Talking about safety without saying much

The Australian Federal Budget is to be released very soon. As in every year, corporate and industry lobbyists release wishlist budget submissions even though there is no formal submission process. Sometimes these submissions include information, statements and pitches concerning occupational health and safety (OHS). The Master Builders Australia’s prebudget submission has been around since early January 2022 and the OHS chapter is educative on how the Master Builders Australia (MBA), and perhaps similar organisations, sees and understands OHS.

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Why bother with the Federal Government on OHS matters?

Australian political debate has a recurring thread of State and Federal responsibility. Currently, this debate focuses on the emergency response for floods in Queensland and New South Wales. Before this was the COVID response and the Black Summer bushfires. This argument over responsibility has trickled along for many years, for Constitutional and other reasons, including occupational health and safety (OHS).

Some years ago, all the Australian governments had a stab at resolving the split without reforming the Constitution through the OHS harmonisation strategy. It tweaked the system without Constitutional reform, but OHS will remain primarily a State and Territory matter (except for Comcare). This allows Prime Minister Scott Morrison to make bold statements (and some not-so-bold) about national problems like sexual harassment in Australian workplaces or worker exploitation in agriculture, understanding that the local jurisdictions are the ones who need to fix and police the problems.

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HR and OHS remain “nice-to-haves.”

The recent HR/OHS article was an article originally intended to link to International Women’s Day regarding “female” business roles and influence. Coincidentally my social media feeds popped up a 2015 article from the Harvard Business Review entitled “Why We Love to Hate HR…and What HR Can Do About It“.

The author, Peter Capelli, reminds us that in the 19950s and 1960s Personnel Management was considered “the most glamourous area in business by executives” as it was considered integral to developing the business. Human Resources changed when an increasing number of managers were appointed from outside the organisation and the “full employment” of the 1970s reduced the perceived need for powerful HR departments. The HR role was reduced to essential services of hiring and retention.

Capelli suggested two strategies to regain influence, which are equally relevant to the occupational health and safety (OHS) professional:

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If the research is clear, why aren’t employers reacting?

Excessive working hours are harmful. This uncomfortable truth was recently spoken by the Harvard Business Review. The changes to prevent this harm is obvious to most of us involved with health and safety but remains uncomfortable to everyone else.

In an article called “The Research is Clear: Long Hours Backfire for People and for Companies, Sarah Green Carmichael posits three reasons for overwork:

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Consultation is soooo radical

The occupational health and safety (OHS) sector has made much noise about workplace safety cultures. So, it is interesting to watch corporate debates on culture, especially with the increased attention to the psychological harm that some cultures create for workers. The Australian Financial Review’s (AFR) BOSS section included a short article about the the possible consequences of an autocratic leadership style, in this case, the conduct of Newcrest’s Sandeep Biswas.

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Working Hours and Leadership

The workplace issues of excessive hours, unpaid overtime and the negative mental health and social disruption effects are becoming more commonly discussed but not, necessarily, fixed.  A persistent example of these workplace hazards is the sitting of Parliament.

Parliamentarians are not always good examples of leadership and nor are they good managers of their workplace responsibilities, as shown by the response to sexual harassment and alleged assaults in the Federal Parliament House. A less controversial example of their management is the flexible hours applied to the passing of, usually contentious, legislation.

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Speaking truth to power

Last week two young women, Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins, made speeches at the National Press Club about the sexual abuse of minors and an alleged sexual assault in Parl ment House, respectively, and the social changes required to prevent both risks. Both spoke about the need to prevent these abuses and assaults. OHS needs to understand and, in some ways, confront what is meant by preventing harm. The words of Tame and Higgins help with that need.

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