In OHS law in Australia, the employer/employee relationship is dead or, at least, coughing up blood. OHS law is to be based on “people conducting a business or undertaking” (PCBUs have been discussed briefly elsewhere) and not a worker working in a workplace, even though the recently changed industrial law, the Fair Work Act, maintains this relationship.
This morning in a staff seminar at a large multinational business in Australia a regional CEO revealed a considerable level of financial detail to his employees, much more so than any of the staff had seen before. His reason for this was that he was talking with “adults”. He employs adults and expects his workers to act like adults. He also said that he cannot understand why, for so long, employees have been treated as children or act like children.
Past occupational health and safety law seems to reflect this relationship. Employees have expected someone else to fix a problem because the employer has the principal responsibility for everyone’s safety. The employee has had a legislative responsibility to look after their own safety and that of others for decades but it was rarely emphasised and only occasionally did it appear as a reason for a prosecution.
To be simplistic for a moment, parents set the house rules for when children are in the house. As children grow, the rules are amended and new rules are created as the child becomes more mobile, curious and intelligent. In many circumstances, the children are given a fair degree of flexibility in meeting the house rules but every so often the rules need to be enforced and children reminded of them. A penalty of some sort is applied.
At a WorkSafe seminar on 26 October 2009 in relation to the proposed Safe Work Bill, there was a tone to the panelists’ comments that seemed to be calling for a new “maturity” in OHS management. It was as if the last thirty years has been the learning phase where the house rules have been clearly established and the children have reached a point where the house rules are to be self-policed. It could also be put that the children are expected to extend these rules to any guests to the house. But the analogy of a house as a workplace and business should stop there before it becomes silly.
What the new/proposed OHS laws are looking for is a responsible approach to staying safe. The emphasis on “reasonably practicable” in the legislation is a plea and an expectation for people in a workplace to behave reasonably. The impression is that if the test in law is to be of a “reasonable person” then the OHS law should be encouraging people in a workplace, whatever their status, to act reasonably.
In short, the Australian Government is asking businesses and workers to “grow up”. The test will be who chooses to be sitting at the family meal table and who becomes the mad uncle locked in the attic that everyone feels embarrassed by.