Exclusive interview with independent WHS reviewer, Marie Boland

SafetyAtWorkBlog had the opportunity to interview Marie Boland earlier this week after the release of her review into Australia’s Work Health and Safety (WHS) laws. Below is an edited version of that interview.

Marie, thanks for talking to me, it’s a terrific report you’ve produced. What was it like to undertake a national investigation of this type, given that it was pretty much you and just a couple of others?

…It was quite daunting at the beginning, but as I said in the introduction and nothing kind of clichéd about it, it was very much a privilege to be able to do it.  And the privilege was enhanced by having the opportunity to go travel all around Australia, and some places I’ve never been before like Tamworth and what it really brought home to me was the diversity of people, workplaces, geography and that these laws are covering and the diversity of people who are dealing with the laws on a daily basis.  So, it was certainly a once in a lifetime experience for me I suppose, and maybe a point in history for the laws as well.

I was very much aware throughout the process of my privilege and being able to do it and also the waves of expectation I suppose and this being the first review of the national laws and also very much aware of all the work that went into creating the laws in the first place.  And certainly, a lot of the people who put so much effort into that work were still obviously very keen on how they were being applied and as I said I was very conscious of respecting all of that as I went around the country.

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Another generation of safety thinking

Several years ago I attended an occupational health and safety (OHS) conference at which Cristian Sylvestre was speaking. He was in one of the secondary rooms, it was packed with conference delegates and he was talking about neuroscience and its potential to affect safety. In 2017 he self-published a book called “Third Generation Safety: The Missing Piece“.

OHS has a lot of people talking about new approaches to address the plateauing of safety performance. We are pushed to reassess how we got here and how we look at OHS – Safety II, psychology of risk and others, or we need to have OHS fit with the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Sylvestre advocates a third generation of safety. This is his take on the previous two generations and how we should progress in the future.

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New film provides an update on legal action over the 2014 Hazelwood mine fire

An independently-produced documentary, Our Power, about the Hazelwood mine fire had its Victorian premiere on March 2 2019. The Hazelwood coal mine fire was a major workplace disaster than generated substantial public health damage in the neighbour communities in the Latrobe Valley. An early record of the event and its impacts can be found in Tom Doig‘s book The Coal Face.

The documentary provides unique vision of the fire and how it burned and polluted the neighbourhood for over a month in 2014. As time goes on, the fire is seen more as an environmental disaster as it is workplace incident and speakers in Our Power are certainly confident in linking the fire with the privatisation of State-owned assets and the social injustice that underpins neoliberalism.

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Making OHS an SEP (Someone Else’s Problem)

The death of Dillon Wu in 2018, is being investigated by WorkSafe Victoria and is still getting some media attention. The latest is an article in The Conversation by Associate Professor, Diana Kelly of the University of Wollongong called “Killed in the line of work duties: we need to fix dangerous loopholes in health and safety laws“.

This article focuses on the confusion over occupational health and safety (OHS) responsibility as Wu was a labour hire worker placed at Marshall Lethlean Industries by the Australian Industry Group. (AiGroup’s position on responsibility was given to SafetyAtWorkBlog in November 2018) It may seem that AiGroup has primary responsibility because it was Wu’s employer. But AiGroup told SafetyAtWorkBlog that

“All host employers sign agreements with AiGTS which specifically require the host employer to ensure apprentices are supervised and monitored during their engagement. “

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Submission to the National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces

Australian research into occupational health and safety (OHS) is a lot less than research into other areas of business and management, especially in relation to the psychological wellbeing of workers at all levels of the corporate structure.  As such, it has become common for experts, advocates and researchers from the social, non-work, public health areas to overlay general and broad research findings on to workplaces – they are, in effect, filling a vacuum.  But just because the OHS research into psychological harm is thin or immature does not mean that work does not have its own characteristics.

Over many years OHS has produced research and guidelines that include the psychological effect of sexual harassment, but it has been ineffectual or ignored for may reasons.  This submission is an attempt to illustrate the potential already in existence in Australia that could be used to prevent sexual harassment-related psychological harm.

This submission has drawn almost exclusively on Australian-based documentation and research to better satisfy the title and aim of this Inquiry.  This is not saying that actions and data from overseas are not relevant: there is some excellent information on the matter from the European Union[1], for instance. But quite often people seem to look overseas for evidence and solutions when Australia already has good research and advice, if one looks.

Summary of key points

  • Sexual harassment often results in psychological harm to workers, and employers and PCBUs already have a legislative obligation under OHS/WHS law to eliminate (prevent) risks to health and safety, including psychological risks.
  • By accepting that sexual harassment is a form of workplace violence, new prevention options may be available.
  • Australia has a range of general and specific guidance on the systematic prevention of the psychological harm generated by sexual harassment, produced by Federal and State or Territorial health and safety regulators.
  • Prevention of sexual harassment may be extremely disruptive to workplaces even though it remains the most effective control measure.
  • Any strategy to prevent sexual harassment must have a multidisciplinary and cross-agency approach.
  • Independent assessment of sexual harassment risks can be determined to internationally-recognised Standards
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