Should WorkSafe humiliate workers?

Plank2WorkSafe is today trumpeting a fine imposed on workers who planked in a factory. While recognising the importance of safety, surely we don't need to humiliate workers who do the wrong thing?

The saddest things in our inbox here at My Business are notifications of injuries or deaths in the workplace, which we learn of with horrible regularity thanks to agencies like WorkSafe Victoria. But today we think WorkSafe may have crossed a line by humiliating workers.

Here's why.

WorkSafe is completely, utterly and incontestably right to promote work safety. I have personal experience of how important it is from my time working in warehouses where heavy loads wobbled on top of unsteady racking and untrained forklift operators were the rule. The steel-capped boots we paid for ourselves were no protection against that. The employer simply did not take enough care to reduce the dangers of that workplace and that's reprehensible because it put profit before people.

WorkSafe does a great job pointing out that behaviour along those lines is just not on.

One of the ways it does so is with the steady stream of press releases that hit our inbox.

Today's was entitled "Two get court for plank prank" and details how WorkSafe had a pair of workplace plankers charged under Section 25(1)(a) and (b) of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004.

That clause states:

Section 25. Duties of employees

(1) While at work, an employee must—

(a) take reasonable care for his or her own health and safety; and

(b) take reasonable care for the health and safety of persons who may be affected by the employee's acts or omissions at a workplace.

We first felt a bit uncomfortable when we read that the individuals were charged. Sure they did a dumb thing, but was hauling them into the courts the right thing to do?

The press release also says:

[Two workers] were each fined $1500 today after pleading guilty to charges laid under the Occupational Health and Safety Act in the Ringwood Magistrates Court.

WorkSafe told Magistrate, Max Cashmore, the risk of serious injury or death was high if either of them fell because neither wore safety harnesses or used any other form of fall protection.

WorkSafe prosecutor Patrick McQuillan told the court workplaces were not playgrounds, forklifts were not toys and that over the past five years, 7000 Victorian workplace injuries caused by falls from height had cost $200-million in treatment and rehabilitation costs.

Nasty cost to society there, sure. And the Magistrate did fine the men (and recorded no conviction) so maybe it's fair to bring out this strong language.

But the press release went in harder still:

WorkSafe’s Operations General Manager of the Health and Safety Division, Lisa Sturzenegger, said the incidents brought together the issue of dangerous workplace pranks, the risk of falls from heights and improper use of forklifts.

“Falls from height in all industries account for many deaths and serious injuries every year,” Ms Sturzenegger said.

“Whether they happen on construction sites, farms or in warehouses, the possibility of death, brain damage, ending up in a wheelchair or broken bones are all-too-real possibilities.

“Safety must be paramount. Everyone in the workplace should have zero tolerance for behaviour where people put themselves or others at risk.

“Images such as this involving mature people sends the wrong message and influences to our youth and children, more broadly.

“The consequences are exceptionally serious and can happen in an instant. It just isn’t worth it,” she said.

Again, we have no issue with the message here. But we've made a decision in our coverage of this event: we removed the names of the plankers. We think that's right because the pair have already lost their jobs. Do they really need to be publicly humiliated too in the name of promoting workplace safety?

We feel not and that WorkSafe has taken steps almost no small business owner would contemplate, namely humiliation in front of an enormous audience. Yes, the workers concerned did somethung dumb. Yes, that stupidity should not ever be encouraged. Yes, workplace safety is tremendously important and yes, had they fallen it would have been nasty.

But is it really fair to make these two the poster children for the dangers of dumb workplace hijinks? Is it cool to make them walk the plank?

I reckon the two fined plankers carry a stigma now that is way out of proportion to their dumb acts. Their next job interviews could be pretty tough.

To me, it sure looks like bullying, or something close to it, for a government agency to put these workers' names out there like this.

Surely there's another way to promote the work safety message?

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