Codes and Regulations prioritized in Australia’s harmonisation process

When the Australian Government began the process of reviewing OHS laws in order to achieve harmonisation, there was a fairly tight schedule for these reforms.  Draft OHS codes of practice and regulations were due in the second half of 2010.  The last public statement on these public comment documents was that drafts were due for release at the end of October.  The latest rumour is that some of the documents will be out around November 10.

It has been mentioned elsewhere that Safe Work Australia has missed a major public relations opportunity by not getting documents ready for release in its Safe Work Australia Week in late October, for it is guaranteed that all State OHS regulators will be badgered about the draft documents as Safe Work Australia Week events.

Codes

SafetyAtWorkBlog has learnt that many of the codes of practice and occupational health issues have been prioritized.  “Priority Codes” will include:

  • Asbestos
  • Safety Data Sheets
  • Chemical Labelling
  • Consultation
  • Risk Management

The big surprise in this list is Risk Management.  There is a lot of information already available in the marketplace on the management of OHS risk and the uncertainty or, more fairly, vagaries of compliance through a risk management framework could increase the burden for many small businesses in Australia.

It seems that a major reason for giving these issues a high priority is that there already exists codes in some Australian jurisdictions.  The harmonisation process is always easier if one builds on what already exists but the priorities given to the issues above do not reflect the most costly or damaging workplace issues in Australia at the moment.

There are several areas of OHS which are being considered as “Potential Priority Codes”:

  • Plant
  • Tilt-Up Construction
  • Demolition
  • Excavation
  • Falls
  • Confined Spaces
  • Manual Tasks
  • Noise
  • Environment & Facilities

These areas also already have Codes or guidances in some jurisdictions but at least these issues have a more direct bearing on the safety of workers.

It is believed that there has been agreement by the stakeholders included in the negotiations on harmonisation that there will be regulations on the following matters, amongst others:

  • Environment & Facilities
  • First Aid
  • Emergency Management
  • Major Hazards
  • Personal Protective Equipment
  • Remote or isolated work
  • Noise
  • Manual Handling
  • Asbestos
  • Confined Spaces
  • Diving
  • Driver Fatigue
  • Falls
  • General construction
  • Inductions
  • Excavation
  • Demolition
  • Mining
  • Hazardous Substances
  • Labelling
  • Safety Data Sheets
  • Dangerous Goods

No regulations are planned for workplace bullying although a Code is expected.  Nothing on mental health or stress, amazingly, and fatigue is only a safety matter if you drive.

This week the stakeholders meet for further discussions on  many of the areas mentioned above.  SafetyAtWorkBlog contacted Safe Work Australia today to see if any draft documents could, perhaps, be released in a strict embargo for public release.  This is not possible but there is already a media plan leading up to the documents’ release.

Public Comment Period

Again, for around the fourth time in recent memory, a public comment phase on OHS regulations and documentation is scheduled for the Christmas and New Year period.  It is understood that in the upcoming consultation period, we will be given four months where, in the past, often only three months have been allowed.  Four months is still an unreasonable period when business is shut for almost one month in the Christmas/Summer period.

How Safe Work Australia plans to release draft Codes and Regulations is unclear but it can be expected that there will be a wad of documents released at the same time in order to grant the same period of consultation.  But going through the lists above of both regulations and Codes, there is a considerable amount of work required if serious consultation is expected and quality comment required.

Large corporate organisations may be able to devote adequate resources to the process but what of those professional safety associations which run on volunteer support and have members throughout Australia.  It seems they are expected to provide informed, quality commentary at the same time as organising consultative workshops in the month before Christmas or the Summer months of late January and February.  There is insufficient lead time allowed for adequate input into a process that the Government has described as crucial and is being monitored as a possible model for the upcoming review of the workers’ compensation system.

