Queensland take on Model OHS laws Reply

Cooper Grace Ward is another Australian law firm who has issued a brief alert on the proposed OHS model laws in Australia. As a Queensland-based firm it has a slightly different take on the draft Safe Work Act

Duty of Care

Cooper Grace Ward see the introduction of “reasonably practicable” as a new duty of care for employers, although the concept is well-established in other States. It describes “reasonable practicable” below

“What is reasonably practicable will be determined by taking into account and giving appropriate weight to:

  • the likelihood of the hazard or risk occurring;
  • the degree of the harm that might result from the hazard or risk;
  • what the person concerned knows, or ought reasonably to know about the hazard and the risk and ways of eliminating or minimising the hazard or the risk;
  • the availability and sustainability of ways to eliminate or minimise the hazard or risk; and
  • the cost of eliminating or minimising the risk.”

The firm says this may be “a more sensible approach than the current Queensland standard.”

Lawyers tend to like “reasonably practicable” because it is a difficult concept to define in practice and often OHS lawyers are asked for opinion. Employer associations like it because it can provide some larger business operators with the flexibility to minimise safety costs by tweaking the OHS management so that after an incident “what we thought was reasonably practicable, obviously isn’t, and we sincerely apologise” – not a lot of comfort to the grieving widow or widower.

The concept is also contrary to the dominant (if flawed) attitude of the small- to medium-sized business owner who wants simply to know if they comply. Most businesses in this sector just want to avoid the unnecessary complication and cost that a workplace injury would cause or a visit from an OHS inspector could cause. “Reasonably practicable” removes certainty from the business operator and leaves a large grey area of OHS compliance. This can lead to increased OHS costs by needing to go outside to a lawyer or OHS professional where, before, there was enough skill in-house to achieve a safe level of compliance (if such a think ever existed).

Cost to employers

Cooper Grace Ward should be congratulated for thinking ahead to how the new rules will affect businesses rather than just legal opportunities.

Employer’s will have new OHS obligations “for example, imposing a positive obligation on all employers to engage employees in a consultation process when implementing and monitoring any risks within the workplace.”

“Contrary to the Government’s claims this process may result in a decrease in business efficiencies as more time is spent negotiating methods of improving safety than actually doing so, and by reducing employee efficiency as more work time is spent assisting and negotiating the manner in which workplace health and safety systems will be improved instead of conducting their usual duties.

Costs will also be incurred to business as employers will be expected to provide those employee representatives who are acting in safety roles with adequate facilities and external training to adequately perform their role. Whilst employee representatives currently exist in Queensland, the proposed scope of their powers will be increased by the proposed Act.”

Cooper Grace Ward’s article also discusses union right of entry.

The public comment phase is only one week old, with another five to go. The legal fraternity has various approaches to the proposed OHS law that most often reflect their client base. The first law firms discussing the draft laws were those with a National coverage, understandably. Many Victoria-based law firms have come out sounding a little smug as it is largely the Victorian OHS Act which has been used as the skeleton for the National legislations.

Cooper Grace Ward is an example of a smaller, more localised firm that, in some ways, is closer to its clients or, at least, clients in the smaller business sector which, OHS regulators agree, is the sector where OHS incidents can cause greater proportional damage and where the greater business risks are taken.

Kevin Jones

Freshening an OHS career 1

OHS professionals, as with any profession, can easily become out-of-touch with what their profession is all about.  This is to improve the safety of people through a professional and competent approach.

Some professionals lose touch because they may be dealing with corporate OHS policies all day,  they may never get away from head office and the endless round of meetings, they don’t get to go to events outside their own professional network or they are simply comfortable with  the “academic” role and not miss getting their hands dirty on the shop floor.

In each of these scenarios the OHS professional is doing themselves, and their profession, no favours.  Their career may progress but their thinking does not.  Some OHS professional associations are at the same plateau.

There are some small things one can do if one wants to break the cycle and obtain a better quality of work.

