Now is the time for all good OHS lobbyists to come to the aid of their country

Now is the time for the OHS fraternity to lobby local politicians on the importance of workplace safety for the community and business.

Australia is facing a hung Parliament following the 21 August 2010 federal election.  OHS was mentioned early in the campaign but not since even though there were opportunities.  Industrial relations was raised in the election campaign by the Australian Labor Party but the Liberals chose not to play and its IR spokesperson, Eric Abetz, was missing in action.  But OHS law reform has been less about improving the law than about reducing the cost on business (even though the significance of this is argument is highly dubious) and this is where discussion on OHS could have occurred.

The Liberal Party is continuing to assert that “stop the waste” is a positive message as it relates to government spending.  It projects itself as the friend of business and the free-market and has reluctantly accepted the reality of OHS legislation although not the cost of effective compliance.  The Liberals could have used the OHS harmonisation process as an example of an economic reform IT began* but has been supported and progressed through the Rudd/Gillard Labor government.

Now, in a political climate where the Australian Greens and some Independents will hold the balance of power in the Senate and have the chance to form a coalition government with either party, the IR policies of smaller party miners and independents will be crucial for OHS and workplace relations.  The Australian Greens have the more detailed work-related policies:

Flexible work advocates work/life balance but, as SafetyAtWorkBlog has said previously, work/life balance is largely about improving workers’ mental health by reducing stress, and improving family and community life by de-emphasizing the dominance of work and focusing on quality of life.  Expect the Dame Carol Black reforms in the UK to get a good work-out through the Greens.

Mental health is also seen by the Greens as, principally, a public health issue but as the diabetes and men’s health advocates have found, pushing the message through the workplace can be an effective method of reaching one’s audience.  The Greens will similarly approach mental health, and its workplace cousins – stress, bullying, fatigues, through the workplace in OHS-themed initiatives.

The Greens’ oil spill policy makes the most overt mention of worker safety on the back of its environmental concerns that centre on the Montara oil spill in 2009.  The Greens have not ignored OHS:

“Australians, and in particular the workers who were working on the oil rig, need to know why the incident occurred and who was responsible and what must now happen to ensure similar incidents do not put worker safety and the environment at risk in the future.”

The Greens will “Push for a comprehensive international regime for offshore activities”.

The biggest potential for real progress on OHS comes from the Greens in the person of the State Member of Parliament, Sue Pennicuik.  As The Australian newspaper recently noted, in passing,

“The blossoming relationship between the Greens and the Left of the union movement is concerning other business groups.

They point to the background of Victorian Greens legislative councillor Sue Pennicuik.

Pennicuik is a former occupational health and safety co-ordinator for the ACTU and a one-time environment officer for the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, which Australian Electoral Commission funding returns show gave the federal Greens $10,000 in the 2001-02 financial year, $16,450 in 2004-05 and $30,000 in 2007-08.”

Where The Australian sees a negative influence, I see an OHS credibility.  Her political blurb on the Greens website provides a potted OHS history:

“She was Co-ordinator of the national Occupational Health and Safety Unit for the ACTU from 1997 to 2004, which conducted research and produced OHS information for unions.  She worked on national OHS standards and led campaigns on a range of issues including stress and bullying at work, safer working hours and banning asbestos.  She represented workers at the ILO in 1999. Sue also worked for the Australian Drug Foundation from 2004 to 2006 developing resources on alcohol and work.” [link added]

Pennicuik was an effective OHS co-ordinator and, although environment is the basis for the Greens’ existence, there is a strong OHS and union conscience in the party.  This is not to say that the Australian Greens is a union “front” as The Australian newspaper is close to stating.  Pennicuik’s experience and OHS track record shows that The Australian Greens may be the party to which OHS professionals and lobbyists should be talking.

Oh, but I forgot, there aren’t any OHS lobbyists. Damn.

Kevin Jones

* The Australian Government, then under the control of the Liberal Party, received a report in 2006 in which the following recommendation on OHS reform was made:

“…the Taskforce has also made a number of specific recommendations for governments to address existing overlaps and inconsistencies in particular areas of regulation.

Of these, the key priority is the multiple regimes for occupational health and safety (OH&S).  Most importantly, the Australian Government, together with the states and territories, should re-energise efforts to implement nationally-consistent OH&S standards (recommendation 4.26), including in particular adopting a consistent definition of ‘duty of care’ (recommendation 4.27).” (page 245)

Around the same time the, then, Workplace Relations Minister, Kevin Andrews, launched Safe Work Australia Week and, according to a media release dated 23 October 2006 (no longer available online):

The Minister said that he recognised that inconsistencies in OHS legislation and workers compensation arrangements across states and territories are a key impediment to multi-state organisations’ ability to manage the health and safety of their workforce.

The Australian Safety and Compensation Council is currently working on identifying priority areas for harmonisation, and ways in which to speed up the adoption of National Standards and Codes of Practice into state and territory legislation.

The Minister said that with the establishment of the Australian Safety and Compensation Council, it was the first time that there has been a national body to develop policy and to harmonise the state and territory OHS and workers’ compensation arenas.

“The cost of compliance of eight different state and territory legislation is a major factor for multi state employers and it is time and money that would be better spent on continuously improving safety outcomes,” Mr Andrews said.

reservoir, victoria, australia

4 thoughts on “Now is the time for all good OHS lobbyists to come to the aid of their country”

  1. Apparently \”may you live in interesting times\” is an old Chinese curse. Not sure there have ever been times as \”interesting\” as these in Australian politics.

    Certainly never before have we had such an interest from Government, Unions, Employees and Employers in harmonising OH&S legislation within Australia.

    This is the opportunity that OH&S Professionals may have been seeking. Now more than ever is the opportunity for the Safety Institute of Australia (SIA) to step up to the challenge of unifying its branches, developing a united front, gaining support from its members and demonstrating that OH&S management is a credible profession with a voice of reason.

    1. Peter, I can\’t speak for the SIA and won\’t.

      My experience is that too many OHS professionals are relying on their OHS associations to do the lobbying for them and yet, sometimes, a well-argued voice can get more attention than a poorly-argued one. In some cases, a multitude of voices in a political/lobbying process can get more traction and attention than one voice backed by hundreds.

  2. I agree that a lot needs to be done to press home OHSW and now is the time to ensure that who ever forms government and who ever forms opposition, the agenda for both needs to include OHSW.

    There also needs to be a push to ensure that the already injured workers are not overlooked or simply forgotten because there is no political traction in injured workers.
    We also need to press the point that OHSW appears to have reached a plateau as there has not been a reduction in workplace injuries -that is with or without a lodged or accepted claim-
    Likewise there has not been a decrease in the number of workplace deaths.

    I am not sure that a Federal Government is going to be interested in the lives of injured workers as the WorkCover systems are State and Territory based, but unless the question of real workplace safety and real return to work is put to the Federal Members it may be that they simply can continue to ignore the plight of several thousand injured worker Australians.

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