Workplace health and safety made the front cover of the Australian Financial Review on 1 July 2011 (once the liftoff financial special cover was thrown away). When this happens there is a serious issue to be dealt with or it is a beat-up. Today’s article entitled “Danger: work safety laws just got stricter” (not accessible online) is a bit of both.
Reporters Fiona Carruthers and John Stensholt reference several cases that should have generated considerable debate in the OHS fraternity. The first is the case where Clean Seas was fined $A27,000 after not preventing an alcohol-affected diver from entering the water where he blacks out and requires hospitalisation. Curiously they also discuss, in a textbox, fines handed out to RailCorp and Esso, events that occurred in 2003 and 1998 respectively.
Perhaps not surprisingly a financial newspaper focuses on the financial penalties of OHS breaches, injuries and deaths but the timing of the article is also curious as the law changes, stemming from the OHS harmonisation process, have been scheduled for some time and do not come into effect across Australia until 1 January 2012.
The new laws are described as having an intention to encourage employers to improve safety management but most of the article discusses after-the-incident prosecutions and penalties. Peter Wilson of the Australian Human Resources Institute says that
“what you find is employers work hard for a while to improve workplace safety, then the foot comes off the pedal, and safety standards tend to lapse”.
Wilson has other positives to say about the productivity benefits of a safe workplace but, significantly, there are no employer associations in the article who would echo these sentiments. The reporters reference court decisions, Peter Wilson and lawyer Michael Tooma. The absence of a quotes or statements from the industrial sector is a major weakness in the article. But then again, there is no quote from the Safety Institute of Australia or the National Safety Council either.
Carruthers and Stensholt state that “one of the hardest aspects” is that employers are held responsible for possible careless actions of an employee and use the Clean Seas prosecution to illustrate their point. They neglect that the legislative focus on the “system of work” rather than individual actions has been a foundation of OHS laws in Australia for decades and will continue to be so. The “blame the worker” argument continues to raise its head (most recently in relation to bullying – a cause for great concern) years after the perspective was killed in John Matthews’ OHS book. Behavioural-based safety is the recent incarnation of this unhelpful approach.
A more robust example would be how an employer may impose production or delivery deadlines that a worker cannot meet with working unsafely. The unsafe deadlines in the trucking industry are one example.
Tooma summarises the “new” safety management requirements:
“You need to anticipate employee negligence and do your best to put in place systems that are as foolproof a possible….A system that relies on following correct procedure is not a system at all. If your system is vulnerable to people making mistakes, then it is vulnerable to incidents……”
Every management system requires continuous enforcement to be effective.
The reporters close their article with another quote from Tooma:
“It’s about second guessing employees to the nth degree. Overall, I think that’s a good thing. We know people make mistakes in everyday life – work is no exception.”