  • Test the validity of the corporate polices by arranging for an internal audit by someone else and participate as an observer.
  • Take one’s skills out of head office and offer to mentor some of your contractor’s OHS people.
  • Establish a pro-bono service for the smaller businesses nearby.
  • If one’s company is in an industrial estate, start-up an Estate OHS group where business owners can meet to share or create solutions.
  • Offer one’s OHS services to a not-for-profit organization, if your company offers “volunteer” leave.
  • Offer to assist students at all levels with their OHS assignments.
  • Take a sabbatical to majority world sectors, such as Asia, and offer one’s OHS skills to OHS and labour advocates in that region.*

The biggest threat to one’s safety skills is stagnation.  If one’s professional safety organisation does not have the programs available to freshen up your skills and approach, go outside the safety field.  It is surprising how one’s skills in one area can be applied in others, such a public health, environmental safety, transport or maritime safety.

Kevin Jones

* A particularly useful organisation that is worth contacting is ANROAV – the Asian Network for the Rights of Occupational Accident Victims

A colleague in Asia recently told SafetyAtWorkBlog that ANROAV is in need of variety of educational materials.  Many of these are basic tools such as jigsaws that can be used to identify hazards or safe work options.

$A10,000 would be a great help in establishing a basic education fund which could access a suite of OHS comics and short films that can be used for education on fire risk, cancer, mine safety, electronics, solvents etc..

OHS law debate and Law Society position Reply

Boardroom Radio has hosted a very interesting podcast between two labour lawyers, Andrew Douglas and Michael Tooma, with the participation of Barry Silburn, the National President of the Safety Institute of Australia.

Andrew Douglas speaking at one of his firm's regular breakfast seminars

Andrew Douglas speaking at one of his firm's regular breakfast seminars

The SIA National President’s contributions were quite narrow, dominated by the issue of “suitably qualified” in the new model OHS laws (but he did struggle to get a word in edge ways).

It will be disappointing if the SIA’s submission to the Federal Government on the new laws focusses on this single and, to most, secondary issue, when the institute could achieve better results through other mechanisms and more creative thinking.

The only expansive comment from Silburn was the fact that harmonised plant regulations that were introduced over 10 years ago still resulted in different legislation in each State even though they reflected a common core.  The high likelihood of this happening to the general OHS legislation was supported by the over panel members.

It is possible that the argy-bargy occurring now and at least for the next 6 weeks of public comment, will not achieve harmonisation as it was initially intended, and tried in a half-hearted way in the early 1990’s.  The Federal Government could still end the debate by applying its powers under the Corporations Act, as it has in industrial relations.  Some lawyers believe that this is the ace up the sleeve of the Federal Government.

The Law Council of Australia issued an interesting media statement on 30 September 2009.  Below are the comments from that statement by John Corcoran, the Council’s President:

“The model laws strike the correct balance and adhere to fundamental criminal law principles.  Governments must set aside jurisdictional differences and enact a uniform model OH&S law.”

“Despite the substantial differences in OH&S legislation across Australia, there is little evidence to suggest that the imposition of harsher penalties and evidentiary burdens in some jurisdictions has improved workplace safety performance.  Nor has it been improved by the extension of prosecution powers to unions or other organisations.”

“There are undeniable benefits, both to workers and employers, in a uniform national OH&S system, but there is no evidence that workers in any jurisdiction will be worse off if a model law is adopted uniformly.”

These quotes give one of the clearest indications that the OHS harmonisation process about law and not safety management.

It could also be asked that if there is “little evidence to suggest that the imposition of harsher penalties and evidentiary burdens in some jurisdictions has improved workplace safety performance” what alternative strategies and penalties would the Council suggest for consideration?  We will need to wait for their submission to the government for that.

Johnstone book 001Richard Johnstone, a leading academic and researcher into OHS law and enforcement polices argued in his 2003 book, “Occupational Heath and Safety, Courts and Crime

“…that the court is an institution which, while appearing to dispense justice, is actually part of a broader process which decontextualises social issues.  Courts, inspectors, prosecutors and defence counsel are involved in filtering or reshaping OHS issues during the prosecution process, both pre-trial and in court.”

Johnstone says that the process leads to a focus on the “event” rather than the broader context which includes the workplace management systems.

