The COVID19 pandemic is a public health challenge but what happens when workplaces are integral to the control and spread of the virus? This overlap between public health and occupational health is complicated and unlikely to be resolved in the short term, however, it can fixed in the longer term. The crisis in the Australian State of Victoria (where this author lives) offers an example of this complexity, but also an opportunity for positive change, perhaps even, a Department of Safety.
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.
Then current coronavirus pandemic has disrupted workplaces around the world with those most effected being low socioeconomic sectors, including those working on a casual basis or in precarious, gig occupations. Last week the Victorian Government received the final report from its Inquiry into the Victorian On-Demand Workforce. This report is likely to be crucial in assisting the government to develop a safe and healthy strategy for the post-pandemic world of work.
So, Victoria now has Industrial Manslaughter laws. Now what? Within days of the activation of these laws a worker died at the Thales worksite in Bendigo. This location is covered by the Federal Work Health and Safety laws, but this has not stopped social media from mentioning Industrial Manslaughter. It seems now that every work-related death will be assessed through the IM lens. It may be that the threat of jail should always have been the starting point for occupational health and safety (OHS) penalties and investigations but initial responses to the IM laws have been mixed, and some seem to be more interested in what, in the past, has been a sideline to the IM discussion – deaths, in work vehicles, suicides and industrial illness.
Dr Tom Doig has continued to build on his earlier work about the Morwell mine fire, expanding his “The Coal Face” from 2015 into his new book “Hazelwood” (after court-related injunctions, now available on 18 June 2020).
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The Morwell mine fire created great distress to residents in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley, ongoing health problems, and a parliamentary inquiry, but can also be seen as a major case study of occupational health and safety (OHS) laws, enforcement, role and the obligation on employers to provide a safe and healthy working environment that does not provide risks to workers and “protect other people from risks arising from employer’s business”. The management of worker and public safety is present in almost every decision made in relation to the Morwell Mine fire. The overlay of an OHS perspective to Doig’s book is enlightening.