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Health and Safety at Work: The Woman’s Perspective

Health and Safety at Work: The Woman’s Perspective

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On this Mother’s Day, we’d like to shine a light on the women’s health and safety at work. From navigating work-life balance to addressing challenges like fatigue and menopause it is important to address the significant impact of workplace hazards on women’s psychological and physical health and especially their reproductive health and early pregnancy.

Cytotoxic Drugs and Hazardous Waste: Ensuring Safe Handling

In health, aged care settings and laboratories, women may encounter cytotoxic drugs and hazardous waste, which pose risks to reproductive health and early pregnancy. Exposure to these substances can lead to adverse effects on fertility, miscarriage, and developmental abnormalities in foetuses.

Employers must take all reasonable steps to identify, assess and eliminate or control this risk. This will include providing training, personal protective equipment, and safe handling protocols to minimize the risks associated with cytotoxic drugs and hazardous waste.

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Women working in industries where they are exposed to chemicals and radiation may face heightened risks to their reproductive health. Prolonged exposure to toxins and radiation can disrupt hormonal balance, affect menstrual cycles, and increase the likelihood of infertility or pregnancy complications.

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Implementing measures such as proper ventilation, protective clothing, regular monitoring, and limits on exposure levels is crucial to safeguard women’s reproductive health and mitigate the potential harmful effects of these occupational hazards.

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Promoting Maternal Well-being and Early Pregnancy Support

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Recognising the unique challenges women face in balancing work and reproductive health, employers can take proactive steps to support maternal well-being and early pregnancy. Providing access to maternal health resources, flexible work arrangements, prenatal care benefits, and accommodation for pregnancy-related needs can help women navigate the demands of work while prioritizing their health and the well-being of their growing families.

Advocating for Protective Policies and Supportive Practices

Advocacy for protective policies that prioritise women’s reproductive health and safety is essential to create a work environment that values and supports maternal well-being. From ensuring adequate 

rest breaks for pregnant women to offering accommodations for lactation and breastfeeding, policies that consider women’s unique biological needs foster a culture of inclusivity and support that benefits both employees and employers.

Work-Life Balance: Striking the Right Balance

For many working mothers, achieving a balance between career demands and family responsibilities can feel like an uphill battle. The pressure to excel in both domains often leads to stress, burnout, and feelings of guilt. Employers play a crucial role in promoting flexible work arrangements, childcare support, and a culture that values work-life balance, empowering women to thrive both at work and at home.

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Fatigue and Menopause: Navigating Hormonal Changes

Menopause, a natural phase in a woman’s life, can bring about hormonal fluctuations that impact energy levels, mood, and cognitive function. The physical and emotional symptoms associated with menopause can exacerbate fatigue and fatigue-related risk as well as impacting productivity. Creating a supportive environment that accommodates women experiencing menopause is essential for their health and well-being.

Equal Pay and Parenting Leave: Closing the Gap

Despite strides towards gender equality, the gender pay gap persists, with women earning less than their male counterparts for equal work. Additionally, inadequate parental leave policies can hinder women’s career progression and financial stability. Ensuring equal pay, as well as offering extended and flexible parenting leave options, can help level the playing field and support working mothers in advancing their careers.

Domestic Violence and Workplace Hazards: Providing Protection

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Women experiencing domestic violence may face threats to their safety both at home and in the workplace. Employers can play a pivotal role in creating policies and resources to support employees affected by domestic violence, ensuring their safety and well-being. Similarly, addressing workplace hazards and promoting a safe working environment is essential to protect women from occupational risks and accidents.

Domestic and family violence leave is now available in Queensland under the Queensland Employment Standards provisions of the Industrial Relations Act 2016 for employees who have experienced domestic and family violence and require leave as a result.

More information is available here:

Help is available 24/7 for people experiencing domestic violence by calling 1800 737 732.

Sexual Harassment: Cultivating a Culture of Respect

Everyone deserves a safe workplace free from sexual harassment. This protection extends to all workers and individuals conducting business activities.

 Sexual harassment includes unwelcome advances or behaviour of a sexual nature that could reasonably offend, humiliate, or intimidate the recipient.