Johnstone succinctly lists the five key principles of effective OHS management, based on his work and that of his colleagues:

  • “demonstrated senior management commitment to OHS;
  • the integration of OHS management into core management and work activities;
  • the adoption of a systems approach to OHS management, involving risk assessment processes and an audit system to identify all risks and to determine which require urgent attention;
  • the ability of the OHS management system to accommodate to change, particularly changes to work methods, systems and processes, changes to substances, plant and equipment, and changes to the workforce; and
  • valuing worker input to the OHS management system.”

This is the context in which the new draft Model OHS laws should be considered.  If the law does not support these principles than the law is being written for the lawyers and not for the improvement of safety for workers in Australia.

Much of the podcast discussion was about how one deals with what went wrong rather than providing guidance of how to manage to avoid the risk in the first place – the perpetual dichotomy between lawyers and safety professionals.

Kevin Jones

Business commentator is concerned over OHS and IR overlap Reply

Respected business commentator, Robert Gottliebsen, has commented on the political and ideological challenge that Julia Gillard, Australia’s Minister for Workplace Relations, faces over the introduction of OHS model legislation.

Gottliebsen says there is a risk that the combative OHS structures in New South Wales could spread to the national context and that resisting this movement, funded and promoted by the trade unions, will be a substantial test for the Minister. In his Business Spectator article he says

“To make it tougher for Gillard, the draft [legislation] has clauses that will give unions around Australia NSW-style prosecution powers and clauses that water down training requirements.  This will mix IR issues and safety and may well increase the injury rate.”

There is a persistent debate about the IR context of OHS and vice versa, which is the tail and which is the dog.  Gottliebsen clearly sees the NSW experience as illustrating IR having too much influence over OHS management.  (For those readers outside Australia, NSW is seen widely as a failure economically and politically)

“The sad thing is that once occupational healthy and safety becomes merely a tool of industrial relations, it is politicised and linked to wage claims and is not taken seriously.  More workers go home injured or worse.  So not only do we need English-style law, but we need law that isolates safety from industrial relations skirmishes.”

This is reminiscent of the days when industrial employment awards provided allowances for dangerous or unhealthy tasks, what was universally considered “danger money”.

Robert Gottliebsen is no fool and the significance of his article is the fact that the issue was covered by a finance and business commentator at all.  It indicates the significance of what the Federal Government is proposing, politically, industrially and socially.  the foundations of OHS legislation have remained basically the same since Lord Robens’ recommendations in England in the 1970’s.  Australia has had OHS legislation since the early 1980’s.  The new model OHS legislation should similarly be seen in such longevity and broad impact.

OHS may be a niche consideration for most people but how the government handles the negotiations leading to this law’s implementation will be a good indication of their political nous and their commitment to Australians.

Kevin Jones

What Trevor Keltz gets right Reply

Madonna has just released another greatest hits CD.  Trevor Kletz has done similar in releasing the fifth edition of “What Went Wrong?” He admits that almost all of the content has appeared elsewhere.  It’s been almost 20 years since I had to read Kletz’s books and articles as part of working in a Major Hazards Branch of an OHS regulator in Australia.  Not being an engineer, the books informed me but were a chore.  This is not the case with the last edition.

Kletz has two parts to the book.  The first is a collection of short case notes recording as he says

“…the immediate technical causes of the accidents and the changes in design and methods of working needed to prevent them from happening again”.

The second discusses the weaknesses of management systems.  In short, the book reflects the expanding nature of safety management over the last forty years.  Kletz may be from the Olde School of safety engineers (he is 87 years old) but often one needs a fresh perspective on a profession and coming from a person with such extensive experience, Kletz is worth listening to.  Thankfully, he does not sound like a grumpy old man.

Kletz notes that process industry lessons seem to fade after a few years.  In my opinion this may be an effect of the transience of modern careers where corporate memory is often fragmented.  It may also be due to the shipping of manufacturing and process industries off-shore and the establishment of large complexes in countries with different (lax) safety requirements.  It may also be due to a corporate performance regime where maintenance is not valued or understood as that supports long term thinking rather than quite returns on investment.

Regardless of the cause, the short-term memory makes the need for such books as this as more important than never.

