Australian Minister’s latest comments on OHS law reform 3

Last week the Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, spoke at the ACTU Congress for 2009.  Industrial relations was clearly the principal agenda issue but Gillard did mention OHS.  The relevant OHS text of her speech is below.

For those wishing more information about her rowdy reception, coverage is available at several Australian news sites.

The OHS content got no mention in any of the mainstream press and some of the political websites also ignored it.  

Prior to the Deputy PM’s speech, the congress held a minute’s silence for all those who lost their lives through traumatic injuries at work.  The Deputy PM was presented with a petition (details to come). 

During the silence, two relatives of  young construction workers in Queensland who had died, were on stage.  On screen a role call of the dead scrolled slowly as a backdrop.  

Occupational Health and Safety

Friends, as representatives of working Australians you know that nothing is more important to them than safety at work.

Recently State Ministers for occupational health and safety and I reached a vital reform milestone: agreement for the creation of a uniform national occupational health and safety regime. 

This is a massive advance for workplace safety. As you will recall, the first, but ultimately unsuccessful steps towards a uniform occupational health and safety regime were taken by the Hawke Government in 1984.  25 years is too long to wait for better laws to cut preventable workplace deaths and accidents.  But we are now primed to achieve a great outcome for Australian workers and businesses alike. 

Under current occupational health and safety laws, only four jurisdictions allow workers to stop unsafe work – Western Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the ACT.  This represents approximately 14.5% of Australian workers. The new occupational health and safety laws will extend this right to all Australian workers.

For too long employers have thought that they could cut costs by cutting corners on health and safety.  Under these new laws every employer will understand that cutting corners comes at a huge price. 

The penalties under the new occupational health and safety laws will far exceed existing penalties in today’s legislation in Australia.  Currently, the highest maximum fine for a corporation is $1.65 million.  In some jurisdictions the maximum is significantly less.  Under the new laws, the maximum will be increased to $3 million, almost double the largest penalty in the country today. 

Through the tripartite body, Safe Work Australia, you will be partners in developing the model laws for this new national system. 

Kevin Jones

Harmonising workers compensation Reply

Gabrielle Lis raised an issue in an article for Return To Work Matters that deserves to be seriously considered.  The Australian Government is set on a path of harmonising OHS laws through the coordination role of Safe Work Australia.  One of the key policies  for Safe Work Australia is also to 

“develop proposals relating to… harmonising workers’ compensation arrangements across the Commonwealth, States and Territories…”

Wow, this is more of a challenge than harmonising OHS laws.  As Gabrielle writes

“Workers and employers don’t always see eye to eye on the issue, not to mention the differing interests of big businesses and small and medium enterprises, and the entrenched positions of the states and territories, who all tend to prefer “how we do things” to how things might best be done.”

Safe Work Australia is going to be dealing with over a dozen worker’s compensation insurers, around half a dozen workers’ compensation bureaucracies and thousands of stakeholders in the compensation, insurance, healthcare and return-to-work sectors.

This challenge is phenomenal and will not fit into any short-term schedule.  This challenge differs from OHS in that it directly involves money, millions of it.  The negotiations on OHS between government, unions and employer groups will be nothing compared to when the insurance companies move in on workers compensation.

Kevin Jones

(Disclaimer: Kevin Jones is a regular columnist for www.rtwmatters.org)

Not another Australian swine flu website!? 3

Recently in 2009, the Health Services Australia company launched a new swine flu website.  

The HSA site is run by a private health services company and came to the attention of SafetyAtWorkBlog through a news item by the OHS Commissioner of the Australian Capital Territory.   The ACT OHS Commissioner may not be endorsing the site but the HSA website is described positively.  The Commissioner’s site says

“The site provides information on the risk of flu – pandemic, swine, avian and seasonal varieties – expanding upon information previously published on their avian influenza site.

It also includes the latest health alerts, FAQs, useful links and information on travel health services relating to flu which people may find of benefit.”

For further information on www.fluthreat.com.au SafetyAtWorkBlog followed the trail from fluthreat to HSA which then lead to the site of one of Australia’s largest private health insurers, Medibank Private.  The two companies merged only recentlyon 1 April 2009.

Health Services Australia is listed on the fluthreat site  as the copyright holder but Medibank Private is not mentioned.

