Victoria’s largest OHS conference and trade show has ended. The shadow of the impending harmonisation of OHS laws hung over both events. The OHS message throughout the conference was one of nothing to worry about. WorkSafe’s Ian Forsythe felt that Victoria was well-placed for minimal disruption as the OHS laws in that State had been thoroughly reviewed by Chris Maxwell QC in 2003. Forsythe described the current OHS review as “Maxwell on steroids”, a good line for the conference audience but one that reflects the, often, smug approach of many Victorians to the harmonisation process, an approach not shared elsewhere as shown by a front-page article in The Australian on 9 April 2011.
The Business Council of Australia is concerned about the different interpretations of the laws by each of the states. This has been a possibility from the very start of the reform process because the focus was always harmonisation, not uniformity.
Influential mining corporation Rio Tinto is concerned about the increased powers of health and safety representatives under the new national laws.
The Minerals Council of Australia’s (MCA) comments are perhaps the most telling. The MCA believes that the new laws will divert attention from safety to compliance and increase the need for paperwork. The latter concern, increasing red tape, was said to be one of the main reasons behind the review in the first place.
OHS lawyer, Barry Sherriff, has denied that the model Work Health Safety Act would necessarily impose greater costs on employers. He reportedly said that
“A lot of what we’ve done is to simplify and clarify things, to make the law better and remove the legal gobbledygook. People in the office, factory, the warehouse, or the road who need to understand the safety laws. It requires what you should now be doing anyway.”
However Senator Eric Abetz has said
“All it [harmonisation] will do is add extra cost, extra burden and confusion because of the complexity. As a result, workers won’t be safer, productivity won’t increase and there’ll be extra burdens on business…”
(To see the full context of the senator’s comments, the full transcript is available HERE)
Many of the organisations above have been direct players in the development of the new OHS laws, and should know the rationales behind all of the decisions and consultations that have led to the current situation. WorkSafe Victoria has said that it did not make a submission to the review specifically because it has been so involved with the review process. Yet the organisations involved in the tripartite consultation must take some ownership of the proposed Act, Regulations and codes of practice.
It is very risky for those OHS professionals in Victoria to dismiss what the fuss is about across the borders. Confused messages abound about the impact on red tape and the impact of business operating costs, with additional elements entering the fringes of the OHS legal debate, such as the “Industrial Manslaughter” bill in Western Australia.
To understand the umbrage of businesses, unions and employers associations over the OHS harmonisation process it is essential to look outside the Victorian statements, submissions and media.