Australia’s Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program (HIP) demands the attention of all occupational health and safety (OHS) professionals, primarily, because a job creation and economic stimulus program was so poorly planned at the highest level of government, that it seems to have established a culture that led to workplace deaths. However the Royal Commission is already revealing information that shows how OHS is misunderstood by decision-makers, a situation that still persists in many jurisdictions and will only change by watching the Royal Commission carefully and analysing this information through the perspective of workplace safety.
State of Knowledge
The Royal Commission has been investigating when the workplace deaths in New Zealand from using metal staples with foil insulation were known by the Australian Government. In OHS-speak, it is trying to determine the state of knowledge on this workplace hazard in the decision-making process. The deaths of four young Australian workers prove that the state of knowledge was inadequate however it is well established that Australia and New Zealand operate independently and that, although there are legislative similarities, it is rare for a death in one country to generate regulatory change in another. (One could look to the quad bike safety issues for an additional example.) The recent legislative changes in New Zealand may indicate that they listen to Australia more than vice versa.
Anyone dealing with occupational health and safety (OHS), or in any profession, knows to be careful with one’s words in public. This is particularly so when one is dealing with mental health issues or claims of workplace bullying. This week Senator Eric Abetz, Australia’s Workplace Relations Minister, seems to have overstepped the mark by misrepresenting some Federal Court Orders as related to workplace bullying, when the Court made no such statement. This could simply be dismissed as political hyperbole in the heat of the moment but this was no off-the-cuff remark. He headlined his media release on 13 March 2014 as:
“Joe McDonald found guilty of workplace bullying – yet again. Bill Shorten must now act”.
According to Safe Work Australia, an organisation within Senator Abetz’s portfolio, workplace bullying is defined in the most recent national guide as
“repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety.” (page 2)
Nowhere in the Federal Court orders* is workplace bullying, or any other bullying, mentioned and the Federal Court has not found Joe McDonald guilty of workplace bullying. The best that can be said is that Joe McDonald has a history of intimidation on construction sites and that this has created tense relations between the workforce and employers (perhaps a confused safety culture) and generated delays in construction.
Does this all matter? Yes
Productivity and regulation is the rationale behind most of the workplace policies of the current Australian Government. Occupational health and safety (OHS) has a role to play in both of these economic and social elements but it rarely gets considered in a positive light. This is partly an ideological position of the conservative politicians but is also due to a lack of economic argument in favour of OHS and an inability, or an unwillingness, to identify essential regulations.
This week Australia’s Productivity Commission (PC) released a draft paper into the costs of public infrastructure projects that includes some telling OHS information even though most of the media has focused on the political angle or on the taxing of cars?!
A brief review of the draft report reveals OHS dotted throughout both volumes of the report and early on there is some support for Safety in Design in the tender development stage.
WorkSafe NZ has released “best practice guidelines” on workplace bullying. Best practice is a nonsense term but this guide is a major step above similar guides in Australia, in particular.
Guides always begin with definitions and the definition New Zealand has applied is the same as that in the recently released Australian workplace bullying guide but with a couple of odd semantic differences. These variations should not have any effect on organisational changes required to prevent bullying but the variations are curious. Australia describes “unreasonable behaviour” the actions that generate the bullying as:
“… behaviour that a reasonable person, having considered the circumstances, would see as unreasonable, including behaviour that is victimising, humiliating, intimidating or threatening.”
New Zealand’s definition is:
“…. actions that a reasonable person in the same circumstances would see as unreasonable. It includes victimising, humiliating, intimidating or threatening a person.”
Is there a difference between actions and behaviours?
Mental health needs in the workplace has been an evolving area of study and application and has been followed by the SafetyAtWorkBlog since its inception. Several recent statements and reports in Australia have shown that the subject continues to be discussed but not by those who can make the substantial social change, the Government, partly due to a lack of the type of evidence needed by Government to justify the change.
Mental Health is the core element of almost all the contemporary workplace hazards that are categorised as psychosocial. This includes stress, bullying, fatigue, suicide, work/life balance, and many more. Each of these categories are important but most reporting and a lot of the health promotion initiatives in the workplace focus on the manifestation of mental health instead of the source.
On February 21 2014 the chair of the