Australia’s Safety Institute bemoans the politicisation of OHS

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.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

5 thoughts on “Australia’s Safety Institute bemoans the politicisation of OHS”

  1. I spoke briefly with Stephen Thomas at a Safety Institute function last evening. I asked him whether he was speaking as a representative of the SIA. He said that as he had yet to see the inDaily article, he could not comment but that he would do so shortly.

  2. I do not agree Tony, contracting senior management is the worst of ideas, what happens is that various political parties contact the CEO of WorkCover and then when there is a change of government good people lose their jobs.

    SafeWork SA is not better run than WorkCover SA, it is just that SafeWork SA doesn\’t get into the daily paper as WorkCover SA does.

    My best and only suggestion to improve the mess that WorkCover SA has become is to bring Keith Brown back to WorkCover SA, then convince Rosemary McKenzie-Ferguson that she should be on the WorkCover Board even though I know Rosemary would not be interested in sitting on the Board, I am sure that Keith Brown could convince her to serve at that level.

  3. Successive boards and CEO\’s including the new broom have and will not make much difference to the appalling mess they have created by outsourcing management of workers compensation. The runs are on the board and they are an awful score, with the system in a worse condition than ever, they keep shifting backsides on chairs but the same results keep happening.

    Never at anytime in the past have injured workers been denied as much as they are being denied now, in terms of dignity and respect in their treatment by compensating authorities, serious loss financially, bureaucratically applied pressure on families, poor health outcomes and the list goes on.

    In South Australia, the workers compensation scheme should be in the hands of the government as is the SafeWork SA department and be held accountable together for all aspects of worker safety including reduction of injury rates. Senior staffing should be contractual over three years and be subject to very clear review rules with non conformance meaning termination of contract immediately. Just maybe we might get some good people at the coal face who know how to target problems and resolve them in the most efficient manner.

  4. This makes me chuckle; conjuring up that image of the kids swing with the ropes tied around the tree trunk. Seen it all before: Politics before principle. Committee capers. Self interest before society.

    If engineers created plant & equipment in the same politically driven way that the above indicates legislators (social engineers) create legislation then a lot of money would get wasted and a lot more people would be getting maimed. Bridges would be built where they aren’t needed (although that is sometimes a political choice). Their strength would be determined according to popular vote. And the cost of their products, would be unknown but nevertheless foisted onto the public, not at the market price but a price of their own choosing. So what is it that usually prevents engineering from degenerating into the same kind of design circus described above? Clue: it’s not the reg’s. What can lift the legislators game?

  5. My personal opinion in regard to seats at a Board Table regardless of who you are or what role you purport to bring to the table is that if you can only be heard at the Board Table and no where else then you are wasting everyone\’s time.

    The hard work to bring OHSW to every workplace is not done in the halls of any Parliament House or any Boardroom.
    The hard work is done on the shop floor, it is done by the workers understanding the need for workplace safety for everyone.
    The hard work is done in the boss\’ office by understanding that workplace safety is better for the business\’ bottom line.

    If rules and regulations and guidelines or procedures worked, then there would be no workplace injuries or deaths.
    OHSW campaigns come and go, poster with nifty slogans, or right between the eyes images curl up at the edges on the backs of toilet doors or worse still they are covered by other messages stuck over them on the notice board in the staff lunch room.

    I am not saying that there is no room at the Board table for an OHS expert, but until the \”W\” is returned, then all we will see is more of the same.
    The \”W\” from OHSW ensures that everyone from the bosses office down to the cleaners room understands that Welfare is what drives everyone\’s safety.

    The time for policy and procedures being tampered with time and again legislation has passed.
    The time has come to get the experts out of the way and allow the people to generate their own systems of working in their own workplace in a safe \”welfare\” way.

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