Minister says public service safety performance is lamentable

“….I would ….suggest that government (as employer and dutyholder, and as policy maker) can, and should, be an exemplar of OHS best practice.  By taking the lead in the systematic management of occupational health and safety, government can influence the behaviour of individuals and firms upon whom duties are imposed by the OHS legislation.”

In 2004, Chris Maxwell QC wrote the above words in his review of the OHS legislation in Victoria. According to a report in the Australian Financial Review (only available by subscription or hard copy) on 6 April 2010, the Minister for WorkCover, Tim Holding, seems to share some of Maxwell’s view.   Holding is reported to have said in a speech that

“The truth is that the performance of workplace safety in the Victorian public service continues to be lamentable…. It is not acceptable to see improvements in workplaces generally across Victoria if we do not see improvements in the Victorian public service as well.”

The Minister’s office has been contacted for comment and it is believed a statement addressing some of the issues raised will be released. Statistics quoted in the article indicate that workers’ compensation claims rates are higher in the public service compared with the private sector.  The Victoria Police and Department of Human Services are identified as the “worst performers” by the Journalist, Mathew Dunckley.

Musculo-skeletal disorders and stress are the most frequently claimed workplace injuries across the public service.  This is not surprising as public authorities often undertake high-risk roles that the private sector does not – emergency services and health care to single out two.

The Minister’s assessment was described as accurate by the state secretary of the CPSU, Karen Batt, however Batt then attacked WorkSafe’s enforcement performance in this sector with a comment that is simply not true.  Batt is reported to have said

“It [WorkSafe] has never launched an action against a government department in all of its years.”

The CPSU has been contacted for clarification.

In 2001 the Secretary to the Department of Natural Resources & Environment was fined $A35,000 after an incident involving a grader.

Karen Batt was involved in a safety issue in the child protection division of the Department of Human Services in 2008

In 2005, the Department of Justice was fined $A42,500 over a finger amputation in a Barwon Prison workshop.

There are many more examples that contradict Batt’s statement.

Batt is on much stronger ground by highlighting the Victorian Government’s new Accident Compensation Act that makes claims for workplace stress more difficult.

Batt’s mistake is simply that, a mistake, but such an action from such a strong union and safety advocate is very surprising.

The Minister’s comments are more perplexing.  It is hard to see what he could expect to achieve by raising the matter in a speech (It may be significant that the audience for the speech was not identified, the speech is not publicly available and the speech is undated).  Statistics support his view no matter how he delivered the fact but as his Government runs the State and is in charge of the public service, the obvious question is “what do you intend to do about it?”

More details about the speech will be posted on SafetyAtWorkBlog as they come to hand.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

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