The future of Australia’s Environment Minister, Peter Garrett, is uncertain as he struggles for credibility in the wake of furious political attacks.
In the various media discussions there are hints of other issues, some related to OHS in Australia, that demand attention.
Australian Standards and safety planning
Chris Bowen, Minister for Financial Services defended Garrett’s handling of the foil insulation issues by referring to the role of the Australian Standard. Bowen says the installation of the foil insulation meets the appropriate Australian Standard and that meeting the criteria of the Australian Standard was a prerequisite for government grants being made available.
Australian Standards are guidelines only, unless they are provided legislative clout by being referred to through OHS and other laws, or the marketplace determines that the Australian Standards are a benchmark against which actions and quality can be assessed.
Bowen then indirectly points out a weakness in its own insulation program by acknowledging that some installers are ignoring the Australian Standard. The problem is not with the Standard itself but with the enforcement of the Standard.
The weakness of the Government’s own program was that it was introduced with inadequate consideration of the safety risks to workers and households. Integrating safety into the planning phase of any project has been pushed by the safety profession for years. The Government often imposes an assessment of environmental impact onto projects, some even have a social impact statement. This insulation rebate program illustrates the need for a safety impact statement because worker safety issues are not getting the attention of the politicians and senior policy makers.
The political debacle facing Peter Garrett is proof that one cannot retrofit safety to programs like this. Safety needs to be there from the start.
Regulation and Red Tape
The Rudd Government has repeatedly emphasised its commitment to reducing the cost burdens of business management – the so-called “red tape”. The insulation rebate scheme is a scheme that relies on business documentation for the processing of rebates to installers and homeowners.
It also indicates the need for licenced tradespeople and the need for documentation to prove the legal status of the tradespeople, in this case qualified and registered electricians. This level of documentation is the “red tape” this government is trying to reduce.
OHS on a National basis
On radio this morning Peter Garrett made an important point missed in the most recent debate – the regulation and enforcement of workplace safety laws is the responsibility of State governments.
But it was a national rebate scheme that created a boom in one industry that was beyond the capacity of the State OHS regulators to enforce.
In some ways this is a political attempt to divert attention from Garrett’s ministerial performance and he mentions that one of his positive actions was to enter a “memorandum of understanding with the State safety authorities”. Australia does not, and will not for the foreseeable future, have OHS regulated by a single National authority but it can be argued that, in the case of the Federal Government’s program of insulation installation throughout the country, a truly national response was just what was required. It is worth asking the question of whether a memorandum of understanding was a sufficient response?
The Minister also says that another positive action was to enter discussions for a national training and accreditation scheme for insulation installers. This is positive but part of the need for such a national course was to ensure there were enough suitably qualified people to support the strategy of insulating Australian homes. Another worthwhile question was why was the insulation scheme introduced before the industry servicing that sector was ready?
In the interview on ABC Radio with Fran Kelly, the Minister says that safe operating guidelines and standards were in place prior to the scheme’s introduction and this may be the case, but clearly these guidelines were not being complied with. Surely an industry should have been “cleaned up” if it was to support an important and lucrative environmental initiative? The finger cannot be pointed at State OHS regulators for inaction in this area if those regulators are under-resourced and are required to prioritise enforcement strategies accordingly.
It is assumed that the cost of auditing the houses for insulation safety is coming from the Environment Departmental budget. For a long-term workplace safety training program through industry bodies, it would be appropriate to have support from the National Workplace Relations Minister, Julia Gillard, who is also the Minister for Education and has direct responsibility for developing OHS laws. To date, Minister Gillard has not spoken on the current challenges facing her Parliamentary colleague.
There are lessons also for Minister Gillard as her department progresses the harmonisation of OHS laws under the Work Health and Safety Act.
There has been a widespread acknowledgement by politicians and industry that the insulation scheme generated an influx of unregulated installers – “cowboys”. Any new national approach to OHS enforcement will need additional resources to the State OHS regulators to address new operators in all industries.
The risks of foil insulation installation were particularly prominent in Queensland. In the future, hazard or safety alerts must be produced promptly on a National level so that businesses in all States at the same time realise the increased risk and plan for suitable control measures.
Issuing the safety notices should not be through State OHS regulators or simply left on a website for some businesses to stumble upon. Safety information should be distributed through the established communication modes of other government departments and agencies – the Australian Taxation Office, Australian Securities & Investment Commission, Departments of Trade and Communications, to name a few. Most businesses will open mail and email from the corporate regulator and the communication just might reach the corporate decision maker.
The inability to enforce OHS obligations in small business and unregulated businesses should no longer be tolerated. New ways of policing safety compliance must be developed. If the State OHS regulators do not have sufficient inspectorate resources – delegate. Nominate suitably qualified safety people with a range of limited enforcement powers. This is currently applied to health and safety representatives in workplaces and could be extended into the community, business centres, industrial estates and regional areas.
The political future of Peter Garrett is uncertain but by cutting through the politics it is possible to see some of the OHS challenges (traps?) facing the government over the next couple of years as OHS harmonisation is rolled out and as enforcement strategies are defined and applied.
What is clear from the insulation debate is that safety considerations by the Government came too late for at least four workers.