The OHS profession in Australia needs a saviour. Has anyone got one spare?

In December 2009, SafetyAtWorkBlog reported the comments by the English Conservative leader, David Cameron, on some concerns he had about the direction of occupational health and safety in England and how the newspapers were reporting OHS.

On 15 March 2010, The Independent published an article by the CEO of the Institute of Occupational Safety & Health (IOSH), Rob Strange.  [IOSH says it is a personal opinion piece]  Strange’s article is not a rebuttal of Cameron’s speech but is an important statement in the dialogue, or debate, that must occur if workplace safety is ever going to be treated with respect.

Strange must deal with the notorious English tabloid press and some of his article shows that no matter what relationship one may wish to have with a journalist, there is no guarantee that the journalist or editor will run your perspective, argument or rebuttal.  His struggle shows how important it is to establish a respectful relationship with the media producers.  His example should be followed by safety professional associations elsewhere.

Sadly the Australian experience is that OHS professional associations remain distrustful of the independent media even when they have not had to deal with the tabloids.  These associations of professionals do not seem to understand that journalists and writers are also members of a profession and are obliged to operate in a professional manner.  The degree of media suspicion, sometimes fear, in some OHS associations is phenomenal and illustrates a level of insecurity that would render most associations moribund or, perhaps, defective.

There are almost no OHS associations in Australia currently that would have the intelligence, confidence or presentation to match what Rob Strange has written in The Independent.  And this is a major worry.

Australia has yet to hit the “anti-OHS crusaders” to anything like the extent IOSH and the government’s Health & Safety Executive has had to face.  Thankfully some of the fundamentalist media commentators remain focused on climate change.  But the risk is high.

2010 will be the year that the national OHS Act begins to be implemented at State Government level and after this next weekend, Australia is unlikely to have the Labor Party dominance it has “enjoyed” for the last few election cycles.  Conservative State Governments will be able to follow the lead of the Liberal Party‘s WA Premier Colin Barnett and his industrial relations minister, Troy Buswell, in being suspicious and belligerent on the harmonisation of OHS laws.  It could be argued that without the political acumen of the federal Workplace Relations Minister, Julia Gillard, national OHS laws may not have got this far, at least, so quickly.

The potential political instability that this restructure creates exposes the fragility of workplace safety and the potential for ridicule.  The laws must be supported by a detailed enforcement policy and the ability to respond quickly to any chance of the program going off the rails.  The prompt action by Gillard on union right-of-entry reported in The Australian newspaper on 17 March 2010, is a good example of the supervision that is required.

And where are the intelligent safety professional associations who can authoritatively comment on the politics of OHS?  They are not even on the radar.

Strange sets out the important OHS issues that require action.  Most are the same issues faced by OHS professionals in Australia.  Strange says

“Far beyond all this tomfoolery are the “real” health and safety issues that demand action.  Like fighting to prevent the looming spectre of more cancer caused by asbestos, a time-bomb that currently sees thousands of workers dying each year from past exposure.  Like tackling the personal, social and economic tragedy of people stuck on incapacity benefit when, with the right help and opportunity, they could be in the workplace, fulfilling themselves, supporting their families and contributing to the economy.  And getting better health and safety support to small and medium-sized businesses, which create nearly 60 per cent of private sector jobs and half of UK turnover but sadly, in manufacturing for example, can have double the rate of deaths and amputations in large workplaces.”

Asbestos, incapacity benefits, small- and medium-sized business needs as well as reducing death and illness from work activities!?  Australian OHS associations are all but silent on these issues.

Has Rob Strange ever considered emigrating to Australia? Former IOSH president  John Lacey has been out here enough to qualify for citizenship, Strange is unavailable.

Kevin Jones

2 thoughts on “The OHS profession in Australia needs a saviour. Has anyone got one spare?”

  1. Industry bodies like to test concepts, they get funding for what ever concept that is the current flavor of the month, and then the results are published with a huge fanfare and the professionals are all impressed with each other. By then the funding has run out and the industry professionals hope that enough of the right industry people have read the published results and are interested enough to buy the programme. If not then another round of funding is applied for and another flavor of the month concept is researched to put forward and so on and so forth etc etc etc.

    Industry professionals forget that they actually need to talk to the very people who their concepts are meant to work with, not just a \’test group\” but injured workers from the industry that the so-called professionals want to improve the workplace safety for.
    Even retired workers from the targetted industry have much more information to put in place for the industry professionals.

    Sadly though it seems that the industry professionals overlook the most obvious source of information.

  2. This is starting to sniff around the edges of what is needed, however, the answer is in front of our faces, well from my point of view anyway. Kevin touched on it briefly \”The laws must be supported by a detailed enforcement policy and the ability to respond quickly to any chance of the program going off the rails.\” 20 plus years of law on the books that is in effect, not being enforced and prosecuted.

    While people know that the risk of getting caught out not complying with OH&S regulations they are prepared to take the risk and even if they caught it usually is a penalty that is insignificant and no real incentive to pull their socks up and comply.

    About the best service we can look forward to in relation to OH&S from business is \”lip service\”

    I repeat my assertion as stated in other responses \”get it right on the shop floor with real and substantial instant penalties for non compliance with Regulations\” it is not that hard. The inspectorate required would be self funding so there is no excuse for not having big numbers in the field 7 days a week. The savings in both money and misery would be very substantial.

    Maybe states like Tasmania and South Australia would make good case study states for trialling a very very aggressive enforcement approach.

    The asbestos matter mentioned by Rob Strange would more likely be picked up under an aggressive enforcement program, than that which is in place today, so I would be interested to hear the views of others to my thoughts of very affirmative action.

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