Good Comcare content on effects of OHS harmonisation

Australia’s Comcare was the first of the OHS regulators to provide an information session on Australia’s attempts to harmonise its OHS laws across many different jurisdictions and industry sectors.  The Melbourne seminar on 7 February 2011 could have been presented better but some useful information was available.

Content – Inspectorate

The most significant OHS information to come out of the event was that Comcare is making a serious attempt to move its enforcement from the investigatory model to inspectorate.  Michael Barnes acknowledged that this will be a considerable culture change for Comcare staff and, by extension, many Comcare clients.  This is a major change of emphasis as illustrated by Victoria’s WorkSafe that went through this exercise over the last five years or so.  This program will take many years to introduce and still more years to be accepted.

Basically the OHS “policeman” will have additional obligations to advise clients on ways to comply with OHS laws.  There has always been a tension when OHS inspectors, who often know the most appropriate control measure in work situations, are bound to not advise as they would be overstepping their authority.

To some extent the need to change the enforcement approach is linked to the growth of “reasonably practicable” and the absence, in many instances, of the need for a risk assessment.  For an OHS inspector to withhold knowledge that would assist companies in compliance would be untenable.

Content – Comparative Tables

Comcare provided several tables that identified the differences between the old and new legislative regimes.  These would be new to many of the participants and are an excellent way to show the degree of legislative change.

Comcare was at pains to stress that much of the information available at the seminar would also be publicly available on its website.

A similar comparative table is available on the differences between Investigation and Inspectorate.

Second Stage Codes of Practice

Comcare revealed for the first time to my knowledge, the list of the “Second Stage Codes of Practice and Guidance”.  Many OHS practitioners have wondered when the bullying and psychosocial codes would appear.  Michael Barnes advised that the following draft codes for public comment will be released in 2011 but are unlikely to be finalised in time for the enactment of the new OHS laws on 1 January 2012.   When one considers the significance of many of these workplace hazards, the decision to delay is hard to understand but that is not a question for Comcare.  As Barnes said, the political issues must be kept as “background noise” in Comcare’s deliberations.

Proposed and additional codes and guidances:

  • Construction
  • Plant
  • Chemicals
  • Electricity
  • Mining
  • First Aid
  • Fatigue
  • Bullying
  • Occupational Diving
  • Abrasive Blasting
  • Forestry Safety
  • Welding
  • Spray painting
  • Vibration
  • Synthetic Mineral Fibres
  • Blood-borne Pathogens
  • Safe Design of Structures

(Safe Work Australia has informed SafetyAtWorkBlog that this list is indicative only and that there may be mergers or separation of Codes.  The commencement date for these Codes is still to be confirmed)

What was clear from the seminar was that the OHS harmonisation process may be an inconvenience for many companies but it is likely to be a revolution for Comcare itself.  The Project Harmony strategy is an acknowledgement of the significant changes required and the realisation of this significance by the Comcare executive.

Michael Barnes said that Comcare is recruiting new staff to meet the new needs, new expectations and its new customer approach.  He also admitted that Comcare was “a little bit proud” of its initiative in consulting with stakeholders earlier than other regulators.  The strategy is good but has been let down somewhat by the execution.

Comcare mucked up its Melbourne information workshop in several ways but there was enough good OHS content from which a shorter seminar could have been constructed.  The information could have been imparted in a breakfast seminar where time restraints would minimise waffle and information made more concise.  Participants may emerge with an information overload but with no grounds for complaint.  It is hard to provide too much information and, even when one is overloaded, there is much to digest and often the significance of the information is not apparent until later in contemplation or conversation.

Comcare plans to conduct some further workshops on the issues and it has its annual conference due later in 2011.  Comcare is one of the few OHS regulators who realise its commitment to communicate with its client base.  Most of the road shows are in population centres but at least they occur.  The trap for Comcare, as with most other large organisations, is that it may rely too much on its website or intranet.  On a matter of considerable organisational and cultural change for itself and its clients, it needs to get out there and press the flesh.  The current sequence of road shows is a positive indication that Comcare realises this need.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia
Categories business, communication, consultation, government, Inspectors, law, OHS, safety, UncategorizedTags , ,

5 thoughts on “Good Comcare content on effects of OHS harmonisation”

  1. Thanks Kevin, I hope you are right – at the moment however the licencees I have spoken to have been told they are out come 1 January – but obviously a lot has to happen to make that (1) happen; and (2) happen effectively.



  2. Agreed Kevin, there is far too much tinkering – we need a solid stable platform (uniform legislation) and a well resourced (single) regulator with teeth.

  3. I agree with your comments Kevin and I believe Comcare deserves to be congratulated for putting on the forum. It was booked out and that reflects the desire from many organisations for more information and a greater understanding of what the changes will really mean for them.

    I think an interesting aspect of the change for Comcare which you refer to is that legislatively their \’inspectorate\’ has not been empowered under their Act to utilise the range of powers available to an inspector unless they have formally instituted an investigation. Removing this constraint will see a significant change in their ability to interact, advise and where necessary take some form of action.

    One aspect of the presentations which I found very positive was that it forced those in attendance to think about and discuss issues around how they are, or will, address implementation in their organisations. A key factor which seemed to come through in the group I participated in, as well as being evident in feedback from other groups at the end of a workshop, was the age old problem of \”how do we get genuine engagement\” from senior management.

    I suspect many people / organisations will leave preparation too late to effectively address issues that will arise. They will assume that the basic principles are the same, just an increase in penalties and some new powers and they will not realise for some time yet that while the fundamentals remain the same the devil is in the detail and a lot of work is required before 1 January 2012.

    As a final comment I must say I feel for the Comcare licensees who will be unceremoniously \”dumped\” back out of the Commonwealth scheme into the different State schemes. While for most of industry harmonisation is a positive, but very imperfect, step towards greater efficiencies, for the licencess the situation highlights just how far short of real national uniformity the compromise of harmonisation is. For all the \”harmony\” that will result, there will remain some significant areas of differences in administration, registration, enforcement and court systems.

    It is a sad polictical indictment that the Federal Government (both current and Howard era which allowed licensees to move in from the State system) just did not use its constitutional powers to say one national law – end of story.



    1. Graham, I am not sure that the licensees will be \”dumped\”. I think that the licensees will stay national becasue the harmonisation process allows for jurisdictional variation and State politics remains a stumbling block for the program\’s implementation. The laws may be harmonised but certainly will not be uniform.

      As the deadlines for implementation close and State political objections are voiced, I believe there will be greatly increased call for a single national OHS law.

      I understand the political \”tip-toeing\” over a national law but, if a major motivation for change is the reduction of admininstrative costs as has been stated in the past, then a single national OHS law and, maybe, a single national OHS regulator would provide big cost savings through a concise and consistent OHS system.

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