The HSA site which includes a prominent link to http://www.fluthreat.com.au does mention Medibank Private, in a mediarelease link on the home page but more succinctly, but almost in passing, under Governance and Structure:

“Health Services Australia Limited (HSA) and its subsidiaries are owned by Medibank Private Limited (Medibank).”

It seems very odd that the ACT OHS Commissioner should be directing Internet visitors to a privately run influenza information website instead of to the influenza information from authoritative websites such as the Australian Department of Health and Ageing, the ACT Dept of Health, the Federal Government’s dedicated swine flu site – healthemergency, or even the the World Health Organisation.

[SafetyAtWorkBlog has repeatedly tried to contact the ACT OHS Commissioner's office but gets an answering service each time.  The media spokesperson for HSA Group and Medibank Private has not yet returned calls]

Kevin Jones

Sitting (not so) pretty Reply

New Australian research shows hours of sedentary activity, like typing emails or sitting at a quality control station, are associated with higher cardio-metabolic health risks that are independent of time spent in moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity.

DrGenevieveHealyAccording to a media statement from University of Queensland and Baker IDI research fellow, Genevieve Healy, (pictured right) 

“Although many Australians have adopted the recommendation of getting at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity on at least five days of the week, we’ve been getting more overweight.

“The most plausible explanation is that 30 minutes constitutes a very small proportion of waking hours.  It’s equally important to look at what the person is doing for the remaining 15 and-a-half hours of the day.  A person who follows the guidelines of 30 minutes of brisk walking and spends the other 97 per cent of waking hours sitting is ‘physically active’ according to public health guidelines.  However, the term ‘active couch potato’ is probably more appropriate,” Dr Healy says.

Dr Healy will be speaking more on her reseach at the Queensland Safety Conference in Brisbane, Australia on  18 June 2009.

Audit report says “could do better” 2

Cover of 20090603_workcover_full_reportOn 3 June 2009, the Victorian Auditor-General released the audit report, CLAIMS MANAGEMENT BY THE VICTORIAN WORKCOVER AUTHORITY.  The objective of the audit was to assess the effectiveness and efficiency of VWA’s claims management.

The report found that the current claims management model 

“has not substantially improved RTW [return-to-work] outcomes, or the effectiveness of agents’ case management practices”

Although the report notes that the system has not deteriorated.

The report also says

“Agents’ case management practices, on average, were considered generally adequate, however, there is substantial scope for improving agents’ performance.”

“Adequate” is not a ringing endorsement of the system and the workers’ compensation agents should pay particular attention to criticism of their performance.

Safety managers and professionals have been trying to incorporate psychosocial hazards into their safety management processes but it seems that agents are having similar problems:

“Agents did not systematically consider psychosocial barriers to RTW such as attitudes toward recovery, stress, anxiety, workplace issues, substance abuse, and family matters, when assessing the injured worker’s status, needs and risks to recovery. In most cases assessments were narrowly focused on the physical injury and its impact.”

The report notes that many issues raised are already being addressed by the Victorian WorkCover Authority.

Almost the only statements made on the workers’ compensation scheme by the State Ministers over the last decade have related to premium fluctuations, how the business costs of the system are being controlled or unavoidable.  However it seems now that the system has only been cruising, but not improving, or keeping up with the contemporary workplace hazards and employee needs.

The white collar public service, in particular, has a high incidence of stress-related claims.  The reality of the hazard has been acknowledged through preventative guidance notes from the OHS regulators and the general growth in the work/life balance movement.  Yet in 2009, the workers’ compensation agents  are criticised for giving this hazard insufficient attention.

Even when an audit report is politely critical, it remains critical and demands attention.

Kevin Jones

Swine Flu and business continuity – video Reply

On the evening of 2 June 2009, the ABC TV show “Lateline Business” ran a short item on the business continuity issues associated with Australia’s swine flu outbreak.  Not much that was said was new but it proposed an interesting scenario for those people who manage aged care facilities where a potentially virulent illness could harm residents who it may be difficult to isolate or quarantine.

Michael Tooma of Australian law firm, Deacons, spoke briefly to remind viewers that health and safety were important legislative obligations that relate to illnesses, such as swine flu.  Interestingly he provided a rule-of-thumb scenario on business continuity.  He asked whether a business could continue to operate with 20% less staff, a 20% reduction in logistics services and 20% less customers, if the swine flu realises its potential.

