Do what you know is the right thing to do

Currently, Australia has an increase in hospitalisations of people with the latest COVID-19 variants and influenza. The Victorian Government, in particular, is resisting implementing a mandatory requirement for masks even though this Winter had been flagged as a season of high risk for transmissible infections, and such control measures were shown to be effective in previous years.

Regardless of the politics in the Victorian Government’s decision, and there is a lot of politics there with an election in November, what should employers do to reduce the risks of workers catching or transmitting the virus, and so maintain continuous operation and production?

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Mixed OHS messages from business groups on COVID-19

COVID-19 and its variants persist as real risks in Australian workplaces, but employers want workers to continue to return to workplaces. Most of these workplaces have not been redesigned to increase ventilation. Most persist with long desks of multiple users in open-plan arrangements, although some continue with almost continuous cleaning regimes. Employers can argue that they are following public health guidelines (or their absence), but the occupational health and safety (OHS) risks still need managing.

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Over-emphasising the COVID pandemic

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.

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Ventilation is an obvious COVID-19 control but could be a bugger to use

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.

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Back to the old office in a new world

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.

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OHS will ease the Work From Home transition

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).

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Office Noise and Mental Health

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.

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