OHS needs to face some moral questions

Regular readers may have noticed that I want to push the occupational health and safety (OHS) profession to think deeper and more broadly about their usually chosen career’s political and socio-economic context. The reasons for OHS’ overall lack of success in making work and workplaces safer and healthier are not only within those locations and activities but also in the limitations that many OHS people place on themselves.

More and more, I look outside the existing OHS research and trends for explanations of why OHS is treated shabbily by employers and corporations and, sometimes, the government. A new book on Growth by Daniel Susskind is helping in this quest. Below is an extract from the book that, I think, helps explain some of OHS’ predicament.

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The Spiritualism of HR

“Trust us” is one of the riskiest phrases anyone can use. It may be even riskier to accept it. In workplaces, it is often the start of a relationship, but it can also be the start of betrayal. Part of the risk in starting any new job is that new employees must accept their introductions in good faith, and most introductions are handled by the Human Resources department but is that faith misplaced? Recently, one socialist journal from the United States (yes, the US has a socialist sub-culture …. for the moment), Jacobin, included an article about HR in its religion-themed edition (paywalled).

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An economics perspective on overwork

As Ingrid Robeyns’ Limitarianism book hits the Australian bookshops, an earlier examination of the role of excessive profits of “affluenza” from 2005 is worth considering. How does this relate to occupational health and safety (OHS)? The prevention of harm and the reduction of risk are determined by employers deciding on what they are prepared to spend on their workers’ safety, health, and welfare. Employers are looking desperately for effective ways to meet their new psychosocial harm prevention duties. Economists identified strategies in 2005.

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OHS needs to create discomfort

Occupational health and safety (OHS) decision-making by employers is dominated by reasonably practicable safety and health decisions. OHS advice is similarly dominated, leading to an industry that is cowed by the need for job security and tenure. OHS teaching in tertiary institutions is also influenced, if not dominated, by what is seen as (right-wing) “business realities”.

OHS is a small part of the university curriculum. In some universities, OHS education is missing entirely. The OHS discipline is not seen as important or marketable or an important source of revenue. A new book about universities in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s may help us understand the reasons for this.

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Toothless enforcement

Ross Gittins is a prominent Australian economics journalist. In The Age on September 20, 2023, he wrote an article about the recent spate of corporations being prosecuted and penalized for breaking the law. Many of his points can also relate to companies and executives breaking occupational health and safety (OHS) laws.

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Why is profit put before safety?

Occupational health and safety (OHS) is a remarkably insular profession.  It tends to narrow its focus on legislative compliance even though Social Determinants of Health is a core unit of tertiary OHS education. OHS professionals are also notably weak in understanding the business realities that their employers and customers face.  This inability to understand the economic realities is a common criticism of OHS, not reflecting “common sense” and being naïve.

To understand OHS’ limitations and potential, it is necessary to have a basic knowledge of the economic and political ideologies under which clients and employers work. “The Big Myth – How American Business Taught Us to Loathe Government and Love the Free Market”, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway, contributes to that understanding.

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When “hard work” often means unsafe work

Currently, many large Australian business groups are lobbying the federal government over its plans to introduce legislation to ensure that workers achieve the same pay rate for doing the same job as others. A feature of the full-page advertisement in the newspapers is that people should be able to receive more money or a higher rate of pay if they “work hard”. This phrase is never explained but may have implications for occupational health and safety (OHS).

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