OHS Strategy to nowhere

Throughout 2011, Safe Work Australia (SWA) has been conducting consultative workshops in the development of the next ten-year National OHS Strategy.  SafetyAtWorkBlog reported previously on the Melbourne meeting.  SWA has released their report into that Melbourne meeting.

The meeting had a set of criteria for the stakeholders to consider.  Sadly, there was no forewarning of the issues to be discussed so the workshop took some time to gain traction.  With only one day of consultation, it would have been more productive to release the agenda topics a day or two earlier.  These topics, each of which could have generated at least a half-day’s debate, are listed below

“Social/Economic/Emerging Issues in the Workforce, Business and Technology…

Hazards – Enhancing the capacity of workplaces to respond to:

  • Disease-Causing Hazards …
  • Injury-Causing Hazards …
  • Psychological Injury-Causing Hazards …

Work Health and Safety Systems – Challenges and Solutions in Safe Design and Work Systems, Skills and Training, and in Safety Leadership and Organisational Culture…..”

The report has responses to each of these topics but many of the suggestions are already known.  The lack of creativity in the suggestions is largely disappointing.  The responses to “what will success looks like in ten years” are mostly extensions of programs that are already in place or a perpetuation of the “way things are done now”.  Innovation was largely missing, perhaps due to the participants not being able to lose their own agendas.  The earlier SafetyAtWorkBlog article discussed the negative impact of the shadow of harmonisation, a term found only once in SWA’s report.

Many of the workshop suggestions seem to have no point or direction.  For instance, in response to “emerging issues” one outcome is:

“Employers of choice have positive workplace cultures integrated throughout their entire workplace.” ?!

SafetyAtWorkBlog compared the OHS Strategy workshop to the former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s 2020 Summit, a consultative retreat in Canberra intended to stimulate innovation.  That summit resulted in nine commitments, many of which have been implemented, but the strategy also illustrated the political fragility of such initiatives, as the Summit lost considerable credibility when the Prime Minister was replaced by his Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, in a “very Australian coup”.  The political reality is that Gillard needed to distance her new government from the previous, and the 2020 Summit commitments suffered.

Safe Work Australia may claim that the new National OHS Strategy, yet to be finalised, will be a similar document of commitments but the lack of attainment of the previous strategy’s commitments (which quickly became aspirations or “aims”) generated no penalties.  The 2007 indications of failure apparently generated no additional support for the under-performing States.

The apparent failure of Australia’s OHS Harmonisation strategy indicates that any large-scale workplace safety initiative is likely to be substantially weakened by political pressures.  As much as long-term initiatives, like the National OHS Strategy, are increasingly expected by the citizenry, the political structure of short-term returns renders such documents little more than of academic relevance.

At the same time the National OHS strategy is in development, the wheels have fallen off the OHS Harmonisation strategy.  Successful harmonisation would have provided a stronger base for the success of the National OHS Strategy.

At the end of August 2011, SafetyAtWorkBlog (who was present at the Melbourne workshop.  Evidence is offered by a photo of the back of Kevin Jones’ head on page 28 of the SWA report)  reported that:

“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).”

There is no mention of this significant call in the SWA report of the same event.

Such a call threatened the government’s OHS strategy and undercut the OHS Harmonisation program, which is now floundering.  SWA’s consultative workshops were intended to stimulate creative thinking in a new OHS strategy but apparently initiatives that run counter to the intended path of the new strategy, and are popular with important OHS leaders and “key stakeholders”, are not sufficiently significant for inclusion.

Talk for talk’s sake can be fun but OHS is too important to not produce solid commitments and commitments that can be measured.  With the increased attention to corporate accountability on OHS, the implementation of a “positive duty”, and the expectation that government departments and authorities will be exemplars of OHS management, it is reasonable to expect the non-attainment of targets to receive penalties, just as achievements receive kudos.  Without the threat of penalties, rewards are hollow.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

6 thoughts on “OHS Strategy to nowhere”

  1. as Jim Clemmer so succinctly put it in Growing at Theeh Speed of Change, some times we need to slow down to speed up and focus on what our goals and objectives were and whetehr we are still on the same track. Read the 2009 page of the report on Harmonisation and all states agreed to removing refverse onus of proof, but suddenly it popped back in before being put out as a general part of the model act. Goals and political changes do not always mix or keep us on the right track, let alone meet the original objectives!

  2. I was at the Bendigo strategy event, and the results there were pretty well exactly what KJ reports for the Melbourne one.

    We seem to allow the need for incrementalism to get solid change to then “infect” our ability to be genuinely innovative or to even contemplate big ideas.

    OHS-World can’t afford to keep dragging its feet.

    Roger, we can’t be experimental cowboys when it comes to day-to-day safety, but we just gotta be able to grab the Big Picture, cut it up, repaste it and slap weird and wonderful colours on it, at least to see if there is a better Big Picture possible for the future.

  3. Hi Kevin. As you know from Linkedin, I was fortunate to be part of the Melbourne workshop, which I found valuable and well worth the exercise. There has to be a strategy to know what people are thinking as to how the future might be shaped and which direction needs to be taken to achieve said goals. The people involved came from various industries and all share the same passion and all are intelligent people. I think the same can be said for people at SWA. These workshops are well worth the effort to attend and I believe just because some goals weren’t achieved previously doesn’t equate to repeat failure. Watch this space everyone.

  4. Maybe we need a period of time to focus on consolidation before further significant development can be considered???

    As Kevin indicates, much strategic work has been done in the past but goals were not acheived. More recently we’ve seen the drive to harmonisation, only now to see it begin to flounder.

    Are we driving too far too fast (“A bridge too far”) ahead of the resource stretching the fabric of WHS too thin because so many are ‘dragging the chain’ and struggling to keep up or catch up???

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