The Chris Maxwell Report into OHS in Victoria is of historical interest now but one concept in particular from the report continues to echo in OHS and Government circles – government departments and authorities as exemplars of workplace safety.
The latest echo of this concept appeared in a WorkSafe Week seminar in Melbourne on 25 October 2010. The seminar was to discuss the integration of OHS requirements in the procurement of construction services by government.
Maxwell said that
“…the Government as a whole can promote compliance, by being an exemplar of OHS best practice. The public sector is a very large employer in Victoria and it should lead the way in OHS.”
“…influence can be exerted by governments on dutyholders by making improved OHS performance a condition of eligibility for them to participate in government contract/tender processes.’
Maxwell’s statement came from the application of the parental question about leading by example, role model, “walking the walk”. How can one expect contractors to operate safely if the client does not? How can a parent expect good behaviour from children if good behaviour is not shown by the parent?
That government-as-OHS-exemplar continues to be discussed illustrates that the Maxwell statement must have had a considerable sting for government departments in Victoria.
The new WorkSafe guide on procurement Health and safety in construction procurement – A handbook for the public sector talks about exemplary behaviour and leadership, but in different words:
“The Victorian Government has a leadership role in preventing work-related death, injury and disease in workplaces.”
“As procurers, governments can promote better health and safety by requiring projects to include a range of safety measures, such as specifying the safety budget, building layout or the use of certain construction materials.”
One of the speakers at the procurement seminar, Jonathan Reed of the Department of Transport explained one of the elements of the procurement process as being the Government’s need to achieve a “sense of comfort” when working with contractors on major projects. The contractor’s tender proposal and safety management system needs not only to state what they can do but to provide evidence of compliance with their own safety management systems.
Contractors of all sizes can make promises in order to win a contract but the promises must be substantiated by action. This action should be based on a well-considered and easily applied safety management system. The safety management system should provide considerable evidence on successful sub-contractor management as it is often at this level of operation where workplace incidents occur.
The issue of subcontractors was raised at the seminar in question time but in terms of the contractor growth and strategic planning. Most criticisms of the guide from the audience were that the guide focussed on large projects provided by large contractors where, particularly in local government, a “construction contract” may involve an extension of a toilet block or library, or the erection of a bike shed. The audience believed that it may be unreasonable to expect a small group or small construction business to have as extensive an OHS management system as expected by the WorkSafe guide. Clearly there is a demand for an OHS procurement guide or something similar for those construction companies that build ground level structures instead of skyscrapers, bridges and railway stations.
The OHS procurement handbook is a good first-cut on introducing OHS at the early design stage of construction projects. What would provide the handbook with an increased relevance and applicability would be for WorkSafe to encourage comments from a broader range of stakeholders in order to produce a second edition in time for next year’s WorkSafe Week, or perhaps, a supplementary edition for small contractors and small contracts.
Also, the Victorian Government could begin to increase the co-operation of the OHS experts in the various government departments and authorities to provide a uniform set of OHS criteria, language and concepts for any government construction work. It was clear from the speakers that there was little involvement across departments. The government needs to embrace the exemplar concept across the whole of government instead of just individual departments and authorities.
Lastly, the government has an OHS resource in WorkSafe that is not being used in other government departments. Each department creates their OHS policies and procedures in relative isolation with only OHS professional knowledge overlapping the process. It seems odd that WorkSafe experts are not invited to assist the development of departmental OHS policies on a formal basis.
The procurement handbook launched on 25 October is a good start for a process that could meet some of the aims expressed by Chris Maxwell QC in 2004. WorkSafe and other stakeholders need to agree on a strategy for the development of guidance for the smaller contractor and small governmetn sectors.
Note: Kevin Jones is currently undertaking some OHS consultancy work with the Department of Transport and working with Jonathan Reed.