OHS is becoming criminal law in a social context

On 14 October 2009, Australian law firm Deacons hosted a breakfast seminar of the draft OHS model law proposed by the Australian Government.  The speaker, Mike Hammond, expressed concern about many sections of the draft laws because they do not seem to fit how OHS law has been structured in Australia and the UK for over thirty years.

This is not to say the clauses and sections are worthless, useless or wrong, but the Government has not provided enough information on the rationale for the changes or the context for those changes so that those who need to use the law understand the law.

Hammond had five major concerns with the proposed law in the Victorian context:

  • Person conducting business or undertaking vs employer
  • Officers’ duty to exercise due diligence
  • Failure to acknowledge “Control” as issue of first principle
  • Abrogation of right to silence and privilege against self-incrimination for individuals
  • Unions able to cause work to cease

Hammond is, of course, looking at the laws from a lawyer’s perspective and not that of a safety professional or business operator but he raised some excellent points, some of which have been discussed previously in SafetyAtWorkBlog.

The coverage of the proposed OHS laws is so broad as to include anywhere where work is conducted.  Tooma, a partner of Hammond at Deacons, touched on this impractical definition in some of his statements.  The way some work is done in 2009 is radically different from 1985 for example, mainly due to technology.

This blog article could be written on a kitchen table, in a cafe, on a park bench or a desk in an office.  Each of these would be workplaces because work is being undertaken however if the article is being written on a laptop in a cafe, at the moment, the cafe owner would have no OHS obligations on my actions.  There would likely be public liability and safety issues, particularly if the laptop was also plugged into the cafe’s power supply, for instance, but the cafe is only a workplace for the employees of the cafe.  Under the draft Safe Work Act (or Bill), if the customers are working there, the cafe owner would have OHS obligations for them.  The customers, the workers, of course would have their own OHS obligations as they do now.

Hammond made the point that the new proposed laws dispense with the legal relationship of employer and employee.  This fundamentally changes the coverage of OHS legislation.  As I put it to Hammond at the seminar, the changes remove the “occupational” from the OHS law.  It has become a criminal law in a social context.

Hammond sees no reason to change the employment relationship to the extent proposed if the aim is to encompass the new varieties of work activity and workplace.  He believes that these circumstances can still be met specific provisions to deal with the new varieties of work whilst maintaining the fundamental employer- employee relationship.  Business and society would then be able to better understand some of the changes because the context would be within what has been understood for decades as “work”.

The proposed Safe Work Bill is trying to be too much too quickly and will set back OHS gains a long way.  OHS has accrued considerable social awareness and acceptance.  The legal principles of a safe workplace and safe work have been largely embraced by the community.  Australia has not experienced the “OHS has gone mad” campaigns waged in the United Kingdom but if this law proceeds as it is, government will not be able to manage it, business will dismiss it through frustration, and the community will think (rightly) that OHS is a joke.  Safety professionals and OHS regulators will be seen as sucking the sense out of what used to be sensible.

Mike Hammond has seen criminal law reacting to changing social circumstances.  He said that this proposed law is attempting to set a social agenda and a dangerous precedent.

Kevin Jones

Categories business, government, law, lawyers, OHS, safety, Uncategorized, workplaceTags , , ,

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