Recently the Australian Institute of Health and Safety (AIHS) conducted an online conference under the title SafeFest. The intention was to challenge the established orthodoxy of workplace health and safety. One of the conference’s first speakers was David Whitefield talking about safety as a “wicked problem”. It is a perspective that occupational health and safety (OHS) professionals have heard before but it is one that is an important reminder.
Occupational health and safety (OHS) laws are intended to clarify who is responsible for workplace health and safety and to assist those responsible to fulfil their OHS duties. But responsibility is hardly ever discussed in reality except after an incident. A core question at that time is “Who was responsible?”, with the social subtext being “It wasn’t me.” OHS laws have already established broad OHS responsibilities which we accept when we have to, but deny when we don’t.
Clear, defined roles and responsibility are core to our understanding of workplace health and safety and the establishment of a safe and healthy workplace, and also of corporate integrity and productivity.
Recently the Finance Sector Union (FSU) released a small study on ethics and capitalism. The report illustrates how poor corporate ethics and greed created a disregard for the mental health of the finance industry’s workers as well as the financial and mental health of its customers.
The report – “Justice Tempered – How the finance sector’s captivity to capitalist ethics violates workers’ ethical integrity and silences their claims for justice” – was written by John Bottomley, Brendan Byrne and John Flett. Although it is based on detailed interviews with only eight finance sector workers, the authors use these conversations as a catalyst for broader discussions of ethics with extensive cross referencing of relevant, books, publications and, especially, the findings and report of the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry.
Business management, including safety management, talks about “step changes”, new paradigms and a lot of jargon. Part of the use of this language is an attempt to manage progress and change in small comprehensible chunks. But it can also expose business owners to short-term fads, giving rise to frustration and cynicism about occupational health and safety (OHS).
One example of the step change mindset was on display several years ago in LinkedIn where the image above was posted, sadly, with no context. The before/after structure of this graphic is often used in the management of workplace health and safety.
The recent employment data for Australia shows record levels of unemployment due, largely, to COVID19. People are out of work and are seeking jobs in areas and occupations with which they are unfamiliar, and we know that new workers are at a high risk of injury. But “safe jobs” has rarely been a government priority.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg held a long press conference after the release of the employment statistics on June 18 2020. Nine times the pair stressed the government’s priority was to get Australians “back into work”. Safe and healthy jobs were never mentioned. One could argue that occupational health and safety (OHS) was not part of the economic discussion on that day (it never is) but there is an equal argument to say that the inclusion of either adjective “safe” and “healthy” could create a cultural change in Australian workplaces, a cost-reduction strategy for Australian businesses and an increased quality of life and improved social cohesion for all Australians.