International perspective on bullying and harassment

In April 2021 the International Association on Workplace Bullying and Harassment conducted its 2002 conference online. The conference was enlightening for its inclusivity.

Many Western countries categorise work-related mental health as if they have minimal overlap. Workplace bullying is often seen as its own discipline with its own guidances, analyses and supporting industries. This can be convenient and has evolved from a reactive and often shallow response from Government.

This structure was acknowledged at the conference but many of the presentations ignored it and spoke about worker health, safety and welfare in the broadest terms.

The conference also balanced detailed local research with broad global contexts. This is the first of a series of articles based on presentations at the conference

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Mental Health Crisis? What Crisis?

On April 16 2021, the Guardian newspaper included letters from two clinical psychologists (paywalled) that contradict each other on the reality of COVID-19-related mental health. Dr Lucy Johnstone wrote that it was essential that society builds itself to be better post-COVID-19 and that:

“The “mental health pandemic” trope simply does not fit the evidence. Yes, some people have suffered greatly, but the overall picture is of a population that is largely resilient, although understandably bored, lonely and frustrated at times.”

and

“It should surprise no one that people with more to be depressed and anxious about are feeling more depressed and anxious. Reframing understandable responses to difficult life circumstances as “mental illness” plays into professional interests and political denial.”

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The economy is King

There has been discussion over many years about the business case for occupational health and safety (OHS). Several academics have attempted to quantify the financial benefits of good OHS management and systems. Business does not operate in a political or economic vacuum but it is possible to think it does when the OHS profession is so quiet on socioeconomic elements.

Australia and many other countries operate in a neoliberal economic and political system that provides OHS benefits and harms. The OHS context is touched on occasionally in public forums but the size of the challenge for structural and organisational change in Australia is perhaps best illustrated by an excerpt of Prime Minister Scott Morrison‘s presentation to the West Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry on April 14, 2021. When asked about his priorities as Prime Minister he said:

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The hill that OHS needs to climb for respectability remains a mountain

The current Australian debate about sexual harassment at work illustrates the forces ranged against occupational health and safety (OHS) being seen as a legitimate approach to preventing psychological harm. Entrenched Industrial Relations perspectives appear to be the biggest barrier. Such barriers are not always intentional and have evolved over years and decades as cultures and ideologies do. Some of the recent media coverage on the release of the Federal Government’s response to the report of the 2020 National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces illustrates the dominance of industrial relations thinking – part of the reason Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins has described elements of the government’s response as a missed opportunity.

The OHS profession must start to overtly tackle each of these dominant perspectives.

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Should we feel safe or be safe?

A major impediment to establishing safe and healthy workplaces is that there is a widespread expectation for everyone to feel safe at work. Yet, the legislative occupational health and safety (OHS) obligation on employers and workers is for them to be safe. It is a significant difference, for the former addresses perception, and the latter requires action.

Recently the Australian Government responded to a major inquiry into sexual harassment at work. Attorney-General Michaelia Cash, launching the official response with Prime Minister Scott Morrison, said:

“In terms of sexual harassment in the workplace, I think we’d all agree – in fact, it needs to be just a basic fundamental – everybody has the right to feel safe in the workplace.”

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A closer look at the positive duty to prevent sexual harassment

The big occupational health and safety (OHS) news in Australia has been the release of the federal government’s response to the Respect@Work report on sexual harassment in Australian workplaces. And the biggest issue in that response seems to be the government’s lack of enthusiasm for a major recommendation of Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, the inclusion of a positive duty in the sexual discrimination legislation. Many lawyers have been asked for their opinions on the government’s response, but very few OHS professionals.

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A traditional farm safety campaign with tweaks

For the last few years, farm safety has been dominated by arguments over the safety of quad bikes. Squabbles continue in Australia, but that topic is largely over, and many are returning to a broader and more contemporary approach to health and safety in farming.

It looks like WorkSafe Victoria has begun to roll out its farm safety ambassadors with Catherine Velisha on the cover of a recent edition of Stock and Land newspaper and in a Youtube video. This is supported by a full article on page 3 with an additional article in a glossy supplement provided with WorkSafe’s support.

The article is a blend of promotion for Velisha’s farm management training company and media releases from WorkSafe Victoria. The occupational health and safety (OHS) statistics are new but not very different from previous statistics. Middle-aged men continue to be a feature of the fatality statistics, and 58 on-farm deaths happened in 2020, the same as the year before. Quad bikes have been a major factor in those deaths.

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