Some of Australia’s top work health and safety experts have stressed, to Safe Work Australia, the need for a single national OHS regulator. Many also called for a radical overhaul of workers’ compensation and insurance structures to achieve a combined insurance/compensation similar to that of New Zealand, the Accident Compensation Commission (ACC).
These calls were made in a whole day workshop, conducted by Safe Work Australia on 30 August 2011, on the development of the next ten-year national OHS strategy. This was the latest of around ten consultative sessions whose notes will be summarised and posted online. The notes from an earlier seminar list the following discussion topics:
- “The need to focus on work health and safety prevention.
- Engagement with target groups and industries to ensure advice and support is relevant to enable them to effectively respond to hazards.
- Engineering hazards out through good design.
- Influencing the supply chain inside and outside Australia.
- Prioritising key work health and safety hazards and focusing national attention.
- Creating opportunities for innovation in work health and safety particularly within the regulatory framework.
- Enhancing the culture of safety leadership (promoting highly reliable organisations).
- The importance of safety culture.
- Enhancing the capability of workers to return to work following accident or illness.
- Influencing or assisting academia to undertake research – focusing on intervention effectiveness.
- Developing a shared communication strategy to promote the new principles of the new Strategy.”
These echo many of the comments in today’s seminar and illustrate what was a major missed opportunity. The theme of today’s workshop was to imagine what OHS (or work health and safety or work health safety & environment, as some suggested) will be like in 2022 but there were few futuristic suggestions. This was the opportunity to extend some of the practices currently undertaken by ten years.
Another opportunity was missed by not having a detailed analysis of the successes and failures of the previous National OHS Strategy. Safe Work Australia’s chair, Tom Phillips, presented some data about positives but the statistics, reminiscent of the earlier presentation, were almost three years old.
It has been alleged that several jurisdictions failed to reach the 2002-2012 strategic targets but instead of admitting failure these jurisdictions have questioned the figures. The need to build solid performance targets in the new strategy was missing from today’s discussion and this resulted in a missed chance to make the new strategy more than just aspirational. The bullet points listed above are indicative of initiatives that sound positive but are the devil to measure.
There was some reflection on the existing strategy. Safe Work Australia acknowledged that:
“Some loss of focus in current National Strategy due to
- organisational restructures (change from NOHSC to ASCC and to Safe Work Australia)
- changing political context.”
Three organisational changes in one jurisdiction in one decade should not have distracted the focus as much as it did given that there were many more signatories to the strategy. This distraction shows a lack of leadership from all the signatories, mostly State jurisdictions. This may be because the States have access to their own revenue streams through workers’ compensation premiums where Safe Work Australia is reliant on government funding.
The impact of a “changing political context” is a reality of most government strategies and the next National OHS Strategy should have measures to minimise this impact and to ensure continuity.
Today’s presentation from Safe Work Australia acknowledged some problems with implementation (others would call these failures) of the 2002-2012 strategy:
“Implementation planning patchy or absent
- Lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities
- Roles for social partners not clear
- Poor coordination of efforts
- Variable resourcing levels
Loss of momentum in
- Occupational diseases
- Safe design”
The first four points were not discussed today but are critical to the next strategy’s success. The last three items were discussed but the “loss of momentum” was not. It is in this context that the detailed analysis mentioned above would have been most useful.
The call for a single national OHS regulator echoes many calls over the last few years. These quietened as the national OHS harmonisation process was introduced but the closer Australia gets to harmonised laws, the more doubts are raised about its effectiveness. There is also a feeling that harmonisation should be a stepping stone to a national regulator as the proposed advantages of harmonisaton would seem to be even stronger if applied through a single regulator.
A surprising suggestion was the reconfiguration of insurance and workers compensation. The argument was put that OHS laws and workplace obligations are blurring the regulatory delineation between work-related injuries and illnesses and those that occur outside work, particularly in the area of psychosocial issues. This blurring should be reflected in one insurance/compensation claim being lodged regardless of where the incident occurred and that claim being processed by a body similar to New Zealand’s ACC. Some in the audience believed that this model would result in considerable cost savings to small business, in particular, a sector which employs almost 95% of Australian workers. It would also reduce government costs by using the existing national social security services and it would minimise the stress injured and damaged workers would feel by unifying the process through one government agency.
Did the workshop achieve the aims of Safe Work Australia? It’s hard to tell. But what was impressive was the calibre of attendees that the seminar attracted. The seminar could not take full advantage of the knowledge and ideas that were presented in the time allotted and it would be difficult to see the same participants devote more than a day to such a workshop. The workshop was reminiscent of the former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s 2020 Summit and the potential for innovation was high but Rudd started from a blank slate, this seminar was largely updating an existing strategy.
And always looming behind this seminar was the presence of OHS harmonisation, an issue that is taking up a considerable amount of the participants’ time,and one in which many that still retain hope.