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The intentions of the harasser are irrelevant, and harassment can occur in a single instance. Such conduct is considered serious misconduct and may lead to dismissal. Witnessing or being exposed to sexual harassment in the workplace is also unacceptable.

But raising the issue with your employer or the offender can be difficult, and many people would rather avoid having the conversation for fear of making the situation worse or not being believed.

The Fair Work Ombudsman offers a free course “Difficult conversations in the workplace – employee course” which can help you gain the skills and confidence you need to discuss workplace issues when they arise. It includes:

  • information about how to handle a difficult conversation
  • tips to help you prepare, manage your emotions, and reach a positive outcome
  • interactive scenarios to help you practice your conversation skills
  • downloadable resources and links to further information. 

 

Psychological Safety and Mental Health: Prioritising Well-Being

Psychological safety in the workplace is crucial for women to speak up, share their concerns, and seek support without fear of retribution. Prioritising mental health resources, destigmatising seeking help, and promoting a culture of openness and empathy can enhance psychological well-being and foster a supportive work environment for all employees.

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The model Code of Practice for Managing the Risk of Psychosocial Hazards at Work provides employers with guidance on applying the risk management process to identifying, assessing, and controlling psychological hazards at work. This is supported in Queensland by the new Workers’ Psychological Support Service (WPSS) which provides a comprehensive suite of services for worker experiences a range of psychological health challenges.

WPSS can be contacted on 1800 370 732 or info@wpss.org.au

Valuing and prioritising women’s health and safety at work is not only a matter of ethical responsibility and legal obligation for employers, but also a strategic imperative for building a diverse, inclusive, and thriving workforce. By addressing the unique challenges faced by women, promoting equity and support, and fostering a culture of respect and well-being, we can pave the way for a safer, more empowered, and inclusive workplace for all women and the generations to come, this Mother’s Day and beyond.

 

So, to all the mums, soon-to-be mums, grandmas, nannas, sisters, cool aunties and other mother role models, Happy Mothers’ Day from Lethbridge Piper & Associates.

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Health and Safety at Work: The Woman’s Perspective Read More »

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Rethinking Safe Work Method Statements: Enabling Neurodiversity in Construction

In the realm of construction safety, the Safe Work Method Statement (SWMS) has been a key feature of the Australian work health and safety regulatory framework for decades.

Defined by Safe Work Australia as

a document that sets out the high-risk construction work activities to be carried out at a workplace, the hazards arising from these activities and the measures to be put in place to control the risks”.

SWMS is a legal requirement under the model Work Health and Safety (WHS) Regulations for defined high-risk construction work.

 

Such work includes working at heights greater than 2 metres, trenching and excavating over 1.5 metres, demolition, disturbing asbestos, structural alterations and repairs, work in confined spaces, using explosives, work on telecommunications towers, on or near pressurized gas mains or piping or energized electrical installations and services, work in areas of extreme artificial temperatures, in or near water or other liquid and diving work.

The Construction Work Code of Practice provides a helpful template and example of a completed SWMS.  It must be completed in consultation with workers by the

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Person Conducting the Business or Undertaking (PCBU), or the principal contractor if the work is being performed by contractors before the high-risk construction work commences.

Once the SWMS has been prepared, it becomes a crucial document in ensuring safety during high-risk construction work. The SWMS must be communicated to all workers involved in the high-risk construction work to ensure they understand the hazards, risks, and control measures outlined in the SWMS.

During the actual work, the SWMS serves as a guide. Workers must follow the documented procedures and safety measures and supervisors must monitor compliance with the SWMS. If conditions change (e.g., unexpected hazards arise), the SWMS may need to be adapted and the SWMS must be regularly reviewed and updated reflect any changes in work processes, equipment, or risks.

SWMS must remain accessible at the worksite and be retained for at least 2 years after the high-risk construction work is completed. It may be requested during inspections by safety regulators.

The objectives of the WHS legislation are the prevention of work-related injury and illness, the promotion of a health and safety culture, the provision of safe workplaces and systems of work, consultation and participation, compliance and enforcement and continuous improvement and the SWMS is an instrument intended to give effect to these objectives.

