OHS Frustrations and Lobbying

There is a minor professional debate developing amongst Australian safety practitioners on whether occupational health and safety should sit under a government’s industrial relations portfolio or health. In Australia it is in industrial relations, the US has it under the Centre for Disease Control and NIOSH, the UK has OHS more under IR than elsewhere but it has at least expanded OHS to include biological hazards.

There is a minor professional debate developing amongst Australian safety practitioners on whether occupational health and safety should sit under a government’s industrial relations portfolio or health. In Australia it is in industrial relations, the US has it under the Centre for Disease Control and NIOSH, the UK has OHS more under IR than elsewhere but it has at least expanded OHS to include biological hazards.

It is refreshing to have a debate occurring over an arrangement or concept that has existed for over 40 years. Traditional ways of doing everything regularly need to be challenged or questioned in order to achieve improvement. But I am not sure about one OHS academic’s call to swap government departments, particularly as a State health department is being investigated over the deaths of five residents in an aged care facility from food poisoning. I don’t see what could be gained by the switch except that real injury data could be collected and that a scientific rigour be applied to OHS research. I am not convinced that this is enough reason to swap.

The state of health research funding and resources is better than under industrial relations but only just, and OHS would then be competing in a more cluttered field of researchers. Much of the suggestion in the press and in talking with colleagues hints at a strategic retreat. Sometimes I perceive a professional fatigue with the slow pace of change. Part of the reason is that until late in 2007 Australia had the same Prime Minister, John Howard, and political philosophy for over 12 years, far too long for any political reign in my opinion. And the government has not been interested in occupational health and safety one bit. No initiatives of the Howard government have improved workplace safety and, indeed, I would say that the industrial relations initiatives (revolution) have severely weakened the OHS consultative frameworks in companies, and the prominence of OHS (such as it was) that existed in the community.

The government argues that injury rates are decreasing and they are, but the way of measuring such statistics has been flawed for decades. It was the unwillingness to do anything about this point that generated some of the calls to switch OHS jurisdictions. The switch suggestion is, I think, an acknowledgement that the safety professionals and practitioners are not prepared to use political means to achieve the aim of an accurate picture of the state of OHS in Australia and of establishing a mechanism for improvement. There are no OHS lobbyists. The difficult industrial relations fights of the unions have removed any OHS context from their agenda. Safety professionals are afraid of making political statements, regardless how sound they may be.

Yes there is very little funding of research in Australia on OHS matters but that does not mean you move to a different arena. Generate research funding independently. Shame the government into action through comparisons with other countries. Campaign on how government neglect is exposing Australians to unnecessary injuries and deaths. Lobby the ministers, meet them for coffee, bump into them on the golf course. Show the government how investment in OHS can increase the productivity of the workers in the same way we advise our clients. If we tell our customers that investing in safety will reduce insurance costs, can’t we make the same case in relation to social security costs and workplace safety?

The worst thing that can be done is to attempt to start again somewhere else and although not a lot has happened in the past, it is in industrial relations where OHS has its strongest presence, its strongest links and its strongest moral heritage. OHS professionals and practitioners need to think outside the square not move outside it.

Originally posted on 8 January 2008

Categories business, OHS, research, Uncategorized, workplaceTags , ,

6 thoughts on “OHS Frustrations and Lobbying”

  1. Cip
    Your response was similar to mine as we both come from the OHS end of the health spectrum. However our responses indicate that the government has not prepared the necessary ground for the launch of something as different and threatening as WorkHealth.
    For instance, I have never understood why Legionella investigations have sat within the Department of Health when the vast majority of outbreaks occur through workplace airconditioning systems. The risk of legionella to workers makes this an OHS matter and the maintenance of the cooling towers are usually within the purview of the OHS Manager or OHS committee. But the lead on this has always come from Department of Health.
    I am receptive to a new emphasis on the health of workers. If I wasn’t open-minded I would be dismissing the importance of job stress. But the government has imposed this program without any process of education and as a result the OHS professionals are bristling with indignation and confusion whereas the health promotion and wellness advocates are rewriting their businss plans to incorporate the best commercial opportunity in years.

  2. Great Blogs; Your 3 discussions on Health Promotion; OHS Frustrations & Lobbying; and Australian Level Crossings present interesting and challenging (often with frustrations) Social Issues.
    It is interesting that, in Victoria, the WorkCover Authority has accumulated well over $3 Billion in 2005/06/07 from Worker’s Compensation premiums and investment revenue (particularly overseas investment; but watch out for the “Sub-Prime loans disaster in USA and the Shares fraud in UK).
    This “Surplus” in the Government’s coffers is used to pay for future injury claims liabilities; the Authorities large staff payroll; and, to a lesser extent, funding programs for OHS prevention initiatives. The highest ROI could be achieved by focusing and allocating money towards the prevention/reduction of work related injuries/diseases.
    Estimates for Australia (Industry Commission, 2004) is that Class I damage (to workers) accounts for 96.5% (Fatal 6.5% and Non-fatal 90%) and Class II 3.5% of the $82 Billion quantity of damage in 2000/01 when total exports were valued at $136 Billion.Work Safety is fundamentally a Class I major problem; and the majority cost of damage is to the damaged persons. It is clear from these figures that the priority for expenditure by responsible Governments must be in the area of Occupational Safety & Health and not other Social issues like obessity, drugs and alcohol; these are Public Health issues to be dealt with by Health revenue/funding.
    Similar debates could be put forward on the issues of: OHS Frustrations and Level Crossings- these for another time.
    Ciao, keep up the Blogs

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