Safety Institute gets a seat at the OHSAC table

SafetyAtWorkBlog has been informed that the current CEO of the Safety Institute of Australia (SIA), Gary Lawson-Smith, has accepted an invitation to join the WorkSafe Victoria’s OHS Advisory Committee (OHSAC), as a representative of the SIA.  This is a terrific win for the SIA as it adds a degree of legitimacy to the organisation’s developing professionalism.

Lawson-Smith has had a long administrative role in the airline and air safety sectors and was a Carlton footballer for a short time.  He has no formal OHS qualifications but an OHS qualification is not a prerequisite for OHSAC.

Also, it is understood that the OHSAC position is conditional on Lawson-Smith keeping the CEO role with the SIA.  If he leaves, the SIA could nominate someone else for the role.  SafetyAtWorkBlog notes that Lawson-Smith had advised the SIA National Board previously that he was not renewing his contract at the end of 2009 but he is believed to have been talked out of this decision.

Several other OHSAC appointments have also been rumoured.  It is understood that the “tenure” of one of the two independent representatives, both who have been on the committee since its inception, has not been renewed.  It seems odd that one independent representative is “let go” and the other retained.  It would be interesting to know the reasons for departures from the Committee as much as the reasons for new members.

Whether the SIA appointment is a direct replacement is unclear.  Whether the SIA is to be one of the two independent representatives (as required under the Victorian OHS Act 2004 (Division 6 Section 19) is also unclear.

The Act requires

“2 independent persons who the Minister considers have appropriate expertise and experience in occupational health and safety”

The SIA Victoria Division has a number of very prominent OHS academics and practitioners but, even though OHSAC reports to a Victorian administrative agency, it is understood that the Victorian WorkCover Minister, Tim Holding’s, letter was to the Safety Institute’s CEO, a national position.

Prominent ergonomist, Professor David Caple, is an independent OHSAC member well known to SafetyAtWorkBlog.  Caple takes his advisory role seriously by encouraging Australian safety professionals to raise any OHS concerns with him so that he may be able to provide a broader experiential context to some of the WorkSafe Board’s initiatives.  He makes an annual appearance at the Central Safety Group in Victoria to encourage a broad range of input.

One of OHSAC’s legislative  functions is to

“to enquire into and report to the Authority’s Board of Management on any matters referred to it by the Board in accordance with the terms of reference given by the Board; and

advise the Board in relation to:

  • Promoting health and safe working environments: and
  • The operation and administration of this [OHS] Act and the regulations…”

The significant element of OHSAC is that it is only reactive to the WorkCover Board.  If the Board does not seek opinions, effectively, OHSAC has nothing to do.  The Victorian Trades Hall Council, in its 2008 submission to the Model OHS Law Review, expressed great concern about OHSAC

“The Occupational Health and Safety Advisory Committee (OHSAC) is established by s 19 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHSA 2004).  However, this body has limited functions and no reporting line to the Minister.  Other than a specific role for OHSAC in the development of ARREO training, the OHSAC is limited to reporting to the Board on matters referred by the Board.  It has no capacity to ‘set the agenda’.”

“The Committee has met only 9 times since March 2005 and other than resolving the training issues relating to ARREOs, which is a specific requirement of OHSA 2004, the Committee has not been given the opportunity to deal with any strategic issue in any meaningful way.”

“Decisions of the Board on OHS are not transparent. The Board operates without the involvement of key stakeholders and relies on the “good will” of the Chair and CEO to relay information to the Board and back to the OHSAC. It is unacceptable for decisions relating to the VWA as a regulator of OHS to be inaccessible to scrutiny.”

SafetyAtWorkBlog is always concerned about the transparency of organisations associated with the promotion of safety and there is very little public information available about OHSAC.  Even the membership of the committee is taking SafetyAtWorkBlog some time to put together.  This may be due to the committee membership being updated, as indicated by the SIA’s inclusion, but even the previous committee membership is proving hard to collate form public sources.

The issue of transparency and communication is directly relevant to the OHSAC participation of the Safety Institute of Australia.  SafetyAtWorkBlog has heard that all committee representatives of the SIA, nationally and divisionally, are obliged to sign a Deed of Confidentiality.  Whether this applies to the SIA’s CEO is unclear as Gary Lawson-Smith is not listed as an official member on the National Board.

Some would assert that even if OHSAC did report to OHS stakeholders and members of the OHSAC representatives, they do not do anything of real interest.

The concerns over OHSAC are not restricted to Trades Hall, one of the few public members of OHSAC.  Parliamentarian Bob Stensholt undertook an administrative review of the 2004 OHS Act and expressed the following thoughts about OHSAC:

“Although I note WorkSafe’s comments that OHSAC has not been frequently required to consider key strategic issues because they have not arisen, I am of the view that the Committee is not operating as well as it could be.  There is a lack of conviction regarding the potential effectiveness of OHSAC from all stakeholders.  This impedes the Committee’s ability to work effectively as a representative stakeholder group.”

“It seems OHSAC has primarily been treated as an ‘information sharing’ committee by WorkSafe.  I do not believe this is what was intended by Parliament when the Bill became law.  Rather than merely providing OHSAC with its business plan for any particular financial year after it has been settled (for example), WorkSafe should also be prepared to engage OHSAC on key strategic issues as they arise in the rolling out of Strategy 2012, rather than just providing the Committee with updates as to how Strategy 2012 is tracking.  A primary consideration for WorkSafe in making OHSAC more effective should be to ensure it adopts”

If the WorkCover Minister, Tim Holding, is reviewing the membership of OHSAC in response to some of these concerns, his action is to be applauded, but, at the moment, OHSAC looks ineffective and of limited use.

The Victorian Government’s response to the Stensholt report referred Stensholt’s recommendations on OHSAC to the Victorian WorkCover Authority’s Board of Management for consideration.  OHSAC works to the direction of this very Board.

Gaining a seat at the OHSAC table remains a major feather in the cap of the SIA and the years of lobbying undertaken by a number of SIA officials should not be dismissed.  The size of the feather in the cap, however, depends on who one talks to.

Kevin Jones

Categories communication, executives, government, OHS, politics, safety, Uncategorized, WorkSafeTags , , , , ,

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