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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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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Poor OHS consultation creates COVID disputes

One of the first Australian companies to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations, SPC, was back in the newspapers today concerning booster shots. SPC’s Chairman, Hussein Rifai, said he will not be making boosters compulsory:

“After rolling out a full vaccination policy in August, Rifai’s SPC workers have already beaten him to the third dose.
“We’re just not seeing a need for it,” Rifai says of mandating boosters. “Everybody is just going out and doing it.””

The Australian, Janury 5 2022

The primary objection to mandatory vaccinations was insufficient consultation with workers on what was fundamentally an occupational health and safety (OHS) matter.

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Increased OHS accountability sought

The political strategy of Ken Phillips of Self Employed Australia (formerly of the Independent Contractors of Australia) received a boost in The Age newspaper on December 12 2021, in an article headlined “Group to mount legal challenge to force prosecution of Premier over hotel quarantine disaster” online (paywalled) or “Business owners seek prosecution of Andrews over hotel quarantine” in the print version.

Phillips uses a section of Victoria’s Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act to make a political point about accountability. Previously, Phillips, his usual mainstream media contact Robert Gottliebsen, and others have called for Premier Daniel Andrews to be charged with Industrial Manslaughter (IM) over the deaths of over 800 people linked to a COVID-19 outbreak from the failure of Victoria’s hotel quarantine program. (The recent non-hotel outbreak is around 597 deaths)

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Economic analysis = A+. OHS analysis = C.

Research analyses of the economics of modern work methods are important evidence for government policymaking, but occupational health and safety (OHS) costs are often omitted or overlooked. The recent report by The Australian Institute and its Centre for Future Work called “Working From Home, or Living at Work?” appears to be another example.

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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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