Liability, COVID19, Manslaughter and Working from Home – Welcome to the new OHS

Last week WorkSafe Victoria followed some of the other Australian States by requiring employers to report positive COVID19 cases as “notifiable incidents”. (If they can do this fro COVID19, shouldn’t it be possible to do the same for mental health disorders?) Expanding the pool of notifiable incidents is of little practical consequence but it is indicative of how occupational health and safety (OHS) management is changing, and how Industrial Manslaughter is becoming a pervasive threat.

Managing Liability

In the Australian Financial Review (AFR) on August 4 2020, employer liability for COVID19 incidents was discussed. Liberty Sanger of union-associated law firm, Maurice Blackburn, spoke of the importance of genomic testing to better identify the origin of the infection, ie. was it caught at work or at home.

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“Soldier On” should be “F### Off”

Many workers continue to work when sick. This is called presenteeism and in a time of infection pandemic, is a major problem. Many countries have addressed the COVID19 risks of presenteeism by requiring people to work from home if they can. In Australia, the message is not totally working with people ignoring the rules for various reasons.

However, presenteeism also has a deeper cultural and institutional origin that has been exploited by some and downplayed or ignored by others.

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No OHS voice in this paper

Occupational health and safety (OHS) has always been part of the politics of industrial relations (IR) but it has rarely understood which part it plays as it has never really stood on its own two feet. In Australia, OHS advocates have been, primarily, from within the trade union movement. And for OHS professionals that was okay, as it allowed us to stay within our box, having others fight our battles. When those others weren’t as successful as we wanted, we remained content with the small achievements because they were achieved with minimal effort from us.

Australia, as it emerges from the COVID19 pandemic, is hoping to bring the camaraderie shared by the business groups, government and trade union to a new consensual IR strategy. OHS is an historical element of this discussion, but it needs to be more, and an OHS analysis of the Australian Industry Group’s IR reform paper released on June 6 2020 (but not yet publicly) may provide some clues on what to do about OHS influence.

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Workers and COVID19 survey

Last week the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) released some research into workers and COVID19. It is not peer-reviewed and there will certainly be much more research into the disruption and personal and occupational responses to the coronavirus disruption over the next few months. The survey results do not specifically analyse occupational health and safety (OHS) issues but there are clues to future considerations.

The media release, understandably, discusses the changed employment status or arrangements. The OHS hazards associated with precarious work are well-established and the survey illustrates the extent of precarity in Australian workplace, so mental health issues are going to come to the fore as government-imposed isolation continues and/or businesses reopen.

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The health and safety of working from home

Idealised image of what Working From Home could look like.

The second of a series of articles based on support from academics at the Australian Catholic University (ACU) focusses on the occupational health and safety (OHS) issues related to Working From Home (WFH), a situation that many Australians face at the moment.

SafetyAtWorkBlog put some questions on WFH to ACU and Dr Trajce Cvetkovski, senior lecturer in the Peter Faber Business School and below are his thoughts.

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