Changing the OHS guard

John Merritt is leaving WorkSafe Victoria to head up the Environmental Protection Authority.  Nothing special in such a move as such progression is part of many senior executive public servant’s career plans.  But Victoria’s politicians have started to use this change for political point-scoring on the basis that Merritt is married to Victorian parliamentarian, Maxine Morand.

This is unfortunate but not surprising.  The political argy-bargy implies that John Merritt is undeserving of his new appointment and this is not the case.

I have met John Merritt over a number of years and from before he became the executive director of WorkSafe in 2001.  During his time with the National Safety Council of Australia, there was an air of optimism in this moribund organisation, the same air he brought to WorkSafe.  I interviewed him regularly

There is no doubt that WorkSafe has undergone a considerable transformation through Merritt’s leadership. He has introduced a regime of performance measurement that few  government administrative agencies would be take on.  The recruitment of inspectors has been high and the eligibility criteria seems to have been lifted.

Merritt’s media performance has been noticeable for his visibility in front of Courts when important prosecution decisions have been made.  His attendance at safety conferences and seminars has been frequent and authoritative.  His presentations do not come across as from someone who has been briefed by a media minder thirty minutes earlier.  Occasionally his presentations come across as a bit slick but this may be because I see him speak frequently and there is bound to be overlap and repetition.

Merritt’s departure does not allow him to see out the ten year period of the National OHS Strategy.  The statistics indicate that WorkSafe Victoria, like the regulators in other States, are unlikely to meet the benchmark set for workplace fatality reduction.  Merritt was acutely aware of this benchmarking exercise, frequently showing WorkSafe’s performance against it.  His successor is going to have to provide good reasons for the failure to achieve this national target.

The next executive director will need a similar level of dynamism to Merritt’s as there are rumours in the OHS profession that Greg Tweedly, WorkSafe’s CEO, may be moving on also.  Challenges for the newcomer will be to avoid the risk of over-believing the statistics on the authority’s performance, to maintain the corporate profile that Merritt developed and to remember that WorkSafe’s first priority is to the citizens of Victoria and not be sidetracked by National agendas.

Political debate on executive appointments is usually short-lived but Victoria has an election scheduled for late 2010 and scrutiny of the appointment of the next WorkSafe executive director will be as high as Merritt’s has been for the EPA.

There is also the substantial workload on all Australian OHS authorities from the national government’s OHS harmonisation agenda.   It is not an ideal time for change at the top in WorkSafe and the choice of the newcomer will be interesting.  What is beyond doubt is that Victoria’s EPA has attracted a very good asset,  an asset that has the potential to match the previous work in the EPA’s Brian Robinson.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

4 thoughts on “Changing the OHS guard”

  1. All power to Mr Merritt who proposes provision for review and appeal against pollution notices. (The Age 18/4/10) . He will be facing a huge challenge to give the EPA self respect. The Authority got off to a corrupt start, probably due to political requirements to ensure that the new laws did not seriously disturb influential business interests.

    The Authority appeared to be tough by prosecuting powerless innocents. It closed a family\’s small small responsibly conducted environment beneficial
    business that used heavy equipment and tall cranes to recover lead from illegally dumped toxic actory slag wastes.

    1. I am not in a position to comment on corruption but it does seem that the Victorian Environment Protection Authority has lost its public perception of authority. The EPA was a significant force under Brian Robinson during a time when industrial concerns were more common than climatic concerns. It is hoped that John Merritt can regain that prominence in the community\’s mind. He certainly achieved a great deal in WorkSafe (whether it will continue so without his leadership is debatable) and the concerns being raised about Merritt\’s strategies indicates a necessary change in direction.

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