Safe Work Bill, suitably qualified and professional plans

Dr Geoff Dell of Protocol Safety Management and a prominent member of the

Dr Geoff Dell
Dr Geoff Dell

Safety Institute of Australia (SIA), believes that the most crucial issue facing the safety profession in Australia is the lack of the requirement to use a “suitably qualified” safety adviser.

The Australian Government was recommended to include such a requirement in its draft OHS model laws but rejected the recommendation because

“an unintended consequence could be that persons conducting a business or undertaking would be encouraged to delegate their responsibilities”.

This is odd because the Safe Work Bill includes seemingly clear duties:

“The person who has management or control of a workplace must ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that the workplace, the means of entering and exiting the workplace and anything arising from the workplace are safe and without risks to the health of any person.”

Unless the “suitably qualified” person (undefined in the Safe Work Bill) is also the “person who has management or control of a workplace”  who has to ensure safety, it is hard to see how the Government’s concerns about abrogated responsibility are relevant.

Dr Dell wrote to the Workplace Relations Minister, Julia Gillard, on behalf of the SIA.

“Our motivation for urging you for inclusion of a “suitably qualified” requirement in the model OHS legislation should not be misinterpreted as any desire on our part to diminish or eliminate the equally important requirement for companies to consult their workers, or the workers’ elected representatives, on issues and decisions relating to the workers’ health and safety. Collaboration of employers and workers in the delivery of appropriate workplace health and safety outcomes is an essential precept.

Rather, it is our strong view that when those workplace collaboration processes need the OHS advice of others, there is an important need to ensure the persons providing that advice have the appropriate credentials to deliver that advice to the maximum benefit of those involved at the workplace.”

Pages from Geoff_Dells_letter_to_Julia_GillardThe argument is repeatedly expressed as a comparison between a suitably qualified safety advisor and doctors or plumbers or other licensed or registered occupations.  But the Government has twice now indicated that it sees no the risks of abusing such a formalised position outweigh the benefits – the first in not accepting a review panel recommendation and second by omitting the issue in the Safe Work Bill.

Should the safety profession, as a whole, continue to push the issue with an unsupportive government or should it accept that the battle is lost and begin a Plan B? A plan where, perhaps, the market begins to demand certainty about the skill level of their safety advisors to such an extent that a scheme of accredited safety professionals is an indispensable business resource?

This may be the tactic of the SIA in its support of  an elite level of safety professional who must have a tertiary OHS qualification.  It is certainly devoting considerable resources to the program, supported by hundreds of thousands of dollars from WorkSafe Victoria.  The caveat of this approach is that the SIA gets control of the profession.

This is not the case with the professions with which the SIA likes to compare itself.  Those professions have independent assessment bodies, ethics bodies and sometimes industry/profession ombudsmen.

What the safety profession needs to counter is the argument that the Government has accepted from somewhere, that business is highly likely to push its OHS responsibility to others if it can.  The profession, and the SIA, needs to convince the Government that business will accept its OHS duties.

Dr Dell told SafetyAtWorkBlog that the Safe Work Bill has been written for lawyers by lawyers and seems aimed at what to do after an incident has occurred.  It is about harm minimisation and not safety.  He says that the preventative aim of OHS legislation has been severely diluted.  In this he echoes some of the  SafetyAtWorkBlog position that the new laws are not about safety management but about safety law, and have little bearing on the shop floor where hazards are most often faced and controlled.

It is also important to remember that OHS law was intended to be a law that could be understood by the layman and implemented by the layman.  The new Safe Work Bill will be incomprehensible to anyone other than lawyers and even then, as seen from recent blog articles about Mike Hammond, Michael Tooma and others, the lawyers are unlikely to agree on interpretation and application.

Kevin Jones

[Note: Kevin Jones is a Fellow of the Safety Institute of Australia]

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