The Australian Government has announced an inquiry into workplace relations through the Productivity Commission (PC). The most obvious occupational health and safety (OHS) element of this inquiry relates to workplace bullying which is discussed in the fourth of five issues papers released in January 2015. However the purposeful separation of workplace bullying actions through the Fair Work Commission (FWC) from actions in other sectors, such as OHS regulators, limits the potential impact of the inquiry on this issue.
The PC issues paper acknowledges the lack of the anticipated avalanche of anti-bullying applications and accepts that the structure of the FWC process may be partially responsible. This lack of applications, an issue discussed
Professor Michael Quinlan has a new book that focuses on lessons from recent mining disasters but, as with the best of occupational health and safety (OHS) books, it challenges orthodoxies. Some OHS consultants and experts have built careers on these orthodoxies, trends and fads, and will feel uncomfortable with the evidence put forward by Quinlan in “Ten Pathways to Death and Disaster – Learning from Fatal Incidents in Mines and Other High Hazard Workplaces“. The honesty and humanity in this book makes it an essential part of any OHS professional’s library.
Quinlan establishes an important tenet from the very start:
“… knowledge is not created in a social vacuum.” (page xi)
This simple dictum is vital to an understanding of the true causal factors on OHS decision-making. People die from OHS failures. Politicians create laws and situations that can encourage failures, increase risk and can provide a veneer of respect for heartlessness and exploitation. Business owners may feel pressured to place production before safety. Some OHS writers and advocates stop, often unconsciously, at the point where their theory or market research would fail scrutiny. Some apply critical thought only “as far as is reasonably practicable” to continue a business activity that is short-term or to sell their consultancy package to gullible or naive corporate executives.
Quinlan writes of the “political economy of safety”:
“The political economy perspective argues that safety, including workplace disasters, can only be understood in the context of the distribution of wealth and power within societies, and dominant social policy paradigms that privilege markets and profit, production or economic growth over safety.” (page 24, emphasis added)
To many readers this may sound like socialism in its mention of wealth distribution and power but such a perspective is valid even though it may be unfashionable. Such a broad perspective allows for a critical assessment of other OHS research approaches such as, for instance, the culture advocates.
Just over six months ago the (conservative) Victorian Government announced that it was dropping the WorkSafe brand (pictured right). This made little sense at the time as the WorkSafe brand was so established that it became accepted shorthand for the OHS inspectorate. On 23 January 2015, less than two months after the election of a new (Labor) Victorian Government, the brand has been resurrected. It seems that this indicates an ideological change.
The benefits of dropping the brand were stated on the Victorian Workcover Authority’s (VWA) website (pictured above) as better reflecting all areas of the VWA’s business but the decision was widely interpreted as a diminution of attention to harm and injury prevention. Such a strategic shift echoed the increased
On 16 January 2015 the Australian newspaper (paywall) reported on a Fair Work Commission (FWC) decision involving an unfair dismissal claim by a worker who, as a result of a random drug test, was found to have methylamphetamine in her system “at levels four times above the minimum detection level”. The company, Downer EDI Mining, sacked the worker, Leah Cunningham, as she presented a hazard to her work colleagues. The newspaper article was called “CFMEU slammed for drugs defence” and the FWC decision is Tara Leah Cunningham v Downer EDI Mining Pty Limited (U2014/1457) (14 January 2015).
The Australian, a newspaper with no love for the trade union movement and the CFMEU in particular, focussed on the apparent absurdity of a trade union, that places such a high priority on workplace safety, contesting the dismissal of a worker who presented a hazard to herself and others at work. The newspaper quotes Commissioner Ian Cambridge:
““It was highly regrettable to observe during the hearing that an organisation, which apparently conducts campaigns which strongly advocate safety in the workplace, could contemplate a proposition which, in effect, would countenance a person driving a 580-tonne truck whilst having methylamphetamine in their body at a level four times the reportable cut-off figure,” he said in his decision this week.
“Any realistic and responsible pursuit of the case on behalf of the applicant should have been confined to the development of evidentiary support for the applicant’s explanation for the presence of the methylamphetamine. Indeed, much greater energy and focus should have been devoted to such an evidentiary position rather than any attempt to defend the indefensible.”
Whether one believes that the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption is a political witch-hunt or a genuine attempt to clean up a corrupt industry sector, the Royal Commission seems to have revealed an abuse and exploitation of occupational health and safety (OHS) – an exploitation that has received next to no attention. The release of the Commission’s interim report allows for a quick analysis of this situation.
Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard was a particular target of the Commission in relation to a “slush fund” established by her then-boyfriend, Bruce Wilson, commonly referred to as the “AWU affair“. The “slush fund”, known as the Australian Workers Union Workplace Reform Association, was developed, according to Gillard
“… to support the re-election of union officials who would campaign for workplace reforms including better occupational health and safety.” (Interim Report, Vol 1, page 99)