The insidiousness of “reasonably practicable”

WorkSafe Victoria recently released a guideline, or clarification, on what it considers to be the issues surrounding “employing or engaging suitably qualified persons to provide health and safety advice“.

SafetyAtWorkBlog remains to be convinced that such a process will lead to better safety outcomes in the small to medium-sized enterprises at which this program is aimed.  The OHS legislation clearly states that the employer is the ultimate decider on which control measures to implement to address a workplace hazard.  This is echoed in the WorkSafe guideline

“It is important to note that employing or engaging a suitably qualified person to provide OHS advice does not discharge the employer from their legal responsibilities to ensure health and safety as required under Part 3 of the OHS Act. This duty cannot be delegated.”

A business manager will weigh up the advice sought or given from a variety of sources and make a decision.  A good business manager will take responsibility for the good or bad results of their decision.  But they need to have a clear understanding of their obligations and Victoria’s legislation could be confusing.

The guideline says that

“Employers are expected to take a proactive approach to identify and control hazards in the workplace before they cause an incident, injury, illness or disease.”

This reitereates one of the safety principles in the 2004 OHS Act

“Employers and self-employed persons should be proactive, and take all reasonably practicable measures, to ensure health and safety at workplaces and in the conduct of undertakings.”

But the principles are not legislative obligations.  As Michael Tooma writes in his “Annotated Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004

“… it is the intention of the Parliament that the principles be taken into account in the administration of the Act.”

The principles are there for judicial colour and community reassurance but with no real impact.

The obligations on an employer, the section that determines the actions and plans of the business owner or managers, are, as well as general duties:

“Duties of employers to employees

(1) An employer must, so far as is reasonably practicable, provide and maintain for employees of the employer a working environment that is safe and without risks to health……..

(2) Without limiting sub-section (1), an employer contravenes that sub-section if the employer fails to do any of the following-

(a) provide or maintain plant or systems of work that are, so far as is reasonably practicable, safe and without risks to health;

(b) make arrangements for ensuring, so far as is reasonably practicable, safety and the absence of risks to health in connection with the use, handling, storage or transport of plant or substances;

(c) maintain, so far as is reasonably practicable, each workplace under the employer’s management and control in a condition that is safe and without risks to health;

(d) provide, so far as is reasonably practicable, adequate facilities for the welfare of employees at any workplace under the management and control of the employer;

(e) provide such information, instruction, training or supervision to employees of the employer as is necessary to enable those persons to perform their work in a way that is safe and without risks to health. “

The “as far as is reasonably practicable” insertions allow business considerable flexibility in arguing the validity of their decisions after an incident but hamper the employer in being “pro-active” – (a hateful and lazy piece of business jargon).

The impediments to “pro-activity” can be seen in the general duties of Section 20 where 

“to avoid doubt, a duty imposed on a person…to ensure, as far is reasonably practicable, health and safety requires the person –

(a) to eliminate risks to health and safety so far as is reasonably practicable:…..”

This contrasts with the objects of the, same, Act which states that one of the aims is

“to eliminate, at the source, risks to the health, safety and welfare of employees and other persons at work:…”

It is strongly suspected that a crucial element of OHS legislation and management will likely disappear and this is to eliminate hazards “at the source”.  Outside of the objects of the Act this aim is not mentioned anywhere else in the legislation.  “Reasonably practicable” will erase this important social and moral clause.

Eliminating something “at the source” encourages research into new ways of eliminating hazards by placing an obligation on us to determine the source.  “Reasonably practicable” encourages us to research control measures until it is practicable to do so no more.  That is a half-quest that solves nothing.  What if Frodo was asked to dispose of the ring in Mordor only if “reasonably practicable”? The story would have been a novella instead of a classic trilogy.

Employer associations are lobbying for increased workplace flexibility.  That has nothing to do with the health and safety benefits of the employees but rather the health and safety of the balance sheet.  “Reasonably practicable” similarly focuses on business management and not safety management.

The battle against this insidious weakening of the OHS profession is not lost.  Heart should be taken from the preparedness of governments to roll-back unpopular legislation such as some industrial relations initiatives.  Hindsight can be an important motivator for change.

Recent fatalities data may sway some in government that OHS regulators are achieving their social and operational targets but OHS professionals know that fatality rates are not an accurate indication of the success of safety initiatives.  New workplace hazards are appearing regularly and many of the new ones don’t result in death but lead instead to misery and an incapacity to live a healthy life or to work again in a chosen profession.  

“Reasonably practicable” allows businesses to try, in differing degrees, to eliminate the hazards, such as psychosocial hazards, of its workforce and then shift them to social security and disability benefits.  And why not? It seems that corporations can serve their clients and stakeholders “as far as is reasonably practicable” and then expect a bailout from government over their mismanagement.  Immorality applies to much more than economics.

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