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I am developing a six-part podcast series about workplace safety and human resources and looking for a sound engineer and/or podcast manager to help produce and upload the finished product. Being located in Australia is preferable but not essential.

Please your credentials and links to examples of your podcast work.

Kevin Jones

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On June 20 2018, the Australian government announced a National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in the Workplace, claiming it to be a world-first. Sexual harassment is not an occupational health and safety (OHS) hazard in many ways BUT the psychological harm it can create is. The job of an OHS person is to encourage employers to reduce work-related harm through prevention, so we need to prevent sexual harassment, just as we do for all the work activities that contribute to poor psychological health and safety.

The macroeconomic costs of sexual harassment in the workplace may be of interest to politicians and business lobbyists but this can be a significant distraction from identifying ways to prevent psychological harm, which should be the most important legacy of this type of inquiry.

Addressing the OHS impacts of sexual harassment draws together many of the thematic threads covered by the SafetyAtWorkBlog including,

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Safe Work Australia’s work-related psychological health and safety guidance focusses on the elimination risks and hazards, as required under Australia’s workplace health and safety laws.  But a slight technical change in the legislation when it moved from occupational health and safety (OHS) to work health and safety (WHS) impedes its successful acceptance.

Australia’s Work Health and Safety laws dropped a reference in the Act’s Objects that would have provided considerable support to work-related mental health and this guidance.  The reference remains in Victoria’s OHS Act 2004 which, outlined in this guide to the Act, says:

“The OHS Act 2004 provides a broad framework for improving standards of workplace health and safety to reduce work-related injury and illness. It aims to:
• secure the health, safety and welfare of employees and other people at work;
• protect the public from the health and safety risks of business activities;
eliminate workplace risks at the source;….” (page 4, emphasis added)

This critical phrase, “at the source”, supports the application of the Hierarchy of Controls recommended generally in OHS laws and specifically in the latest work-related psychological health and safety guidance.  Without the aim of eliminating workplace risks “at the source” the emphasis of risk control moves to managing safety liability rather than preventing harm.

The Model WHS Act’s similar section states its aim is, amongst others:

“…protecting workers and other persons against harm to their health, safety and welfare through the elimination or minimisation of risks arising from work [or from specified types of substances or plant];”

This is echoed in State versions of this model Act.

No mention of eliminating risks “at the source”.  The legislation allows employers/PCBUs a choice between elimination or minimisation. It places these two very different aims on the same footing. More strength and clarity could have come from “… elimination and/or minimisation of risks…”.

The WHS legislation does, also, aim at:

“providing a framework for continuous improvement and progressively higher standards of work health and safety”.

This sounds strong by implying that the harm prevention focus will aim for elimination but it only provides a “framework”.  Whether employers apply this framework is optional in reality if not in intent.  Such a framework may include continuous improvement but this is addressed mostly in large, well-resourced companies which may apply internal and external audits to verify the improvement.  But most companies and employers are interested primarily in compliance with the safety laws, the lowest standards of WHS, and the avoidance of action from the local WorkSafe authority, and likely only consider continuous improvement if there is

  • no cost, and
  • no disruption to production or program.

The omission of “eliminate workplace risks at the source” from the WHS laws, and the broad application of eliminating risks “as far as is reasonably practicable”, shifted OHS from the prevention of harm to the preservation of production.  It fell in line with the neoliberal worship of production before safety and corroded the social licence that business owners and operators used to accept and, occasionally, take pride in.

That Victoria is the holdout State on accepting WHS laws is a shame and on shaky political arguments but if it was to move across, “at the source” is likely to disappear which is a same.  These three words empower the hazard control requirements of the law reflected in the Hierarchy of Controls.  They reassure the community that the ultimate aim of the OHS law is to eliminate hazards, to “keep people safe”.

There are many reports that the community is losing faith in our institutions, that there is a trust deficit.  Part of that is due to the weakening in the aims of our laws and the institutions we trusted to uphold those laws. Victoria is the last State which includes OHS laws that aim to eliminate workplace risk at the source.  We must keep this aim in our laws as it is what the community expects and it underpins the hazard control processes.  Without it the purpose of OHS becomes argumentative, unclear and based on the deliberations of a reasonable person rather than on a reasonable community.

Kevin Jones

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A SafetyAtWorkBlog reader emailed me this question:

“does a loss of shift due to fatigue equal a Lost Time Injury?”

My standard response is “why not?”

