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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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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Ventilation is an obvious COVID-19 control but could be a bugger to use

Vaccines are currently the most effective tool available to minimise the spread of COVID-19 to large populations. Fortunately, effective vaccines have been able to be manufactured at such a rapid pace. But previous pandemics have not had vaccines and have had to rely, primarily, on hygiene and isolation. Part of the hygiene practice was to ensure that buildings were well-ventilated. Ventilation actions on COVID-19 were part of Europe’s response to the pandemic in 2020, but Australia has only just started to accept the need for improved ventilation as it was very late to the risks of aerosol transmission.

As vaccinated workers return to workplaces in many of Australia’s urban centres, employers will need to assess their occupational health and safety (OHS) duties in new ways, and ventilation will be a significant challenge.

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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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Off-centre perspectives can offer great potential

The Australian government has failed to follow through on its early promises to provide a framework for employers to prevent and reduce sexual harassment in their workplaces. This failure is being interpreted as revealing something about employers’ attitudes to occupational health and safety (OHS) and their own legislative duties.

Employers (and other groups on non-OHS issues) who look to the government for guidance on issues that already have legislative requirements are looking to avoid the social and legal obligations that have usually existed for years. Sexual harassment is an excellent example of a workplace matter getting some serious attention regardless of the government’s inaction. A recent podcast by Maddocks lawyers Catherine Dunlop and Tamsin Webster is part of that attention.

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Steve Bell outlines the challenges for the OHS profession and Regulators

Almost every year, for a couple of decades, Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) and the Australian Institute of Health and Safety (AIHS) have conducted a breakfast seminar to “launch” the year. That schedule has been cocked up by COVID-19, but the events continue.

The August 2021 breakfast featured several of the usual speakers but with the omission of the Minister for Workplace Safety or a senior representative of Worksafe Victoria. As a result, the event dragged a little. Most of the information was useful, but the event lacked the spark it often has. Perhaps this was the online format, perhaps the mix of speakers, perhaps the 90-minute length.

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Why would you NOT make COVID vaccinations mandatory?

Now that Australia is vaccinating its people at a reasonable rate from a very slow start, the issue of mandatory vaccinations for workers has reappeared. Several months ago the issue was more hypothetical but evidence has appeared from England, the United States and Israel about vaccination rates and the resumption of business and work. Australian businesses need to reach a clear position on vaccinations and the return of employees to workplaces, and this will require an assessment of the ethics applied by employers.

The occupational health and safety (OHS) position is remarkably clear but is not really being heard or promoted.

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