Australia’s employers’ thoughts on OHS law

The public submission period for commenting on the Australia’s OHS model laws has closed and the submissions are gradually being made available on the Safe Work Australia website.

At the time of writing there are around 15 submissions listed and Safe Work Australia has indicated that there are many more that are being sifted through at the moment.

Each submission had the option for the comments to be confidential.  Confidential submitters told SafetyAtWorkBlog that one reason for confidentiality was so that their comments did not reflect on their current employer.  This is understandable but also adds an allure to the submission.  It will be interesting to note which of the large associations apply confidentiality to their submissions.

One employer association who is “loud and proud” of their submission is the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.  The ACCI submission is currently available only from its website.  Below is what the ACCI’s Director of Workplace Policy, David Gregory,  says in a media statement that accompanied the release of the submission

“…[Gregory ] has rejected union claims that business groups are pushing for changes that would reduce health and safety rights for workers.

ACCI also urged Australia’s governments to work towards a truly uniform national OHS system with respect to the approach by OHS inspectors, regulators and the courts.”

“Employers want a model Act that delivers both improved workplace safety outcomes and an effective legislative framework that will encourage employers and workers to be proactive and collaborative in improving the safety of their workplaces.  Unnecessary prescription will ultimately serve only to distract and discourage both employers and employees from delivering safer workplaces.  ACCI has provided some positive suggestions in its submission that should be adopted to improve the operation of the Act.”

ACCI has strongly backed the reinstatement of a definition of ‘due diligence’ in the model Act, as the absence of a definition will mean that company officers will be unclear about their duty and how compliance may be achieved.

Employers have also identified a number of aspects of the model OHS Act which are open to potential misuse such as union right of entry, persons assisting health and safety representatives, and procedures for establishing multi-employer workgroups, which require redrafting to ensure that they are fair and balanced and do not undermine the safety objectives of the Act.

ACCI in its submission advocates that the maximum penalty for a corporation under the Act should be set at the current Australian maximum of $1.65 million, arguing that the proposed $3 million maximum will simply fuel a litigious and compliance-based approach to OHS.

Gregory’s first point addresses ideology more than anything else.  The trade union movement will always be suspicious and uncomfortable with any organisation that is willing to put productivity before safety.  The introduction of  the ACCI submission makes it clear that the focus of the submission is not on improving safety but on improving the management of safety, two very different OHS approaches.

Queensland labour history coverRecently a new book from Federation Press, “Work and Strife in Paradise“,  a history of labour in Queensland illustrated how industrial harmony existed in that state for decades prior to the introduction of Robens-style legislation.  For a long time unions and employer groups knew where they stood ideologically and therefore could anticipate responses and could negotiate from stable philosophical platforms.  The industrial relations changes from the 1960s onwards complicated negotiations which did have some impact on OHS in that State.

[For the first time, to SafetyAtWorkBlog’s knowledge, a chapter is included in a labour relations book on research into employer associations.]

One would have to expect a definition of “due diligence” to be included in the upcoming OHS Act is the employers are in favour of this.  The consensus in many OHS seminars is that such a definition is required.

The concerns over union rights is a hoary chestnut that has not been seen as a problem in Victoria where many of the suggested legislative features have originated.

The issue of penalties is a little hollow.  Many corporate executives are covered by Directors’ & Officers’ Liability insurance as much as is possible.  And fines do not generate litigation. The neglect of obligations and duties lead to prosecution and then penalties.

The ACCI submission states more clearly that

“…OHS breaches should generally be subject to civil rather than criminal penalties. Such an approach should be taken for the entire model OHS Act and not just selectively applied to aspects such as breaches in relation to union right of entry.”

It would interesting to know what ACCI’s position is on non-financial penalty options.

The impression obtained from the ACCI statement and submission is that they were principally intended for the audience of the ACCI membership.  ACCI has a seat at the Safe Work Australia Council discussion table through its representative Annette Bellamy.  It is suggested that it is here where the conservative and capitalist arguments on OHS laws will be put.

Kevin Jones

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