Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?

Occupational health and safety (OHS) laws continue to be relevant even when operating in a time of a highly infectious pandemic, but they are increasingly sidelined.

At the moment there are labour shortages in Australia because of the large number of workers infected, and affected, by the Omicron variant of COVID-19; a shortage exacerbated by the varying isolation and testing regimes applied by the Federal and State governments. It is a bit of a mess.

It is worth reminding ourselves that employers have a duty to proved a safe and healthy work environment with the support of employees. Employees are obliged to not allow hazards to be brought to work. At the moment, some employees are being encouraged or required to return to work if they are showing no COVID-19 symptoms; if they are asymptomatic. But everyone knows from experience and official advice over the last two years that asymptomatic people can continue to be infectious. Requiring workers to return to work, as seemed to be happening at one South Australian worksite, while still potentially infectious seems contrary to both the employer’s and employee’s OHS obligations.

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Why is the world “enthusiastic” for regulations?

Unsurprising from a global business magazine, The Economist’s special report on January 15 2002 (paywalled*) bemoaned the new “enthusiasm for regulation”. It clearly includes occupational health and safety (OHS) laws and Australia in its consideration but stops short of asking why this new enthusiasm exists.

Many regulations, especially in OHS, are proposed and introduced to address a wrong or misbehaviour or a new hazard. A major catalyst for Lord Robens‘ OHS laws in the 1970s stemmed from industrial deaths, especially those of the public. The pattern of deaths as a catalyst for change continues today with the Industrial Manslaughter laws, for instance. Another catalyst is new cultural sensitivities; what was tolerated previously is no longer acceptable.

The workplace bullying changes late last century in Australia is a good example, but this also ties in with unacceptable levels of harm. Bullying was often part of the initiation to work and seemed acceptable until workers were severely injured and traumatised, and people found out about it.

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A good job is also a safe job

At the moment, “The Great Resignation” remains a United States phenomenon, but part of that movement involves a reassessment of one’s job. Is it a good job? Is it meaningful work? Is it a good job now but likely not in the future? I would include my occupational health and safety perspective (OHS) and ask if it is a safe job, but I accept that my perspective is far from universal.

Recently Sarah O’Connor wrote in the Financial Times about the importance of having a decent boss. She wrote that

“Economists are increasingly of the opinion that the quality of jobs matter as much as their quantity”

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We can control workplace mental health if we want to

Some years ago, Time Management was all the rage. It was the precursor to the resurgence of the Work Smarter – Not Harder movement, but it seems to have faded from conversation recently. Part of the reason is that everyone is expected to be contactable, every day, every week, every month. And then we wonder why there seems to be a workplace mental health crisis?!

The answer is simple – turn off your phone, turn off your work computer. This will cause some readers to shake and say that they cannot do that as their bosses expect them to be available. The unfairness of this was discussed a little in the article on “work-to-rule“, but the employers’ expectations are more than unfair. They indicate a poor manager who cannot manage their time and of a workplace culture that endorses this sloppiness/laziness. A recent New Zealand article looked at some of the recent trends.

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WorkSafe Victoria’s new Mental Health Strategy is good but constrained

WorkSafe Victoria has launched a “Mental Health Strategy” aimed at preventing mental health at work. It is a good strategy that is hampered by its jurisdictional constraints. There is plenty of evidence on the causes of mental ill-health at work and what is required to prevent this hazard. Many of these controls exist outside the workplace, beyond the realm of any one government organisation, so it is disappointing that the Victorian Government did not release a Statewide mental health plan, especially as it has a Minister for Mental Health in James Merlino.

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OHS must understand business perspectives and vice versa

This week Forbes magazine included a peculiar article about Australian occupational health and safety (OHS) headed “If You Think Managing Worker Health And Safety Is Expensive, Try An Accident“. The article written by Susan Galer includes several curious perspectives and mentions industrial manslaughter (IM).

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Safety is less of a joke but still struggles for credibility

In a SafetyAtWorkBlog post from early 2008, “Is OHS a Joke?“, I included an example of the misunderstanding of occupational health and safety (OHS) by a supermarket worker. This echoed some of the myths being busted by the United Kingdom’s Health and Safety Executive. OHS is less of a joke in 2010, but only just. HSE’s myth-busting campaign was suspended in 2018, but OHS may face a more significant challenge than ridicule, its credibility. The application of OHS laws is gradually eroding the “occupational” from the “health and safety”, and the social ripples of this change are only just being acknowledged.

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