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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OHS subtext in Industrial Manslaughter discussions

Senator Deborah O’Neill continued her attack on Australia’s Liberal/National party government in Senate Estimates hearing last week.

With the Work Health and Safety (WHS) ministers split on the introduction of an Industrial Manslaughter (IM) offence in the Model WHS laws, Senator Michaelia Cash, Attorney-General, Minister for Industrial Relations and chair of that WHS meeting, could have voted in favour of these IM changes but declined. O’Neill saw this as a political weakness and challenged Senator Cash to justify her decision. The justifications, with a hint of arse-covering, were morally weak but legally sufficient. At one point, Senator Cash said:

“… a fundamental principle of work health and safety regulation in Australia, as you would be aware, is that liability should focus on risk, not outcome, because the evidence shows that when you focus on risk, as opposed to outcome—and the outcome that you are referring to here is a terrible outcome: a death in a workplace—it’s been proven to actually improve health and safety in workplaces.”

Hansard, June 2, 2021, page 8
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Non-military safety lessons from the latest Royal Commission (open access)

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation broadcast an episode of The Signal on April 21, 2021, which discussed the complexity of the culture of Australia’s military, and I strongly recommend you listen to it. It does make some points about culture worth contemplating in the context of one’s own workplace and profession.

The most useful point was that an established institution cannot have a uniform culture that meets the expectations of all relevant stakeholders. Generations take their culture with them. So those who started in the military in the 1980s and 1990s (and later) will bring the values and lessons of that time into their maturity and when they move into senior and leadership positions – positions that are intended to both preserve and progress the organisation’s culture. This will result in conflict between the expectations of new recruits and the realities of the established military executives. Not open revolt, but a dissatisfaction that may or may not result in leaving the organisation.

The topic used by The Signal to illustrate the extremes of the defence force members and stakeholders was mental health.

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The hill that OHS needs to climb for respectability remains a mountain

The current Australian debate about sexual harassment at work illustrates the forces ranged against occupational health and safety (OHS) being seen as a legitimate approach to preventing psychological harm. Entrenched Industrial Relations perspectives appear to be the biggest barrier. Such barriers are not always intentional and have evolved over years and decades as cultures and ideologies do. Some of the recent media coverage on the release of the Federal Government’s response to the report of the 2020 National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces illustrates the dominance of industrial relations thinking – part of the reason Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins has described elements of the government’s response as a missed opportunity.

The OHS profession must start to overtly tackle each of these dominant perspectives.

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A closer look at the positive duty to prevent sexual harassment

The big occupational health and safety (OHS) news in Australia has been the release of the federal government’s response to the Respect@Work report on sexual harassment in Australian workplaces. And the biggest issue in that response seems to be the government’s lack of enthusiasm for a major recommendation of Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, the inclusion of a positive duty in the sexual discrimination legislation. Many lawyers have been asked for their opinions on the government’s response, but very few OHS professionals.

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OHS is “… more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”

Occupational health and safety (OHS) may not be a common subject in the mainstream media but there is plenty of political discussion on the topic in Australia’s Parliament.

The current (conservative) federal government seems very slow to accept and respond to recommendations from official inquiries that it sees as a secondary political priority, such as sexual harassment and workplace health and safety. The hearings of the Senate’s Education and Employment Legislation Committee on March 24 2021, were, as usual, enlightening.

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Everyone wants to see consequences

In discussing the current changing power structures in Australian politics, journalist Annabel Crabbe wrote:

“The driving element of the new power is this: Actions that previously did not carry consequences are now carrying consequences. Behaviour that was once tacitly acceptable in the elaborate and bespoke workplace that is Parliament House is now — with the benefit of sunlight — recognised as unacceptable.”

On March 24 2021, lawyer Alena Titterton explained what underpins the calls for Industrial Manslaughter laws as:

“Everyone wants to see consequences.”

In many social policy and political areas, Australia is seeing a change in “the social will” to fill the current void in political will. This is a useful perspective through which to view recent Industrial Manslaughter campaigns.

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