Burnout causes are organisational. Who knew?

This blog has written frequently about “burnout” in workplaces, especially since the condition was defined by the World Health Organisation in 2019. I have seen it used many times as a shortcut, or synonym, for workplace mental health but usually only at the corporate, executive level. Workers have breakdowns, but executives seem to suffer burnout.

Recently a book was published in the United States called “The Burnout Epidemic, or The Risk of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It”, by journalist Jennifer Moss. What is most outstanding about this book is that the recommended fix is organisational. Usually, burnout books from the States focus on the individual worker or executive. This fresh US perspective makes the book essential reading for if the US recognises how to fix burnout and chronic stress, any country can.

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Jessie Singer and the “social autopsy”

I am halfway through an extraordinary book called “There Are No Accidents –
The Deadly Rise of Injury and Disaster—Who Profits and Who Pays the Price
” by Jessie Singer. It is extraordinary in many ways, but the most significant is that Singer chose to write a book for the general reader about how people are hurt at work, home and when driving and how describing these as “accidents” deflects responsibility, as if there was nothing that could be done to prevent them. This is of huge significance to the advocates of work health and safety, and the book’s release should spark interviews with Singer and book reviews which could lead to a broader social discussion of safety.

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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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Australia needs its own Dirty Work

Eyal Press recently published “Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America.” One of Press’s contentions is that coronavirus has brought the invisible workers who do our dirty jobs into view. These are now considered “essential workers” but are still subjected to the inequality and poor working conditions that rendered them invisible to the rest of society, to those who benefit from the services and products of the invisible dirty workers.

Although this blog’s theme is occupational health and safety (OHS), Press’ description of “dirty work” is an important perspective on work generally:

“The familiar, colloquial meaning of “dirty work” is a thankless or unpleasant task. In this book, the term refers to something different and more specific.
First, it is work that causes substantial harm either to other people or to nonhuman animals and the environment, often through the infliction of violence.
Second, it entails doing something that “good people” – the respectable members of society – see as dirty and morally compromised.
Third, it is work that is injurious to the people who do it, leading them either to feel devalued and stigmatized by others or to feel that they have betrayed their own core values and beliefs.
Last and most important, it is contingent on a tacit mandate from the “good people,” who see this work as a necessary part of the social order but don’t explicitly assent to it and can, if need be, disavow responsibility for it. For this to be possible, the work must be delegated to other people, which is why the mandate rests on an understanding that someone else will handle the day-to-day drudgery.”

pages 11-12, reformatted to emphasis the definition elements
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Biden reverses Trump’s position on workplace safety

It is fair to say that the term of office for President Trump was not supportive of occupational health and safety (OHS). Former President Trump did not seem to see the need for OHS regulations and his attitude to the COVID-19 pandemic meant that it would never be considered as an occupational disease. Reports over the last week in the United States media, and the issuing of an Executive Order, indicate that new President Biden values workplace health and safety.

The New York Times (paywalled) is reporting that

“President Biden directed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration [OSHA] on Thursday to release new guidance to employers on protecting workers from Covid-19.
In one of 10 executive orders that he signed Thursday, the president asked the agency to step up enforcement of existing rules to help stop the spread of the coronavirus in the workplace and to explore issuing a new rule requiring employers to take additional precautions.”

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Farmers want quad bikes…….

The debate over the safety of quad bikes on farms continues but it is increasingly one-sided. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) and workplace safety advocates continue to hold the line on the need to install operator protection devices (OPDs) to all quad bikes being sold in Australia. Farmers, often supported by commercial interests, want to keep their quad bikes and as they are, because there are no alternative vehicles that are as versatile as the quad bike.

On July 4 2020, the Western Magazine quoted the CEO of the Federated Chamber of Automotive Industries‘ (FCAI) Tony Weber:

“Evidence suggests in some circumstances CPDs do prevent injuries, other times they create more injuries and that’s not a satisfactory outcome we should address the fundamental problem and that is the way in which humans behave around this machine…”

This quote neatly summarises the points of argument in the safety debate which have been reported on extensively in this blog previously – evidence, most benefit, design, use….

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What is needed to get us out of this crisis

As parts of the world begin to emerge from the disruption and lockdowns of COVID19 some academics and experts are advising that the future must be built on the past but should not seek to replicate it. Over a dozen prominent, global academics (listed below) have written a discussion paper to be published in the Economic & Labour Relations Review (ELRR) in June 2020 entitled “The COVID-19 pandemic: lessons on building more equal and sustainable societies” which includes discussion on workplace relations and factors affecting mental health at work. These big picture discussions are essential in the development of strategies and policies for the post-COVD19 world and occupational health and safety (OHS) has a legitimate, and some would say unique, voice.


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