WFH strategies and evidence

Last week’s article on the occupational health and safety (OHS) risks of Working From Home (WFH) reminded me of a report from late 2019 that I always meant to write about but forgot. In November 2019 the International Labour Organisation (ILO) released a report called Telework in the 21st century: An evolutionary perspective. It ‘s a collection of articles on teleworking from around the world and, although it is pre-COVID19, it remains fairly contemporary on telework and WFH practices and risks.

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A return to the Forgotten Royal Commission

Ministerial accountability. Occupational health and safety (OHS). Leadership. Industrial Manslaughter. These issues have existed in various combinations in various jurisdictions and discussed by many people. At the moment in Australia, this combination has in relation to COVID19 but some of the discussion contains tenuous links and some is masking long held political agendas. Much of it harks back to arguments put to the Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program.

The latest combination came to my attention from an August 19 article in The Australian newspaper (paywalled) written by business journalist Robert Gottliebsen.

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“the point is not science, but safety”

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Early last year Professor Andrew Hopkins wrote the following about making important safety decisions:

“If you are a CEO in charge of a large company operating hazardous technologies, you cannot afford to wait for conclusive evidence. You must act on the basis of whatever imperfect knowledge you currently have.”

page 110

This seems relevant to those who have had to make decisions about COVID19 this year. In response to the Hopkins quote, I wrote:

“This applies equally to directors and managers of companies of all sizes. It is hard, it is uncomfortable, but it is part of running a business. It is the application of the “precautionary principle” which, if the precaution proves valid, you are a hero, a visionary and a leader; if it does not happen, you are seen as a doomsayer – a reputational potential that few are willing to risk. However, in terms of OHS and the safety of people, the precautionary principle should be given prominence over reputation for many reasons, for if there is a disaster and fatalities the precautionary principle will be analysed through hindsight and may be influential in arguing reasonable practicability.”

The continuing COVID19 pandemic is a disaster with an horrendous fatality rate and the Precautionary Principle has started to be discussed in academic research about COVID19 and face masks.

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Liability, COVID19, Manslaughter and Working from Home – Welcome to the new OHS

Last week WorkSafe Victoria followed some of the other Australian States by requiring employers to report positive COVID19 cases as “notifiable incidents”. (If they can do this fro COVID19, shouldn’t it be possible to do the same for mental health disorders?) Expanding the pool of notifiable incidents is of little practical consequence but it is indicative of how occupational health and safety (OHS) management is changing, and how Industrial Manslaughter is becoming a pervasive threat.

Managing Liability

In the Australian Financial Review (AFR) on August 4 2020, employer liability for COVID19 incidents was discussed. Liberty Sanger of union-associated law firm, Maurice Blackburn, spoke of the importance of genomic testing to better identify the origin of the infection, ie. was it caught at work or at home.

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“Soldier On” should be “F### Off”

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Many workers continue to work when sick. This is called presenteeism and in a time of infection pandemic, is a major problem. Many countries have addressed the COVID19 risks of presenteeism by requiring people to work from home if they can. In Australia, the message is not totally working with people ignoring the rules for various reasons.

However, presenteeism also has a deeper cultural and institutional origin that has been exploited by some and downplayed or ignored by others.

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