Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?

Occupational health and safety (OHS) laws continue to be relevant even when operating in a time of a highly infectious pandemic, but they are increasingly sidelined.

At the moment there are labour shortages in Australia because of the large number of workers infected, and affected, by the Omicron variant of COVID-19; a shortage exacerbated by the varying isolation and testing regimes applied by the Federal and State governments. It is a bit of a mess.

It is worth reminding ourselves that employers have a duty to proved a safe and healthy work environment with the support of employees. Employees are obliged to not allow hazards to be brought to work. At the moment, some employees are being encouraged or required to return to work if they are showing no COVID-19 symptoms; if they are asymptomatic. But everyone knows from experience and official advice over the last two years that asymptomatic people can continue to be infectious. Requiring workers to return to work, as seemed to be happening at one South Australian worksite, while still potentially infectious seems contrary to both the employer’s and employee’s OHS obligations.

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Why is the world “enthusiastic” for regulations?

Unsurprising from a global business magazine, The Economist’s special report on January 15 2002 (paywalled*) bemoaned the new “enthusiasm for regulation”. It clearly includes occupational health and safety (OHS) laws and Australia in its consideration but stops short of asking why this new enthusiasm exists.

Many regulations, especially in OHS, are proposed and introduced to address a wrong or misbehaviour or a new hazard. A major catalyst for Lord Robens‘ OHS laws in the 1970s stemmed from industrial deaths, especially those of the public. The pattern of deaths as a catalyst for change continues today with the Industrial Manslaughter laws, for instance. Another catalyst is new cultural sensitivities; what was tolerated previously is no longer acceptable.

The workplace bullying changes late last century in Australia is a good example, but this also ties in with unacceptable levels of harm. Bullying was often part of the initiation to work and seemed acceptable until workers were severely injured and traumatised, and people found out about it.

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Poor OHS consultation creates COVID disputes

One of the first Australian companies to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations, SPC, was back in the newspapers today concerning booster shots. SPC’s Chairman, Hussein Rifai, said he will not be making boosters compulsory:

“After rolling out a full vaccination policy in August, Rifai’s SPC workers have already beaten him to the third dose.
“We’re just not seeing a need for it,” Rifai says of mandating boosters. “Everybody is just going out and doing it.””

The Australian, Janury 5 2022

The primary objection to mandatory vaccinations was insufficient consultation with workers on what was fundamentally an occupational health and safety (OHS) matter.

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Good solid OHS profile on which to base a change strategy

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) recently released its latest State of Work Health and Safety in Australia 2021 report called “Work Shouldn’t Hurt“. ACTU’s Liam O’Brien said

“The ACTU’s 2021 Work Shouldn’t Hurt Survey revealed that 80% of workers who are injured or made ill at work do not even make a workers’ compensation claim, in the case of insecure workers this jumps to 95%. This highlights that the 120,000 workers who made a claim last year is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to measuring health and safety at work”

This is no surprise to those concerned with occupational health and safety (OHS). Sadly, the ACTU report was thin on possible solutions.

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Some OHS approaches need the Industrial Relations touch

Several years ago, there was a proposal to produce a book of research linked to the work and themes of Professor Michael Quinlan. That book became “The Regulation and Management of Workplace Health and Safety“, and I recently obtained an affordable copy for my Summer break. (An excellent book review has been written by Eric Tucker on which this article is based)

There are many labour and industrial relations concepts in the book, many that I had to look up – pluralism, unitarism, politicalism. Read enough industrial relations (IR) research papers, and these terms might become second nature, but occupational health and safety (OHS) texts (what few there are of them) seem simpler and blander, generally avoiding the politics of work and therefore the politics of safety. Most of the recent OHS books seem to be dominated by Leadership and neuroscience *.

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OHS remains the bastard child of HR and IR

There continues to be a competitive tension in Australia between the professions (if they are professions) of Human Resources (HR) and Occupational Health and Safety (OHS). This has been most obviously on display in relation to sexual harassment and the psychological harm that results.

Recently Marie Boland, about to be the 2021 Residential Thinker at the University of South Australia, spoke about this tension and much more in an online lecture about “HR: A Human Resources or a Human Rights approach to work health and safety“. At that lecture, Boland said that she pins her hopes for improvement on the new Work Health and Safety Regulations because

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OHS progress needs out of the box thinking

It is generally understood that the attempt to harmonise Australia’s occupational health and safety (OHS) laws failed to achieve the level of change and integration expected. The laws are more harmonised than they were but each jurisdiction claimed special needs and so multiple jurisdictions continue to exist with their own laws and one State, Victoria, is still giving the bird to the rest through poorly justified arguments and pigheadedness. This unwillingness to even consider change, outside of established parameters, is a major impediment to the development of safe workplaces and work practices.

For example, Australia still desires nationally consistent OHS laws as this exchange between Deborah Knight, of radio station 2GB and the CEO of the Business Council of Australia, Jennifer Westacott, shows:

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