On September 12 2020, The Australian’s workplace relations journalist Ewin Hannan wrote about working from home (WFH), a reasonable topic as many Australians have been asked to do this, often at the request of the State Government, in order to reduce and control the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. The structure of the article centred on the additional costs and risks to employers from having workers work from home, especially in relation to potential injuries and workers’ compensation. This perspective on occupational health and safety (OHS) is seriously skewed, but it reflects the dominant perspective in the media and the community. A little bit more research would have provided a more accurate picture about Working From Home.
So, Victoria now has Industrial Manslaughter laws. Now what? Within days of the activation of these laws a worker died at the Thales worksite in Bendigo. This location is covered by the Federal Work Health and Safety laws, but this has not stopped social media from mentioning Industrial Manslaughter. It seems now that every work-related death will be assessed through the IM lens. It may be that the threat of jail should always have been the starting point for occupational health and safety (OHS) penalties and investigations but initial responses to the IM laws have been mixed, and some seem to be more interested in what, in the past, has been a sideline to the IM discussion – deaths, in work vehicles, suicides and industrial illness.
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.
The topicality and importance of many issues highlighted in early 2020 have disappeared. One of them was the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace and Libby Lyons, Director of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, has released the speech she intended to give at the, now cancelled, Commission on the Status of Women meeting at the United Nations. Lyons said this about sexual harassment and employers:
Last week the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) released some research into workers and COVID19. It is not peer-reviewed and there will certainly be much more research into the disruption and personal and occupational responses to the coronavirus disruption over the next few months. The survey results do not specifically analyse occupational health and safety (OHS) issues but there are clues to future considerations.
The media release, understandably, discusses the changed employment status or arrangements. The OHS hazards associated with precarious work are well-established and the survey illustrates the extent of precarity in Australian workplace, so mental health issues are going to come to the fore as government-imposed isolation continues and/or businesses reopen.