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In an article published in Construction News on 1 February 2024, author Andrew Kitley notes that the construction industry in the United Kingdom (UK) has made significant progress in accommodating and supporting neurodivergent workers and provides examples of steps construction employers can take in creating neuroinclusive workplaces. Kitley also acknowledges that the industry still has a long way to go in fully embracing and supporting neurodiversity and the article does not specifically mention any ways that worker safety, particularly high-risk construction work may be managed differently.

 

Australia arguably lags the UK, Canada, the United States, and several European countries in our approach to neuroinclusivity, especially within the employment context and according to Price Waterhouse Cooper had one of the lowest employment rates for people with disability in the OECD, ranking 21 out of 29 countries in 2019.

 

During a recent conversation with a young WHS professional working in the construction industry, a topical issue emerged – the accessibility of SWMS for neurodivergent workers who may be overrepresented in the construction industry with its predominantly male workforce demographic that attracts individuals who may not have completed secondary education and struggled in traditional educational environments.

 

Despite being trained in performing high-risk work and demonstrating competency, these workers often struggled with reading and/or preparing SWMS, which in turn lead to a technical breach of the WHS Regulations.

This forward-thinking and inclusive WHS professional devised an innovative solution. The approach involves empowering workers to produce video recordings directly at the job site. The digital video SWMS fulfills all the necessary elements of the hard-copy form, is readily available and accessible on-site for all workers and importantly, it can be retained for 2 years after the completion of high-risk work.

In the videos, workers describe the nature of the work they are undertaking and the environment, they identify and record potential hazards and assess risks associated with the tasks and most importantly, they demonstrate the control measures implemented to ensure safety.

Bypassing the traditional form-filling process, this approach streamlines communication and provides a more intuitive and accurate way for neurodivergent workers to convey their understanding of the risks and commitment to safety protocols.

Additionally, the video recordings serve as visual evidence of the worksite conditions, capturing the identified hazards and corresponding control measures to eliminate or reduce risk. In essence, this innovative solution bridges the gap between safety documentation and practical implementation.

The result? Increased compliance and engagement among workers, demonstrating that accommodating neurodiversity isn’t just a moral imperative but also a practical strategy for improving safety performance in high-risk construction work.

 

Despite its effectiveness, regulatory bodies continue to insist on the strict adherence to the traditional form-based approach, citing non-compliance due to the absence of filled-out forms. Apparently, the absence of the correctly completed form equates to a breach of the Regulation, despite the fact that all the evidentiary requirements are available in the videos and the safe performance of the high-risk work is assured.

 

This highlights a crucial gap between regulatory expectations and requirements and the practical realities of accommodating diverse communication abilities and

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styles in the workplace such as those workers who are Autistic and/or who have Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, Dyspraxia, Dyscalculia to name a few.

 The Work Health and Safety (WHS) Act mandates the responsibility of the PCBU to ensure the health and safety of ALL workers. Presumably this includes the roughly 1 in 8 workers who think, learn, communicate, regulate attention and emotion, perceive, and respond to risk and experiences the physical environment differently from their neurotypical peers.

 The Risk Management Code of Practice emphasises the need to consider individual differences in the workplace, explicitly mentioning workers with disabilities who may face increased susceptibility to harm.

In line with these principles AS/NZS 45001:2018 – Occupational health and safety management systems – Requirements with guidance for use articulates the importance of addressing diversity including disability, when determining communication needs within an organisation. This encompasses considerations such as gender, language, culture, literacy, and disability, ensuring that all workers can effectively understand and adhere to safety protocols.

For Australian employers to fully experience the advantages of neurodivergent talent and also discharge their primary duty of care, WHS Regulators must address the conflict between the stated objectives of the WHS Act and their rigid insistence on traditional paper-based communication and record-keeping methods. These outdated practices often do not work for neurodivergent workers. They create barriers for employers in ensuring worker safety and can discourage the hiring neurodivergent workers or individuals with disabilities.

Regulators play a crucial role in resolving this tension to promote greater inclusivity and the management of risk, particularly within high-risk industries such as construction. 

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