The next gig job must be safer and healthier

A man in different kind of occupations. Credit:
bowie15

A lot of focus is currently on casual workers as their jobs disappear due to the responses to the COVID19 coronavirus. Australia has around 2.6 million of them and there are many more workers who may be classified as Part Time but operate on uncertain rosters and are, in reality, as precarious as casual employees. Occupational health and safety (OHS) is struggling to address the hazards presented by modern variations of precarious work, such as gig economy workers, because it, and government economic and employment policy more generally, is structured on the assumption of Full Time Employment (FTE) with work occurring mainly from nine to five, on weekdays with weekends off.

Consideration of precarious worker OHS may seem a lesser priority at the moment as many of us are quarantined or quarantine by choice but at some point, hopefully, within the next twelve months, business will resume. However, that business model and structure is unlikely to be the same. Indeed, it should not be same as the risk profile for all businesses and the community generally has changed. So, let’s have a look at some of the recent thinking about precarious work and the OHS risks so that we can build a better, safer model.

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OHS and wage theft

Australia is several years into a scandal of underpayment of workers referred to, by some, as wage theft. Occupational health and safety (OHS) would not normally figure in a wages and industrial relations (IR) scandal but the scandal has a legitimate OHS context.

The previous, and ongoing, scandals are not going to be summarised in this article as there are plenty of articles elsewhere in lots of different media but there is a common thread in many of the scandals. Workers are not being paid for some of the time they spend at work, work that is commonly described as unpaid overtime. This unpaid overtime extends the working day, for a variety of reasons, and OHS may not accommodate these additional hours (as they are “not official”) or OHS may be “stretched”, or risks downplayed.

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The new must build on the old – Uber, violence and safety

Anything Uber does gets global attention. This month Uber released its Safety Report which included sexual assaults and misconduct by its drivers in the United States. It seems that the importance of a planned workplace health and safety system has caught up with Uber.

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OHS of work vehicles starts to get national attention

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One of the the most ignored areas of occupational health and safety (OHS) is the light commercial and fleet/company vehicles. This is changing in Australia, partly, because the former head of the Transport Workers Union, Tony Sheldon is now a Senator.

In Senate Estimates on October 23, 2019 (page 117 onwards), Senator Sheldon challenged the heads of Safe Work Australia on workplace vehicle safety. He posed a scenario in relation to the collection of injury/incident data:

“If you’re a truck driver and you’re operating for, say, a major retailer and you’re contracted to a transport company and your contract is as an owner-driver—you own your own rig—and you get injured whilst you’re out on the road and you get seriously injured, under what circumstances would that be included and under what circumstances would it not be included in your statistics for serious injury?”

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More safety in politics

Here’s a quick summary of several mentions of occupational health and safety (OHS) in the various Parliaments in Australia over the last week or so.

Answers to Questions on Notice

In Parliamentary Committees, speakers often put questions “on notice” as they do not have the answer at hand. Often these questions fade from memory but answers do appear, usually. A good example has been provided in the South Australian Parliament on September 11, 2009 with the Treasurer, Rob Lucas, providing answers to questions from Estimates Committee B on July 24 2019. For the number junkies out there, according to Hansard, in 2018/19 SafeWork SA:

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