For a health and safety approach to COVID-19

August 24, 2021
The principles of workplace safety should be applied to dealing with the pandemic. Photo: Pip Hinman

So many aspects of the public debate about how best to keep the community safe from COVID-19 relies on blaming individuals.

Who could forget the torrent of abuse the corporate media heaped on two young Queensland women who last July returned from Melbourne with COVID-19? They were described as “border cheats” or “jumpers”, “deceitful” and “linked to crime syndicates”.

The media even published their photos, names, addresses and links to the South Sudanese community. An avalanche of racist and sexist abuse ensued.

While some individuals have done the wrong thing, they are not to blame for the pandemic continuing. The system itself is under strain, because it is more geared to profits than putting the lives and health of people first.

Governments prefer to focus on individual bad behaviour because it takes the focus from systemic failures.

For instance, talk to any frontline health workers, and you will hear how chronically under-resourced the public health system is. The virus has been around for more than a year, and still hospitals in Western Sydney are reeling from the influx of patients with the Delta variant.

Other essential workers, who don’t have the ability to work from home, have also expressed how unsafe they feel in their workplaces.

Workplace health and safety

Workplace health and safety (WHS) relies on having systems in place to protect workers from injury and death on the job. The same principles are effective when applied to public health.

WHS laws put the emphasis on the employer, or management, to make the systems safe for employees, because they have the power and the financial means to make the workplace safe and to supervise and train workers so they can work safely.

The laws also mandate that workers and their representatives be involved and consulted every step of the way. This is because they are the experts — the frontline people who work with the hazards and risks on a daily basis.

The same principles would be just as effective in public health institutions.

State and federal governments both control the system: they control who comes in and out of the country or across the border, when lockdowns happen, who will enforce the system, and which regulations will be enforced.

However for the public health system to work well, the community, in all its diversity, must be involved. It’s clear that they want to be.

For example, there has been significant compliance with the onerous lockdown requirements and mask wearing. People want to be safe, and they don’t want to their friends and family put at risk and perhaps dying.

However, public education and involvement is not emphasised — until crises kick in.

Last July, community leaders were only approached and information provided in language after nine public housing towers in Melbourne were suddenly put into a lockdown. The Victorian state ombudsman has now ruled that it breached human rights, as most residents knew nothing of the lockdown or the reasons for it before it was enforced by police.

We are seeing the same racist and desultory approach in the NSW government’s lockdown of the twelve local government areas in the South West of Sydney.

The residents have been demonised for supposedly not complying with very complex and ever-changing lockdown requirements. Yet, they had little access to information in language, quite apart from the shortage in vaccine supply and the fact that so many are essential workers.

Controlling risk

Safety in the workplace relies on controlling risks and hazards, starting from the most effective responses.

Firstly, that means trying to eliminate hazards and risks. If this can’t be done, then the response should be to try to reduce, or minimise them.

From a public health point of view, if COVID-19 is the hazard, with illness and death as the risks, this has meant elimination of the virus. With the Delta strain now in the community, this is now a tall order.

In a workplace, if a hazard can’t be eliminated, its effect needs to be reduced.

In a public health context, this could mean isolating or quarantining individuals potentially infected with COVID-19, or closing borders.

An isolation measure in a workplace could be physical distancing between workers which, if properly implemented, would prevent transmission.

Another control involves engineering: to ensure that air extraction systems take stale or infected air from the workplace or quarantine facilities, air monitoring or testing systems must be set up.

Workplace testing for the virus is also important.

In WHS, administrative controls, while they do not remove the hazard, focus on the education, or supervision, of a worker so that they understand how to stay safe.

For example, COVID-19 safe plans devised by employers in consultation with their workforce are administrative.

Then the employer must train and supervise workers to help them understand how to work safely.

Finally, there is personal protective equipment, which does not lessen the impact of the hazard, but can keep us safer.

If the system works, with all its higher level checks and balances, human error should not cause greater tragedies.

That is why blaming individuals is about politics; it does not make sense from a health and safety point of view because it will not fix the problem.

Public health measures, when applied and backed up with adequate income and social support and education, have been effective in suppressing COVID-19, even before vaccines were available.

However, when such measures are driven by business or political interests and are overly coercive, this has led to a loss of confidence, and helped boost attendance at “Freedom Rallies” organised by the far-right.

Workers' power

In a workplace, an unsafe or unfair system is often challenged by elected Health and Safety Representatives (HSRs).

HSRs are shop floor workers who, once trained, have the legal right, following consultation, to shut down a workplace which is a threat to health and safety.

This happened in the Coles distribution warehouse at Eastern Creek in Sydney’s western suburbs. A United Workers Union (UWU) delegate forced management to take action against a possible COVID-19 outbreak at the end of July.

Workers in hospitals, aged care, construction sites, meat works, supermarkets and many other places have been forcing managements to use the safe systems approach to keep themselves safe.

Often they have to force managements to do the right thing as bosses are trained to put profits ahead of workers’ safety.

The WHS regulators have not always been quick to support workers’ safety either. They regularly drag their feet when workers and HSRs asked them to inspect an unsafe work place.

A safe systems approach, with workers and the community empowered and at the centre, is the key to putting workers and public safety ahead of profits.

[Sue Bull is a construction industry Health and Safety teacher.]

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