Everyone has struggled through the COVID-19 pandemic. Many have died. We have to continue to make many allowances for businesses and people due to the disruption, but some are using the pandemic as an excuse for not doing something. Occupational health and safety (OHS) inactivity is being blamed on COVID-19 in some instances, masking or skewing people’s approach to workplace health and safety more generally.Continue reading “Over-emphasising the COVID pandemic”
Vaccines are currently the most effective tool available to minimise the spread of COVID-19 to large populations. Fortunately, effective vaccines have been able to be manufactured at such a rapid pace. But previous pandemics have not had vaccines and have had to rely, primarily, on hygiene and isolation. Part of the hygiene practice was to ensure that buildings were well-ventilated. Ventilation actions on COVID-19 were part of Europe’s response to the pandemic in 2020, but Australia has only just started to accept the need for improved ventilation as it was very late to the risks of aerosol transmission.
As vaccinated workers return to workplaces in many of Australia’s urban centres, employers will need to assess their occupational health and safety (OHS) duties in new ways, and ventilation will be a significant challenge.
Many employers are rattling around floors of empty offices while their employees are working remotely or at home and almost entirely due to modern telecommunications. This has not been at the request of employers but due to government lockdown requirements. The push to have workers return to multi-storey offices is reflective of the desire to return to normal rather than accepting that established business structures have been rendered impractical or unfeasible for the coronavirus future.
A recent article in the New York Times illustrates this new circumstance well. The article, titled “New surveys show how pandemic workplace policies are shifting“, says that the major information technology companies in the United States that every business seems to want to emulate even though their practices are very questionable are continuing to postpone the return of workers to bricks and mortar (or glass and stainless steel) offices. The NYTimes article is the first to discuss this phenomenon and its relation to mandatory vaccinations.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison continues to promise a return to normal but it is impossible to return to a previous point in time without denying the changes that have occurred since then. Morrison speaks of this normality in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic and may offer some understanding of his reticence to act on global warming as climate change will never allow a return to normal.
One of the workplace changes exacerbated by the pandemic is the working from home (WFH) option. Recently businesses are starting to accept this new normal, sometimes backed by research. Many businesses are in a state of (I would argue, permanent) transition. On July 2, 2021, Benjamin Clark offered a useful summary of the WFH state of play for Crikey (possibly paywalled) with some overlap to a November 2020 Harvard Business Review (HBR) article on Working From Anywhere (WFA).
Too much weight is given to occupational health and safety (OHS) surveys and research that rely on self-reported data. Such data is subject to social and personal biases. It has its role in the state of knowledge, but its authority and worth is frequently overstated.
A recent research project into the OHS effects of working in open-plan offices removed this level of subjectivity by using a simulated office environment. The researchers’ findings provide a useful context to office design (not a new issue) and work-related mental health, especially when workers are being encouraged to return to the office.
[Guest Post] By Simon Longstaff (reproduced with permission from Crikey)
Each week, The Ethics Centre’s executive director Dr Simon Longstaff will be answering your ethics questions [in Crikey]. This week:
“ My employer sent me a questionnaire designed to test if my home working environment meets basic standards. If I’d answered truthfully I would have ‘failed’ the test. But what’s the point in telling the truth when I have to work at home in any case? Was it wrong to lie on the form?”
Although this ethical issue seems to fall on you — as the person receiving the survey — it actually starts with your employer’s decision to request this information in the first place.
Many Australian workplaces will be reopening in the next few weeks. Their productivity capacity will change, their workplaces, will change and their approach to, and understanding of, occupational health and safety (OHS) will need to change. But there are signs that some business owners and employers are embracing risk and safety in this new operating climate but there are others who are either denying the changes needed, are struggling to think creatively, are ill-informed or are stupid. Most of these realities were on display in a single edition of the Australian Financial Review (AFR) on May 8, 2020 (paywalled) – the primary source for this article.
The timing of the newspaper edition is important as it was published on the morning before the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, and Chief Medical Officer, Brendan Murphy, revealed the decisions of the National Cabinet. A further blog article will be produced on those decisions shortly.
Lifts and Whinging
The AFR front page carried a short story called “Elevated risks in office lifts” that shows the deficiencies of several thought processes mentioned above.