Australia’s Construction Code and the Home Insulation Royal Commission Reply

On 17 April 2014, Senator Eric Abetz, Australia’s Workplace Relations Minister, released the Building and Construction Industry (Fair and Lawful Building Sites) Code 2014 and supporting guidelines.  This Code is, fundamentally, an industrial relations Code however there is an occupational health and safety (OHS) element that needs to be noted, particularly when considered against the background of the Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program.

Section 6.2.1 of the Code’s Guidelines says:

“Improving the industry’s WHS&R [Work Health Safety and Rehabilitation] performance requires positive measures that aim for prevention rather than correcting things when they go wrong. This initiative is directed at making WHS&R management an integral part of the organisational culture of companies and enterprises.”

The aims of this section are laudable – “positive” actions, “integrated, pre-emptive instead of reactive – but there are also hints that role of safety in this Code has not been fully thought out.

Things

The use of the term “things” is of concern.  This term is vague and should never be used when a more accurate word is available, particularly in a government-issued guidance document. The use of “things” could be a mistake  but the drafting of this Construction Code, and the political prominence of the Code, should not allow such mistakes.  If it is not a mistake the lack of clarity is a worry, especially when a Royal Commission is being held (Home Insulation Program – HIP) that indicates a lack of understanding and attention to OHS in the planning phase of a building-related program.

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The CFMEU should make a case for union OHS representatives 2

In late March 2014, the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) was fined $A1.25 million over a violent dispute at the Emporium construction site that occurred in 2012.  In its media release about the fine, the CFMEU’s state secretary, John Setka, says:

“The protest at the Myer site in 2012 was about safety.”

Yes and no.  The dispute was about the representation of workers on safety matters, which is a different thing.  Setka goes on:

“Building workers need someone on site who genuinely represents their interests, and that doesn’t happen when that person is hand-picked by the boss.”

The core issue in this dispute seems to be that the CFMEU will not accept the Health and Safety Representatives (HSR) chosen by the workforce at the Emporium site, which is being built by Grocon P/L.  The CFMEU has its own HSRs that it believes will better represent the workforce on OHS matters.

The dispute represents an ideological dispute that seems more about unionism and industrial relations than about safety, but worker safety may still be the lose.

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CEO survey shows odd attitude to OHS Reply

Cover of AiGroup CEO Survey 2014One has to be very careful with surveys, particularly those involving business confidence or surveys of an organisation’s membership base.  These are surveys of perceptions which may not correlate with reality and may be an excuse to lobby government or set an agenda rather than determining a societal truth.  A recent example of this type of survey was produced by the Australian Industry Group entitled “Burden of Government Regulation“.  The AiGroup’s media release accompanying the report states that

“Over 83% of employers surveyed listed regulation related to industrial relations and occupational health and safety as a significant regulatory burden in 2014.”

One of the major problems with this statement and similar ones throughout the report is the lumping together of industrial relations (IR) and occupational health and safety (OHS). CEOs may perceive these issues as sufficiently compatible to be inseparable but OHS and IR issues are managed in different ways, are regulated by different government agencies and operate from different moral bases. The problem is exacerbated when reading the report itself because the 83% figure also includes workers compensation and employment costs (page 6), elements not mentioned in the media release. The problem is exacerbated when reading the report itself because the 83% figure also includes workers compensation and employment costs (page 6).

The report also seems to describe OHS consultation as consuming

“non-productive time with little practical value”!!

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Senator Abetz oversteps on workplace bullying claim 3

abetz.com.au - Joe McDonald 130314Anyone dealing with occupational health and safety (OHS), or in any profession, knows to be careful with one’s words in public.  This is particularly so when one is dealing with mental health issues or claims of workplace bullying.  This week Senator Eric Abetz, Australia’s Workplace Relations Minister, seems to have overstepped the mark by misrepresenting some Federal Court Orders as related to workplace bullying, when the Court made no such statement.  This could simply be dismissed as political hyperbole in the heat of the moment but this was no off-the-cuff remark.  He headlined his media release on 13 March 2014 as:

“Joe McDonald found guilty of workplace bullying – yet again. Bill Shorten must now act”.

According to Safe Work Australia, an organisation within Senator Abetz’s portfolio, workplace bullying is defined in the most recent national guide as

“repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety.” (page 2)

Nowhere in the Federal Court orders*  is workplace bullying, or any other bullying, mentioned and the Federal Court has not found Joe McDonald guilty of workplace bullying. The best that can be said is that Joe McDonald has a history of intimidation on construction sites and that this has created tense relations between the workforce and employers (perhaps a confused safety culture) and generated delays in construction.

Does this all matter? Yes More…

Important OHS titbits in latest Productivity Commission report Reply

Cover of infrastructure-draft-volume1Productivity and regulation is the rationale behind most of the workplace policies of the current Australian Government.  Occupational health and safety (OHS) has a role to play in both of these economic and social elements but it rarely gets considered in a positive light.  This is partly an ideological position of the conservative politicians but is also due to a lack of economic argument in favour of OHS and an inability, or an unwillingness, to identify essential regulations.

This week Australia’s Productivity Commission (PC) released a draft paper into the costs of public infrastructure projects that includes some telling OHS information even though most of the media has focused on the political angle or on the taxing of cars?!

