OHS is “… more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”

Occupational health and safety (OHS) may not be a common subject in the mainstream media but there is plenty of political discussion on the topic in Australia’s Parliament.

The current (conservative) federal government seems very slow to accept and respond to recommendations from official inquiries that it sees as a secondary political priority, such as sexual harassment and workplace health and safety. The hearings of the Senate’s Education and Employment Legislation Committee on March 24 2021, were, as usual, enlightening.

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Now there is too much mental health information, and it’s like toothpaste

Australia is experiencing a boom in occupational health and safety (OHS) information about work-related psychological harm, including sexual harassment at work. This level of information is long overdue, but a consequence of this “boom” is that employers can be very confused about which information to use and which source they should trust or even what relates to their specific circumstances, especially after years of denying there is a problem.

Putting on my consultant hat, I would advise any State-based organisation to comply with the OHS guidances issued by that State’s OHS regulator. If a national company, look towards the guidance of Comcare or Safe Work Australia for the national perspective. The challenge is greater for companies that operate in multiple States, but these have been rumoured to be less than 10% of Australian businesses. If multi-State, they should be big enough to have the resources for OHS compliance.

However, some State-based mental initiatives have evolved into a national platform.

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Business voices add weight to OHS change

On February 27 2012, The Australian reprinted/tweaked a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article on Burnout. A significant feature of the article is the acknowledgement of organisational factors as contributing to burnout and other workplace mental health hazards. The situation seems to have changed as these types of acknowledgements were harder to draw out of psychological health experts when SafetyAtWorkBlog spoke to some in 2019.

However, there are also clear parallels to Australian research into job stressors that could have helped HBR’s author Dave Lievens add weight to the decades-long research of Michael Leiter and Christina Maslach.

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Workplace wellbeing, mental health and cake

Recently Australians Jason van Schie and Joelle Mitchell released a podcast series called Psych Health and Safety focussing on psychological health and health promotion at work. Recently Carlo Caponecchia spoke on the podcast about mental health at work and the soon-to-be-released International Standard 45003 for managing psychosocial risks at work, a “child” of ISO45001 the occupational health and safety (OHS) management standard.

Caponecchia was asked to outline the statistics for workplace mental health in Australia. He stated that the official figures are that 9% of workers compensation claims related to mental health at work and that claims for this type of injury have increased substantially since the year 2000. However, he also added a caveat to those figures, a caveat that should apply to all official OHS statistics:

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Norms and culture continue to impede change in Australia’s transport sector

Australia’s heavy vehicle transport industry has been involved in arguing about workplace health and safety for decades. It is also one of those issues that have been largely dominated by anecdotal evidence, as shown by the recent Australian Senate Committee hearings into the “Importance of a viable, safe, sustainable and efficient road transport industry“, much to the detriment of the occupational health and safety (OHS) of the drivers, the public safety of other road users and the families of those who die in road incidents.

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Give Duty of Care and Workers’ Compensation a good shake

At the2020 Australia and New Zealand Society of Occupational Medicine (ANZSOM) annual scientific meeting, Dr David Goddard spoke about “Regulation: when expectations go unmet”. In a wide-ranging presentation Goddard spoke of Australia’s occupational health and safety (OHS) laws touching on a couple of contentious governance issues:

“…… Robens-inspired law introduced the employers’ general duty of care with responsibility for self-regulation. Indeed, self-regulation is essential. Without self-regulation, duty of care simply becomes a game of who to blame if things go wrong.”

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Biden reverses Trump’s position on workplace safety

It is fair to say that the term of office for President Trump was not supportive of occupational health and safety (OHS). Former President Trump did not seem to see the need for OHS regulations and his attitude to the COVID-19 pandemic meant that it would never be considered as an occupational disease. Reports over the last week in the United States media, and the issuing of an Executive Order, indicate that new President Biden values workplace health and safety.

The New York Times (paywalled) is reporting that

“President Biden directed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration [OSHA] on Thursday to release new guidance to employers on protecting workers from Covid-19.
In one of 10 executive orders that he signed Thursday, the president asked the agency to step up enforcement of existing rules to help stop the spread of the coronavirus in the workplace and to explore issuing a new rule requiring employers to take additional precautions.”

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