There have been several incidents recently that illustrate the unenviable pressures on inspectors and Australian OHS regulators.
The Tasmanian Coroner found that the mining inspectorate of Workplace Standards Tasmania was “inadequate” and incapable of “of carrying out its core function of inspecting and enforcing best safety practices within the mining industry.” Two inspectors for that State’s mining sector- a sector that in 2007/08 was 621 mining leases strong, according to the Annual Report of Mineral Resources Tasmania.
The construction union (CFMEU) in Victoria was highly critical of WorkSafe Victoria following a scaffolding collapse in a main street of the suburb, Prahran. A similar event occurred in Sydney a couple of days later.
However, OHS legislation clearly states the employer is responsible for safety in workplaces, as WorkSafe reiterated in a press statement. TV an press reports did not quote the construction union official criticising the construction company or project manager for having the scaffold collapse on their worksite.
(The CFMEU provides a scaffolding checklist on its website.)
In the scaffolding situation a union criticising the OHS regulator is a peculiar distraction from the obvious failure of the organisation that has control of the worksite, the employer. In the Beaconsfield case, the distraction is just as effective and allows the employer to feel that less attention, less criticism, equates to the incident or the fatality being considered of a lesser significance.
The days of government certification for scaffolding, boilers & Pressure vessels, and a raft of other work items disappeared almost twenty years ago in many Australian States. One of the reasons this occurred was that regulators realised that by certifying something, by granting official approval, the regulator took on some of the responsibility for the work item. Most regulators, with government support, realised that it was in their interest to re-emphasise the employers’ legislative obligations that had existed in law for some time.
One does not need to physically visit worksites to encourage “best practice”. No inspectorate would expect every workplace to be visited by inspectors but high-risk workplaces, such as mines, may have this expectation.
It seems increasingly popular for the OHS inspectorate to be called in early on high hazard organisations (HHO) projects. (HHO is a concept most recently discussed by Jan Hayes and discussed elsewhere in the works of Professor Andrew Hopkins) This enables projects to meet high safety standards in the planning stage.
OHS regulators have a delicate balancing act between consultation and enforcement. This is a balance that is constantly being tweaked as political, economic and social pressures fluctuate. The process is not helped b y fingers being pointed in the wrong directions.
[NOTE:Professor Michael Quinlan of UNSW, Middlesex University and University of Sydney) will be a keynote speaker at the upcoming Safety in Action 2009 Conference on 2 April 2009 concerning the results of a five-year research report into what OHS Inspectors do and the implications for employers and safety professionals.]