OHS needs to create discomfort

Occupational health and safety (OHS) decision-making by employers is dominated by reasonably practicable safety and health decisions. OHS advice is similarly dominated, leading to an industry that is cowed by the need for job security and tenure. OHS teaching in tertiary institutions is also influenced, if not dominated, by what is seen as (right-wing) “business realities”.

OHS is a small part of the university curriculum. In some universities, OHS education is missing entirely. The OHS discipline is not seen as important or marketable or an important source of revenue. A new book about universities in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s may help us understand the reasons for this.

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Trade union organiser jumps the gun on Industrial Manslaughter after mine rockfall

Last week, a miner, Kurt Hourigan, died in a rockfall in a gold mine in the rural city of Ballarat. Another was rescued, and over twenty work colleagues were able to access a safety pod and exit the mine later.

Accusations of mismanagement and deficient occupational health and safety (OHS) practices are rife. The media coverage of the disaster and its aftermath reflects the days immediately after the Beaconsfield Mine Disaster in Tasmania in 2006, where the trade union, the Australian Workers Union (AWU), dominated the provision of information. But why is the AWU calling for a prosecution for Industrial Manslaughter? And why now? Isn’t there a stronger OHS message available?

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From troublemaking to a social movement on OHS

It is unlikely that the book “Troublemaking – Why You Should Organise Your Workplace” will be read by anyone outside its intended audience – trade union members and organisers. However, it should be. Organising people into protests, pressure groups, lobbyists or broader sociopolitical movements is not owned by the trade unions, although they have mastered some of the techniques.

It is possible to dip into this book for information on mobilising workers independently of trade union structures but not ideology. This approach may be particularly useful for occupational health and safety (OHS) practitioners who want to create a movement within a company, industry, or community that argues for improved workplace health and safety and to build a collaborative culture of consultation, dialogue and joint decision-making.

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Worker mobilisation and OHS

Occupational health and safety (OHS) professionals, like anyone else, base their decisions and advice primarily on their living memory. This partly explains the trend of emphasising “lived experience” sometimes over history or research. But it is understandable that we trust experiences from people face-to-face over what we read or what Grandad sort-of remembers from his first job. But history is important, especially when new sources of history are being unearthed or old sources are re-evaluated.

Recently, Michael Quinlan has been working on the recently digitised records of Australia in convict times and the 1800s. This research, conducted with colleagues, reveals new perspectives on industrial relations and worker health and safety. Recently, he presented to the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) on Moibilising and Organising Workers – Lessons from Australian History 1788-1900. (I know, but bear with me).

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HSRs are one option for Consultation, not the be-all and end-all

WorkSafe Victoria’s obsession with Health and Safety Representatives (HSRs) was displayed at last week’s 2023 WorkSafe Awards night. The HSR of the Year nominations generated rowdiness in the audience, absent from the rest of the evening. The political context for emphasising HSRs in workplaces is understandable; there is always a close (and financial) relationship between trade unions and left-leaning political parties like that currently governing Victoria. HSRs and occupational health and safety (OHS) committees have been part of Victoria’s OHS legislation since 1985.

But only as one element of Consultation – a concept and principle that applies to all Victorian workplaces, not just those with trade union members or HSRs.

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Call for Industrial Manslaughter laws after more unnecessary deaths

It was inevitable that all States in Australia would end up with Industrial Manslaughter (IM) penalties related to occupational health and safety (OHS). Tasmania is the latest to start the consultation on these laws, and again, it has required a work-related tragedy to generate the outrage that seems required for such a push.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation is reporting on the grief and outrage of Georgie Burt, one of the parents of

“….one of six children who died when a jumping castle became airborne at an end-of-year celebration at Hillcrest Primary School in Devonport in 2021.”

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“Backbone of the Nation” and safety

In 1984 I was in England during the miners’ strike, a period of profound social and political change in the United Kingdom. The politics of that period have always fascinated me, but my profession has also caused me to look at some of the attitudes to occupational health and safety (OHS). While holidaying recently in the UK, I purchased Backbone of the Nation, looking at both the politics and safety.

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