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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COVID vaccination concerns exist in workplaces too

Recently NSCA Foundation conducted an online seminar on mandatory vaccinations. As happens with many online seminars, this one became more of a lecture because there was insufficient time allocated to answer the questions from the audience. The online seminar was in three sections – Occupational Health and Safety (OHS), Industrial Relations (IR) and Privacy. The information from Sparke Helmore lawyers was fine and current, but the questions from the audience provide an interesting insight on some of the main COVID vaccine challenges facing employers.

The seminar started with a useful poll. Below are the questions and results:

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We should give a fat RAT’s clacker about COVID-19 testing

Australia’s strategy for combatting the COVID-19 pandemic is almost entirely based on vaccinations. The supplementary control measures of increased ventilation, social distancing, mask-wearing and hygiene are still vitally important but have dropped off the radar a little in the rush to maximise the number of vaccinated citizens and workers. One of the measures not currently listed on the Safe Work Australia COVID-19 website (at the time of writing) is rapid antigen testing (RAT), even though this screening method is integral to reopening businesses in the United States.

RAT has started to appear in Australia. It is a valuable tool, but it is not a replacement for the medical PCR test, and there are administrative considerations that affect the occupational health and safety (OHS) management of COVID-19.

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It’s not the laws, it’s the implementation

A major criticism of the Australian government about its response to the COVID-19 pandemic is that it has provided mixed messages about what to do and when. Those messages are sometimes amended by State Governments, and the messages from both these sources could change in a matter of days. This creates an enormous challenge for businesses and their occupational health and safety (OHS) personnel, if they have any.

This is a major factor in the campaign by business and industry groups and trade unions for the government to issue Public Health Orders (PHO). PHOs take the risk assessments out of the hands of the employers by establishing specific criteria that are legally binding. This is convenient in the short term, but PHOs are regularly updated to address the changing COVID-19 situation, so the stability of messaging that PHOs hopefully remove could end up with similar administrative results for employers and business operators. This veneer of security was discussed recently by lawyer Michael Tooma.

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“as far as politically practicable”

Last week WorkSafe Victoria announced that it was prosecuting the Department of Health over breaches of its occupational health and safety (OHS) duties with the management of Victoria’s Hotel Quarantine program. There is very little information available beyond what is included in the WorkSafe media release until the filing hearing at the Magistrates’ Court on October 22 2021.

Most of the current commentary adds little and usually builds on the existing campaigns to charge (Labor) Premier Dan Andrews with Industrial Manslaughter. Still, it is worth looking at WorkSafe’s media release and the thoughts of some others.

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