On May 15 2020 Australia’s National Cabinet supported the National Mental Health and Wellbeing Pandemic Response Plan developed by the National Mental Health Commission. The focus was on the mental health impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic but in the text was a reference to a National Suicide and Self Harm Monitoring System developed and run by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW). Given the dearth of valid data on suicide and after an earlier article questioning datasets, SafetyAtWorkBlog posed some questions to the AIHW about the monitoring system.
The COVID19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on the government agencies that regulate and enforce occupational health and safety (OHS) laws. These regulators are not the lead agencies in pandemic control but as some countries relax lock-down protocols and people return to work in changed work environments, the role and actions of the OHS regulators are being re-evaluated.
Sarah O’Connor, in the Financial Times, opened her 26 May 2020 article brilliantly with
” Covid-19 has upended our notion of what a dangerous job looks like”
Office were often dismissed as low-risk workplaces with many site safety walks, if they happened, reporting on torn carpet and other similar hazards. That way of assessing risk should have been replaced, or supplemented, with assessments of the psychosocial risks of stress, bullying, a harassment, excessive workloads and many more harmful practices. So, offices may have a low risk of traumatic physical injuries but a higher level of risk of psychological harm. On top of this reassessment comes an infection risk that can be spread by workers showing no symptoms. Office-based risk has increased again and made the workplace itself dangerous.
On May 15 2020, the Australian Government released a National Mental Health and Wellbeing Pandemic Response Plan. Mental Health has been on Prime Minister Morrison’s agenda since his election a year ago and the mental health sector is not going to be starved of government funds during his tenure.
Mental ill-health has been talked about throughout the current COVID19 Pandemic and has been forecast to increase due to the economic disruption and the requirements for social isolation. To some extent, the low numbers of COVID19 deaths in Australia has allowed it a “luxury” of addressing mental health, but some of the justifications seem not as strong as claimed and the National Mental Health Plan omits any consideration of occupational health and safety (OHS) other than for those in the health industry; the so-called “frontline workers”.
Last weekend across the road from home, two workers were on the roof of a three-storey apartment block construction installing or inspecting solar panels. No fall protection, no harnesses. I grabbed my phone to notify my local WorkSafe about this unsafe work activity. The switchboard was closed, and the phone number listed on the website was identified as only for emergencies. Was this an emergency? Not sure. By the time I worked it out, the workers were off the roof and the opportunity passed.
I now wish that my State had a notification app like that operating in New South Wales. I would have taken some photos and notified the occupational health and safety (OHS) regulator. The “Speak Up, Save Lives” app seems good, but it may also undercut the pathways to Consultation established through the OHS laws.
Australia’s National COVID-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC) has released what it calls a toolkit for assessing COVID19 risks for businesses that are reopening soon. It is a useful checklist/template that the NCCC anticipates will take around 30 minutes to complete. What legal standing it may have is unclear as OHS in most Australian workplaces is regulated at State and Territory levels, but the Prime Minister says we need COVID Safe Plans and here’s a checklist to support it.
Business owners should understand that any checklist is only ever a tool to aid them to make an informed decision. It is not a compliance tick. Sadly, the COVIDSafe Plan template fails to answer its first question:
“Why is it important to have a COVIDSafe Plan?”
The answer should have been something like
“….all Australian business owners are obliged by law to provide workplace that are free of health and safety risks, including viral infections, like COVID19. This plan will help you fulfill your obligation which will also reduce the transmission of COVID19 and could save lives.”
The legal and moral reason for this checklist should have been upfront to emphasise the primacy of occupational health and safety (OHS) in helping control a public health risk.