In anticipation of his look at management systems he notes in his preface, that management systems need maintaining and, more importantly, reading.  In some circumstances, too much faith is placed in the system (I would refer to the Esso Longford explosion as an example).  Kletz says all systems have limitations.

“All they can do is make the most of people’s knowledge and experience by applying them in a systematic way.  If people lack knowledge and experience, the systems are empty shells.”

What Kletz does not write about is human error because, as he says, “all accidents are due to human error”.  He avoids making the weak logic jump that the behaviouralists make where, “if all accidents are due to human error then fix the human and you fix the hazard”.  Kletz devotes a whole chapter to his classification of human errors as

  • Mistakes;
  • Violations or noncompliance;
  • Mismatches;
  • Slips and lapses of attention.

This edition of “What Went Wrong?” provides a baseline for the safety concepts we have come to accept but also a critical eye on safety and manufacturing management shortcomings.  The style is very easy to read although occasionally repetitive.  Thankfully the process technicalities are avoided unless they relate to the technical point Kletz is making.  I found part B hugely useful but it is recommended for all safety professionals.

Kevin Jones

Australian lawyer interviewed on OHS laws Reply

Ric Morgan, a Senior Associate at Allens Arthur Robinson, was interviewed recently by Boardroom Radio on the new OHS model legislation.  Each lawyer seems to emphasise a different combination of features in the new proposed laws.

Morgan anticipates that minimal changes will be made to the draft law.

The interview is well worth listening to for a slightly different perspective on the issues.

Kevin Jones

Comcare’s RTW performance has some worrying trends Reply

RTWMatters, an Australian return-to-work website, has analysed some of the data that has been released through the annual data – Aust & NZ RTW Monitor.  The statistics show that the Australian Government’s workers’ compensation insurer, Comcare, has performed well on some performance indicators but others are raising concerns, particularly

  • “The cost of claims has risen from $15 000 in 2005-06 to almost $20 000 in 2008-09. This is substantially higher than the national average.
  • Around 1/3 of Comcare workers can identify a person who made it harder to RTW, which is higher than the national rate. Over the last three years there has been a significant increase in Comcare employees reporting their employer has hindered return to work.
  • Over the last two years, Comcare workers have found it increasingly difficult to find the information they need to make a claim.
  • Comcare workers rated their insurer customer service lower than the national average, with communication, advice about the claim and understanding the situation rated lowest.”

Paul O’Connor, at last week’s Comcare Conference in Canberra was very upbeat but was well aware of the challenges ahead particularly for the next five years during a period when the Australian government will attempt to harmonise the OHS laws in each jurisdiction.  It should be noted that Paul has been Comcare’s CEO since 1 September 2009.  He was formerly with the Transport Accident Commission in Victoria.

O’Connor quoted the Australian Finance Minister, Lindsay Tanner, during his conference presentation.  (The Tanner quotes are from August 2009)

“It is unlikely that we will see any major reform in this area in the near future, as Australia’s various governments are grappling with the challenging task of building uniform national industrial relations and occupational health and safety systems.

“Nevertheless, the current campaign for a national catastrophic injury compensations scheme should trigger a wider debate about injury compensation in our society generally. The present system is fragmented, inequitable, inefficient and arbitrary. Reform could be some time coming but it’s certainly long overdue.”

RTWMatters has identified that more groundwork is going to be needed in the lead-up to the reform process if any measurable improvements are to be achieved.  In their media statement, they say

“Real collaboration requires that all stakeholders be able to access information to assess the impact of legislative and systems changes on workers compensation and return to work outcomes.”

The road to reform that Geoff Fary described as very difficult will be an important one to watch.

Kevin Jones

[Kevin Jones is a feature writer with RTWMatters]

23rd suicide at France Telecome in 18 months 2

Adam Sage has been following the suicides that have occurred in France Telecome for some time.  On 23 September 2009 in the TimesOnline (a week later in The Australian newspaper??), Sage provides a useful summary and cogitation on the “cluster”.

But although this number of suicides in one company should be alarming, it is not really a cluster as the suicide rate for Telecome’s employees was only slightly above the national average of 14.7 per 100,000 people.  Sage reports that France is a country with a high comparative suicide rate.  The relevance to SafetyAtWorkBlog is that Sage goes on to identify work-related factors that contribute to suicides.