A brief review of the draft report reveals OHS dotted throughout both volumes of the report and early on there is some support for Safety in Design in the tender development stage.   More…

New industrial relations book does service to OHS (for a change) 2

It is common for industrial relations to be written about without any mention or serious analysis of occupational health and safety (OHS). But a new textbook on Australian industrial relations includes a very good chapter of OHS that, significantly, cross-references other chapters in the book to provide a unified approach that reflects both the title and its intent. The book is called “Australian Workplace Relations” and the workplace health and safety chapter is written by Elsa Underhill.

Underhill has written on the OHS effects of precarious employment extensively and this issue is the basis of her chapter.  She sees this as major cause of many of the OHS issues, particularly the growth in psychosocial risks in modern society and provides copious amounts of Australian and international research in support. More…

Parliamentary inquiry discusses OHS but no one noticed 1

Australia’s politicians, trade unionists, businesses and media are gearing up for a tumultuous year in industrial relations with the controversial establishment of a Royal Commission into trade union corruption.  This royal commission is broad-ranging but targets the construction unions, particularly the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) and thus the construction unions’ conduct with regard to allegedly using occupational health and safe as a cover or excuse for industrial action. This royal commission has a strong element of party politics and ideologies and has overshadowed other action in the Australian Parliament where OHS is being discussed.

On 6 February 2014 the Education and Employment References Committee of the Australian Senate continued its inquiry into the Government’s approach to re-establishing the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) through the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013.  One of the terms of reference for this inquiry is

“whether the provisions of the bills relating to occupational health and safety in the building and construction industry are adequate to protect the health and safety of employees and contractors in the industry”.

On February 6 the inquiry had some heated discussion on OHS and the construction industry that deserves a closer look. More…

Construction association sees red tape instead of safety 2

Further to yesterday’s article about the Model Health and Safety Management Plan (MHSMP) being required by the Construction Compliance Code Unit (CCCU) in the Victorian Government, SafetyAtWorkBlog was provided with a copy of the submission of the Victorian Construction Safety Alliance* (VCSA).  Tony Marino, the Chair of the VCSA, has granted permission for the covering letter to be quoted.

The covering letter to the submission made four major points:

  • “Overall the requirements of the Model Health and Safety Management Plan (MHSMP) and Implementation Guidelines are excessive and require significant amount of reporting duplication, i.e. red­ tape. VCSA was of the opinion government agencies wanted to reduce red-tape.
  • VCSA Suggest the CCCU has a MOU with other relevant agencies to receive safety data produced and sought by the Implementation Guidelines. More…

Brothels continue to misunderstand the employee/contractor difference Reply

For many years the brothel industry in Victoria has struggled with its occupational health and safety obligations, not because it does not understand them but that it denies OHS laws are relevant as many in the industry continue to believe that sex workers are not employees.  Some use a Tax Office ruling on employee status to support their argument against OHS.

A recent investigation by the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) seems to further illustrate the industry’s misunderstanding of employees.  According to an FWO media release nineteen brothels, over 70% of brothels investigated, underpaid clerical staff around $A65,000 but of more relevance to OHS is that

“Some businesses were found to have misclassified employees as independent contractors.”

This was a position put by many brothel owners and industry lobbyists when I was consulting and writing about the industry almost a decade ago.  For a long time OHS laws have extended beyond the employee/employer relationship to include those affected by the work being undertaken on the premises. The more modern Work Health and Safety laws go further by focussing on the work activity rather than the place of work.

As the OHS/WHS focus increases on psychosocial hazards – impairment, fatigue, stress etc – the adult entertainment industry has particular challenges; challenges that could be seen as threats or opportunities but certainly challenges that will not go away.  It is very positive that the industry groups have agreed to support a specific website for the sex industry but now they need to start working seriously on complying with their OHS/WHS obligations through collaboration, consultation and innovation, instead of denial.

Kevin Jones

More on this industry and this topic can be found in an earlier SafetyAtWorkBlog article.

Opaque response on construction industry safety code 1

Model-Health-and-Safety-Management-Plan (2)Victoria’s Construction Compliance Code Unit in the Department of Treasury and Finance has just completed its public comments stage for its model Health and Safety Management Plan (HSMP).  The comments period was extended by a month after initially ending after only one month‘s public consultation on 6 January 2014.  New South Wales and Queensland have mirrored the Victorian construction compliance code so the significance of this OHS submission stage should not be underestimated however the submission process and unusual secrecy is not building the faith and trust in the HSMP that the process needs for it to succeed.

The regular process for submissions to government inquires is for those submissions to be made publicly available, with the permission of the writer.  The CCCU seems to have no plans to follow this protocol which is an enormous shame as the submissions would have provided a window into both the understanding of OHS in the Victorian construction sector, an understanding of the OHS role of the CCCU and an insight into how the CCCU is generally perceived by the Victorian community.

SafetyAtWorkBlog put the following (we think reasonable) questions to the CCCU last week in preparation for the end of the commentary phase:

  • Could you please estimate the number of submissions the CCU has received on the model Health and Safety Management Plan (HSMP) to date? More…