Insulation debate shows flaws in OHS harmonisation plans

On an Australian current affairs program on 11 February 2010, the Environment Minister was asked questions over the deaths of insulation installers.  Watching the interview was both fascinating and uncomfortable. (Video and transcript is available)

The interviewer, Kerry O’Brien, kept the focus on the deaths of the installers, a position that humanises the insulation installation debate and move the focus away from the public service and policy development.

The Queensland OHS authorities are investigating some of the fatalities so it is not possible to know whether the workers were licenced installers.  As the Minister pointed out in the interview, licenced installers must meet specific training and safety requirements.  The deaths indicate that something in the insulation program was not working but most of the criticism of the government is aimed at incompetence and in order to claim the Minister’s scalp, rather than the specific flaws in the program.

There is no doubting that the Minister responded but these actions have served to illustrate inadequate planning in the development of the program.

When investigations of the installers’ death are completed we will know why installers used metal staples instead of other safer methods.  We will know the level and quality of training installers received.  We will learn of insurances the operators may have had.  We will know about recruitment methods.

We will also know, and this is the knockout punch landed by O’Brien toward the end of  last night’s interview, the level of resources made available to enforce the safety aspects of the insulation program.

O’Brien asked the Minister:

“…what I’m talking about, which is to me the fundamental, and it goes back to that warning on April 29, and at the heart of that warning was there are nowhere near enough people at the State or the Commonwealth level to police this. Now, where is the evidence that you have then made available trained and qualified inspectors in sufficient numbers to properly police this program given the seriousness of the warnings, houses could burn down, people could die?”

The matter of enforcement, and the planning for enforcement, in this program is an issue that will, and should, extend to illustrate relations between the federal government departments of Environment and Workplace Relations, and between Federal and State Governments.

Questions need to be asked about the decision to apply the memorandum of understanding between the two levels of government, mentioned by Minister Garrett.  Why apply this process and what, if any, does this say about the relationship between the two tiers of government upon which the government’s OHS harmonisation program relies?

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

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