Most of the speakers spoke from the current position that Australia is suffering from a “mild” case of this virus.  The story would be considerably different if Australia suffered its first swine-flu fatality, as have other nations.  One death and the terminology will change.

A video of the segment is available to view online.

Kevin Jones

Union movement misdirects on OHS Reply

According to an AAP report on 3 June 2009, the ACTU is forecasting action on the matter of workplace deaths.  Although the issues is heartfelt and important, the Australian union movement mostly discusses OHS in relation to its opposition to the Australian Building and Construction Commission.  The AAP report is a good reflection of this.

ACTU secretary Jeff Lawrence states that the rate of workplace fatality is unacceptable but is then quoted as saying

“The high level of deaths and injuries in the construction industry is a national disgrace and yet safety standards have got worse in the period the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) has operated.”

It has never been the role of the ABCC to regulate workplace safety obligations.  That obligation sits with the State OHS authorities and maybe the Australian Safety & Compensation Council (now Safe Work Australia).The union movement has been instrumental in improving safety on worksites throughout Australia but Jeff Lawrence’s misdirection to the ABCC does a disservice to the efforts of OHS professional and health & safety representatives.

Kevin Jones

Legal opinion on Australia’s model OHS laws Reply

The comments on the Australian Government’s response to the report into Australia’s model OHS laws have been pretty muted.  There were the obligatory compliments from those in favour and the obligatory criticisms from those against but both types of response were in the immediate aftermath of the Workplace Relations Ministers’ Council meeting in mid-May 2009.

Going from the institutional and media quiet, there must be few changes that are expected to have any great impact.  Law firm Blake Dawson released their take on the government’s response.  Here is their advice to employers – pretty much “wait and see”: 

Lessons for employers

  • The decisions made by the WRMC on the proposed national model OHS Act will bring changes to virtually all areas of OHS in all Australian jurisdictions.
  • All employers and other duty holders should carefully review the model OHS Act upon its release and consider whether changes need to be made in advance of the laws being enacted.
  • Particular areas of focus are likely to be:
    • ensuring all duty holders have a clear understanding of the nature and scope oftheir duties and obligations;
    • ensuring that officers of corporations are taking proactive steps to promote health and safety;
    • in respect of some Australian jurisdictions (eg NSW) preparation for the introduction of health and safety representatives and the role that HSRs may play in an organisation;
    • thorough preparation for regulator investigations.

It is strongly recommended that their full “alert” be read for interest.

Kevin Jones

Presenteeism and swine flu Reply

Craig Donaldson interviewed Joydeep Hor, managing partner of Australian law firm Harmers on employment issues related to the swine flu outbreak.  Joydeep rightly points out that HR and OHS processes should not differentiate between swine flu and other workplace illnesses.  Hor briefly discusses the employers duty of care and how to question one’s traditional approaches to the “sniffles” at work.

Of course there is also the much under-enforced obligation of the employee not to put their work colleagues at risk – the major argument against presenteeism.

Kevin Jones

Trade union OHS protests are shortsighted Reply

On the eve of the ACTU Congress, the construction unions have threatened disruptions to building sites in, not surprisingly, New South Wales. This State was always going to be the one with the most to give up for the sake of national harmonisation of OHS laws.

It is reported in the Australian Financial Review on 2 June 2009 (page 11, not available online) that the CFMEU acting state secretary, Jim Tulloch, has said

“This is a line in the sand issue for trade unions……There’s a lack of leadership at the federal level and lots of states have been coerced into signing something that they are going to be held accountable for.”

This may be the case and the CFMEU may be positioning themselves prior to the ACTU Congress but the disruption is a risky strategy.  Not only would any of the action be illegal, the Federal Government has yet not abolished the draconian Australian Building & Construction Commission (ABCC).  Union protesters are likely to find themselves again in front of the ABCC being forced to answer questions.

The national OHS system is still being finalised but the union action will serve little purpose other than confirming the political perspective that the New South Wales government is overly influenced by the union movement.  Surely by now the union movement has learnt there are other ways to achieve aims than by confrontation.

Kevin Jones