He quotes a sociology professor who says the French “define themselves by their professions”.  The risk with this basis for identity is always when the demand for the profession declines, one needs to redefine and this is not easy.

Sage finds a psychoanalyst who says that his patients feel isolated at work and have no support mechanisms.

A suicide prevention expert says that often a problem at home is the suicide trigger with someone who is feeling stressed at work.

Sage provides a potted history of the privatisation of France Telecome and speaks to a current employee bemoans the loss of camaraderie.

What is surprising about this article is that it seems France, and particularly France Telecome, are way behind other Western nations in having control measures in place for employee support programs and change management.

It is not as if France is ignorant of workplace stress issues or that workplace suicides have only occurred at France Telecome.  A major reason for its experiment with the 35-hour week was to

“…to take advantage of improvements in productivity of modern society to give workers some more personal time to enhance quality of life.”

In January 2008 (well before the current financial crises), the Institute for Economic and Social Research published “Workplace suicides highlight issue of rising stress levels at work “.  After some suicides at Renault and Peugeot it assessed the issues, acknowledged the trade union assertion that

“…excessive isolation of workers due to high workloads and fierce competition leads to a malaise in companies and thus call for a reflection on choices of work organisation.”

The article also reported

“The French Democratic Confederation of Labour (Confédération française démocratique du travail, CFDT) welcomed the ‘recognition of psychological factors being the cause of an occupational accident’ as it ‘opens the way to taking into account a form of suffering and malaise that, until now, has been minimised by companies’.”

A longer-lasting improvement will only come if this recognition is built on by all social structures in France.  Perhaps it should look across the channel at how the Health & Safety Executive and the corporate sector have responded to the report by Dame Carol Black – “Working for Health” – calling for an integrated approach to health management involving work, public health, health promotion and other elements of social capital.

France Telecome held an extraordinary Board meeting on 15 September concerning its suicide rate.  It made the following commitments:

  • “The national health, safety and working conditions committee (CNSHSCT) will be meeting on Thursday next week in the presence of Jean-Denis Combrexelle, the Ministry’s Director General for Employment.
  • To stop the phenomenon from spreading, it has been decided to immediately put in place a freephone number to promote dialogue. Psychologists from outside the company will be available to listen to and talk with any employees who may be having difficulties.
  • The first meeting for the negotiations on stress will be taking place on Friday September 18. On this occasion, the employee representatives will appoint an external consultancy to conduct an audit of the situation within France Telecom.
  • These negotiations will focus on the prevention of stress and psychosocial risks in the event of geographical or professional mobility among staff. To address this issue, a forward-looking employment and skills management (GPEC) system will be set-up with a view to offering employees and their direct managers visibility over their professional development and support.”

Didier Lombard, France Telecom’s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, has set a tight timeframe for improvement.  On 15 September 2009 Lombard said

“December’s France Telecom will not be the France Telecom of today.”

Kevin Jones


Agence France Presse has reported a 24th suicide associated with France Telecom.  According to the report the 51-year-old male jumped to his death from an overpass onto a busy highway.  His suicide note to his wife expressly referred to the work environment as a reason for his action.


Deacons are first with harmonised OHS law comments Reply

Michael Tooma speaking at the Safety Conference in Sydney in 2008

Michael Tooma speaking at the Safety Conference in Sydney in 2008

Michael Tooma, of the Australian law firm Deacons, is often the first labour lawyer to comment on Australia OHS Law matters and this week was no different.  While many of us are continuing to digest the draft OHS Act, Tooma has identified several issues of interest.  Some are discussed below.

[Tooma’s full legal update is available  HERE]

An expanded duty of care that may extend beyond workplace safety and OHS

The duty of care will include

  • “providing and maintaining a safe and healthy work environment;
  • providing and maintaining safe plant and structures;
  • providing and maintaining safe systems of work;
  • ensuring safe use, handling, storage and transport of plant, structures and substances;
  • providing adequate facilities for the welfare of workers carrying out work for the business or undertaking;
  • providing any information, training, instruction or supervision that is necessary; and
  • ensuring the health of workers and conditions at the workplace are monitored for the purpose of preventing illness or injury of workers.”

