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