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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Is WorkSafe jumping the gun?

In mid-February 2021, WorkSafe Victoria issued a media release informing the community that it has charged a contractor following a worker’s death at a residential building site in Ballarat. Informing the community in such an early stage of a prosecution raises the issue of fairness and, according to one prominent occupational health and safety (OHS) lawyer, appears a little “unseemly”.

The revelation of legal action in any area of enforcement is tricky, with each case raising unique combinations of concern. Does the accused know of the prosecution? And before anyone else is told? Is the revelation in the public interest? Does it taint any future hearing or court appearance? Does it affect the chance of a successful prosecution or a successful defence? All of these are valid questions that need asking and answering in each case. Worksafe would surely have considered these matters before the February 2021 media release, but let’s look at the release in a different context.

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Business continuity planning by another name

Occupational health and safety (OHS) gets a mention in a full-page advertorial in the Australian Financial Review (AFR) (February 3 2021, page 33) revolving around the legal and business services of Clyde & Co. The advertorial contains a good example of the contemporary business jargon such as “organisational resilience” – a concept that has come to the fore during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Organisational resilience” has several definitions but here is one used by the British Standards Institution:

“….the ability of an organization to anticipate, prepare for, respond and adapt to incremental change and sudden disruptions in order to survive and prosper.”

This has very strong similarities to the much longer-established concepts of “business continuity” or sustainability within which OHS has dabbled for decades.

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Business nuggets from the Australian Financial Review

It is not possible to write as many occupational health and safety (OHS) articles as I would like to, and my newspaper clippings files are bulging by the time I get some time to tidy up. The Australian Financial Review (AFR) is an expensive business newspaper that often touches on OHS matters even though OHS may not be the core of the story. Below is a short discussion of many of those clippings from 2020. Most of the AFR articles are paywalled but can often be tracked down through other measures.

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The HR approach to mental health needs to be challenged

Human Resources (HR) management may seem to be a bit of a punching bag in SafetyAtWorkBlog articles. There is no doubt that HR can do better to prevent harm, especially psychological harm, but so can ever other management profession. One 2018 article was recently reposted by Human Resources Director (HRD) magazine on workplace mental health which deserves some consideration.

Firstly the article is categorised under “Corporate wellness”, instantly locking it into a specific area of HR and occupational health and safety (OHS). The article, written by lawyer Amber Chandler of Barker Henley, also has relevance to risk management, due diligence, Industrial Relations or OHS and, as mentioned in another article recently, could benefit from being posted or cross-posted in those other categories, or even under “Leadership”. The categorisation is likely to have been an editorial decision but reveals something about HR and HR media.

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