Norms and culture continue to impede change in Australia’s transport sector

Australia’s heavy vehicle transport industry has been involved in arguing about workplace health and safety for decades. It is also one of those issues that have been largely dominated by anecdotal evidence, as shown by the recent Australian Senate Committee hearings into the “Importance of a viable, safe, sustainable and efficient road transport industry“, much to the detriment of the occupational health and safety (OHS) of the drivers, the public safety of other road users and the families of those who die in road incidents.

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Interesting? Yeah. Useful? Nah.

The last six months have seen a spate of marketing surveys about the impact of COVID19 on workplaces as well as the secondary consequences, such as mental health. On 18 January 2021, The Australian Financial Review (AFR) published an article based on one of these types of surveys conducted by the “work management platform Asana” which claimed:

“Almost three-quarters of Australians suffered burnout last year and the average office worker’s overtime nearly doubled from 236 hours in 2019 to 436 hours, a global study of more than 13,000 office workers reveals.”

This is inaccurate.

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Building a resilient society

In the middle of a pandemic, it is easy to be locked into small issues, especially if they directly relate to you, such as lockdowns or sick relatives but it is important to be reminded of the broader social context. Professor Michael Quinlan recently wrote an editorial for the Annals of Work Exposures and Health, entitled “COVID-19, Health and Vulnerable Societies”.

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OHS and the Four Day Week

Recently the BBC’s Business Daily had a short discussion about the introduction of the 4 Day Week. This workplace reform has knocked about for a few years now and seems to have some mental health and job satisfaction benefits. This is enough for it to interest occupational health and safety (OHS), especially as it is one of the few examples of a structural and organisational change rather than an intervention aimed at each individual worker.

The BBC discussion indicates the difference (it may be a schism) between a new way of thinking about work and the old traditional way. The opponent to the 4 Day Week emphasises the individual over the organisational and compares service industries to those that produce goods.

The episode, now a podcast, is a good introduction to the for and against of the 4 Day Week but careful listening shows the challenge ahead.

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Behind the OHS words in Parliament

On December 11 2020, Senator Deborah O’Neill (ALP) (unsuccessfully) sponsored a motion that, amongst other things, called on the Government to act on the recommendations of the 2018 inquiry in to industrial deaths and the Boland Review, and to introduce Federal industrial manslaughter laws. That last request will probably never occur under a Conservative government, but does not need to for such laws to be introduced across Australia.

It is good that pressure on important occupational health and safety (OHS) matters is maintained, even if the motion was “negatived”. However, perhaps more interesting was a couple of statements that Senator O’Neill’s actions generated, one of which is deconstructed below.

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Analysis of business impacts of COVID19

The Australian Industry Group recently released the results of a survey of its members about how COVID19 has affected their businesses. Understandably, the financial future of the businesses is the major concern but occupational health and safety (OHS) has been part of the business responses.

OHS was part of the initial scrabble to cope with the localised effects of a global pandemic. The report says

“Increased workloads due to new OH&S and healthcare procedures were still being reported by 6% of businesses in August, down from a high of 25% in the first stages of the pandemic in March. In Victoria, 10% of businesses reported concerns about the increase in this type of workload in August, compared with 2% in New South Wales and no businesses in Queensland.”

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