Business is getting some clarity on COVID-19 vaccines and a reminder to act

On August 12 2021, the Chair of Safe Work Australia, Diane Smith-Gander entered the fray over making COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory in an article in The Age. Later that day, in the absence of any clear guidance on the issue from the Federal Government, The Age reported that the Fair Work Ombudsman will be providing guidance on 4 tiers of workplaces relevant to assessing COVID-19 exposure risks.

The combinations of advice from these sources, greatly clarify what businesses can do to improve the safety of their workers and customers. The reticence to take reasonable occupational health and safety (OHS) steps by business groups will remain but the clarity they have been requesting will soon be available.

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To boldly go where no Australian company has gone before

The response to SPC’s decision to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for its workers, contractors and visitors illustrates a common misunderstanding of occupational health and safety (OHS) management, poor OHS literacy and some industrial and media rent-seeking.

On ABC Radio’s PM program in early August 2021, the main objection of Andrew Dettmer of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union was insufficient consultation prior to SPC’s decision. (Really?! What about the validity of the company’s OHS decision?) Dettmer said:

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SPC shows leadership on mandatory vaccinations

The first week of August 2021 has been a big week for the discussion of mandatory vaccinations for Australian workers. A major Australian fruit cannery in regional Victoria, SPC, has stated that all of its workers, visitors to the site and contractors will need to be fully vaccinated by November 2021. This is being done to protect workers, the community and to maintain the food supply.

There are many lessons from SPC’s decision and the subsequent discussion has been largely predictable. What has been missing from almost all of the discussion is the occupational health and safety (OHS) perspective. This article and others will look at the issue and how the health and safety benefits have been presented in the mainstream media.

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Best Practice? Gold Standard? let’s call the whole thing off

Australians are starting to understand that having something described as “gold standard” – most recently in relation to the contact tracing services of New South Wales – is as helpful as describing occupational health and safety (OHS) laws and systems as “best practice”. These phrases are optimistic bullshit and politically fraught. The fragility of these phrases has been revealed in events as far apart as the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020-21 and the Esso Longford Royal Commission of 1999. Consider this paragraph from the Esso Longford Royal Commission report and its pertinence to NSW’s contract tracing:

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Why would you NOT make COVID vaccinations mandatory?

Now that Australia is vaccinating its people at a reasonable rate from a very slow start, the issue of mandatory vaccinations for workers has reappeared. Several months ago the issue was more hypothetical but evidence has appeared from England, the United States and Israel about vaccination rates and the resumption of business and work. Australian businesses need to reach a clear position on vaccinations and the return of employees to workplaces, and this will require an assessment of the ethics applied by employers.

The occupational health and safety (OHS) position is remarkably clear but is not really being heard or promoted.

Continue reading “Why would you NOT make COVID vaccinations mandatory?”

Frogging the National OHS Strategy

Australia has commenced its consultation process for the development of its next ten-year national occupational health and safety (OHS) strategy. These are peculiar documents as no one ever seems to be punished for not achieving the targets or the performance targets are so narrow or general that it is impossible to not achieve them.

One of the elements that all such strategies seek is “emerging hazards”. Even harder is when they seek hazards that no one else has considered or have yet to emerge. One of the challenges with these strategies is less about what they say than how they are implemented and enforced.

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OHS seen as not up to the task on sexual harassment

Then submissions to the Senate Committee inquiry into the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill reveal some interesting perspectives on occupational health and safety (OHS) from Australian businesses and other organisations.

The Kingsford Legal Centre says this of the work health and safety approach to sexual harassment:

“WHS law is designed to manage work health and safety risks which are many and varied and are distinct from gendered violence and discrimination. Many cases of sexual harassment and sex discrimination are not an easy fit for the WHS framework. WHS legislation is state and territory based and relying on WHS legislation does not address the Commonwealth’s international human rights obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). In also not naming the gendered nature of the issue, WHS law risks overlooking keys to prevention and culture change which are central to the Respect@Work Report.
While WHS processes may in some cases run parallel to complaints of discrimination or sexual harassment, there are fundamental ways in which WHS law differs in the management of claims. Most obviously there is not a clear process for people who have experienced discrimination and harassment to be allowed to speak through a conciliation process about the impact of such behaviour on them and seek specific forms of redress. We know from our research in this regard that this process is important in resolving complaints impacting on human rights and reflects a complainant-centred process. WHS law does not approach injuries in such a way.”

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