Look at the verbs to identify leadership and commitment

On September 16 2021, the Prime Minister of Australia, Scott Morrison, said:

“The first major initiative of AUKUS will be to deliver a nuclear-powered submarine fleet for Australia. Over the next eighteen months we will work together to seek to determine the best way forward to achieve this…”

The second line of this quote includes a specific timeline but less specific commitments – a combination of words that reflects much of the corporate-speak that is often used with occupational health and safety (OHS) duties and other pledges and obligations.

Morrison gives a deadline against which progress will be measured. He commits to working with the United Kingdom and the United States to meet this deadline. But then, he says they will “seek to determine” – they are not sure what they are doing, but they will look for it. And “the best way forward” for whom? And to what ends? We hope it will be to building a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, the current context.

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“Too little, too late” but potential in primary prevention

On Australia’s Women’s Safety Summit, Wendy Tuohy contemplated, in The Age, after the first day;

“It may turn out to be too little, too late, but if there’s real commitment behind Morrison’s lines, we could conclude it’s a start.”

There are few signs of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s commitment. Women will continue to work in companies and workplaces where they are at risk of psychological harm from sexual harassment and physical harm from sexual assault. Occupational health and safety (OHS) laws offer a harm prevention option that nobody seems keen to consider.

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Save lives or save money – the OHS tension

There are two core elements to the work of the occupational health and safety (OHS) professional – the management of Safety and the management of Safety Liability. In the simplest of terms, the former saves lives and the latter saves money. OHS (and politics) has always involved juggling these two extremes.

There are many examples of this tension but the most obvious, at the moment, is COVID-19 and the vaccination of workers.

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Best Practice? Gold Standard? let’s call the whole thing off

Australians are starting to understand that having something described as “gold standard” – most recently in relation to the contact tracing services of New South Wales – is as helpful as describing occupational health and safety (OHS) laws and systems as “best practice”. These phrases are optimistic bullshit and politically fraught. The fragility of these phrases has been revealed in events as far apart as the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020-21 and the Esso Longford Royal Commission of 1999. Consider this paragraph from the Esso Longford Royal Commission report and its pertinence to NSW’s contract tracing:

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Non-military safety lessons from the latest Royal Commission (open access)

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation broadcast an episode of The Signal on April 21, 2021, which discussed the complexity of the culture of Australia’s military, and I strongly recommend you listen to it. It does make some points about culture worth contemplating in the context of one’s own workplace and profession.

The most useful point was that an established institution cannot have a uniform culture that meets the expectations of all relevant stakeholders. Generations take their culture with them. So those who started in the military in the 1980s and 1990s (and later) will bring the values and lessons of that time into their maturity and when they move into senior and leadership positions – positions that are intended to both preserve and progress the organisation’s culture. This will result in conflict between the expectations of new recruits and the realities of the established military executives. Not open revolt, but a dissatisfaction that may or may not result in leaving the organisation.

The topic used by The Signal to illustrate the extremes of the defence force members and stakeholders was mental health.

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The economy is King

There has been discussion over many years about the business case for occupational health and safety (OHS). Several academics have attempted to quantify the financial benefits of good OHS management and systems. Business does not operate in a political or economic vacuum but it is possible to think it does when the OHS profession is so quiet on socioeconomic elements.

Australia and many other countries operate in a neoliberal economic and political system that provides OHS benefits and harms. The OHS context is touched on occasionally in public forums but the size of the challenge for structural and organisational change in Australia is perhaps best illustrated by an excerpt of Prime Minister Scott Morrison‘s presentation to the West Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry on April 14, 2021. When asked about his priorities as Prime Minister he said:

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Should we feel safe or be safe?

A major impediment to establishing safe and healthy workplaces is that there is a widespread expectation for everyone to feel safe at work. Yet, the legislative occupational health and safety (OHS) obligation on employers and workers is for them to be safe. It is a significant difference, for the former addresses perception, and the latter requires action.

Recently the Australian Government responded to a major inquiry into sexual harassment at work. Attorney-General Michaelia Cash, launching the official response with Prime Minister Scott Morrison, said:

“In terms of sexual harassment in the workplace, I think we’d all agree – in fact, it needs to be just a basic fundamental – everybody has the right to feel safe in the workplace.”

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