Workplace Safety Reforms and “Red-Tape”

As well as the National OHS Review Panel, there are several other reviews and investigations that are occurring that will change how OHS is managed and enforced in Australia. One process is under COAG (Coalition of Australian Governments) which met in early July 2008 and provided an update on its actions.

Sadly, most of the media reporting focussed on the issue of water in the Murray-Darling Basin and only a day or two later, a major draft report on climate change was released. OHS didn’t get much of a look-in.

OHS law reform is occurring under regulatory reform intending to reduce business “red tape”. I am not comfortable with this categorisation because there is no cut-off point. When is there too much red tape and when is there the right amount of red tape to ensure compliance or a good safety management scheme?

In brief, the National OHS Review is looking at harmonising the government legislation so that the administrative costs are lessened in those companies that operate across jurisdictional boundaries.

People see red tape as principally unnecessary paperwork and not the big picture of legislative reform. And, if their company operates only within one state, as most companies do, the reforms may seem of little relevance. OHS professionals may be putting emphasis on the review outcomes and processes way beyond what the public cares about.

The COAG processes, the red-tape review, gives OHS a paperwork image, an image where OHS is an unnecessary cost rather than an activity that minimises harm, saves lives and increases productivity and profitability. Marketing strategies or OHS promotions should include elements that counter this growing perception.

What annoys me the most is that the majority of the paperwork associated with OHS has been generated by lawyers and insurers who have advised that everything should be documented. “You don’t comply unless you can show that you comply”. The need for OHS paperwork has been imposed on business by forces outside that business and yet the business has to pay for the cost of preparing the paperwork. I don’t see the lawyers and insurers helping reduce red tape by saying that business needs less documented procedures and compliance.

Paperwork is an unavoidable business cost but we must remember that the decisions of other companies and organisations have generated that cost and are often unwilling to accept for that cost to be passed on to them, or deducted from their fees or premiums.

Business, by and large, in Australia will be unaffected by the various review processes into OHS management and OHS laws. The effect will be felt in the five years after the legal changes when the definition of compliance will change and systems will need to be changed to accommodate this.

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