On September 12 2020, The Australian’s workplace relations journalist Ewin Hannan wrote about working from home (WFH), a reasonable topic as many Australians have been asked to do this, often at the request of the State Government, in order to reduce and control the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. The structure of the article centred on the additional costs and risks to employers from having workers work from home, especially in relation to potential injuries and workers’ compensation. This perspective on occupational health and safety (OHS) is seriously skewed, but it reflects the dominant perspective in the media and the community. A little bit more research would have provided a more accurate picture about Working From Home.
So, Victoria now has Industrial Manslaughter laws. Now what? Within days of the activation of these laws a worker died at the Thales worksite in Bendigo. This location is covered by the Federal Work Health and Safety laws, but this has not stopped social media from mentioning Industrial Manslaughter. It seems now that every work-related death will be assessed through the IM lens. It may be that the threat of jail should always have been the starting point for occupational health and safety (OHS) penalties and investigations but initial responses to the IM laws have been mixed, and some seem to be more interested in what, in the past, has been a sideline to the IM discussion – deaths, in work vehicles, suicides and industrial illness.
The latest media release from the Australian Institute of Health and Safety (AIHS) shows a remarkable maturity and a newfound ability to be inclusive and topical.
The AIHS, in conjunction with several other occupational health and safety (OHS) related organisations, developed and released an important guidance on respiratory protection masks for the work environment. Not only is this super topical but the effort has the support of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), an organisation that, historically, has been reluctant to support OHS initiatives from outside trade union resources.
The primary purpose of the media release is to push the Federal Government for “the urgent establishment of a register for approved respirators (aka face masks)”, but this may be too simplistic and too narrow a focus especially when the issue of face masks is a critical part of the Governments’ plans to “reopen” the economy.
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.
SafetyAtWorkBlog had the chance to put some questions to Dr Tom Doig in early 2019 prior to the book’s release. Below is that exclusive interview.
SAWB: “Hazelwood” is predominantly a book that describes the social and environmental impacts of the Hazelwood. What, if any, overlap did workplace health and safety (WHS) and WorkSafe Victoria have in the fire’s aftermath?
TD: In the aftermath of the mine fire, a number of WHS issues have come to the fore. Firstly, in the 2014 Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry, a number of criticisms were made of Hazelwood’s regulatory framework, with a suggestion that there was a ‘regulatory gap’, as expressed by Mr Leonard Neist, Executive Director of the Health and Safety Unit at the Victorian Workcover Authority (VWA), at that time:
‘If I identify that gap as, who is responsible for regulating for the protection of public safety, regardless of what the source of the hazard or the risk is, who’s responsible for public safety, that’s where the gap probably is and I can’t—if you were to ask me right now, I can’t tell you who is responsible for regulating public safety. I’m responsible for regulating workplace safety and responsible for public safety as a result of the conduct of that undertaking, but I couldn’t tell you who is directly responsible.’
In this case, while VWA focuses on the health and safety of mine employees, they aren’t explicitly concerned with the health and safety of the general public, if a hazard – like a 45-day plume of toxic smoke – is dispersed beyond a specific workplace.