Alarmism and confusion over Australia’s OHS harmonisation process

The Australian Financial Review (AFR) on 13 September 2011 is muddying the waters on objections to Australian harmonised OHS laws.  The Victorian Government would support a delay to the introduction of the laws until, according to previous media reports, the release of the Regulatory Impact Statement (RIS) on the new laws.  The AFR is reporting (not available online without a subscription) that the government

“…will not endorse the regulations until the federal government releases a cost-benefit analysis.”

It is understood that an RIS is not the same as a cost-benefit analysis even though costs and benefits are part of an RIS.

Australia’s Office of Best Practice Regulation (OPBR) states that an RIS has seven (7) key elements:

  • “the problem or issues which give rise to the need for action;
  • the desired objective(s);
  • the options (regulatory and/or non-regulatory) that may constitute viable means for achieving the desired objective(s);
  • an assessment of the impact (costs, benefits and, where relevant, levels of risk) on consumers, business, government and the community of each option;
  • a consultation statement;
  • a recommended option; and
  • a strategy to implement and review the preferred option.”

The OPBR also states that

“The emphasis of the RIS should be on analysis; it is not intended to be an advocacy document.”

Of course, this does not stop the RIS being used by others as an advocacy document.

The AFR article states that both the Housing Industry Association (HIA) and the Master Builders Australia support a six-month delay.  HIA’s CEO Graham Wolfe says the laws are being hastily introduced.  That is not necessarily the case as the process has been operating for around three years but there was always going to be increased concerns in the last six months of the process, particularly when important documents and regulations have yet to be released.

Safe Work Australia and the Government have always known that an informational vacuum is always filled with something, usually rumour, gossip and worries.  Australia is currently in this OHS vacuum.

OHS professionals should be increasingly concerned, though, when prominent industry representatives speculate.  The AFR article says that Mr Wolfe believes that some of the legislative provisions

“…such as the ‘falls from heights provision’, would become unworkable as it would mean climbing a ladder to change a lightbulb might require builders to put crash pads underneath the ladder…”

Around a month ago, at a Melbourne conference on safe design in construction, the audience was told that design modifications are becoming increasingly common for eradicating the need for accessing lighting from ladders in both construction and maintenance phases.

The draft code for How to Prevent Falls at Workplace has been available online for some time.   It details the risk assessment process required to reduce the risk of falling.  The process may result in many control measures but crash pads are not mentioned and the use of such devices is rare on Australian construction sites where stable work platforms are a preferred control measure.

Such alarmist statements do nothing to constructively (no pun intended) address the lack of useful information coming from the government.  Safe Work Australia has repeatedly reasserted the start date for the new legislation of 1 January 2012.  Several States have already passed the model Work Health and Safety laws through their own parliaments with a 1 January start date.  It is very hard to see how the process, at this late stage, could be delayed without weakening the process to, perhaps, a fatal degree.

Opponents, or grumblers, have a stronger argument on the delay on the regulations but have no valid argument on the draft codes of practice as, until the new codes are finalised, existing codes continue to apply.  And it has been said throughout the harmonisation process that the new codes are unlikely to be radically different from previous codes except for the aim of harmonisation.  Safety compliance mechanisms are not likely to be substantially changed.

Kevin Jones

The business website Smart Company has also reported on the AFR article and the HIA concerns –

reservoir, victoria, australia

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