The last seven days has seen many of the conservative speakers express concerns or objections to the Australian government’s close-to-completed process for harmonising workplace safety laws. Although one may not agree with the objections, in most cases there is some ideological sense. On 15 September 2011, South Australia’s shadow Minister for Industrial Relations (IR), Rob Lucas, launched a broadside attack on the OHS laws but with dubious claims.
Lucas’ media release states that
“There is growing opposition to Labor’s proposed bill from industry and business organisations such as Business SA, Master Builders Association, Housing Industry Association, Motor Trade Association, Self Insurers of SA and the Australian Hotels Association.
“The Liberal Opposition believes this bill is a massive full frontal assault on subcontractors and small business in SA which will lead to significant increases in house prices,” Shadow Industrial Relations Minister Rob Lucas said.
“For example, the HIA have estimated the new laws will increase costs by $12,000 for a single story construction and approximately $20,000 for a double story construction.”
The $A20,000 claim has been used by the HIA in the past in South Australia . A former (Labor) IR minister, Paul Caica, was confronted by the claim in 2008. The costs seemed to concern the provision of scaffolding on domestic construction sites for work above two metres but no clarification was made publicly.
In May 2011, SafetyAtWorkBlog investigated the $A20,000 claim. The claim was quoted at the time by Rob Lucas in a media statement. The blog article in May said:
“On looking for the evidence on the potential business costs, an HIA spokesperson has advised SafetyAtWorkBlog that no figures were provided by the HIA to the minister for this media statement. The spokesperson said that the cost figures may have been extracted from earlier submissions to government.”
The timing of Lucas’ statement is a little odd as well given that the harmonisation laws’ regulation impact statement (RIS) was made available to the public this afternoon. Posting an objection based on a cost estimate at the same time that an official cost analysis is released is bizarre and pushes people to search the RIS for any support of the construction cost increases mentioned.
Section 6.6.4 of the RIS discusses the issue of falls and references domestic construction. It states (page 96) that
“The proposed changes mean that no height threshold will be specified. This addresses concerns that prescribing a height threshold such as two metres sends a misleading message that risks of ‘small falls’ at the workplace do not need to be managed. This is also consistent with the policy position in most jurisdictions. Most jurisdictions prescribe a general hierarchy of controls that applies in relation to all kinds of falls including ‘small falls’.”
The application of the hierarchy of controls to construction can provide many fall protection options that are likely to cost a fraction of that estimated by the HIA and, sadly, the shadow IR minister.
In discussing the application of the hierarchy, the RIS states (page 98) that
“The proposed special requirement of the construction section ….. may reduce compliance burdens in the ACT, Tasmania and SA which do not currently have these thresholds for the construction sector.” [emphasis added]
Further cost estimates are available in the 2009 National Code of Practice for the Prevention of Falls in Housing Construction Regulation Impact Statement for Decision.
There are many references to the residential housing sector throughout the September 2011 RIS that require close examination and falls in this industrial sector are specifically discussed
Equally odd is Lucas’ concerns over increased union right of entry. This option will be new in some States but the experience in Victoria, where such a process has existed for several years, is that despite some forecasts of union abuse, the option has had sufficient approval and appeal processes through the courts to render it little more than a procedural matter and one that operates without industrial relations tension.
Part of the reason for the spate of recent objections is that people are not looking beyond their own patch and local interests. The way each State and business manages safety in the workplace is likely to change but this was always going to be the case from the moment the process was launched by the former conservative Prime Minister, John Howard. But by looking at the experiences of other States, States that have had such laws for some time, like Victoria, the current alarm bells seem shrill, petty and ill-informed.
And there is a growing perception that the Australian government will agree to a six-month delay. This concession to the objectors would acknowledge their concerns but also state a clear expectation that in return for the delay, the government will receive the objectors’ full co-operation in negotiations.