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.

Continue reading “Why would you NOT make COVID vaccinations mandatory?”

Law firms are a focus for sexual harassment reforms

This year coverage of The Australian newspaper’s annual Legal Partnership Survey has focused on the number of women partners in law firms. This increase has generated discussion on sexual harassment, which has revealed some of the activities that law firms use to prevent the psychological harm (and brand damage) from sexual harassment; many strategies that are already very familiar to the occupational health and safety profession

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins has been paraphrased in the article (paywalled), saying

Non-disclosure agreements should be used to protect people who have been the subject of sexual harassment, rather than to reduce brand damage to organisations…..”

[link added]
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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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Prevention is better than cure

The Hazelwood Mine Fire was a public health tragedy with an occupational context beyond the prosecution by WorkSafe Victoria. A clear example of the workplace risks was the fire-fighting efforts and the subsequent health impacts of David Briggs. According to a media release from the Maurice Blackburn law firm, Briggs had his successful WorkCover claim upheld by the Victorian Supreme Court last week.

Briggs has been mentioned several times in this blog’s coverage of the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry and the writing of Tom Doig on the catastrophe. His case should cause some very uncomfortable questions.

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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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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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Wage theft and work health and safety

Many large and small Australian businesses have been exposed as underpaying staff.  This exploitation is gradually being addressed in law firms, according to a report this morning in the Australian Financial Review (paywalled). In the context of occupational health and safety (OHS) though, the description in the first paragraph of “crippling workloads” is an important mention of relevance.

Reporter Hannah Wootton and David Marin-Guzman do not focus on the OHS and mental health aspects of these workloads in this article as underpayment is the focus, but they touch on OHS matters later when mentioning the Hayne royal commission:

“The royal commission sparked reports, including to workplace safety regulators, of crippling work hours that put lawyers’ health at risk and resulted in many sleeping at work.”

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