The Safety Institute of Australia (SIA) is a very quiet organisation for one that claims to be “Australia’s professional body for health & safety professionals”, particularly considering Australia is undergoing a gentle revolution of its workplace safety laws. But SIA’s recently appointed national secretary, Stephen Thomas, has spoken out, reportedly as an SIA spokesperson, about the lack of prominence of OHS professionals on the boards of OHS and workers compensation regulators.
The lead story of online newspaper inDaily for 30 May 2011 has Thomas discussing the politicisation of occupational health and safety:
“In my view, the tri-partite structure has actually politicised OHS here in South Australia, as well as in other states,” he told Indaily. “You have these groups representing employer interest, employee interest and government interest, but there’s nobody from the OHS profession that sits at these board tables where important strategic decisions are made.
“It’s really only the independent views of professional OHS practitioners that can really provide objective advice and objective opinions without getting embroiled in the political process.
“I believe the politicisation of OHS has been to its detriment, both across the country [nationally through Safe Work Australia] and here in this state.”
Complaining about the politicisation of any element of society seems impractical as politics is integral to the decision making of public policy. It is surprising that such a position is still held, particularly by an executive of a national professional association, as there are countless examples of how political decisions have affected OHS laws and safety policies negatively and positively.
It could be suggested that the SIA’s relative silence is reflective of not wishing to engage in, or understanding, the contemporary political process. The SIA perhaps should be asking itself how it plans to represent its members’ professional interests from outside the political process?
SafetyAtWorkBlog has endeavoured to contact both the SIA and Stephen Thomas to clarify his comments. The SIA’s public relations person has suggested Thomas be contacted directly.
Regardless, SafeworkSA has provided SafetyAtWorkBlog with a response to Thomas’ comments:
“SafeWork SA is confident that the current Advisory Committee carries the right mix of OHS experience within its ranks, and is able to offer informed assessment of OHS issues in an impartial and balanced manner, to ensure the best safety outcomes for South Australians.”
Thomas’ comments are also peculiar considering the achievement of the SIA in 2009 of gaining a seat in its own right at the Technical Advisory Committee of WorkSafe Victoria. SafetyAtWorkBlog, at the time, questioned the inclusion of someone on the committee who has no OHS qualification or experience, and is aware that the appointment caused some raised eyebrows amongst SIA members.
The reality of politics is that it inhabits everyone’s existence and decision-making processes. The reality of workplace safety is that it is an integral element of industrial relations, no matter how much we may wish this to be different. The SIA has a brighter, more sustainable future if it becomes actively engaged in the state and national political agenda. The success of many professional associations is bound up in their political influence. Outside of the union movement, groups such as the Australian Industry Group and the various chambers of manufacture and industry are able to balance membership needs with political activity.
Thomas questions the meaning of “OHS experience” in board members. The inDaily article quotes him saying:
“If you have a look at the make up of the WorkCover board, one of the people who sits on the board is supposed to have OHS experience. I would question exactly what that means. It doesn’t necessarily mean that person is going to be an OHS expert. An OHS expert needs to be at these tables to bring an independent and objective professional point of view and not be weighed down with any political agenda.
I am speaking as somebody who doesn’t have any political agendas, doesn’t have any hidden political agendas, but just wants to see the best OHS outcomes in workplaces.”
[Laurie Anderson has some fascinating comments on being an expert]
It is suggested that an OHS academic from the SIA would be just as ineffective as the board member referred to above by Thomas. “Achieving the best OHS outcomes in workplaces” will not be achieved from outside the political tent. Perhaps the SIA should be looking within its membership for a person who has the proper combination of skills and political networks and who it is comfortable with to represent its OHS agenda inside the political tent.