Safety opportunity from calamity

Australia is starting to settle into a state of stability as the various restrictions on life and work become more consistent. This has also allowed for some to start thinking about the recovery phase – the “bridge”, the awakening, whatever one wants to call it – to reconsider what we think of work and workplaces and our expectations are for the future. Do we resurrect the BC (Before COVID19) employment and economic models or work differently? There is an opportunity to steer work and business into a more sustainable direction that reduces physical and psychosocial harm and regains productivity and profitability. The structures, models and criteria already exist.

And, perhaps, we should incorporate the values recommended by actor, Matthew McConaughey.

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The next gig job must be safer and healthier

A man in different kind of occupations. Credit:
bowie15

A lot of focus is currently on casual workers as their jobs disappear due to the responses to the COVID19 coronavirus. Australia has around 2.6 million of them and there are many more workers who may be classified as Part Time but operate on uncertain rosters and are, in reality, as precarious as casual employees. Occupational health and safety (OHS) is struggling to address the hazards presented by modern variations of precarious work, such as gig economy workers, because it, and government economic and employment policy more generally, is structured on the assumption of Full Time Employment (FTE) with work occurring mainly from nine to five, on weekdays with weekends off.

Consideration of precarious worker OHS may seem a lesser priority at the moment as many of us are quarantined or quarantine by choice but at some point, hopefully, within the next twelve months, business will resume. However, that business model and structure is unlikely to be the same. Indeed, it should not be same as the risk profile for all businesses and the community generally has changed. So, let’s have a look at some of the recent thinking about precarious work and the OHS risks so that we can build a better, safer model.

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OHS and wage theft

Australia is several years into a scandal of underpayment of workers referred to, by some, as wage theft. Occupational health and safety (OHS) would not normally figure in a wages and industrial relations (IR) scandal but the scandal has a legitimate OHS context.

The previous, and ongoing, scandals are not going to be summarised in this article as there are plenty of articles elsewhere in lots of different media but there is a common thread in many of the scandals. Workers are not being paid for some of the time they spend at work, work that is commonly described as unpaid overtime. This unpaid overtime extends the working day, for a variety of reasons, and OHS may not accommodate these additional hours (as they are “not official”) or OHS may be “stretched”, or risks downplayed.

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Brexit, Boris and OHS

One reader has asked about the occupational health and safety (OHS) impacts of Brexit. This article looks specifically at The Conservative and Unionist Party Manifesto to identify potential OHS-related actions and intentions. The relevance for Australian readers is that UK and Australian politics frequently feed off each other.

The United Kingdom’s OHS laws have been greatly affected during the country’s membership of the European Union (EU). This has been seen as a nuisance by some but some EU safety Directives, such as Seveso 1, 2 & 3, have assisted many countries in establishing or strengthening their own regulations on specific hazards. EU safety rules seem amazingly complex for someone who has no involvement with them but then any economic community of over two dozen countries can seem baffling to an OHS writer who operates from an island with a small population in the Southern Hemisphere.

What can be said is that the UK will need to accommodate the “best” of the EU OHS laws in their own legislative structure, if it has not already. It is unlikely the UK will remove OHS rules that serve a positive, i.e. harm prevention, purpose unless there is a very good reason. But sometimes it seems that good reasons are not required, only political reasons.

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Alright stop, collaborate and listen

On 2 December 2019, Australia’s Attorney-General, Christian Porter released a discussion paper about workplace relations in the hope of sparking contributions on how cooperative workplaces can create productivity improvements. Any discussion paper on productivity and workplace from the current conservative government is loaded with neoliberal ideology but one of the questions posed is:

“What has been the experience with techniques and practices to foster cooperative workplaces including…. Collaborative development of Health and Safety policies.”

It is not unreasonable for this to be seen as an opening for a broad discussion about the concept of Consultation included in Australia’s workplace health and safety laws, as the improvement of health and safety requires collaboration, trust respect and other elements in the discussion paper. The parallels between Collaboration and Consultation were on show at the Australian Labor Party’s national conference twelve months ago.

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