Two different approaches to risk management and safety in Australia

Australian Standards can have a major role to play in the management of safety in workplaces.  They apply to equipment, documents, decisions and can have legislative credibility if required by specific regulations.  Australian Standards are regularly referred to in guidances issued by OHS regulators adding further credibility.  The highest selling standard for many years has been Risk Management.

Unreasonable safety costs

One of SafetyAtWorkBlog’s long-held peeves needs to be stated here.  The standards are produced by a private company, Standards Australia.  The standards are only available for sale.  Small business, in particular, often baulks at OHS improvements because they see OHS management as a large cost for a small return, in a risk management context.  But the standards they need to satisfy regulatory compliance can only to be purchased.

If the Australian government is serious about easing the cost of regulatory compliance, make any Australian Standard that is mentioned in legislation available for free.

But government’s are only interested in reducing indirect OHS costs through paperwork and “red tape”, and OHS compliance requires some level of documentation.

Risk Management

Two important OHS documents that discuss risk management were released within weeks of each other.  First the Australian government released the second and final report of the Review into National Model OHS Laws (OHS Report).  The other report was the findings of the Tasmanian Coroner into the death of Larry Knight.  

The Coroner’s report was highly critical of the Beaconsfield mine’s (BGM) risk management process.

“BGM submits that there has been adequate documentation of its risk management…… I do not accept BGM’s submission” (pages 68-69)

The Coroner goes on to say

“…., the evidence is unclear upon the steps taken by BGM, prior to this decision, in its evaluation of those risks identified by its own risk analysis process. To illustrate:

  • There is no evidence to explain the decision to resume mining in contradiction of Mr Gill’s memorandum which had stipulated that forward modelling be completed beforehand.
  • Mr Gill had, in his memorandum posed the questions, “Are our current ground support standards sufficient for the seismicity being experienced?, and if they aren’t, “What is required?” However, there is not any evidence of BGM having undertaking an assessment of the sufficiency of its ground support standards so that these questions could be answered nor is there any record evidencing why the decision was taken to resume mining without these questions being addressed.
  • Dr Sharrock had identified an important depth of failure issue which Mr Gill acknowledged was raised by him at his close-out meeting yet there is no evidence to explain the evaluation of this concern by BGM and the basis for its rejection.
  • There does not appear to be any evidence of BMG having considered the reevaluation of its ground support after Mr Basson’s modelling results became available although this had been advised by Mr Turner.”  (pages 66-67, my emphasis)

The coroner’s report is full of this type of comment of an inadequate risk management and assessment process.

Reading the report in full generates a big question of how can a company be so deficient in its safety management system and still not be held responsible for the consequences of its actions?

The company remains belligerent  in its defence of the very risk assessment process that the Coroner slammed.  In a media statement, CEO Bill Colvin states

“…the company is disappointed at the lack of acknowledgement of the extensive risk assessment process undertaken by the Beaconsfield Gold mine following the October 2005 rock fall.

“Contrary to comments made by the Coroner, there was rigorous risk assessment, the mine did vary its ground support system and it changed its mining method. Nevertheless, the Coroner did find that no person contributed to the death of Larry Knight.”

Which report was he reading?

Outside of the coronial process, there seems to be sufficient evidence in the coroner’s report for Workplace Standards Tasmania to have another look at prosecuting BGM for failing to ensure that Larry Knight had a healthy and safe work environment.

Review Panel – Risk Management

The Review Panel decided not to include risk management as an enforceable element of national OHS legislation, even though it is a legislative requirement in Queensland.  The panel has reduced the emphasis on risk management by including it only “as part of an object of the model Act.” (page xviii) 

Placing it as an object of the Act puts risk management out of the public’s eye.  If risk management is not part of the obligations of an employer in law, we should not expect business operators to embrace them.  The BGM risk management process was found to be deficient by the Coroner and may have contributed to the death of Larry Knight but the Review Panel sets risk management as an aim and not an enforceable part of model OHS legislation.  It advocated the concept but would not committed

The panel heard, in a submission by Johnstone, Bluff and Quinlan, that

“The Model OHS Act should explicitly require duty holders to undertake systematic OHS management in order to comply with their general duty obligations, and the Act should outline the approach to be taken in a way that integrates the concept of ‘reasonably practicable’ into the process, and also shows how duty holders should use the provisions in regulations and codes of relevance to the issue being addressed in order to comply with the general duty.”

The Review Panel followed the recommendation of the Law Council of Australia that risk management be included in Regulations and not the Act itself.

But then, the review was not a review of occupational health and safety but of occupational health and safety law.  The management of safety was never its focus.

If it had been such a review, or if the government decides that a “safety management review” is warranted in the next few years, there would have been the opportunity to analyse the cost of managing safety and to show how the legal fraternity and the standards setting processes unnecessarily contribute to high compliance costs and red tape.

Risk management was clearly an important business process at Beaconsfield Gold even if the application of the process was poor.  The Coroner said

“one obvious line of defence is to have in place a systematic, comprehensive, rigorous and properly documented risk assessment process.  It is my opinion that BGM did not abide by such a process in the period between the October ’05 rockfalls and Anzac Day 2006.” (page 71)

Larry Knight died on Anzac day 2006.

The Review Panel believes risk management can sit in Regulations and in legislative aims.  Standards Australia continues to charge for its OHS and risk management standards.  The Australian government remains silent on providing free business management information that has the real possibility of saving lives.  Bring on the safety management review!

Kevin Jones

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