We are now among the foremost nations in terms of workplace safety outcomes. Australia’s experience with COVID-19 thus far has shown that our WHS laws are fit for purpose to respond to a pandemic. They were designed for broad application in a range of circumstances and with changing structures of workplace relationships.
The legislative framework that supports this mission is rooted in the Robens model – outcomes based rather than prescriptive regulation and informed by risk management and worker consultation. More recent refinements have included wider conceptions of consultation with workers and between organisations with overlapping WHS duties.
Of course, ongoing vigilance is required and there is strong scope to move to complete and make more rigorous the harmonisation of WHS across the federation.
The move towards harmonisation has been positive although the process remains incomplete and more fragile than should be the case. The incompleteness undermines its effectiveness as a symbol of joint intent, as a practical vehicle for clear messaging and as a means of reducing complexity and costs.
Organisations should be encouraged to have a current pandemic plan that can activated if a crisis of this magnitude occurs in the future. There will be a time when physical distancing will have to be relaxed in social activities. But it may be appropriate to encourage businesses to maintain any reorganisation of work that enables, or can quickly re-enable, physical distancing associated with work activities.
The COVID-19 crisis has shown that many people are able to work productively and effectively from home. Assessments of working at home environments has shown that many people have appropriate safe workspaces that could support ongoing working from home.
With respect to mental health, the pandemic has highlighted the complexity of trying to pull apart questions of causation in the context of the variety of sources of stress both in the workplace and more broadly. An overarching framework to help organisations deal with the holistic issue of worker mental health is needed, beyond the regulatory focus on mental health issues impacted by the workplace
Head - NSW