Company directors and OHS obligations

Since the final report of Australia’s Review into Model OHS Law, discussion has been remarkably quiet.  The ACTU was scheduled to meet for discussions on the report last Monday and no public statements have been made.  Most of the labour law firms have been quiet also.  It is fair to say that most are trying to digest the 480 page report.

But one employer group has provided an opinion piece in the business pages of The Age newspaper on March 2 2009.  The article says little that is new but it is mischievous in some of its comments. 

John  Colvin, CEO of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, writes of his concerns about increased exposure for the Institute’s members.  Colvin is concerned that upcoming OHS laws may be unprincipled and counterproductive.

The Model OHS Law report has said that it supports the statement of OHS principles as are already in place in the Victorian OHS legislation.  According to WorkSafe Victoria

“The Act sets out the key principles, duties and rights in relation to occupational health and safety. The general nature of the duties imposed by the Act means that they cover a very wide variety of circumstances, do not readily date and provide considerable flexibility for a duty holder to determine what needs to be done to comply.”

These principles are

4. The principles of health and safety protection

(1)    The importance of health and safety requires that employees, other persons at work and members of the public be given the highest level of protection against risks to their health and safety that is reasonably practicable in the circumstances.

(2)    Persons who control or manage matters that give rise or may give rise to risks to health or safety are responsible for eliminating or reducing those risks so far as is reasonably practicable.

(3)    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.

(4)    Employers and employees should exchange information and ideas about risks to health and safety and measures that can be taken to eliminate or reduce those risks.

(5)    Employees are entitled, and should be encouraged, to be represented in relation to health and safety issues.

The article is mischievous in a number of areas.  Colvin mentions how the current laws vary from state to state.  He mentions that

Some carry personal criminal liability for directors, even where they may not have had any personal involvement in a breach. In some states, they reverse the onus of proof, removing the presumption of innocence, and offer narrow legal defences and limited appeal rights.” (my emphasis)

Colvin is talking primarily about New South Wales, the State that everyone agrees has the OHS law that is most onerous for employers.  However, the New South Wales union movement has been remarkably quiet and flexible on the issue of its OHS laws.  There has been some rhetoric for the benefit of its members and to retain some ideological “face” but the union movement across Australia is coming to accept the reality of better OHS outcomes from nationally harmonised legislation.  

Repeatedly the National OHS Law Review panel stated that it has based its decisions on the structure of the Victorian legislation as, for one reason, it has undergone the most recent legal review.  Colvin’s focus on New South Wales OHS law is outdated, reflective, and unhelpful.

Colvin mentions a survey that found

“..more than 65 per cent said the risk of personal liability occasionally made them take an overly cautious approach in the boardroom and another 13 per cent said this happened frequently. Almost two-thirds felt this had inhibited an optimal business decision to a medium to high degree.”

This indicates that the risk of being prosecuted on OHS breaches is being discussed at board level – great result.  Whether this translates to the board improving the OHS performance of their company is doubtful as Colvin’s article implies that directors are looking at ways of avoiding responsibility and liability rather than accepting the reality of their OHS obligations and working to improve them.

Colvin says that

“Directors should not be held criminally liable for a company’s misconduct simply because they are a director.”

Directors are not prosecuted for OHS breaches because of their status or position.  They are prosecuted because of the decisions that they make and the ramifications of those decisions.  If a director is dismissive of OHS issues and palms them off to someone else in the organisation and an incident occurs, should not the director be called to account for why they considered the safety of their workers to be unimportant, even when for over thirty years directors and executives have had responsibility for OHS compliance?

Colvin believes that holding directors accountable implies that directors have more control over the actions of their employers than they do.  Current business and management theories promote the position that directors should be more in touch with what is happening on the shopfloor.  The theories promote informed leadership and an increased awareness of how the company and its people work, they promote a level of engagement that creates a positive workplace culture and displays leadership.   Colvin seems to be encouraging the opposite.

He ends his article with

“More fundamentally, it unfairly treats directors more harshly under the law than the rest of the community.”

He misunderstands the application and aims of OHS law.  All people in a workplace have a responsibility to ensure a safe and healthy workplace for themselves, for employees and for members of public on and off their worksites.  Directors have more detailed obligations, but not less, because they have control of production and benefit more from the success of the company than do the employees. 

Ultimately, Colvin’s article reflects the misunderstanding of OHS that directors and companies have had for decades.  Companies need to realise that the best performing companies in OHS, and those with the best productivity, are those that have embraced their obligations for safety and have incorporated the principles within their own culture. 

The review into model OHS law has indicated the way of the future and company directors would be well-served to realise this and get on board.  Being left behind will benefit no one, especially the shareholders.

Kevin Jones

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