Where is the evidence of OHS misuse for IR purposes?

The mainstream press has dipped into some of the submissions to the Australian Government on its harmonisation of OHS laws.  Kirsty Needham reports on the submissions in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Needham reports on basically the submissions of the Australian Chamber of Commerce & Industry and the Australian Council of Trade Unions – the ideological opposites on safety regulation.  She quotes ACCI’s David Gregory:

“There is no doubt that health and safety has been used as an industrial relations issue on plenty of occasions … we want to put reasonable boundaries around those entitlements.”

cover V01Summary_PressFinalThis position is always attached as a myth by the unions but it is an accepted fact in the minds of employers, OHS professionals and many workers.  The Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry in 2003 found that

“in the building and construction industry throughout Australia, there is…..widespread use of occupational health and safety as an industrial tool.”

“The types of inappropriate conduct which exist throughout the building and construction industry include….the use by a union of occupational, health and safety (OH&S) issues as an industrial tool, intermingled with legitimate OH&S issues;”

“Occupational health and safety is often misused by unions as an industrial tool.  This trivialises safety, and deflects attention away from real problems.  Unions have a legitimate interest in the safety of their members.  This should not be altered.  However, the scope for misuse of safety must be reduced and if possible eliminated.”

“Misuse of non-existent occupational health and safety issues for industrial purposes is rife in the building and construction industry.  Genuine occupational health and safety hazards are also rife.”

A major source of evidence for the repeated statement of fact is mentioned in the final report from February 2003 was an “OH&S case study (Tas).”.  SafetyAtWorkBlog is trying to obtain more details on this.

One example of the evidence that is readily available relates again to the Royal Commission.  The Commission undertook an investigation into industrial disputes a the construction site of The Age newspaper in Tullamarine.  The Commission reports

“the evidence from Mr Judson [Wayne Judson is a Director of Probuild] will be that during the negotiation of the project agreement (which was a period where any industrial action between Probuild and the unions would have been unprotected) there were many occasions when safety walks and OH&S issues were used as a device by the unions to pressure Probuild and Fairfax to agree to the project agreement and nominated shop stewards.

The potential misuse of OH&S raised, not of course for the first time in this Commission, is a very serious matter. To misuse OH&S debases the currency of safety. ‘Crying Wolf’ often enough on enough sites creates the risk that no one knows whether a safety claim is about something real and important or whether it is simply a means of supporting the latest industrial demand.”

Some of Commissioner Cole’s comments on the debasement of safety are sound but the “evidence” is from the builder and may not constitute the reality, only opinion in a submission to an investigative body.  The Commissioner carefully labels the issue “a potential misuse”.

SafetyAtWorkBlog would say that the fact of misuse of OHS issues for industrial purposes may be an example of the establishment of a fact through “crying wolf”, to use the Commissioner’s term.  The frequent statement of a belief does not establish a fact.

Also, to some extent, the construction industry hogs the OHS limelight in much of the tripartite consultation.  This is because of the industrially charged nature of construction in Australia and the fact that construction sites are usually highly visible to public.  The construction industry is an important economic driver but perhaps this prominence is masking some of the other OHS issues that the Government needs to consider.

As the Australian Government proceeds in its harmonisation of OHS laws and as it reads the hundreds of public submissions, there should be a red flag on each mention of the misuse of OHS for industrial purposes so that assertions are not misread as facts.

Kevin Jones

One thought on “Where is the evidence of OHS misuse for IR purposes?”

  1. It has been my observation for some time now that statistically the most dangerous workplaces in Australia (farms) are among the least unionised, and the second-most dangerous (construction sites) are among the most. What\’s the relationship between unionisation and safety? Draw your own conclusion…

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