OHS law debate and Law Society position

Boardroom Radio has hosted a very interesting podcast between two labour lawyers, Andrew Douglas and Michael Tooma, with the participation of Barry Silburn, the National President of the Safety Institute of Australia.

Andrew Douglas speaking at one of his firm's regular breakfast seminars
Andrew Douglas speaking at one of his firm's regular breakfast seminars

The SIA National President’s contributions were quite narrow, dominated by the issue of “suitably qualified” in the new model OHS laws (but he did struggle to get a word in edge ways).

It will be disappointing if the SIA’s submission to the Federal Government on the new laws focusses on this single and, to most, secondary issue, when the institute could achieve better results through other mechanisms and more creative thinking.

The only expansive comment from Silburn was the fact that harmonised plant regulations that were introduced over 10 years ago still resulted in different legislation in each State even though they reflected a common core.  The high likelihood of this happening to the general OHS legislation was supported by the over panel members.

It is possible that the argy-bargy occurring now and at least for the next 6 weeks of public comment, will not achieve harmonisation as it was initially intended, and tried in a half-hearted way in the early 1990’s.  The Federal Government could still end the debate by applying its powers under the Corporations Act, as it has in industrial relations.  Some lawyers believe that this is the ace up the sleeve of the Federal Government.

The Law Council of Australia issued an interesting media statement on 30 September 2009.  Below are the comments from that statement by John Corcoran, the Council’s President:

“The model laws strike the correct balance and adhere to fundamental criminal law principles.  Governments must set aside jurisdictional differences and enact a uniform model OH&S law.”

“Despite the substantial differences in OH&S legislation across Australia, there is little evidence to suggest that the imposition of harsher penalties and evidentiary burdens in some jurisdictions has improved workplace safety performance.  Nor has it been improved by the extension of prosecution powers to unions or other organisations.”

“There are undeniable benefits, both to workers and employers, in a uniform national OH&S system, but there is no evidence that workers in any jurisdiction will be worse off if a model law is adopted uniformly.”

These quotes give one of the clearest indications that the OHS harmonisation process about law and not safety management.

It could also be asked that if there is “little evidence to suggest that the imposition of harsher penalties and evidentiary burdens in some jurisdictions has improved workplace safety performance” what alternative strategies and penalties would the Council suggest for consideration?  We will need to wait for their submission to the government for that.

Johnstone book 001Richard Johnstone, a leading academic and researcher into OHS law and enforcement polices argued in his 2003 book, “Occupational Heath and Safety, Courts and Crime

“…that the court is an institution which, while appearing to dispense justice, is actually part of a broader process which decontextualises social issues.  Courts, inspectors, prosecutors and defence counsel are involved in filtering or reshaping OHS issues during the prosecution process, both pre-trial and in court.”

Johnstone says that the process leads to a focus on the “event” rather than the broader context which includes the workplace management systems.

Johnstone succinctly lists the five key principles of effective OHS management, based on his work and that of his colleagues:

  • “demonstrated senior management commitment to OHS;
  • the integration of OHS management into core management and work activities;
  • the adoption of a systems approach to OHS management, involving risk assessment processes and an audit system to identify all risks and to determine which require urgent attention;
  • the ability of the OHS management system to accommodate to change, particularly changes to work methods, systems and processes, changes to substances, plant and equipment, and changes to the workforce; and
  • valuing worker input to the OHS management system.”

This is the context in which the new draft Model OHS laws should be considered.  If the law does not support these principles than the law is being written for the lawyers and not for the improvement of safety for workers in Australia.

Much of the podcast discussion was about how one deals with what went wrong rather than providing guidance of how to manage to avoid the risk in the first place – the perpetual dichotomy between lawyers and safety professionals.

Kevin Jones

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