The Fragility of Harmony

SafetyAtWorkBlog has written elsewhere about the possible political impediments to the harmonisation of OHS laws in Australia.  The Western Australian government objection to parts of the process still stands.  The Victorian Labor government faces the election polls in November and New South Wales’ Labor government has increasing odds of losing power in March 2011.  The NSW election is the one most likely to have OHS as a hot political issue due to the extreme OHS laws and the Kirk decision in the High Court of Australia.

But the federal political climate has changed considerably and in ways that have increased the decision-making uncertainty of Parliament.  Four new independent politicians have yet to show their positions on OHS law reform and are not likely before the next sitting of Parliament in 2011.  The Greens, though, have a strong record on social issues and Adam Bandt is a new Federal MP from Melbourne, a city with an increasing Green presence and one where OHS is not unfamiliar.

At the State level, the Australian Greens have Colleen Hartland, an ardent campaigner on the occupational and environmental roles of chemical production in the Western Suburbs.  SafetyAtWorkBlog first noticed Hartland when she was the public face of the Hazardous Materials Action Group in the early 1990s.

There is also Sue Pennicuik, an environmental engineer but most relevantly a former OHS coordinator with the Australian Council of Trade Unions for seven years.

If OHS harmonisation becomes a political issue in 2011 it could join the merry-go-round of political votes and Senate inquiries of other contentious matters.

Harmony is based on everyone agreeing and following the same path but in OHS and politics that path is fraught with potential pitfalls and, as is the nature of harmony, it only takes one small divergence for harmony to be broken.  There will need to be considerable political nous and horse-trading to achieve harmony in OHS laws in Australia

Kevin Jones

13 thoughts on “Codes and Regulations prioritized in Australia’s harmonisation process”

  1. Hi Kevin,

    What are your thoughts on harmonisation at the \”coal face\”? I was talking to a client the other day about his absolute frustration at having to produce a number of very comprehensive safety management plans to work on 1 site! The site owners, managers and various contrcators apparently all had different requirements in regards mostly to the formatting of the plans. At one stage they moved their drill rig just 25m to the east because the safety requirements in that area weren\’t quite so onerous. All of these parties probably all had good intentions about achieving the same outcome but the lack of consistency is sure to lead to confusion amongst the people who the ones most likely to get injured

    1. Dave, I have said elsewhere in the SafetyAtWorkBlog that OHS harmonisation is irrelevant to the vast majority of Australian businesses which are overwhelmingly small and limited to single States.

      In the case you mention above there is the need for a simple harmonisation across a single worksite. There is the problem of not having consultation and discussion occurring when the plans are being drawn not just when they are being applied. The role of the Project Manager is crucial in the type of situation you mention. In my experience Project Managers often need a lot of work to educate them on understanding safety at the design and planning stage.

      What the Australian Government means by harmonisation on the big scale, single worksites can refer to as consultation or consensus. Safety harmony can be achieved in many ways.

  2. I sympathise with Renata, but to rush to a deadline without having completed the job seems to be setting the whole thing up for failure before anything is in place. Maybe that is what disparate state and territory governments want, because that is usually the case if adequate resources are not committed to do the job effectively, which Renata suggests.

    Maybe there needs to be an extension of time and additional resources, say another two years provided and a significant funding boost to ensure there is sufficient to do the job properly, as well as give adequate time for comment. Are we not talking about the heath and welfare of millions of Australia ???? and current unfunded liabilities in the billions let alone the 8+ billion in lost productivity in Australia per year.

    Harmonisation of a mess will not advance the cause of OHS by very much at all.

  3. A world of implementation pain coming right up! Renata\’s point about being obliged to comment on code of practices with no complete regs pretty well sums up the nonsense. Looks like someone at COAG is bustin\’ to tick the \”harmonisation project complete\” box and get on to other stuff.

    Jurisdictions just can\’t be expected to adopt stuff that is not gunna work.

    Of course there can\’t be a completely open-ended deadline for this stuff, but there has to be some common sense here.

