Australian OHS experts call for a single OHS regulator and a unified insurance system

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
  • Skills
  • 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.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

9 thoughts on “Australian OHS experts call for a single OHS regulator and a unified insurance system”

  1. My 2 favourite references I turn to give structure and refresh thinkin\’ about these big picture issues of tapping into the solution motherlode and how organisations aren\’t particularly good at it are: Andrew Hopkins\’ Safety, Culture and Risk – the organisational causes of disaster, and John Ralston Saul\’s excellent analysis of corporatism, The Unconscious Civilisation.

    I\’ve found that in combination, these works help keep focus on the big picture obstacles to forward thinking and hence, workin\’ out how to provide strategies for business to get it together.

    I don\’t see contradictions or friction being created between tapping grass-roots solutions and safety leadership. As Raul observes, \”Management of [corporations] is about systems and quantification, not about policy and people.\” (The Unconscious Civilisation, Saul, Penguin, pg 101.) For mine, this common feature of management spells death or slow strangulation of the sort of leadership needed to support contributions by people who are dealing with workplace dangers all the time. A solution? Perhaps it\’s no more than constantly reminding organisations that the drone of \”our people this, our people that\” needs to be more than a mantra. That is, without clever, respectful safety leadership no one is gunna be able to tap the solution motherlode.

    I\’ve found that one good technique is to have as many examples as possible in the back pocket that illustrate how the OHS assessment and a potential solution has been grabbed by the staff, smacked around, and turned into a different solution that produces the result that works for them.

  2. I think both Col and Kevin\’s comments here highlight, or point to, what I see as an inherent problem in the \’OHS world\’. I believe there is a disconnect between the combined \’research\’ and \’big picture\’ group versus the \’shopfloor/organisation\’ focus.
    I constantly find it myself – when I\’m moving ahead of where the organisation is at and trying to drive \’big picture\’ improvements, my efforts are constantly being undermined, or tripped up by coalface issues that consume the focus of the frontline and middle managers.
    And, more power to them, senior management are paying attention to the \’here and now\’ issues. But with limited resources, they struggle to focus at the same time on the big picture stuff.
    The fact of the matter is, few organisations are able to work in proactive mode in most of their operations due to resourcing issues. This means they are constantly being forced to react to prevailing circumstances.
    Until we see the need to change to procative approaches, we won\’t apply sufficient resources to build the systems that assist, and hence the limited resources continue fighting reactively.
    I think this orgnaisational perspective is repeated in the \’OHS World\’ where people who have a proactive focus are constantly trying to drag resources out of the reactive pool and coming up short.
    This was probably the \’crippling issue\’ affecting the thinking of those attending the recent SWA workshop.
    They say an army marches on its belly and hence it can\’t get too far ahead of the \’supply wagon\’ resources. We need to recognise the same issues in OHS.
    Either improve the volume and speed of the supply wagons to get ahead or slow the advance so that supply can keep up.
    Preparation for implementing the harmonisation process is currently consuming significant resources. There ain\’t much left the tank for further development at present.

  3. For mine, if a big picture strategy don\’t have (wincing at the thought of writing this word) a debureaucratisation theme, well, a core problem with OHS-World wont be tackled; it could also be described as – Time to get \”off the grass\”, and get down to the grass-roots.

    It\’s not a call for de-regulation or more options to slip around sensible regulatory obligations; it\’s about at least reducing significantly the bureaucratic tone, techniques and strategies for dealing with OHS.

    We all know that a bureaucracy, private or government, is slow and reluctant to shift, has innumerable decision-making filters, loves forms, procedures and categorisation of critical information flow. This nature of a bureaucracy can work well where conservative, cautious and controlled application of knowledge to a problem is good. Is this good for dynamic improvements for OHS? For the most part, no.

    Government agencies made a fair fist of getting a contemporary approach to OHS up and running, but now they are running out of puff. Or perhaps more tellingly, they have reached the limits of what a bureaucracy can do to drive change. In addition, the bureaucratic tone of OHS has now, predominantly due to laziness by everybody, been adopted as the paradigm.

    Time to support and tap into grass-roots information and solutions mother-lodes. Find the sources of mature OHS-thinking that does exist out there. More funding of at least organisationally independent OHS research and \”risk solution-farms\”. Cough up a sensible amount of cash for annual national conferences of health and safety reps that has the primary goal of producing a big compendium of case studies. Safe Work Oz to manage a killer blog where people are encouraged to throw around, mash up and smack around solutions and ideas; produce an internet focus that reflects the real-world of good OHS where decisions and solution-finding is dynamic, on-the-ball and more about creative thinking than ticking boxes.

    Am I suggesting this dynamic environment doesn\’t have a place for bureaucracies? Not at all.