This type of LTI (Lost Time Injury) issue is one that will become increasingly common as the occupational health and safety (OHS) prominence of wellness and work-related psychological health and safety ramps up with the support of OHS regulators and authorities such as WorkSafe and Safe Work Australia.  The challenge was touched on in a recent SafetyAtWorkBlog article about Human Resources records.

It is quite possible for a health professional to issue a “sick note” listing absence from work due to “exhaustion” or “stress”, even though this is not a common occurrence.  Sick notes may say something like

“… has a medical condition and will be unfit for work from XX to XX date.”

That medical condition could be anything including mental ill-health, or influenza or hundreds of other conditions.  How is the OHS professional and employer to reduce work-related risks if they are not told of the possible cause of the illness?

Returning to the question above, how does the OHS person address a work-related absenteeism that, in the past, may have rested within HR’s employee records but now is expected, by the OHS regulators, to be investigated?

For those companies undertaking government construction contracts, there are often contractual penalties and obligations related to any LTIs related to the project.  You may need to investigate and report on an LTI to the (government) client, in order to explain why a penalty should not apply.  In the new world of work health and safety, what do you do if that LTI is related to psychological ill-health?

The reality is that, most likely, the incident report will be “massaged” to a lower injury category so that going to the Headmaster’s office is avoided.  It makes the contractor’s OHS job easier, but continues to avoid the issue of work-related psychological health and safety and whether our OHS reporting and management structures are able to include this type of injury.

Every company will need to address this challenge, and soon.

Kevin Jones

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The guidance on workplace psychological health and safety, forecast by Safe Work Australia’s Peta Miller was released on June 14 2018.  There is potential for this guidance to change how mental health is managed and, most importantly, prevented in Australian workplaces.

It is important to note that “Work-related psychological health and safety – a systematic approach to meeting your duties” has been developed with the involvement and approval of all of Australia’s occupational health and safety (OHS) or work health and safety (WHS) regulatory bodies.  Workplace mental health promoters and resilience peddlers are unlikely to find much support in this document as the prevention of harm is the benchmark.

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The Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) has released a very good report about Australia’s immigration detention centres which includes a long discussion on duty of care to detainees under Common Law. The report, “In Poor Health: Health care in Australian immigration detention” does not include any discussion on the duty of care under work health and safety (WHS) legislation however it can be argued that the Australian Government, through its supply chain, chain of responsibility and contract management, also has a duty of care to detainees under health and safety laws.

Several recent legal actions and workplace safety guidance indicates that clarification about the duty of care on physical and psychological risks to “others” is overdue.

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Data about occupational health and safety (OHS) and work-related psychosocial injuries has often been described as being hard to find.  In some ways it is not necessarily hard to find but difficult to access.  An untapped source of data is the records of illness and leave taken that is usually held by the Human Resources (HR) departments, often named “People and Culture”or some variant.  This type of data could be invaluable in determining a workplace psychological profile, if the HR departments would trust OHS professionals more, or release this data in a format that would allow OHS professionals to assess risks while maintaining employees’ privacy.

Beware, Generalisations Ahead

In Australia, employees are usually entitled to ten days’ sick leave, five of which require a medical certificate.  This means that one of the forty-eight expected working weeks may be taken off by workers with no reason provided to the employer other than a call or a text saying “I’m not coming into work today because I am not feeling well.”  Australian slang describes this as “chucking a sickie”.  

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Victoria’s Trades Hall has criticised the Master Builders Association of Victoria (MBAV) over its opposition to Industrial Manslaughter laws.  The MBAV’s opposition is described as “tired” by Trades Hall in a small article in the OHS Reps SafetyNet Journal which illustrates how the gap is unbreachable.

This is what the OHS Unit of Trades Hall said about the MBAV’s media release of May 28 2018:

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On June 5 2018, Sharon O’Keeffe of the North Queensland Register newspaper aired the response of the Deputy Commissioner of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) Mick Keogh to claims from the Federated Chamber of Automotive Industries (FCAI) on the safety of quad bikes and crush protection devices (CPDs). O’Keeffe says “the gloves are off”.

In March 2018, the ACCC announced its intention for a mandatory safety standard for quad bikes, or All Terrain Vehicles (ATV,) that included CPDs. 

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The Australia Institute has released a “factbook” about The Dimensions of Insecure Work.  It is little more than a snapshot of some of the labour situations in Australia centring on the fact that

“Less than half of employed Australians now hold a “standard” job: that is, a permanent full-time paid job with leave entitlements”

This changed demographic is significant whenever the Government or its departments and agencies take about job and employment figures.  The reliance on full time employment as the core metric should be reviewed and revised but this is likely to change our view of the world through official reports . 

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