Excessive working hours are a known occupational health and safety (OHS) hazard, both physically and psychologically. But when the excessive, excessive? When do these excessive hours start to create harm?
Trade unionists in the United Kingdom have a similar battle over the safe exposure limits to silica dust that Australia “resolved” a few years ago. It should not be long before the UK pushes for a ban on the import of engineered stone or starts arguing over the safety of the product when silica content is reduced to 40%.
Some recent parliamentary argy-bargy in Australia over the cutting of engineered stone was illustrative of some of the issues and lobbying.
Work-related harm is often generated by exploitation, but exploitation is a term rarely used by the occupational health and safety (OHS) profession. If it was, the OHS approach to harm prevention may be very different, especially now that a safe and healthy working environment is a fundamental right.
Perhaps the omission of exploitation is not that surprising. It is often seen through the lens of industrial relations, and a flexible demarcation often exists between IR and OHS. It is important to note that the International Labour Organisation’s Glossary of OSH terms also fails to include exploitation though it is from 1993.
However, a recent report from the Grattan Institute, Short-changed: How to stop the exploitation of migrant workers in Australia, does discuss workplace health and safety as an element of worker exploitation.
Occupational health and safety (OHS) needs new thinking. One of the most important elements of successful OHS comes from Consultation – a sensible process and one required by law. A major process for OHS consultation in those laws is through the Health and Safety Representatives (HSRs). This legislative (recommended) option was practical but is now almost an anachronism, yet the OHS regulators continue to support the process because it is in the OHS laws. And few will speak against the process because it is being maintained by the trade union movement as one of the last legacies of political influence over workplace health and safety.
This month Queensland government released its report into the review of its Work Health and Safety laws with these two of the three categories of recommendations:
- “elevation of the role of health and safety representative (HSR) at the workplace
- clarification of the rights of HSRs and worker representatives to permit them to effectively perform the role and functions conferred upon them and to remove unnecessary disputation,….”
The absurdity of HSRs’ persistence can be illustrated by the rumour that WorkSafe Victoria will encourage sex workers to follow the HSR consultative process through the OHS guidance expected to be released later this year.
Six months ago, trade unions and occupational health and safety (OHS) advocates protested outside the Ballarat Council offices over the awarding of a construction contract to Pipecon, a company that was prosecuted over the deaths of two workers in a trench collapse several years earlier. Last week, the council decided to upgrade its procurement practices to provide further weight to the OHS performance of tenderers. In effect, it established a new level of “best practice” by local councils in Victoria.
For the first time, the International Workers’ Memorial Day in Melbourne, Victoria, occurred in a park without a memorial stone with its anachronist crucifix motif. It was also thankfully sunny. The traditional location for the event in the shadow of Trades Hall was sometimes bitterly cold. The changed location was the most obvious difference to the previous ceremonies. It remains very much a trade union event when it could be so much more inclusive, even if not apolitical.
The absence of the Minister of WorkSafe, Danny Pearson, increased the focus of attention on the CEO of WorkSafe Victoria, Colin Radford. Radford’s speech was curious, with many commitments that are hard to satisfy.
Australian trade unions are in a difficult position on the matter of workplace mental health. New regulations require employers and, to a lesser extent, workers to act on a positive duty to prevent psychosocial harm. However, how does one achieve the necessary changes without being financially penalised?
Recently, the Victorian Secretary of the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), John Setka, granted The Australian newspaper’s Workplace Editor, Ewin Hannan, an exclusive interview (paywalled) in which occupational health and safety (OHS) was discussed.