Most of these will be familiar to Australian OHS professionals and there is little that is controversial here but Tooma says

“This expanded duty has the capacity to broaden the existing duties significantly, extending their reach to any activities that may impact health and safety.   The extent of the duty as drafted in the model provisions arguably includes public safety matters…..  In addition to public safety, arguably the provisions are capable of applying to product safety matters.”

Tooma expands on this slightly in an article in SmartCompany in terms of an alternative to public liability.

“Tooma says this means duty of care will now extend to issues of public safety, including visitors, passers by and even trespassers, which could open businesses up to civil litigation claims from people who aren’t even employees of a business.

Tooma says the laws allow a member of the public to sue a workplace based on a breach of statutory duty, rather than a negligence claim, which often carries a higher penalty and is more difficult to defend in court.”

The extension of workplace safety obligations to include the impact of work processes on those outside the worksite has existed for some time but the draft legislation has the capacity to highlight this “opportunity” to some.  The integration of work and non-work exposures has some logic to it when one considers the growing push for integration of work health and public health management such as reducing cardio-vascular health risks through work-based initiatives.  It also broadens the social integration of OHS  and environmental management which larger companies are already managed through an integrated structure.

Union Right of Entry

There have been some frightful cases of union intervention, particularly in the construction industry, over the last few years.  Depending on one’s politics the union reps or organisers are either doing the right thing by their members or disrupting the workplace for their own secret agenda.  This situation does not reflect the vast majority of workplace consultations on OHS matters.

Prior to the introduction of the Victorian OHS Act which established an authorisation process for union organisers, SafetyAtWorkBlog remembers one prominent OHS lawyer, warning that “the sky will fall” over this issue.  It never did in Victoria and there is no reason to suspect that new right-of-entry provisions will be controversial in any workplaces other than those that already have fractious relationships between unions and management, and often on matters unrelated to safety.

However, Tooma says that

“The union right of entry provisions contained within the Model OHS Laws involve a far greater expansion of the rights of unions than those which exist in current OHS legislation throughout the jurisdictions, particularly in New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania and the Commonwealth.  The Model OHS Laws give unions not only the power to investigate incidents but also to advise workers in relation to OHS matters.”

There was always going to be some changes in some jurisdictions due to the harmonisation process following the Victorian OHS Act 2004.  SafetyAtWorkBlog has faith in the authorities implementing sufficient safeguards that union right-of-entry will not be the hotbed of anxiety that some are suggesting.

More legal commentary on the draft OHS Law documents is likely to be released over the next few weeks as the drafts get digested and the six-week public comment phase kicks in.  It is sure to be the hot talking point as Australia moves into a bunch of OHS activities, conferences and awards events in October 2009 leading to Safe Work Australia Week.

Kevin Jones

Increasing risk of silicosis in the majority world Reply

Australian safety expert and activist Melody Kemp reported from the annual meeting of the Asian Network for the Rights of Occupational Accident Victims (ANROAV) that was held in late September 2009 in Phnom Penh.

The meeting featured many stories about the increasing risk of silicosis in Asia.  Melody writes in the 27 September edition of the blog “In These Times”:

“Silicosis afflicts workers working with gems, ceramics, rock blasting, drilling and crushing, and mining. It haunts unprotected workers in glassworks, mines and foundries, as well as those who live within reach of the dust. It’s usually fatal by the time it is diagnosed.

Largely eradicated in the economic North, silicosis is now the scourge of the Global South. Millions die from the illness each year.”

The size of the growing occupational and community threat is frightening.

“China alone reports over 100,000 new cases of industrial lung disease per year, and has more than 4 million existing cases. And those are just the official figures. Even industrially advanced South Korea sees over 1,000 new cases of occupational chest disease each year, reported Dr. Domyung Paek, a pulmonary specialist from Seoul National University.”

Melody has contacted SafetyAtWorkBlog asking for assistance in attracting occupational medical experts to Cambodia and other countries undergoing rapid industrialisation.  She can be contacted by clicking HERE.

Kevin Jones