    I would suggest that the OHS agencies should be playing to their strengths, strengths that revealed themselves over time (I\’m not listing the obvious ones of the lawmaker and enforcer (those go without saying) : gatherer of incident data and advice (for quick and honest redistribution to us lot, the unwashed of OHS-World); gatherer of state of knowledge on OHS-thinking; OHS-consciousness raising via advertising; initiator and fund manager of OHS problem and solution research. All this done as a filter-free conduit of support, data and information and, most importantly, guided by the feed-back from the grass-roots idea \”nodes\” (e.g. like HSR conferences and the like mentioned above).

    As an overview perspective, I\’m suggesting the OHS agencies should be working towards less holding the hand of OHS-World and more towards being seen as a collaborator. Time for OHS-World to grow up and stand on it\’s own 2 feet; it can, but wont if it\’s constantly being encouraged to think of itself as just another arm of the bureaucracy, writ small.

    Col Finnie

    1. Col, your comments reflect some of the thinking that I was hoping to find at Safe Work Australia\’s National OHS strategy workshop the other day. I sympathise with your assertion that OHS is stagnant in Australia and we all should be looking for inspiration, but inspiration that questions the \”way we do safety\”.

      A strong call was made at the workshop for improving the evidence base of OHS. The calls came mainly from researchers who, understandably, may be major recipients of the funding but are we looking for research in the wrong places? You suggest that we should be listening more to onsite/shop floor worker. Can this really work when we are being told repeatedly that safety improvements cannot be achieved without leadership from the top? Are we paying too much attention to those workers who take shortcuts instead of listening to those who are complying or those working beyond compliance?

      Also can we establish an evidence base without being bureaucratic?

  4. Kevin seems to be promoting a 3rd regulatory option that the WHS regulations consultation regulatory impact statement (RIS) could have and should have explored. As you readers may recall, that RIS outlined two options; status quo reg\’s run by the states and new WHS reg\’s run by the states.

    SafeWork Australia may have better satisfied COAG process, and better secured Australia’s future, if that RIS was more fair dinkum and had outlined more options than just one and a bit. The options given were; 1 do nothing (the throw-away option that no one wants anyway, so it\’s hardly a real option) and, 2 do what the States want (the wonderful utopia of \”harmonisation\”).

    That RIS could have been a lot better.

    When Safework put out the second tranche of WHS reg’s for mining on 15 July, they stated (some now say lied) on their web site that the supporting RIS would be published on 29 July. That’s two weeks late, but let’s cut them some slack. Then, quietly, when the promised date passed, they changed the web site to say the RIS would be published on 17 Aug. Well, dear friends, that date has also passed and that RIS still isn’t published.

    A little while later, the Safework web site was again quietly changed to say; \”The RIS will be posted when OBPR has considered it. This is anticipated to occur soon.\” Today, the web site still says that and a full 45 days after the reg’s were published, that RIS still ain’t published.

    And let’s not even get started on the delays to RIS publication for the first tranche of WHS.

    So the SafeWork record with RIS’ is poor: Start late, get even later, possibly lie about the dates, and now they can’t even give a date. And now like a child that’s in a bit of strife; now imply it’s someone else’s fault; the OBPR’s.

    Then, there is the shabby content that they won’t even put their own name on, preferring instead to sub-contract it to an economics firm.

    And when that glorious RIS finally comes out, the reading and commenting should be interesting. With all that extra time we expect it will be magnificent! Or, will it’s content be as lacking as it’s management?

    Some of the cynics among us may wonder; could there be a strategy going on here? Get the reg’s out but don’t provide the public with information they need to critically review it. Then put that information out so late that most people will have forgotten about it or moved on? And put the RIS out after most have made their submissions without RIS information. Most won’t want to do a second or revised submission in light of the RIS. Most submissions will therefore be ineffectual and easily ignored.

    Now this is important. Why? An RIS tells us how good the regulators thinking and evidence is. And if you’ve studied the RIS process in detail, like I have, you’ll see that the RIS is ideally rather like the design spec and the regulations are constructed in accordance with the RIS spec. If they can’t get an RIS out before the reg’s or at the latest, at the same time, you’ve got to wonder.

    But in reality, we sometimes see that some agencies do not seem to have a great deal of respect for COAG regulation making guidelines and the RIS process. The OBPR is living proof of that.

    What result would you get if you built a building first and drew up the plans and spec’ and sought council approval and neighbour review afterwards? Yes, you get a monstrosity, but at least you’ve run roughshod over those pesky neighbours and got your building up. Then they have to make you tear it down, while they get used to it.

    Well, I reckon that is what you miners and we Australians are going to get. Thanks Safework.