  4. This issue of a National \”accident\” data base is a pet topic of mine and I have prepared a one-pager on why it is necessary if anyone is interested, fgrobotham@gmail.com for a copy.
    It seems pretty fundamental to me that if you cannot define a problem and examine its causes you have a snowballs chance in hell of solving the problem

    1. Sorry, I don\’t see this as an issue that relates to the harmonisation of Australia\’s OHS laws.  The matter of measuring the prevalence of workplace injuries and illnesses is being addressed through the increased reporting from coronial data, hospital emergency admissions as well as data for OHS regulators and compensation agents.

      The fact is that workplace injuries and illnesses are too high and that the ultimate aim of anyone involved with OHS is to prevent these occurrences and assist those who may be personally affected.

      Measurement of injuries and illnesses may appear as an item for discussion on a future blog post but only comments related to harmonisation will be cleared for the current blog post.

      Kevin Jones

  5. There is no way that the draft regs and the first set of priority codes (and the RIS!) could possibly have been ready for WorkSafe Week – the reality is that the SIG is struggling to get these ready by the deadline set not by them but by COAG (working back from the Jan 1, 2012 date which is the \’start up\’ date for the new harmonised system around Australia. While it seemed a long way off when it was first set, we knew that it was going to be extremely difficult to achieve.

    For stakeholder representatives on the SIG (ACTU and employer) the work load has been enormous, and without the same level of resources as the jurisdictions, people have been doing an amazing job of not only trying to get through the drafts, but also consulting with affiliates. The task is impossible.. except that there\’s no choice and it has to be done!

    And the problem is that with so much work on so many regulations and codes, some of these will be very unsatisfactory. For example, stakeholders are currently having to provide input into codes for which the draft regs are still \’in flux\’. Can\’t say more, but I\’m tearing my hair out over some I\’m looking at…

  6. I\’m with you on this George. There is no real road map of how we are to reach an end point. The eternal, or should I say \”infernal\” cynic in me has my radar pointing directly at the ideal opportunity this provides for those who would prefer not to be pinned down, or be prepared to be held responsible and accountable.

    Trying to deal with the laws of every state is an impossibility and unless we have the national OHS body, which has been in place for quite some time, in one form or another, arriving at a recommendation for national OHS legislation and real enforcement regulations with a recommended inspectorate regimen, then I don\’t think we have a starting point. I thought this was Safe Work Australia was all about.

    Back to the road map, we know what harmonisation is, but what is it supposed to effectively achieve? If the collective legislation across the country is rubbish then does that mean the the harmonised legislation is just going to be a bigger pile of rubbish. At least we will only have to deal with one pile rather than 7 or 8 piles.

    With over 60% of all employment in Australia being with the hundreds of thousands of small businesses, who, by current OHS law are supposed to be complying at a much higher level than is currently the case, (refer to the Mildura issue of non compliance stats and comments) then we are off to a compounding of the problem by the bureaucrats in the name of harmonisation.

    Georges comment re a national data base is very relevant, providing the classifications are not designed to hide the real import of figures and tell the story like it really is. This data base is readily available via Workers Compensation Claims and would only need a \”harmonisation\” of plain English categories to tell the real story of compliance in the workplaces of Australia.

  7. I must admit to being overwhelmed by the toing & froing on harmonisation and all the communications.
    It would be good if someone could succinctly explain what it all means, what is going to happen and why it is going to work
    It seems to me that some of the potential benefits are being eroded by the states wanting to hang onto power on some issues.
    I would have thought one of the very important issues was the development of a National, consistent, permanently life altering personal damage occurrence (\”Acident\”) data base that could be interrogated to guide preventitive actions, I see no mention of this.

    1. George, you won\’t see that as it was not part of the original intention. The motivation was a reduction of administrative costs to large businesses. I say \”large businesses\” because small businesses, the majority of Australian businesses by far, rarely operate outside a single State jurisdiction.

      In a time when politicians are looking at long-term infrastructure investment, long-term thinking on OHS laws was not applied. It is also important to note that the harmonisation focused on laws and less so on the application of those laws.

      Kevin

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