Scott Morrison to make bold statements (and some not-so-bold) about national problems like sexual harassment in Australian workplaces or worker exploitation in agriculture, understanding that the local jurisdictions are the ones who need to fix and police the problems.

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“Insecure work is absolutely toxic”

The Victorian Government is trialling the provision of five days of sick, and carers’ leave for casual workers.  This was announced jointly by the Premier Daniel Andrews and the Minister for Workplace Safety, Ingrid Stitt on the Labour Day public holiday, indicating that this is a big reform and one directly related to occupational health and safety (OHS).  But the OHS arguments are not at the fore, regardless of the quote from the Premier that is the headline above.

The OHS context of precarious work has been articulated clearly and over many years by many Australian researchers. The lack of serious action by employers to address the structural causes of physical and psychological risks related to precarity offers a good indication of the values and priorities of business owners and employers. 

Into this void, the Victorian Government has stepped.  Sadly, it is a mini-step that offers more political benefits than tangible change, especially in an election year.

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