  5. An interesting headline to the article – but does it indicate a lack of understanding of the Australian legal system?
    While I was completing my degree in Employment Relations a couple of decades ago, in the subject of industrial law we were taught that, under the Australian Constitution, OHS is not a subject that the Commonwealth Government can have full jurisdiction over unless each state jurisdiction ‘cedes’ their rights to the Commonwealth.
    I believe the approach to harmonisation, as it has been carried out so far, is a result of this jurisdictional issue.
    What concerns me is that, often when these issues or perspectives arise, we waste inordinate resources in the discussion and development of processes followed by the managing body reorganising process that could have been better expended in focussing directly on prevention strategies.
    Even consider the ‘restructuring’ of NOHSC to ASCC to SWA. Each change was undertaken for various reasons – but basically for political purpose. Even if we accede to the idea that the government of the day, who required the restructure, having the best interests of the people at heart – it was still done based on one political party’s perspective on worker vs employer benefits and their view of how the relevant powers should be allocated.
    Hence for a variety of reasons, even as we have seen with harmonisation, each jurisdiction that believes they ‘have it right’, and depending on which party is currently in power, is unlikely to ‘cede’ their rights to either the fiscal or the practical standards that currently exist outside their own jurisdiction.
    As a NSWelshman, I have been proud of the standard of the NSW OHS Legislation (compared to some other jurisdictions) and, whilst I’m not too disturbed by what I saw as a watering down of that standard with the move to harmonisation, I was really concerned to see how quickly the new government moved to implement this watering down and also attempt to change the balance of power between employers and employee bodies, and to change the judicial avenues, even before the harmonised legislation was enacted.
    I believe that what we need is less a single system and more a focus on sharing resources to improve standards and outcomes and reduce the costs associated with duplication of effort. I was impressed over the past decade to see how, with the move towards harmonisation, there had been a process to allocate specific issues for each jurisdiction to research and develop for sharing across other affected jurisdictions. However, I have been disappointed that, in the main, this process was very poorly publicised.
    At the end of the day I believe that all political parties and all those who want to see a change in the power structure should put aside their differences and establish a bipartisan focus on the issue of workplace injury and illness. People are being killed, maimed and seriously injured – surely this deserves to be addressed without political bias.
    But no, employers have different perspectives to employees too. So it becomes problematic for us to establish direction and boundaries for such a move. And few people are prepared to give ground when they hold the power.
    I believe the approach that the harmonised legislation takes is one that should establish the standards for every ‘body’ involved in directing, driving and managing prevention strategies – irrespective of whether the focus is an individual workplace or an Australia wide issue.
    IE : so far as is reasonably practicable, in relation to a duty to ensure health and safety, means that which is, or was at a particular time, reasonably able to be done in relation to ensuring health and safety, taking into account and weighing up all relevant matters including:
    (a) the likelihood of the hazard or the risk concerned occurring, and
    (b) the degree of harm that might result from the hazard or the risk, and
    (c) what the person concerned knows, or ought reasonably to know, about:
    (i) the hazard or the risk, and
    (ii) ways of eliminating or minimising the risk, and
    (d) the availability and suitability of ways to eliminate or minimise the risk, and
    (e) after assessing the extent of the risk and the available ways of eliminating or minimising the risk, the cost associated with available ways of eliminating or minimising the risk, including whether the cost is grossly disproportionate to the risk.
    Take this approach, identify the issues, add a risk assessment to determine which issues to address first then allocate each issue, along with required resources, to a participating ‘body’ – be that a regulator, an employer body, an employee body or a bi/tri-partite committee.

  6. Insurance harmonisation will never happen. There is too much money involved, too much pride, too many reputations, and too many ideologies involved. Would the states with a largely \”soft\” worker friendly scheme want to merge to a more balanced system? Would the socialist systems want to convert to a user pays capitalist system (See NSW vs any underwritten state)?

    Terminology could be merged however to make things a little easier, but it is unlikely to change in a large way. Not unless SA employs multiple scheme agents and moves towards underwritten status, and NSW dissolves the scheme and moves to underwritten, then the momentum would shift. But why do that when the scheme makes the entities stronger through cash flow and a war chest, and helps employ so many public servants?

    I like the comment about promoting research. Some jurisdictions promote research and give out grants easily for any decent research project, and they even give awards for such things (see QLD), then there are other jurisdictions who restrict grants through rules that make no sense, restrict outcomes, or are designed to grease the palms of partners (see NSW). In some places a professor can set up a 5 year study in a pure research field of OHS and get a grant, in others the professor would have to align with a union (who knows why), have the research wrapped up in 18 months (no good research only takes a year) and has to be aplied research (based on what pure research since there is very little?). It would be nice to see research encouraged and grants given freely to intelligent projects.

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